Sinn Féin strategy dominated by unity

Posted By: August 18, 2017

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast.  Friday, August 18, 2017 


Speaking last week, Danny Morrison—who is usually close to the mark about what Sinn Féin is thinking – said: “I think we’re at a crux here now and I don’t think there’s going to be an Assembly or an Executive, despite all the parties pledging that they want that back. It’s going to be impossible to put it back again, I think because we are here at a moment that’s an existential situation as regards to the Northern state.”

Danny’s view is close to an opinion I expressed in this column a few weeks ago, when I suggested that Sinn Féin was ‘beginning to think beyond the Assembly.’ Brexit had changed all the rules and provided an opportunity – which no one, including Sinn Féin, had predicted – to push Irish unity to the very top of the political agenda.

The key question for Sinn Féin on June 24, 2016, then became one of whether or not they had more to gain from propping up the local institutions or letting them fall. The RHI [Renewable Heat Incentive] saga, which prompted Martin McGuinness’s resignation and the collapse of the Assembly, led to an election in which they saw Unionism’s seat majority wiped out; followed by a general election in which, for the first time, Unionism didn’t win an overall majority of votes. In terms of strategy, when you’re on that sort of roll, it makes sense to keep piling on the pressure, spooking your opponents and persuading your own base that the ultimate victory – unity – is just within reach.

A deal to restore the Assembly and Executive – even if Sinn Féin is able to squeeze a few more concessions from the DUP – could give the impression that something resembling stability has been restored. Does Sinn Féin really want that at this moment, and risk slowing down the present momentum? But set against that, they also have to calculate how likely it is that the secretary of state would grant them the Border poll they so desperately want? Or maybe they quite like the idea of yet another Assembly election in October, allowing them another chance to squeeze a few extra votes and pick up a couple of extra Assembly seats – nudging them ahead of the DUP.

The next four years, leading to the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021 is a crucial moment for Sinn Féin: the most crucial since the collapse of Stormont in 1972; and possibly the most crucial since 1921. They believe that circumstances have made unity a more likely prospect than at any time in a century and, consequently, will leave no stone unturned and no avenue unexplored. If they cannot galvanize their own traditional base, plus win over a key section of  ‘soft nationalism’ and ‘soft unionism’ to their electoral side, then it will be a long, long time until circumstances become similarly favorable.

It has helped them that the SDLP – dying on its feet and thrashing around for relevance – has jumped on the unity bandwagon; barely a year after Colum Eastwood stressed the importance of making Northern Ireland work before moving onto the next stage. Post-Brexit noises from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has also added to the importance and credibility of the unity debate, as has the recent unity report from an Oireachtas committee. And, of course, Sinn Féin still hopes that the next southern election could see them with a place in government.

Yet, as I noted earlier, everything depends on a Border poll. Unity is not possible without that poll. And it won’t be possible, either, without a serious debate and engagement. So Sinn Féin may be a little bit worried about the publication of the British government’s Northern Ireland and Ireland: Position Paper. It doesn’t suit their interests to have British, Irish and EU negotiating teams settling on a ‘soft landing’ arrangement which dissipates the present anger and concerns about what Brexit actually means for Ireland, north, and south.

A hard Brexit suits Sinn Féin in the short term, because a hard Brexit is the most likely thing to push crucial votes their way. And, back to Danny’s point, the absence of an Executive/Assembly, accompanied by a campaign based on blaming the DUP for subsequent instability and a ‘Tory austerity agenda’, is probably more useful to them than a Northern Ireland that looks stable. The sort of Northern Ireland, in other words, in which enough people won’t want to rock the boat by demanding a Border poll and unity.

Gerry Adams would like to be the Republican who delivers unity, but it looks like time is running out for him. He is – and neither man will thank me for saying it – very similar to Peter Robinson in terms of strategy and long-term thinking. He may be hated by many people, but he will be an enormously difficult figure for Sinn Féin to replace. The really interesting question, though, is whether Sinn Féin without Adams would find it easier to allay legacy fears and reach out to a broader base.