Sinn Fein’s eye firmly on south as it averts Stormont crisis

Posted By: December 22, 2016

Newton Emerson. Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sinn Féin has not caused a crisis at Stormont this Christmas for the same reason it caused a crisis at Stormont over the past three Christmases – namely, because of how it would play in The South.

Addressing a party meeting on the RHI scandal last Friday, Gerry Adams said: “Sinn Féin’s primary objective must be to defend the integrity of the political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement. We do this in line with our strategic objectives as Irish Republicans.”

The strategic objective outweighs the primary objective. You may recall that for three years before last Christmas this meant making Stormont unworkable over an arbitrary stance on welfare reform so that Adams could position himself in the Dail between Labour and independents.

There were lengthy periods throughout those years when Sinn Féin’s stance – as costly and needless as RHI, yet ultimately ditched overnight – seemed destined to bring devolution down.

So while the party’s responsible actions now are welcome, its conversion to the cause of institutional stability seems rather overdone. Far more likely is that we are just witnessing a new tactic in service of the Republican strategy.

What has changed between now and last Christmas is that the previous tactic conspicuously failed?

The only thing Southern voters seemed to notice from Sinn Féin’s welfare reform grandstanding was a vague sense of trouble in The North, which amplified their vague sense of Sinn Féin as trouble from The North.

Meanwhile, the Irish economy was recovering to the point where anti-austerity posturing became redundant.

In the general election that coincided with the Easter Rising centenary – the whole focus of Sinn Féin’s three-year Stormont stall – its vote share was unchanged from the Irish presidential election five years before.

So now it is time for a new tactic. To understand this, we need to do no more than go straight to the horse’s mouth or the teddy bear’s snout, or however one describes Adams’s arch Twitter account.

Between the RHI scandal exploding last week and Sinn Féin signaling its response at a ‘leadership meeting’ over the weekend, Adams issued three direct tweets on the subject.

One was a picture of himself at the meeting. The other two, bookending this, equated the DUP to Fianna Fáil.

“Another day. Another challenge. The DUP leadership & the Fianna Fail leadership have more in common than I’d think,” Adams wrote last Friday morning.

“Another long day. Another Christmas crisis. But this isn’t Orange v Green variety. It’s about squandering public money in an FF sort of way”, he wrote last Sunday night.

As a repositioning move within the republican strategy, this could scarcely be clearer.

Any vague sense of trouble in The North must no longer attach to Sinn Féin. In fact, for those paying attention, it will attach to everyone but Sinn Féin. To make this more relatable for a southern audience, the DUP will be portrayed as a northern Fianna Fáil, which has the added advantage of demeaning the latter in the eyes of those voters for whom Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil compete. RHI is a wonderful opportunity to do this, given its suspected golden circles, overall gombeens and a mental image of barn doors flung open belching heat, so redolent of the Galway Races tent in its perfect summation of the enemy.

Northern and southern politics will be more neatly and gently aligned than by the welfare reform ploy. The wider signal that can then be amplified to all southern voters is of Sinn Féin as the responsible coalition partner, even as a junior to Fianna Fáil.

This is clever, nimble and has been masterfully done, with Adams joining Martin McGuinness in playing the statesman – or stately person, as he might prefer to say.

Naturally, there has been shrieking and wailing from the SDLP but that will hardly keep the leadership council awake at night.

The real fly in the ointment is evident displeasure among Sinn Féin’s northern base at appearing to go soft on the DUP.

Because of the balance of the agreement’s institutions and the high stakes for Arlene Foster, Sinn Féin’s only option to play hardball over RHI is the nuclear option – collapsing the executive.

What would that achieve for republicanism, north or south, let alone for a Republican strategy based on aligning north and south?

RHI is genuinely not a green and orange scandal but alas for Sinn Féin, some of its supporters are less interested in all-Ireland politics than in just sticking it to the other side.