There is something a bit Game of Thrones about Sinn Fein’s bespoke title for Martin McGuinness’s supposed successor Michelle O’Neill. Yesterday’s retrospective in the Irish News confirms there’s little to be learned from her first year in the “job”.
Her decision to address an event in April commemorating the IRA’s ‘Loughgall Martyrs’ drew predictable criticism. Those less exercised saw it as deliberate tactic to ensure the Co Tyrone republican base was kept on board.
Appearances at such events have since been rare, though the Mid Ulster MLA is unlikely to rule out attending similar commemorations in the future.
While we can expect unionists not to be especially enamoured by Ms O’Neill, some northern nationalists also remain unconvinced of her suitability as figurehead for their community. Often her media appearances appear scripted and lacking in spontaneity.
How much she can be criticised over the handling of the recent Barry McElduff Kingsmill controversy is debatable but as the party’s northern leader, she must be accountable to some degree.
Nevertheless, the Sinn Féin deputy leader-in-waiting last year oversaw her party’s two best electoral performances north of the border, bringing the party within 1,200 votes of the DUP in the Stormont election and weeks later unseating two SDLP MPs and leaving its nationalist rival with no representation at Westminster.
With Stormont mothballed, Ms O’Neill has left no footprints. Like a runner who carefully plots her way forward by using the prints of the one up ahead of her? At the meeting over McElduff’s initial punishment, Adams was careful to enter through the back.
There are few accounts which reliably tell us how the party operates internally. Back in 2009, Killian Ford (who subsequently left the party), produced this internal memo:
Its structures are opaque, its personnel management non-existent, there is little accountability on the senior leadership and people are appointed to important roles without any experience.
Sinn Féin, it appears to me, does not even have a basic organisational chart for employees, elected officials, candidates and cumman members to be able to refer to. The power and associated decision-making in the party lies with individuals not embedded structures.
This means that those seeking to question or contribute to decisions, policies or strategy have to try and negotiate through a maze of offices, titles, committees, working groups and individuals to try to get their voice heard.
The structures that do exist have not the confidence to make decisions, meaning that even minor matters get funnelled up to a small amount of the same people in the party. These people then end up with an effective veto on everything.
Ms O’Neill’s ‘job designation’ makes no sense without Stormont any more than Martin McGuinness’s would have. Which is presumably why she’s being made deputy President (note how the challenge from Matt Carthy barely lasted more than 24 hours).
We await to see whether that’s a presage to re-engagement with the northern institutions (which the party is privately briefing is essential to electoral success in the south), or preparation for direct rule.
Ironically in its 2016 manifesto for the Assembly elections of that historic year, Martin McGuinness stated that his party had “prioritised preventing the imminent return of Direct Rule and delivering stable, functioning powersharing institutions.”
Just seven short months later he returned Northern Ireland to the brink of that same cowed status, and in the year that’s followed, Ms O’Neill seems not to have made any further progress.