Sinn Fein’s recent criticism of Stormont’s Health Minister Robin Swann was a curious occurrence in even more curious times.
The UUP MLA’s decision to utilise the UK military to support logistic functions like distribution of PPE and construction of a NI Nightingale facility, was layered with realism, a sense of urgency and for once, relative political neutrality. And yet, Michelle O’Neill criticised the decision, based not on the intended use of the UK military, but on the lack of consultation that the health minister undertook with the Executive. This is despite only nine days earlier, Sinn Fein’s Finance Minister indicating support for the Military Aid to the Civil Authority (MACA) request.
This wasn’t O’Neill’s only foray into dissention since the COVID-19 crisis broke, having already intervened with concerns that NI schools hadn’t closed in line with their Irish counterparts. It is somewhat ironic then, that when pushed by the press as to her party’s support for the use of UK military, she reprimanded them for failing to focus reporting on grounds of mutual support and collaboration within the Executive. Indeed, voicing opposition during a crisis is fine, essential and has arguably caused the UK government to change course at times in its COVID-19 response, so therefore has merit. However, O’Neill’s criticism highlighted that Swann hadn’t consulted with the Executive despite her own party’s already public acquiescence, which has painted her in somewhat of a bureaucratic ‘jobsworth’ light, appearing more concerned with sticking to prescriptive rules at a time that requires disruption and decisive action to save lives.
This episode has shone a spotlight on party leadership, and comparatively, other party leaders appear to be handling it better than Sinn Fein’s leader in the north. Her 2013 support for deployment of Irish Air Corps during severe weather in NI (a significantly smaller scale crisis), demonstrates that she understands the necessity of military support, but only when it is delivered by state actors that are aligned with her political agenda. So, Sinn Fein’s claims that they are about ‘saving lives’ and ‘not politics’ at this time, are somewhat disingenuous.
All in all, it has made Sinn Fein’s leadership in the north seem weak, ineffectual and absent of the mettle to accept Executive decisions. Indeed, their dissent to date has achieved little and if anything, can be construed as frustrating a united crisis response. It can be put down to not much more than Sinn Fein’s failure to exorcise crude legacy ghosts and their everlasting binary inner monologue whispering in their ear that British is bad and Irish is good.
Not only this, but Alliance’s Naomi Long and SDLP’s Colum Eastwood have both espoused more appropriate leadership than O’Neill, demonstrating that they are able to effectively collaborate whereas Sinn Fein struggles to understand the basic capabilities and resources that a UK MACA response brings. Eastwood’s thoughtful approach is something that unionists will relate to and respect due to the cultural relationship of their ‘Britishness’ to the state itself, the military being a key strand.
O’Neill has singlehandedly driven a coach and horses through Sinn Fein’s faltering strategic narrative that there is a place in a United Ireland for unionist voices, when it cannot bring itself to accept UK military aid now; if not during the biggest crisis of our lifetime, then when?
It raises the question as to whether after Sinn Fein’s disastrous performance in Foyle in the 2019 Westminster election where they unexpectedly lost to the SDLP, they’re so desperate to re-connect with their grass roots supporters that they’ll risk the already low trust and credibility of the NI Institutions at a time when normal people need it most. If anything, this has unveiled cracks in the Sinn Fein deputy leader’s façade, underscoring her political immaturity by point scoring during a crisis that affects both communities and others. A more mature and defensible position would have been to qualify support for timebound, caveated UK military support, but alas, her republican charged inner monologue kicked in to make sure them pesky Brits don’t help out too much…