Unsurprisingly An tUachtaráin of Sinn Féin Mary-Lou McDonald TD received an enthusiastic reception from the reduced number of delegates at the 2021 Ardfheis on her home turf in Dublin. There were all kinds of everything for the party members, present and online.
The event, organised, as always, with military precision was an interesting occasion for the non-partisan observer. The comments of a seasoned Sinn Féin member in Derry that the party has an ‘army of activists’; that ‘there is nothing that Sinn Fein does which is not strategic’ were duly choreographed. Tactical seems more appropriate given the populist nature of a leader’s speech, wherein simple appeals to sect-like support beat complex reality.
The party President peppered her remarks with homage to 1916, republican anti- partition rhetoric, soundbites targeted at political opponents and big business, promises on housing, pensions and childcare alongside unbridled optimism that momentum towards the political unification of the jurisdictions on this shared island is unstoppable; and a promise to save ‘Moore Street’. Sweets for all. It is surprising that the latter was not displayed on the side of a campaign bus but there is time yet.
There was no reference in the speech to absent friends from the Foyle constituency, some of whom rarely left the stage during the Ardfheis in the Millennium Forum in Londonderry not so long ago. Clearly, Mary-Lou does not tolerate electoral failure. By that measure she has a lot riding on the next elections for the NI Assembly and Dáil ÉIreann.
The all-encompassing content of the speech which promised solutions to housing, disability, mental health, low pay, working conditions, problems arising from profiteering and property development, a national healthcare service, a plan for re-unification and a Citizens’ Assembly was predictable.
Thrown in for good measure were references to mica and pyrite, and a few swipes at the DUP for leveraging a threat to collapse Stormont and failing to respond to speculation as to how it will react if Sinn Féin take the position of First Minister.
The latter afforded appeal, rich in imagery and symbols to old tribal allegiances with reference to ‘Fenians about the place.’ To keep everyone happy, support for Cuba and Palestine also got a brief mention.
The latter evokes memories of USI Conferences of the early 1970s and the combat-jacketed veneration of figures like Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat; student walls decorated with the obligatory Che Guevara poster. But, there cannot be many walls in North Dublin adorned with a poster of Guevara, these days.
Will the principles of Sinn Féin be similarly abandoned in Groucho Marx fashion if and when they have served their purpose of getting into power; when the responsibilities of government conflict with the rhetoric?
No prizes for the likely answer.
It’s an all-in political agenda designed to trigger emotions and feelings rather than understanding; which, if it does not deliver the hoped-for success, could fade into a permanent sojourn in opposition.
At present it is easy to attack any government but when you start to assign cost to your proposals and it becomes clear what the economic impact will be on incentivising wealth creation, prices and individual taxation, beyond the extremely rich, polls can suddenly become less appealing.
With changes in corporation tax imminent, goal-posts are already shifting. The issues pertaining to Sláintecare do not suggest an easy solution in regards to southern health problems.
The response of the party members beginning to anticipate being in government North and South was as might be anticipated but the speech contained little of any substance for those who Sinn Féin claim to want to engage in discussions about the ‘future of the island.’
Sinn Féin aspire, they say, to want to make everything better for everyone but solely within a pre-ordained, hermetically sealed and ideologically imagined construct. In pursuit of this, whilst claiming to engage and listen, it lectures. The overtures made at the Ardfheis present as tactical. References to Armagh Jail, Long Kesh and heroic narratives, however necessary to claim revolutionary pedigree, simply show partisan insensitivity.
It offers a shaky foundation for level-headed collaboration and exudes all the worst traits of an echo-chamber. Coined messaging like protecting a non-existent ‘All Island economy’, the ‘catastrophe of partition ‘and the ‘future a win-win’ may stir the juices of an Ardfheis audience but carry little meaning when compared to reality.
It’s a case of if you say it often enough; as fiction delivers authorial intent.
The only process for making Northern Ireland work better is the Good Friday Agreement and central to addressing a preferred constitutional status, now or in the future, is the principle of consent. Speaking of the position of First Minister, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA said in Dublin: “Let the people decide” yet there is an obsessive impatience within Sinn Féin to second-guess the outcome.
‘Demographics but not only demographics’ according to Mary-Lou McDonald. With polls continually showing that there is no majority to justify the Sinn Féin rhetoric, you have to assume the positivity is manufactured and contrived; clinging to the notion that Brexit will grow the dream.
This is the paradox of Sinn Féin. You cannot claim to want to make a place better for everyone when you manipulate a process beyond aspiration and seek to ensure it fails. This democracy is coercive and fundamentally subversive in intent.
Is the same true of the Republic of Ireland; that it can only exist in the form which Sinn Féin aspires to when it is transformed and brought under its control? In the meantime, strategy and lack of detail are centred in the opportunistic language of grievance and hope.
It is patronising to say the least; without any inclination to explain what the dreams of a revolution realised would look like. 1916 does not augur well.
It is a matter for the electorate in the rest of Ireland but the future surely needs to be grounded in more than personal distaste for individuals and parties in Leinster House and lack of a coherent analysis of how promises will be fulfilled in a competitive global environment wherein economies will be transformed by the demands of Net Zero, digitisation and changing trading patterns within an EU beginning to exhibit internal tensions. Sinn Féin of old would have welcomed the latter.
Unsurprisingly Sinn Féin is pushing the same message, North and South, even if the on occasions contradictory decision-making is customised to the conditions that pertain.
In regard to engagement with political Unionism, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Pro-Union groups are happy to engage but not on the basis of self-sabotage or distraction from the issues which impact on well-being and quality of life in Northern Ireland.
Participation in mutually beneficial All-Ireland Bodies and willingness to explore the potential of a Shared Island is testament to actions in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. There is stretch beyond comfort zones but the possible outcomes warrant risk.
This is understanding better the mood of a large swathe of an electorate which, tired of unfulfilled promises and the continuous war of words, wants peace and quiet, diplomacy and dialogue and positive decision-making by politicians.
This is achievable but requires targeted actions to transform why politics, grounded in reality and authenticity matter and, however incrementally, can respond to the values of people.
Unlike the rhetoric of this Ardfheis, the focus is on improving lives without also trying to run them.
“Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”
— Alfred North Whitehead
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.