Could Sinn Féin’s adversity be an opportunity to rediscover the heart and soul of the Belfast Agreement?

It could hardly be a more inauspicious moment to see a range of pressures conspire to force Northern Ireland’s politicians to sit at a negotiating table in order to resurrect the institutions of the Belfast Agreement (aka, the Good Friday Agreement).

The preferred use of the name of a religious festival as a proxy for its official name belies the fact that the lead nationalist party has more often been in breach of that Agreement than the lead unionist party who opposed it tooth and nail throughout its negotiation and signing.

It’s a paradox which runs right through the story of the Belfast Agreement ever since Peter Robinson announced that his party would take the ministerial offices but not attend Executive meetings. A neat piece of sophistry that any Jesuit scholar would have been proud of.

But it is a sophistry which has undermined and obscured the commitments undertaken in 1998 and reinforced by plebiscite north and south. What we are finding (and not just in Northern Ireland) is that democracy is a bargain which must be constantly renewed.

More importantly, whilst the DUP has continued to raise its electoral performance year on year it has also helped to reduce confidence in political unionism to its lowest ever rating. Cynicism may have its uses in politics, but many of them are highly timelimited.

The apparently calamitous fall of the institutions in October 2002 brought out some embarrassing revelations as to the cynicism of that other  key player, when Sinn Féin’s private papers discovered in the Stormont raid referred to the then British PM Tony Blair as ‘a useful idiot’.

Of course, as Mark Devenport observed at the time, the police investigation into IRA intelligence gathering at Stormont wasn’t the end of the Agreement, but it did set an important precedent for ignoring a central direction of the Agreement itself, ie that:

…the development of a peaceful environment on the basis of this agreement can and should mean a normalisation of security arrangements and practices.

It has been said that we think in generalities, but live in details. Much of the most telling detail (delineating key differences between states of war and states of peace) within the Belfast Agreement has not been lived in anything like the binding manner it was intended.

Ironically, it is the political weakness of Sinn Féin revealed so starkly in elections north and south over the last few weeks which may yet offer the best chance of movement. As Eilis O’Hanlon notes it has revealed a triumph of rhetoric over substance:

There’s an emptiness at the heart of all that high-faluting rhetoric. Mary Lou epitomises that problem. If you want someone who can talk, she’s your only woman, but what has she ever actually done? Her enduring preoccupation with the North is key.

People are worried about what will happen after Brexit, but they’re not lying awake at night longing for a Border poll. That’s an indulgence which doesn’t answer their immediate economic concerns.

Insofar as the North has impacted on perceptions of Sinn Fein, it has been to recast it as wreckers since bringing down the power-sharing Assembly with, it’s obvious now, no clue how to restore it.

Don’t be distracted by talk of the incompetence of the present Secretary of State (they’re all that and worse accordingly to some of our most fatalistic voices). It’s highly unlikely that she will be around after the new leader of the Conservative Party is chosen anyway.

As I argued back in the teeth of the RHI crisis no one in Dublin or London has sufficient political capital to spend on Northern Ireland to get  it back on the road to the peaceful environment envisioned in the original document without the willing involvement of local parties.

The most refreshing aspect of Sinn Féin’s calamity was not the obvious pain playing out on the faces of its (largely female) public leaders, but the willingness of the likes of Matt Carthy to admit that they hadn’t seen it coming.

That may be something to do with the failure of the wider media to take a critical look at some of the outsized claims the party habitually makes about its own popularity and the obfuscation of its own part in the ongoing fragility of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement.

It also arises from a culture of Fair Game targeting of those with the temerity to raise concerns about the party’s failure to deliver anything like the promise of that agreement.

In the Sindo this week, Eoghan Harris contrasted the cultures (and the ‘fates’) of two “Green” parties in the south:

…over on Tonight, David Cullinane of SF, chastened and humbled, got some of my sympathy. Cullinane is transparently sincere in wanting to change things for working-class people.

My wife, Gwen, visiting home to Waterford, watched him on a march for a cardiology unit a week before the election. She said: “The heels of Davy’s shoes were worn down from canvassing.”

Thanks to Cullinane’s hard work, Waterford was one of the few cities where Sinn Fein held its vote.

On Tonight he pounds his frail frame: “If I was ever given the chance, I have no doubt I would make a very good minister.” I don’t doubt it. But he’ll never be a minister unless he faces two truths.

First, the poll showing support for a united Ireland, coupled with the collapse of Sinn Fein, carries a clear dialectical message: the Republic wants a united Ireland – but based on Micheal Martin’s pluralism, not on SF’s tribal terms.

Second, if Sinn Fein wants a fresh start it must also respond to Martin’s recent call on the party to admit the armed struggle was wrong and offer, in the words of the late loyalist leader Gusty Spence, “abject and true remorse”.

Finally, Yates and Cooper finished up with the Good Greens. Eamon Ryan, a senior hurler, agreed that while the exit polls had exaggerated its success, it could now get things done.

Ryan rightly rejected the cynics on the ditch who criticised the Greens for going into government with FF between 2007 and 2011. He cautions Cullinane that it would not be all milk and honey if Sinn Fein were sharing power.

He warned: “It’s tough in government. You’ve got to take the hits.”

It is tough in government. It’s much easier to settle for permanent secret negotiation hoping a few selective leaks by the governments will damage your opponents. But what these poor election results have shown is that there are far fewer rewards in them too.

The current talks are in a holding pattern for now. But the underlying politics of Northern Ireland have undergone a shift towards the middle, which means that the only functional future (whether you are unionist, nationalist or other) for Northern Ireland is a pluralist one.

Dante wrote, “do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.” As the election result reminds us at least some of that choice is ours and we have periodic opportunities to choose whether our futures are to be driven by a dank fear of the past or by present ambition.

And it is up to our own political parties to decide on from which side of that line they want to push us into the future.

NB: The featured picture is from the cover of Siobhan Fenton’s book The Good Friday Agreement published in 2018 by Biteback Publishing

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