Sinn Féin’s ard fheis will tell us what the future holds for Stormont

Posted By: November 11, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, November 11, 2017

If you are wondering what the future holds for Stormont, keep an eye on Sinn Féin’s ard fheis next weekend.

In what will be the party’s most significant gathering in recent years, watch for three things: the ard fheis decision on abortion; the nature and content of any references to Fine Gael and, of course, Gerry Adams’s announcement about his future leadership plans.

But, you protest, none of those mention Stormont. You are right. Direct references to Stormont will contain little beyond jibes at the DUP, criticism of the British and a bit of flag-waving to keep the rank and file happy. Clues to Stormont’s future must be sought elsewhere.

For example, if, as expected, the party changes its abortion policy, it will effectively announce that it is concentrating on electoral success in the south rather than the north. Gerry Adams’s recent disclosure that he supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion indicates a shift in party policy.

Changing social attitudes in the south have left SF out of step with the growing momentum for at least limited legislative reform in next year’s abortion referendum. There are few Dáil votes in opposing abortion reform, but even fewer Stormont votes in advocating it.

If party policy changes, Sinn Féin will lose votes in the more conservative North. These votes will not necessarily go to another party (although the SDLP might benefit) but their loss could risk a SF seat or two at Stormont. A policy shift will indicate a decision to prioritize Southern rather than Northern votes, which is bad news for Stormont.

In Sinn Féin’s rights-based society (and I have no idea what that phrase means) the party may divide on whether the mother or the child has the greater right. Having avoided splits on political policies, SF now faces internal division on an issue of conscience and morality. In Ireland, religion has not gone away you know.

So if Sinn Féin puts all its eggs in the Dáil basket, who will it court as a potential coalition partner? Fianna Fáil has studied SF’s performance in Stormont and decided that as a partner in government, it would be more a threat than an asset.

Sinn Féin has attempted to court Fine Gael, but Leo Varadkar attacks them at every opportunity. If Gerry Adams ignores these attacks in his speech, it will indicate that Sinn Féin still hopes to become Fine Gael’s next junior coalition partner.

In that case, Stormont will have to wait, because being in government in Belfast leaves Sinn Féin open to more Fine Gael attacks on Northern health, education and the economy.

So it will not just be what Gerry Adams says which is important. It will also be what he does not say.

Finally, there is the expected announcement on Gerry’s future leadership plans. The party needs him as president because his departure is likely to trigger a schism between Northern and Southern Sinn Féin. No-one in Sinn Féin can command the same all-Ireland respect,  and without him, the northern party will drift back to Stormont.

If he intends to remain in office until after next year’s presidential and possible Dáil elections, Stormont may have to wait.

The Stormont experiment was led largely by the late Martin McGuinness. Adams never really bought into the idea, opting instead for southern politics. He was even slow to come around to the idea of shaking hands with the queen (yes, the one with the offshore account).

This column has previously suggested that the party’s royalist phase will probably be written out of republican history, as indicated by the recent refusal of the Sinn Féin mayor of Derry to meet Prince Charles. Sinn Féin’s Northern policy is changing.

While Adams developed southern Sinn Féin with highly competent TDs, McGuinness relied on loyalty rather than competence in building his Stormont team. His most able MLA, Conor Murphy, was sidelined for long periods.

The result was a decline in SF’s electoral support which was reversed only when Adams, having brought the party to the brink of government in Dublin, pulled it back from the brink of government in Belfast. For the first time since the ceasefire, SF is now querying whether The North is a failed political entity.

The party has not revealed its intentions about Stormont. It does not have to. Its words and actions elsewhere will tell us enough.

The indications for the Ard Fheis are that SF will support more liberal abortion laws, led by Gerry Adams (for a while yet) and holding out for a post-electoral deal with Fine Gael. If any of those three fail to materialize, the future for Stormont is not as bleak as some suggest.