Denis Bradley: Sinn Féin still drifts back to bad old habits

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley is a columnist for The Irish News and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy says the party will take the economy portfolio in the next Stormont executive and deliver expansion at Ulster University in Derry. Picture by Hugh Russell
Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy says the party will take the economy portfolio in the next Stormont executive and deliver expansion at Ulster University in Derry. Picture by Hugh Russell

Sinn Féin can claim moments of great courage, foresight and policy change in its journey to the premier position in national politics. It is the in-between times, when what psychologists call the regression syndrome kicks in, that makes their opponents and some of their supporters want to pull their hair out.

Regression is when you drift back to your old bad habits. Two examples of it recently, and both in Derry.

Some obscure group posted notices discouraging people from joining the PSNI and the Prison Service. The other mainstream parties put out a statement condemning these posters, but Sinn Féin refused to co-sign, belatedly issuing a generalised statement of their own. Why, is a valid question.

On the day his report was published, Chris Patten appealed to the nationalist community, politicians, priests, teachers, sports people, to support the new police service.

To this day I am never convinced that the nationalist community has backed the service with the gusto that was required and that the families and the recruits from the nationalist community attracted the encouragement and the support they deserved.

The Catholic community stood off to see how the project would develop rather than take responsibility for the success of the project itself.

When Sinn Féin eventually and belatedly took their seats on the Policing Board, they did so with a strong attitude of holding the police to account and a weakish expression of support. That hesitancy left the Catholic community uncertain of how to react and how to interact with the new police service.

Sinn Féin’s hesitancy was more to placate their hardliners than it was to enable a new beginning to policing. Instead of promoting the PSNI as being a child of the peace process and encouraging young nationalists to join and own it, the party opted for the 'prove to us that you have changed' school of politics.

This was despite having watched unionism adopt the same ‘prove to us’ policy towards Sinn Féin on innumerable occasions and having seen the ineptitude of that political strategy. Signing a statement is not that important but not signing in this context leaves a bad taste of looking after one’s own back yard, and to hell with the rest of you.

The other incident was more subtle. A meeting between Conor Murphy, a former Sinn Féin finance minister, three Sinn Féin MLAs and the vice-chancellor of Ulster University. The backdrop is, crudely, UU has recently spent around £300 million on new buildings in Belfast and around £11m on new builds in Derry. Belfast provides tens of thousands of places for students; Derry provides somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000.

Many reports, countless economists and most political parties, including Sinn Féin, have asserted that the Derry economy cannot grow unless the university campus grows way beyond its present intake.

Hundreds of Derry people have had a decade or more battling with the university and the politicians on this issue and the hundreds have lost.

The difference with Sinn Féin is that they fought a very successful election, postering Derry City with leaflets that claimed the expanded university numbers had been delivered. The realisation that it was not true may have been the main reason for the replacement of two MLAs and a few poor election results before the recent successful one.

The suggestion coming from the Conor Murphy meeting was that Sinn Féin would take the economy portfolio in the next executive and deliver the student numbers and facilities to Derry. Really?

But where is the money coming from? The university and the northern executive are both financially broke. It might be more honest and have a chance of success if Sinn Féin pledged that when they became either the government itself or part of a coalition government in Dublin, they would rectify the years of neglect that Derry and the North-West has suffered.