Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin’s Cullen coup re-opens abstention debate

It’s the week that was in the news, as observed by Irish News columnist Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Director of the Royal College of Nursing Pat Cullen pictured with staff on the picket line outside the Mater Hospital, Belfast last December, Picture by Mal McCann
Former Royal College of Nursing Northern Ireland director Pat Cullen on the picket line outside the Mater Hospital in Belfast in 2019, during protests that helped propel Sinn Féin and the DUP back into government. Picture: Mal McCann

Sinn Féin has caused a sensation by announcing nursing union chief Pat Cullen as its general election candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. However, landing a new high-profile candidate has re-opened the debate about abstention.

While evidently no deterrent to large numbers of voters, abstention is an obstacle to developing and promoting talent – critical issues for any party. Cullen would not be the first to find this frustrating. Sinn Féin caused a similar sensation in 2017 by running John Finucane in North Belfast. He won the seat two years later but has maintained his legal practice.

The claim that Sinn Féin MPs have plenty to do despite not attending the Commons is questionable. They do not sit on or even attend the committees where much of Westminster’s work is done, rendering themselves irrelevant.

Attending committees requires no oath. In 2013, Sinn Féin gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee during a special sitting in Belfast. The party said it might do the same at Westminster in future, although it never did. This would be a logical way for abstentionism to evolve.

If there is one place a former trade union leader would be happy, it would be at a committee.


Sinn Féin’s vote fell by a quarter in the last general election and amusingly Pat Cullen can claim much of the credit.

She was one of the organisers of unprecedented industrial action by nurses before and just after the December 2019 vote. This was very much seen as a protest against the collapse of devolution, helping to crystallise impatience with Sinn Féin’s boycott among nationalist voters. The DUP’s vote also dropped, by a sixth, while Alliance’s doubled. Stormont was restored three weeks later.

It must be extraordinarily unusual for a party to recruit a candidate who did it such harm in the preceding contest. For Sinn Féin to do so is more remarkable still.

Sinn Féin’s vote fell by a quarter in the last general election and amusingly Pat Cullen can claim much of the credit


SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is campaigning to “get rid of the Tories”, a message that only highlights how little the battle for Foyle affects the arithmetic at Westminster.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (far right) meets Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna of the SDLP at Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast. Picture by Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire 
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (far right) meets Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna of the SDLP at Parliament Buildings

This daft sloganeering is all the more bizarre when the SDLP could take the positive approach of telling people to vote for Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland – a relationship that promises genuine influence. What is the value of being Labour’s sister party if it is not worth promoting during an election?


For many years, a common criticism of Sinn Féin was that it tried to be in government and opposition at the same time. This now applies almost literally to the UUP, which has voted against the budget yet refused to leave the executive.

Former Health Minister Robin Swann
Former Health Minister Robin Swann voted against the Stormont budget this week (Liam McBurney/PA)

Stormont parties could previously say power-sharing restricted their opposition options but that has changed with reforms introduced under the 2020 New Decade, New Approach deal. For the first time, smaller executive parties have up to two years to enter official opposition, where previously they had to decide when an executive was formed.

So the UUP is voluntarily remaining in a coalition whose budget it does not support, a preposterous circumstance under most political systems – now including our own.


First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the election created difficulties in publishing a programme for government
First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the election created difficulties in publishing a programme for government (Liam McBurney/PA)

The executive had been aiming to produce a programme for government before the July 6 summer recess. It may be unable to do so due to the general election, Michelle O’Neill has informed the assembly, not just because of the distraction but because publication is legally inadvisable during the pre-election ‘purdah’ period.

Patience wearing thin as programme for government delayed again - The Irish News viewOpens in new window ]

The first minister expressed this as a matter of regret to herself and the deputy first minister – a procedural problem and no cause for political alarm. Nobody mentioned the obvious procedural solution. Stormont is entirely free to change its recess dates via the assembly’s business committee, which is chaired by the DUP speaker and where executive parties hold nine of the 12 seats.

It would be a little glib to say Stormont would rather delay the programme for government for another two months than move its holiday plans back by a couple of weeks. Nevertheless, that is exactly what is happening.


Ireland’s flag and national anthem should be “on the table” in any united Ireland negotiation, Gerry Adams has told a TG4 documentary. However, he added he would not want to change them himself.

“Anyone can put any subject on the table and we will discuss it.”

Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was among the mourners .
Former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has said Ireland’s flag and national anthem should be “on the table” in any reunification negotiation (Brian lawless/PA)

This has been the Sinn Féin line since 2022, when Mary Lou McDonald said much the same. Rather than an offer to unionists, it is a trap for other nationalist parties: if they indicate they might accept a new flag or anthem, Sinn Féin can criticise them for it.

Adams will have filmed his TG4 interview months ago, with no idea it would go out a week before elections in the Republic, let alone that his party would be under attack from flag-waving ‘Irish patriots’. The trap has become a lot riskier for everyone, including those who set it.


Andrew Muir, the Alliance agriculture and environment minister, has no immediate plans to raise fines for farmers who pollute waterways, or change the light-touch enforcement approach adopted by his department’s environment agency in 2017.

Alliance Party MLA Andrew Muir
Agriculture and environment minister Andrew Muir (Brian Lawless/PA)

Fines were reduced by his DUP predecessor Edwin Poots two years ago.

Responding to questions from environmental campaigners, the department revealed the minister is “currently considering” fines and enforcement but indicated this will be part of a wider review due to be completed in 2026. It must be wondered if any party, even one as suburban as Alliance, would risk upsetting farmers weeks before an election.


What do you do with a dead shopping centre? Bangor’s Flagship Centre has called in the receivers after another attempt to coax it back to life.

The developer in this instance has been praised by a local regeneration group for sincere commitment to the project but it was to no avail. The design of the town centre building may simply be redundant in today’s economy.

A similar building in Portadown has been revived by removing part of the roof to create something more like a pedestrianised street – ‘de-malling’, as Americans call it.

In future, planners and developers could just build new streets in the first place.