Sinn Féin might have to beat Dublin retreat

Posted By: January 21, 2017

Patrick Murphy.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sinn Féin’s decision to bring down Stormont might best be described as a second ceasefire.

In 1994, the IRA announced a carefully managed cessation of violence, opting instead for constitutional politics within Northern Ireland, the state it failed to destroy.

Twenty years later, ten as senior partners in government, Sinn Féin has now opted for a carefully managed walk-out from Stormont, abandoning its failed politics in a dramatic gesture almost as significant as the military ceasefire.

(If a ceasefire ends a war, what is the word for ending a political love-in? Maybe we should just conclude that, ”,following a wonderful relationship, SF dumped the DUP. Although, instead of pleading, “It’s not you, it’s ,” SF said, “It’s definitely you.”)

The link between the ceasefire and the unromantic dumping is not as stretched as you might think. The war for a United Ireland was later rewritten as a conflict for equality,  and Stormont was abandoned because the DUP did not apparently commit to that equality (certainly not in the allocation of grants for wood-burning boilers).

(Equality is, of course, a useful political weapon, because it represents a theoretical concept towards which you can strive, confident in the knowledge that you will never get there.)

So is SF merely trying to distance itself from yet another Stormont scandal, before re-entering government with the DUP, or is its thinking more strategic?

The evidence suggests that it is unlikely to return to Stormont in the short term, opting instead for a major rethink of its Northern policy. (SF criticized those who argued that Stormont was not working. Now the party is making that same argument, which suggests that it believes the validity of an opinion depends entirely on the person expressing it.)

The party’s re-think will be influenced by the three factors which led it to de-commission Stormont.

The first was its remarkably slow realization of growing public contempt for Stormont.

Sinn Féin failed to spot the obvious flaws in the renewable heating scheme (that was left to the media, mainly this newspaper and later the BBC) and it rejected calls for a public inquiry. It also failed to recognize increasing Nationalist alienation from what effectively became DUP rule.

[Second] The party also now realizes that Stormont cannot deliver on public services (insufficient funds from Westminster) or on progress towards a United Ireland (cross-border bodies confirm the legitimacy of the border).

The third, and perhaps the most important reason for walking out is that SF could not reasonably sit in Stormont as Ireland becomes economically re-partitioned, under Theresa May’s Brexit process.

So Sinn Féin’s post-election strategy will attempt to merge negotiations with the DUP on Stormont’s future (if it has one) with wider talks on a solution to the Brexit dilemma, involving the British and Irish governments and the EU. A successful outcome would leave the party with enhanced electoral appeal for a second assembly poll and a likely Dáil election.

So although SF has steered its pre-election message away from Stormont’s failure on social and economic issues and towards more emotive subjects such as the Irish language, its post-election talks are likely to focus on avoiding the embarrassing re-emergence of visible partition.

The party hopes that Stormont’s future style and content of governance will reflect an economically unified, post-Brexit Ireland.

Of course, all of this depends on Sinn Féin doing well at the polls, something which is not as certain as previously. It stands to lose a second seat to People Before Profit in West Belfast (where shaking hands with the Queen did little to alleviate child poverty).

They may not do just as well in Derry with Martin McGuinness not standing and risk losing a seat (possibly Conor Murphy’s) in Armagh if the turnout in Newry does not increase.

In a society which has been hard done by, SF now claims that it is a victim of a system which it helped to create and which, until two weeks ago, it and others were praising as a wonderful success.

But just as those who advocated war subsequently claimed to have invented the concept of peace, those who helped to operate a rather dubious form of government may now re-write the party’s Stormont history as a heroic defense of truth, beauty and all things Irish. (Watch the Queen being quietly removed from the pages.)

We have seen history repeat itself here, first as the tragedy of violence and then the farce of Stormont. If Sinn Féin gets it wrong again this time, its northern operation risks becoming an under-performing branch office in a Dublin-led organization.

Brexit might well propel it in that direction anyway.