Will Sinn Fein still be left heckling from the sidelines after next Dail election?

Posted By: March 11, 2019

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, March 11, 2019

The front-page headline had me mystified: “Robots could widen North-South divide.”

Good grief, wasn’t our dear wee island divided enough already? And what kind of robots were we talking about anyway: surely not a mechanical version of the Lord Brookeborough unionists who wouldn’t have a Roman Catholic about the place? Or could they be Sinn Féin robots dancing to the Army Council’s tune, as alleged in that PSNI-MI5 report in October 2015?

Then I realized the headline was appearing above a story in the Daily Telegraph about automatons in the north of England replacing low-skilled workers, who would find it difficult to get alternative employment. This would increase the gap with the south of the country, where skill levels tend to be higher and workers, therefore, find it easier to get other jobs. The report by the Center for Cities think-tank was focused on places like Blackburn and Doncaster and not Ballymena or Dungannon.

Now whatever their other faults, senior politicians in both parts of Ireland could hardly be described as robots. You certainly couldn’t say Mark Durkan was a slave to the SDLP party-line, following his acceptance of a Fine Gael nomination to run in the European Parliament elections in Dublin alongside Frances Fitzgerald TD.

Given the narrow margin of 169 votes by which he lost his Foyle seat to Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion in 2017, not to mention the instability in the House of Commons, you’d think he might have waited to have another go in the next UK general election. Mind you, if he doesn’t win a seat in Strasbourg he could always throw his hat in the ring again for Westminster.

The highly-experienced Fitzgerald is likely to get elected but, since there is an additional seat in Dublin because of the Brexit fall-out, Fine Gael might very well end up with two MEPs out of four in that constituency. Given the attention received by Fianna Fáil’s tie-up with the SDLP, it was a slick move by Leo Varadkar and his friends to recruit Durkan to their team. Indeed it is reported they even approached his party colleague Claire Hanna to run in another European constituency, without success. Whatever about running the 26-county state, they are adept at party-political maneuvers.

It can’t be entirely ruled out that a general election in the south might take place on the same day as the European vote but, given the current uncertainty about the timing of Brexit, that seems unlikely. The loveless relationship with Fianna Fáil that kept Fine Gael in office is surely in its final stages. Whilst neither party looks set to make significant gains at the polling-booth when the Dáil is finally dissolved, Sinn Féin’s prospects are more ambivalent. The latest Ipsos MRBI survey in the Irish Times put the party at 21 per cent, down three points (compared to 30 per cent for Fine Gael and 24 for Fianna Fáil) whereas a RedC poll in the Sunday Business Post showed a rise of five points to 18 percent (with Fine Gael at 31 and Fianna Fáil again at 24). Either way, it seems certain the “Shinners” will remain the third-largest force in the Dáil after the next general election. The question is, will they still be left heckling from the sideline or will one or other of the two main parties invite them into the corridors of power?

As regards the House of Commons, of course, it has been Sinn Féin’s own decision to remain on the sideline. In that context, it was interesting to see all seven of the party’s Westminster MPs attending – and speaking at – a recent meeting at Leinster House of the Committee for the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. What a pity they don’t bring their oratorical talents to the self-styled Mother of Parliaments. In another Ipsos MRBI poll, 60 percent of those interviewed in the north said they should do so. Hopefully, that would not precipitate a split, since there is nobody of Martin McGuinness’s capability and stature to manage such an eventuality.

That was, of course, the chamber where Karen Bradley made her unfortunate and ill-judged remark exempting the British Army from any criminal actions during the Troubles. The outraged reaction from nationalists was perfectly understandable but it is worth pointing out that the secretary of state was responding to a question from Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP, who was elected MP for South Belfast with 13,299 votes. This was 5,147 fewer than the combined total achieved by the SDLP and Sinn Féin. In a previous column, I suggested a revival of the “Unity Candidate” approach from the Civil Rights era. Maybe nationalists should take another look at that strategy. I note that the independent-minded Joe Brolly has been criticizing abstentionism of late. Perhaps he should be invited to stand?