Stormont result changes the game for Sinn Féin

Posted By: March 13, 2017

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News. Belfast.Monday,March 13, 2017

For a time, when the results of the Assembly election were coming in, one wondered if we were in a 1918 situation.

That was of course the year of the Westminster general election where Sinn Féin won 73 seats out of the total Irish allocation of 105. If present-day Sinn Féin had come back with more Assembly members on March 2 than the Democratic Unionist Party – and it was a close-run thing — the 1918 analogy would have become very difficult to resist.

Even as things stand, the Stormont result was a game-changer, with the overtly Unionist parties in a minority for the first time and Sinn Féin only one seat behind the DUP. Gerry Adams himself has pointed out since, in a rare briefing for journalists at Leinster House, that Unionists could regroup to strengthen their position and utilize the blocking mechanism in the Petition of Concern. However, it must be said that talk about Irish unity at some point down the road doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched as before.

Although Sinn Féin precipitated the election in a technical sense, you couldn’t accuse them of rushing into it. The contests in 2011 and 2016 hadn’t gone spectacularly well for them but it was safe to assume that on this occasion they would gain a couple of seats and that, operating under the shadow of the “cash-for-ash” imbroglio, the DUP would sustain a few losses.

Although Sinn Féin ran a good campaign, they owe their remarkable success mainly to the approach taken by their principal opponents. In any university running a course on The Art of Politics, two significant interventions by the DUP deserve inclusion under the heading of “Definite No-No’s”.

In light of the fact that £490 million might be sacrificed in the Renewable Heating debacle, the decision to cut the £50,000 grant to the Líofa bursary scheme for Irish-language courses in the Donegal Gaeltacht seems all the more misguided. The second lesson, which no doubt the DUP has learnt by now is this: if you invoke the image of a crocodile it may well come back and bite you.

Judging from his Twitter account, Gerry Adams would doubtless prefer to be compared to a teddy-bear than a creature which operates by stealth and is widely-hunted for its valuable skin. Although he was not a candidate in The North, he had a prominent role in the campaign which went rather better for him than the last election down South.

In his Leinster House briefing he told journalists that working in the two parts of the island was like being on different planets. But his hopes of a convergence are clearly higher than before the first Thursday of this month. The latest edition of An Phoblacht reflects that mood in a front-page headline: ‘Sinn Féin election surge – Unionist majority gone’.

Interestingly, in the same edition of the Sinn Féin newspaper, Seán Mac Brádaigh highlights the result of an opinion poll released on the same day as the assembly election, which had his party up four points to 21 per cent in The South since the previous Irish Times/IpsosMRBI survey in December. Converting the poll into general election results on his website, Dr Adrian Kavanagh of Maynooth University has Sinn Féin going up from 23 to 34 seats with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael level on 54 and Labour having only one TD.

Poll figures in yesterday’s Sunday Times tell a imilar story and there is no doubt that the balance between the parties in The South has changed fairly dramatically since Sinn Féin decided to become a player. They have displaced Labour, for the foreseeable future, as the biggest force on the moderate left. Sinn Féin’s current strength also means that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael can realistically expect to win a clear majority on their own.

No matter what the established parties may say, Sinn Féin participation in the next government in Dublin is a real possibility. The current arrangement whereby a minority Fine Gael-led administration is dependent on Fianna Fáil abstention in crucial votes is a recipe for political stasis. Any suggestions that this formula might be repeated after the next general election, but with Fianna Fáil replacing Fine Gael, won’t go down well with many voters. Despite current disclaimers by the larger parties, the numbers game could result in Sinn Féin being offered a minority role in a future coalition.

Some activists would not be happy about diluting SF policies to facilitate an alliance with a more conservative party, while others would be stressing the significance of a government presence in both parts of the island for the project of ultimate unity. In any case, as we have just seen in the northern vote, when the people speak, you have got to listen to them.