Sinn Féin faces critical decision on Stormont

Posted By: January 07, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday , January 7, 2017

The cash-for-ash scandal represents a greater challenge for Sinn Féin [SF] than it does for Stormont.

In what may be the party’s most pivotal decision since abandoning abstention, Sinn Féin must now decide whether to continue supporting an increasingly discredited Stormont, or to collapse the Assembly and call an election. Both options carry significant risks.

Collapsing the Assembly would represent a major reversal of the party’s unquestioning support for the DUP, despite a litany of scandals, which would bring down most European governments.

But if it agrees yet another secret deal to save Arlene Foster, Sinn Féin risks further alienating a growing section within the party, which now argues that its northern policy has become embarrassing.

Sinn Féin may not be split, but it is now clearly divided on which is the better option.

Its decision-making is further complicated by the possible retirement of Martin McGuinness and the challenge of finding a new Northern leader.

Oddly, SF’s future direction will be most significantly influenced not by ideology or strategy, but by the attitude of the entrenched Arlene Foster. So what will Arlene do and how will SF respond?

Recent history shows that, despite her current attitude, she will seek a deal and Sinn Féin will do all it can to bail her out. The party’s attitude reflects the difference between radical SF in the Dáil and reactionary SF in Stormont.

Under Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin has built a sound electoral base in the south and when he retires, there will be a strong field of potential successors.

When Martin McGuinness retires, however, there are few obvious successors apart from Conor Murphy. The party’s Northern electoral performance has peaked and, with respect to its MLAs, its level of talent in Stormont is nowhere near that in the Dáil. Stormont has foot-soldiers. The Dáil has generals.

Of course, if you want blind loyalty to Stormont, foot soldiers are more useful than generals, because thinking is not only unnecessary, it can be quite dangerous. However, this strict discipline in The North may now cost the party dearly.

The usual explanation for SF’s loyalty to the DUP is that it will convince other Dáil parties of SF’s ability to work in coalition (although that fails to explain its obsession with royalty). If this is accurate, the party is asking its Northern electorate to live with several unresolved scandals and failing public services, so that it can gain power in The South.

(It is an interestingly Catholic argument: suffering in poverty in this life is the way to salvation in the next.)

Opponents of this approach within the party (few of whom are MLAs) argue that it leaves Sinn Féin open to criticism of northern maladministration from Dáil rivals and reduces electoral support for SF here.

So the party is now in the unenviable position of either belatedly collapsing a coalition, or continuing to support an Executive, which may not be corrupt, but certainly appears corruptible.

If the party leadership is forced to climb down, it will confirm the retirement of Martin McGuinness and herald a new Northern policy, including a tougher attitude towards the DUP.

Arlene Foster is keen to avoid this. The DUP’s willingness to eventually make a deal has been well publicised, but largely misunderstood: Paul Givan’s decision to end the Líofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme, was clearly made so that it could be later reversed in inter-party negotiations and presented by Sinn Féin as a victory.

No party in Stormont wants an election (except People Before Profit, which will relish it) because all will lose seats in a reduced Assembly. For Sinn Féin, an election carries the additional risk of nationalist rejection because of its support for the DUP.

The party can overcome this by demanding that Arlene Foster should resign rather than merely step aside. A mistake in government is hardly a hanging offence, but Mrs Foster made a costly decision which she has subsequently failed to explain, seeking refuge instead in attacking her opponents as being personally motivated and anti-women.

She has damaged not just her own political reputation, but risks the political reputation of colleagues, such as the normally reliable Simon Hamilton, and of the entire administration.

SF can turn this crisis into an opportunity by advocating a new, non-sectarian Stormont based on voluntary, rather than mandatory coalition. Now, that would be a proper fresh start, which would serve us all and repair Sinn Féin’s damaged reputation.

It is now decision-time for Sinn Féin. What it decides in the coming days will shape its future electoral performance, not just in The North, but across the island. This is not the time for another secret deal.