Sinn Féin looks destined for perpetual oppositio

Posted By: April 02, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, April 2, 2016

Although the post-election negotiations in Dublin are aimed at forming a government there, the outcome could also influence the composition of the next assembly in Belfast. The common denominator is Sinn Féin.

If Sinn Féin were to enter a Dublin coalition before the assembly election on May 5, it would significantly increase its northern support, particularly following its Ard Fheis on April 23, the eve of the 1916 Rising’s centenary date. Its long-standing prediction of being in government in both Irish states by 2016 would have been fulfilled.

But the party has adopted an odd position in the South. It refuses to enter coalition with either of the larger parties, because of “their right-wing agendas”. Since both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are likely to be around for some time, Sinn Féin appears destined for perpetual opposition.

With another election possible within two years, that leaves the party unnecessarily vulnerable. (“Vote for us, we will not go into government.”) More significantly in the north, it leaves SF as having failed to deliver on its 2016 pledge.

(Southern politics can influence northern voters, because many here understand events in Dublin. Northern politics, however, have little impact in the south because of a general ignorance of life here, apart from the fact that we appear to have stopped killing each other.)

Although the party’s electoral support in the North is still pretty solid, it has reached its sectarian, electoral limits. Its climb-down on welfare and the appallingly poor performance of Stormont as an institution, leaves Northern Sinn Fein now potentially exposed to smaller left-wing parties, the anti-abortion lobby and increasing electoral apathy.

Its best hope is to maintain its electoral position (indeed most parties would lose votes with a record like that) but it could significantly enhance its northern support on the back of a good performance in the South. Opting for permanent opposition, rather than delivering a quasi-united Ireland in government in Belfast and Dublin, is hardly a good performance

(Sinn Fein said this week that the countdown to a United Ireland has begun, making it look like a group which predicts the end of the world and, when it fails to happen, begins a new countdown. This has been a recurring theme since 1972.)

Of course, opposition to coalition with right-wing parties is a noble position, but northern voters might notice that it tends to be undermined by Sinn Féin’s coalition with the DUP, which is not normally regarded as a hotbed of socialism.

More importantly, membership of the Stormont executive also places Sinn Fein  as a junior partner in coalition with Britain’s Conservatives. Many here are painfully experiencing the results of that arrangement.

Northern voters will also observe that while opposition is extolled as a virtue in the South, it is opposed as subversion in the North. Sinn Féin strongly opposes even a token opposition in Stormont, on the basis that “it is not that type of government”.

Mind you, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are just as inconsistent. Both have dismissed the idea of coalition with Sinn Fein, but they insist that we in the North should be ruled by a Sinn Féin coalition. Maybe they believe in a hierarchy of voters in Ireland.[ Word play on slogan “ no hierarchy of victims].

So while the talks continue in Dublin, Sinn Fein appears to be enjoying self-imposed isolation. A much stronger position would be for Sinn Féin to claim to be victims of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael discrimination, for denying them entry into coalition. Why, they might argue, should a party with 23 TDs be excluded from government?

Sinn Fein could expand this argument to suggest that the two bigger parties do not want a United Ireland. Portraying itself as a victim of Free State oppression would also do no harm in the North.

There is a certain logic to the party’s position. The fragile nature of the global economy and the EU’s insistence on water charges in some form, indicate that the new government will find it difficult to balance promises to independents with its responsibilities to Brussels. But in the short term (and all elections are short-term) its semi-abstentionism will do it little favors, North or South.

Of course, it may all be part of a concealed and cunning plan. But this column has previously been proven wrong using that assumption. It has argued in the past that Sinn Fein  could not possibly get itself into a position on welfare in the North where it would be forced to back down. It did and it was. There was no cunning plan.

Will Sinn Féin make a similar mistake again? If so, one strategic error may be regarded as misfortune. Two looks like electoral carelessness.