Fionnuala O Connor: Stormont collapse has only disguised Sinn Féin weaknesses

Will Sinn Féin's northern leader MLA Michelle O'Neill take her party back into Stormont? Picture Mal McCann.
Will Sinn Féin's northern leader MLA Michelle O'Neill take her party back into Stormont? Picture Mal McCann.

They brought it on themselves, and neither has a clue how to escape. Sinn Féin in the north is only saved from looking worse because the DUP is so awful.

Under Peter Robinson and now Arlene Foster the party has reliably disgraced itself while by contrast Sinn Féin has dodged unrelenting scrutiny. The shape they are now in means that when the lights come on again embarrassments will be glaring.

This is a sub-standard outfit with no stars, a dozy script and the habit of taking their audience for granted, in a production that lacks credibility. At bottom, who in the nationalist/republican world loves Stormont? How Sinn Féin has disillusioned the shining-eyed among their own is a lengthy tale, and it comes on top of something basic, something that cannot be shined-up in the medium term, maybe ever. Stormont is no prize.

Conspiracy theories that suggest republicans set it up to fail, sabotaged the executive to accelerate Irish unity, are one big unionist alibi. Even the most deluded Shinners could never have imagined that undermining Stormont would accelerate moves towards unification, and nor it has. The south’s politicos are more engaged by what has happened in Belfast than for years, but only as a possible factor in the Brexit negotiations. The Varadkar team may be open to new and shameless tweaks of policy but the Gerry Adams/Mary Lou McDonald leadership will not be clasped to the Fine Gael bosom. How SF fares in the north in the outworking of Brexit is no concern of Dublin’s. Indeed it may not be high on the Adams-McDonald agenda.

But surely the ‘leadership’ cannot believe the northerners will shape up unaided and unsupervised. The failings are multiple. That uprush of grassroots and activist disgust at how Foster’s team dissed Martin McGuinness and company was voiced as indignation on behalf of the fallen chief; the most sayable version. Powerful instincts here still veto criticism of ‘your own’ where ‘the others’ can hear. But some discontent, long-stemmed like the controversy over Casement and its development, was too strong to silence.

McGuinness made charisma and his personal transition go a long way, but close recorders of Stormont thought from the start, some unwillingly, that his ministers and MLAs for the most part made a poor fist of it. The DUP would still have stymied them even if republican ministers had been any good, some say bleakly, but good, almost without exception, they weren’t.

Someone, patience exhausted, agrees DUP blocking was routine. ‘But the Shinners wasted their chances through lack of imagination, ignorance and plain incompetence. They never put the DUP to the test.’

Their handling of Casement through ministerial office and departmental committee alike alienated many, some of them formerly devoted. Sports grounds from earlier eras in built-up areas are a problem everywhere but this was the heartland, west Belfast, and a basic issue of safety was swamped by political game-playing. Sinn Féin sloppiness in Stormont and inattention to detail damaged the GAA; far from blameless themselves, but who seemingly had been told to leave it to the party. Then the party’s reaction to criticism was the usual conflict-era truculence, knee jerk ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’, although the dominant west Belfast reflex has always been to soften criticism of Sinn Féin out of wishful-thinking loyalty.

DUP ministers have chiefly grabbed attention for playing to the gallery. The recurring whiff of scandal, Red Sky, Nama, culminating in the black farce of renewable heating, meant Sinn Féin’s lacklustre performers got less dismayed notice than they deserved. It will never be proven now, but if SF ministers had shone, presented civil servants with clear policy imperatives and created momentum in their departments, who’s to say the underlying distaste for Stormont would have lasted?

Northern Catholics were second class citizens for long enough to leave an after-burn. There is a sharp appetite for equalling and surpassing ‘the others’. That never happened.

Old constraints fade slowly in a society sundered by separate allegiance to church, in education and housing. Buttoned lips - plus Downing Street dates - no doubt continue to mask Foster’s undoubted loss of internal authority.

The tragic speed of the McGuinness decline and death lent cover, the crashed executive extended it, the assembly election result disguised the flaws in organisation and personnel, the shallowness of the talent pool.

But the weakness is multi-layered. Which is another reason, on top of dour acceptance that the show lacks merit, for Sinn Féin’s lukewarmness about re-establishing a production in Stormont.