A Step Change in Sinn Féin Strategy: Lessons Learned from the SNP Playbook?

By Dr Adam Fusco, Lecturer in Politics, University of York

The results of 2022 Assembly election demonstrated remarkable successes for Alliance and Sinn Féin. One of the more remarkable features of the campaign, however, was how un-Sinn Féin-like the argumentative strategy of Sinn Féin was as it contested seats at Stormont. Traditional republican and nationalist themes, such as the Irish language and even unity, were not at the forefront of the campaign, but rather the party choose to emphasise the crisis in the cost of living. This may represent a shift in strategy for Sinn Féin, the roots of which we have already seen in the Republic of Ireland, but not in the north, until now.

There is a noticeable symmetry between this step change in strategy and the strategy of the SNP in its campaign for Scottish independence. This is characterised by two important features:

1. An instrumental argument for constitutional change. As historian Ben Jackson argues in The Case for Scottish Independence, the modern SNP argument for independence does not consist in “defending an ancestral culture”, but rather “that [independence] is most effective way to promote the political agenda of the left”. In other words, the rhetorical strategy of the SNP is not to make a nationalist identity-based argument for independence, but to articulate how independence is the best vehicle or instrument for the pursuit of other values and concerns important to voters who may not be receptive to traditional arguments.

2. Demonstrating governing competence. Rather than on day one, or in its first term, using power to pursue a referendum on constitutional change, the SNP have devoted considerable time and energy to demonstrating their credentials as a serious and natural party of government. For example, seven years intervened between the SNP taking power in 2007 and the 2014 independence referendum, and Nicola Sturgeon’s government has deliberately forestalled attempts for a second independence referendum following the pandemic, presumably to again demonstrate competence and responsibility. Such a strategy can be interpreted as aiming to widen the appeal of the party and in time its principal objective to those who are not already convinced nationalists as well.

In the Republic of Ireland we have seen evidence of Sinn Féin constructing and sometimes employing an instrumental argument for unity. After the financial crisis the party took on the mantel of left-populism in its criticism of austerity and the political class which administered it. At this time, its messaging shifted from Irish unity to the economic crisis in the 26 counties. In more recent years, this has moderated into a more mainstream articulation of social democratic policy positions, pitched against the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. An analogue to this also exists in the north. After Brexit, a constituency of non-republican remain voters was identified as a group to be courted and persuaded of the merits of unification. Unification for this constituency could be articulated as the best means or instrument for pursuing and instituting these voters’ policy goals and values.

The 2022 assembly election saw perhaps the first outing of this strategy in Northern Ireland. By shifting from its traditional republican rhetoric, Sinn Féin may have been attempting to make itself palatable and transfer-friendly to this portion of the electorate. Indeed, this seemed to come at no cost in terms of support from its nationalist and republican base with the DUP’s refusal to clarify if it would take the position of Deputy First Minister pre-election. It seemed rather the DUP galvanised such voters on Sinn Féin’s behalf – to which the party might have been conscious, following previous experiences with its unionist rival. With the rise of the constitutionally-non-aligned in the election, the constituency for growth does not seem to lie in future contests with the SDLP but instead with Alliance, as noted by Daithí McKay in a recent Belfast Telegraph article. Demographic change it seems will not automatically determine the constitutional status of the north, with many Catholic and culturally-nationalist voters, particularly east of the Bann, appearing happy and reconciled to a non-sectarian vision of Northern Ireland. If this is so, the nature of the contest has changed and Sinn Féin will be further incentivised to compete on this terrain with the use of instrumental argumentation.

By adopting an instrumental rhetorical strategy, Sinn Féin also demonstrated itself to be the sensible party of government in the assembly campaign, and continues to do so in comparison to the DUP with its emphasis upon the protocol – at least as far as moderate voters are concerned in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, the radical party, now presents itself as the exemplar of political competence and responsibility in Northern Ireland.

When Sinn Féin likely takes power in the south, perhaps following the next southern general election, it will be advantageous for the party not to immediately press for unity. The party may in fact see the benefit, for instance, of one of its coalition partners taking the Foreign Affairs portfolio, both so that the party can reason to its republican base that its hands are tied and crucially to find the space within the electoral cycle to demonstrate its credentials for governing competence. This will be necessary for gaining the confidence of the non-Sinn Féin electorate, of whom the party will ultimately have to persuade in any future southern unity referendum. Taking power, with Michelle O’Neill as First Minster in the north and Mary-Lou MacDonald as Taoiseach in the south, is unlikely to represent the end of the long game, but rather a step change in strategy as Sinn Féin continues to play the long game to its desired conclusion.

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