The three reasons why Sinn Fein is boycotting Stormont

Posted By: April 01, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News.Belfast. Saturday, April 1, 2017

In an ideal world, Sinn Féin will not re-enter Stormont until after the next election – in The South, not The North.

Since the world is far from ideal (especially in Ireland) the party might not get its way.

However, aspiring to membership of Dublin’s next coalition government is one of three reasons why Sinn Féin is boycotting Stormont.

The other two are Brexit and the realization that the Assembly had become an electoral liability. All three are inter-related.

The driving force behind them is the party’s belief that being in power in Dublin and Belfast at the same time will deliver a united Ireland. It would be a good theory if it were not for the potential threat from Loyalism and the vagaries of southern politics. But it would certainly do the party no harm.

Until three months ago, SF had achieved the first part of its strategy. But it was slow (very slow) to realize that the benefits of sharing power at Stormont were outweighed by growing public contempt for an exceptionally poor government.

The aim was for Martin McGuinness to hold Stormont together until Gerry Adams delivered power in Dublin. But Sinn Féin’s concessions to Unionism and Stormont’s inability to deliver, or even devise, a realistic program for government damaged public confidence in The North and made Sinn Féin less than credible in the Dáil.

We cannot be sure, but if Martin McGuinness were alive, Sinn Féin might still be in the executive under a new Agreement. He believed it promoted the party’s image as potential coalition partners in Dublin and he tolerated no criticism of Stormont.

With Adams now in sole charge, SF’s emphasis has changed. It apparently believes that gaining power in Dublin is a better first step, possibly for two reasons.

The first is that Stormont cannot deliver on social and economic issues. None of the many agreements from 1998 onwards contained any economic references, a point which this column pushed to the point of tedium and which Micheál Martin finally recognized this week.

For example, if the executive re-convened tomorrow, there would be no more money for the growing list of insolvent schools. Sinn Féin would have to share the blame.

The second reason appears to be that Adams does not rate Stormont. He never did, as indicated by his strategy for welfare reform. He ultimately lost out on welfare, but abandoning Stormont proved electorally successful.

Adams perhaps represents the more romantic republican stance of opposing Stormont, based on his extended family’s traditional connection to Republicanism, dating back to the 1940s. He was in the republican movement before the troubles began and he still occasionally uses language from that period.

McGuinness was a pragmatic product of the troubles. (Some in Derry say he initially joined the Official IRA, not the sort of thing Gerry Adams might have done.)

These differences may help to explain why McGuinness saw Irish unity from a Northern perspective and why Adams sees it as spreading Northwards from Dublin.

Being outside Stormont also gives Adams the freedom to campaign for a deal on Brexit without having to humor the DUP. The alternative is to sit in coalition and seek a form of words to bridge the huge gap between the two parties.

He can now also include Theresa May’s pledge for more devolved powers for The North in renewed Stormont talks, which will inevitably include Brexit.

(Sinn Féin could have supported British withdrawal from the EU, but not from the free trade area. That would have established common ground with Unionism and ended Sinn Féin’s inconsistent claim of serving neither King nor Kaiser. But it would not have been popular in The South.)

So Sinn Féin has three reasons for not re-entering Stormont. Of course, it cannot disclose these reasons. Instead, it demands the hazy concept of equality. It is a remarkably clever move, because it suggests that anyone not supporting the party is against equality and, by failing to define it, only Sinn Féin can decide when it has been achieved.

(If you disagree, for your homework define equality and list three indicators, beyond current equality legislation, which you would use to determine how you would know it had been implemented. When you have that done, undertake the same exercise for integrity.)

So forget marriage equality, an Irish language act and dealing with the past. They are all important issues, but if Sinn Féin wanted to return to Stormont, it could find a way of addressing them, even on the long finger.

For now, the party is staying out and, from its point of view, it has three good reasons for doing so.