With the extent of the growth of Sinn Fein in the Republic, it’s getting hard to give a convincing account of southern politics without also looking at what’s happening in Northern Ireland.
Until or unless there’s a split in the way that the party organises itself in each jurisdiction, it’s hard to account for all the twists and turns (of which there’s been many just this autumn alone) by only watching the party’s activities in the north or the south.
There are signals that something is in the offing in Northern Ireland, particularly in that report on the shift in Gerry Adams’ tone early last week.
Newton Emerson, almost always the recommended reading of a commentator who does take the trouble with his measured analysis of conditions on both sides of the border probably gave the most accurate description of the party’s strategy (£)…
Chaos has worked well for Sinn Fein in the past. But that was before they assumed responsibility for the political leadership of that very broad church indeed of people whose aspiration is for a politically unified island.
And there is the not inconsequentially small matter of having been in charge of “government” in Northern Ireland for the last ten years, with, by its own accounts, very little to show for the time invested there.
The first wave (collapse to the Assembly elections) produced much entertainment for angry Nationalists. Many enjoyed the slow dry roasting of the First Minister and the near overtaking of the DUP in the Assembly. But giving your opponents (and, more importantly, their voters) a near-death experience doesn’t always work out for the long-term good.
As the results in June’s UK General election began to sink in, it occurred to some commentators that the great strategist to end all great Irish strategists had painted himself into a corner. DUP insiders have been confident of a return to Stormont since mid summers but won’t (or can’t) say when.
As Newton correctly points out, Brexit has been something of a damp squib for Nationalism: largely because we still haven’t a clue what we should worry about, and just as importantly what we shouldn’t worry about.
Unionist Remainers have ditched their anti-Brexit pikes and are happily back on the mainstream Unionist farm. Any chance of building a broader, more policy-focused alliance for an open trading border dissipated long before the sectarian virtue signalling of the March election.
Yet journalists still persist in ascribing strategy to Sinn Fein. The only Northern Irish player to follow anything loosely described as a strategy has been the DUP (who’ve avoided past mistakes by investing in their Westminster presence long before supporting Brown’s 42-day detention rule).
Sinn Fein is blessed in their northern opponents. The estimable Seamus Mallon insisted to Enda McClafferty on The View last week that the SDLP were “no soft touch” but, in fact, his party has been far too consumed by fear and/or loathing of SF to offer voters a coherent alternative.
In the Republic, almost nothing new from Northern Ireland gets through (even when we actually do have something of substance to share). This has blindsided southern pol corrs on how Micheal Martin’s pressure has worked on his would be rival to power Gerry Adams.
Yesterday Eoghan Harris, whose passion for Northern Irish affairs and civic Republicanism has made him exceptionally border blind, remarked:
…last Sunday week, speaking at Ballymurphy, Gerry Adams finally cracked under Martin’s repeated charge that Sinn Fein’s strategy was to refuse to return to devolved government.
Clearly provoked by charges of bad faith by what he called “the Fianna Fail leadership” (code for Martin), Adams was finally forced to make a move.
Adams said his party leadership was “up for doing a deal with the DUP and other parties and of moving back to the Executive on that basis”.
Amanda Ferguson in The Irish Times correctly described Adams’s response as a “challenge to the developing narrative that Sinn Fein is not committed to power-sharing in the North”.
But who created that “developing narrative” which Adams was spooked into challenging? Not Leo Varadkar nor Simon Coveney. It was all Micheal Martin’s work.
Martin began to pile pressure on Adams from last April in a series of corrosive speeches which really “called out” Sinn Fein, both on IRA legacy issues and on its Northern strategy.
Pat Leahy on Saturday picked up on the Varadkar/McDonald row in the Oireachtas last week, suggesting that the Taoiseach was retrying Enda’s strategy of trying to push Fianna Fail out of the picture, but as he says in the body of that piece:
[Martin] has been publicly picking rows with Sinn Féin for years. Even on Wednesday, when everyone was focused on the Varadkar-McDonald rumble, Martin was ridiculing the Sinn Féin deputy leader’s claims to have negotiated agreements in the North.
I was the minister for foreign affairs, he said acidly. You turned up for the photos. She was even less impressed with that, I’d imagine.
Varadkar’s strategy is clever and sharp. But it is also one that Fine Gael tried before the last election, and it didn’t work. Martin elbowed his way into the electoral debate, and Kenny and Adams were unable to talk around him.
Key is to distinguish between strategy and tactics. Strategies unwind themselves slowly over the long term, whilst tactics are visible in short-term engagements. It’s too early to judge what the Taoiseach’s strategy is yet (although on NI, he has looked suspiciously tactical).
As for Sinn Fein’s, it is persistence (which is a thing) through which they hope to seize power when everyone else is fully zombified. It worked with the SDLP and Labour (though not the DUP or FF). It got them 14% last year, but being pushed about by Fianna Fail is not a great sign.
From the start, Martin’s line has been first, to isolate Sinn Fein from southern voters (most of whom have never experienced the exegesis of war), then try to win them over to what he presents as a credible, pragmatic and centrist alternative.
The Taoiseach and his party reputedly have money, backers, some public goodwill and an appetite for an early election, but he will need to learn from his predecessor mistakes by responding with a few clear retail offers of his own.
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
– Sun Tzu
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty