The prospects for Sinn Féin

There have been quite a few posts on Slugger by able writers such as Michael Palmer, Ian Clarke, and Brian Walker about the prospects for political unionism and particularly the DUP now that the Assembly and Executive have been restored. Mick Fealty has also written a perceptive piece on the opportunity that being the official opposition provides for the SDLP. But no one seems to be writing about the prospects for Sinn Féin.

Not being a member or supporter, and not having many contacts within the party, I am not in a good position to fill that void. But it seems to me that even from an outsider’s perspective the changed situation provides some opportunities and threats for the party, to which they bring particular strengths and weaknesses. Let us look at each of these in turn:

 

Strengths

Sinn Féin have been increasing their vote steadily, both north and south, so that they are now the largest party on the island by some distance. They are also well represented in younger demographics which are growing as the older generation and memories of the Troubles fade into the background. The failure of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens to tackle the public housing, healthcare, childcare, and infrastructure deficits in the face of unprecedented population and economic growth has handed Sinn Féin a ready-made set of issues around which to build support.

In the North, their acknowledged excellence at the ground game has continued to build their base of support at a time when other parties appear to have been marked absent. The DUP’s pursuit of a particularly hard form of Brexit, against the wishes of a large majority in Northern Ireland, has put them on the right side of perhaps the defining issue of recent years. The DUP then turning around and holding the people of Northern Ireland hostage in the face of their Brexit when the people of Northern Ireland had no hand, act, or part in the Brexit debacle, was particularly perverse, and made Sinn Féin look statesmanlike by comparison.

Sinn Féin’s strategy, of never interrupted your enemy while they are busy making a mistake cannot be faulted. Nor their magnanimous responses to the death of Queen Elizabeth and even the return of Stormont, a development they must have viewed with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the elevation of a Sinn Féin member as First Minister must have been a proud moment. On the other, it marked the end of their free ride of being able to ascribe all blame for deteriorating public services and infrastructure to the DUP and the UK government. All-in-all they have managed themselves very adroitly, in a manner other parties can only dream of.

 

Weaknesses

Sinn Fein’s over-riding weakness will always be its historic association with the IRA and the Troubles, an armed campaign which was vehemently rejected by the vast majority, north and south. Whatever your views of the rights and wrongs of that campaign, the fact remains it is still a political liability now. Unionists, the older generations, and most of the political parties down south, will have no truck with them for that very reason. Reminding people of that association, as Michelle O’Neill did in her remarks that there  was “no alternative” to the IRA’s armed campaign during the Troubles was not a smart pollical move.

I am not privy to the internal dynamics of power within the republican movement, but I suspect that it is a requirement of leadership that they remain loyal to the decisions of their predecessors in the movement. No less that the leadership of any other party, one of the prime responsibilities of leadership is to maintain internal cohesion and solidarity within the party. If that comes at a political cost, then that is a cost which must be borne.

Those most offended by the remark were never going to vote Sinn Féin anyway, and so the calculation may have been that any cost was worth it. The hypocrisy of some unionists who have maintained close links with still active loyalist paramilitary groups to this day may have actually helped to consolidate Sinn Féin’s support. The argument that political unionism was never as closely aligned with loyalist paramilitaries as Sinn Féin with the IRA is not widely accepted outside unionism. Indeed many neutrals feel that Sinn Féin has moved further from its violent past than its unionist counterparts.

That said, Sinn Féin’s polling has declined from a high of 35% in September 2023 to 25-28% in the last three polls in the south. Una Mullaly, normally a very sympathetic observer of Sinn Féin, ascribes this to five factors:

  1. A lack of clarity on policy – particularly on rent control
  2. Obfuscation on the refugee and asylum seeker housing crisis – she notes that ”far right anti-immigration activists are never going to vote Sinn Féin”
  3. Lack of solutions for Dublin – “the price of rent; the cost of living; transport; poor planning; corporate gentrification in traditionally working class areas; small businesses closing week in, week out due to difficult trading conditions; street crime; drug crime; commercial over-development; ghost offices, and the quality of life the city offers – are not being addressed”
  4. Sinn Féin losing out in rural Ireland – “Sinn Féin has fallen 14 points in rural Ireland. Independents – more likely to be rightwing and centre-right in rural areas than independents in cities – have jumped six points. The likely emergence of versions of rightwing farmer parties or blocs in Ireland, as seen in countries such as the Netherlands, will begin to matter more, and will be largely driven by resentment and disinformation around climate change, environmental policies and “immigration”
  5. Mary Lou McDonald – “The Sinn Féin’s leader has made some missteps in recent times. In the aftermath of the Dublin riots in November, taking to social media to post a photo of a street drinker on Parnell Square (around the corner from Sinn Féin’s head office), as well as tabling a failed vote of no confidence in Justice Minister Helen McEntee, left people jaded. Neither of these approaches went any way close to addressing the issues that instigated and catalysed the riot. McDonald’s recent assertion that a united Ireland is “within touching distance” may be reflecting the longer term context of a century of partition, but it is an aspiration not grounded in an immediate reality.

 

In short, in a functioning democracy there is no free ride for anybody, even a populist opposition party. Sinn Féin needs to come up with policy solutions to people’s problems. A protest vote only gets you so far. Governments in Ireland nearly always lose ground in the following election. There is always a large element of “throw the b*stards out” and “give the other lot a chance”. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, the Progressive Democrats, the Greens, (and now perhaps Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats) have all enjoyed surges in support in opposition only to lose out even more after a stint in government.

