Sinn Fein has lost direction in the north

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Brian Feeney
Brian Feeney Brian Feeney

This is the time of year when everywhere shuts down, politicians go away and in the north there’s relief that the annual Orange paroxysm has inflicted only minor trouble.

Westminster and the Dáil return in the autumn along with schools and colleges, plans for a new year laid out, the last budget in Dublin before the general election, the autumn statement in Westminster detailing yet more cuts.

Here, it’s Groundhog Day. No one knows if the assembly will get past October. What we do know is that nothing substantial will be done. Nothing substantial has been done since Peter Robinson reneged on his agreement for a Reconciliation Centre at the Maze in August 2013. That came the summer after Robinson joined a list of Orangemen and hard-line unionists to demand a replacement of the Parades Commission. It seems that around that time when usually nothing happens Robinson and other senior DUP members take the head staggers. In August 2013 they decided to stop working the Executive and assembly.

Maybe that was the only way Robinson could placate his party’s dissidents, the Paisleyites, led by the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ of 2007 who objected to a deal with Sinn Féin and still do. They returned to the fray in 2010 to try to stop policing and justice being devolved: ‘not in a political lifetime’ Depooty Dawds said.

On this basis cuts to the welfare budget are only the occasion of the current impasse, not the cause. It’s pretty clear Robinson could not push through the provisions in the Stormont House Agreement on victims, the past and parades against his dissidents. He failed in 2010 and there’s no sign anything has improved.

The unionist jeremiah Jim Allister stands keening in the wings. Allister’s 76,000 votes in 2014 have forced Robinson to make clear he won’t go into another executive with Sinn Féin without fundamental negotiations, a sort of St Andrews Mk II. He’s therefore correct that if the executive collapses there’s no point in having an election because it would be an election to nothing. Again Robinson is still placating substantial figures in his own party, mostly recently re-elected MPs who see their role at Westminster potentially holding the balance of power in the next five years as more important than sitting at Stormont. They believe – mistakenly - it’s a way of cutting out Sinn Féin and anyway they hold no brief for the Good Friday Agreement.

Where does all this leave Sinn Féin? At first sight you’d think it doesn’t matter too much since their focus is the Dáil and next year’s election. Besides, what do Sinn Féin care if unionists set out to prove power-sharing and equality don’t work in the north? Wouldn’t that just prove what Sinn Féin said all along was correct? It would also involve the Irish government more intimately than since 2006. People, mainly unionists, forget that a key provision in the Good Friday Agreement is that if institutions in the north fail the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council takes over running the place.

Fair enough, but Sinn Féin’s problem is more profound than that. They’ve lost direction. They’ve forgotten their raison d’etre in the north. Flying to Washington about welfare funding is piddling stuff. No one in the party is articulating how to advance their fundamental aim, Irish unity. Instead there is monthly waffle about reconciliation and ‘uncomfortable conversations’ to which not a single unionist politician responds or ever will.

It’s true Sinn Féin has to be careful not to bang the republican drum for fear of losing votes in the south where no one cares about the north. However the evidence of May’s election is that few of Sinn Féin’s northern voters care very much about whether Stormont passes welfare legislation or anything else for that matter.

Leaving aside the party’s main reason for existence in the north is following the SDLP’s example a few steps too far. Moving towards the centre in the south has meant no senior Sinn Féin figure in the north has the language, vocabulary or vision to articulate where the party is going in the long term. It’s all very well saying they have a ‘plan’ but to voters that sounds like Baldrick and Blackadder.