Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Sinn Fein organ grinders act as if it's Tsarist Russia

Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuinness

One factor gumming-up decision-making at Stormont is the fact that Sinn Fein takes all major decisions to their ard comhairle in Dublin before MLAs here can ratify them.

The DUP is outraged. "Martin McGuinness has to go to the politburo in Dublin before he can tell you the time," one party source told me.

For instance, the DUP thought it had a deal on welfare reform last June, when Sinn Fein's Assembly leadership seemed up for a compromise, but the whole thing quickly fell apart leading to the present costly stalemate.

Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein explained the dynamics when I asked him to comment on the DUP assertion that republicans had signalled agreement, then reneged.

"Claims that Sinn Fein reneged on a deal are totally untrue," he said.

"At no time has Sinn Fein agreed to any finalised package around the Welfare Bill.

"Sinn Fein has always made it very clear that the party's ard comhairle will make the final decision on what the party is prepared to support when it comes to changes in the Welfare Bill."

He added: "We have reached potential agreement on a range of issues, but there is more to be done and we will continue that work."

He criticised the DUP's stance, claiming that, but for Sinn Fein pressure, they would have swallowed the Welfare Reform Bill whole without securing any compromise, but that is a story for another day.

To be fair, Sinn Fein aren't the only MLAs who can be subject to party vetoes in government. Peter Robinson (inset middle) was forced to drop a done deal on the the Maze/Long Kesh reconciliation centre, when party grandees outside Stormont, some of them MPs, warned him that they wouldn't wear it.

Mike Nesbitt of the UUP predicted a deal on the Haass proposals and said we were 90% there, before attending a party meeting and changing his tune. Sinn Fein had its ard comhairle on hand to ratify the Haass deal, but it can't keep it in an ante room at Stormont to ratify every decision MLAs take.

Democracies are not generally run this way. David Cameron, or Enda Kenny, don't have to call a meeting of their party executives to decide how to vote on a Bill. MPs, TDs and MLAs are elected and paid to provide stable, effective government for everyone – not to serve their party executives.

The issue comes into particularly sharp relief when the body being reported to is in another jurisdiction, as it is in the case of Sinn Fein. Whatever your views on the border, at present UK welfare reform doesn't affect Sinn Fein party managers in Dublin.

The inability of Sinn Fein elected representatives to take decisions without an ard comhairle meeting could also impact on their ability to govern in Dublin.

They need only look at the Workers Party, which emerged from the Official republican movement and split partly on this very issue in 1992. Then, six of its seven TDs resigned and formed a new party, because of the determination of the ard comhairle to micro-manage decision-making in the Dail.

This is the sort of leadership that is appropriate in an underground revolutionary movement, like the IRA, or the Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia. It isn't so appropriate for a party operating in a parliamentary democracy which has to think on its feet and make the best deal it can in negotiations with its government partners.

Not to mince words, this system risks making elected representatives, who have a salary and a mandate to govern, look more like monkeys than organ- grinders.

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