The argument that Sinn Féin will inevitably lead the next government and go from strength to strength from there has always been historically illiterate. The question is whether they can achieve another surge ahead of the next election, and a lot depends on how much progress, if any, the current government makes on domestic issues in the meantime. 25-30% of the vote will not be enough for Sinn Féin to be able to form a viable coalition government.

 

Opportunities

Quite apart from whatever they may achieve in Northern Ireland, leading the Executive (however nominally) gives Sinn Féin an opportunity to demonstrate what they might be like in government in the south, if elected. Much as the election of Michelle O’Neill was a historic landmark, it will be little more than a consolation prize if Mary Lou McDonald fails to make it into the Taoiseach’s office from where she can speak to UK, EU and other Prime Ministers as an equal. The effect it could have on the national psychology and perceptions abroad should not be underestimated. It will be a clear signal to all that it is no longer necessarily “business as usual” when it comes to dealing with Ireland and its aspirations.

UK tabloids, more used to demonising Leo Varadkar, will have a new and perhaps more legitimate target. No doubt those charged with attracting foreign direct investment to the UK with will rubbing their hands in anticipation of better times ahead. The IDA and Ireland are currently the Grand Slam champions when it comes to attracting foreign direct investment. However, much like Labour in England, Sinn Féin has been anxious “not to scare the horses” when it comes to the business community and the drivers of economic growth in Ireland. It has moved from being an anti-capitalist and anti-EU party to being a relatively conventional centre left party with an alacrity matched only by its move away from the armed struggle.

Parties are said to campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and nowhere is this more likely to be true than in Northern Ireland. Determined not to raise taxes and charges, the Executive will be entirely dependent on revenues derived from the central UK exchequer. Much of it will be non-discretionary, as in the funding required to pay public sector workers or reduce healthcare waiting lists. It remains to be seen how much will actually be available for new or expanded services or projects. Certainly any wastage on the scale of the RHI scandal could be disastrous for the credibility of devolution as a whole. But who will suffer more, Sinn Féin or the DUP?

It has traditionally been assumed that unionists have most to lose from “Northern Ireland not working” as that might force people to consider the only alternative envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement – a united Ireland. The evidence of recent years is at best inconclusive: political dysfunctionality has been rife, but has pro-united Ireland sentiment increased markedly?

But how would a disastrous or even a difficult and unproductive Executive under nominal Sinn Féin leadership effect not just voting intentions in Northern Ireland, but in the south as well? To a certain extent Sinn Féin has had a free ride in opposition both north and south. Now it has to show it can deliver for the public while in office in the north. Excuses about lack of funding from Westminster will only take it so far, especially if there is a flat refusal to raise additional revenues in the north, to be spent in the north.

I was astonished that the new Minister for Finance, Caoimhe Archibald, ruled out reducing Northern Ireland’s corporation tax to the same level as Ireland, out of hand. I appreciate that the Westminster Exchequer will not make good any revenue shortfall in the short term, but the experience of Ireland is that corporate tax revenues increase massively in the long term. Could these gains not have been retained to support the infrastructural development required in Northern Ireland to support such investment?

Northern Ireland already has an advantage over Britain in its close proximity to the growing Irish economy and ease of access to the Single Market. But investment, particularly by British companies, could really take off if they could take advantage of Ireland’s low corporate tax rates as well. I can see why the British exchequer would be opposed to such a change as putting mainland British companies at a disadvantage, and thereby increase pressure for similar reductions in Britain. But that is hardly Sinn Féin’s problem. Should they not be seeking to demonstrate that Irish style economic policies could greatly benefit Northern Ireland?

If you are a very profitable leading edge global corporation, needing access to the Single market, would you locate in Northern Ireland or in Ireland with its lower corporate tax rates and much greater political and policy stability? This seems like an opportunity lost.

 

Threats

The biggest threat to Sinn Féin’s further progress is a perceived failure to govern Northern Ireland effectively. To this end it needs to develop good relations with Emma Little-Pengelly and other ministers in the Executive and be brave and innovative in reforming Northern Ireland’s sclerotic civil service and poor service delivery. Far from embedding partition, it will increase confidence that Northern Ireland people can hold their own on the island regardless of whatever constitutional arrangements might apply in the future.

There is a danger that unionists, particularly from disadvantaged communities, will fear a united Ireland not because they think it would not work, but because they fear it will work well without them. A more confident and successful Northern Ireland will not fear any changed political dispensation. Lack of confidence and insecurity are the greatest inhibitors of openness to change.

My biggest fear for a Sinn Féin administration in the south is not that it will be too radical a departure from current governance, but that it will be too timid. There is a huge need to expand the capacities of the building, healthcare, eldercare, and childcare industries on the entire island and incremental financial engineering around the fringes won’t suffice. There simply aren’t enough training places for people to become qualified builders, tradespeople, entrepreneurs, care workers, nurses and doctors.

We have been importing such skills from abroad when such satisfying and lucrative jobs should be made more available to our own population. The Polish economy is now booming and the supply of new, skilled, hard working Polish workers has come to an end. It’s time we started training more of our own, or even, God forbid, train more people from all parts of Ireland. The all Ireland economy may not be quite the new, misguided, and divisive concept as stated by the UK government in the “Saving the Union” command paper. But has Sinn Féin the ability to make it happen?

 

 


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