Is Sinn Fein bending the rules to gain an advantage ahead of the next election?
Republicans may have found way past orders barring political use of council premises, says Nelson McCausland
Arrogance and audacity are two of the hallmarks of Sinn Fein, and I came across another example of this this week. Before the recent Assembly election, Sinn Fein organised a major electoral registration campaign across Northern Ireland. Thousands of people had been taken off the register towards the end of last year and Sinn Fein mobilised their army of workers for a door-to-door registration campaign in nationalist communities.
This was one of the factors that contributed to the Sinn Fein surge.
They managed to get thousands of missing nationalists onto the register, but they must realise that unionists will undertake a similar campaign.
Sinn Fein are therefore trying to mop up any potential voters they missed last time, and registration clinics have been organised across Northern Ireland in venues such as community centres, shopping centres and other facilities.
Sinn Fein members in west Belfast have been round the doors with leaflets advertising the clinics, while others posted a Sinn Fein leaflet on their Facebook pages.
The leaflet carried their party logo and a photograph of Michelle O’Neill against a background of an Irish tricolour.
There were no other logos and no other organisation was mentioned.
It also listed the venues as Falls Library, Sally Gardens Centre, Horn Drive Community Centre, Dairy Farm Centre, Upper Springfield Development Trust, Kennedy Centre and Andersonstown Leisure Centre.
I was not altogether surprised to see the Kennedy Centre, which hosted the Eire Nua republican flute band on St Patrick’s Day, but I was surprised to see a public library, as well as a council-run leisure centre and a council community centre.
In the past, political parties were not allowed to book council facilities and I imagined the same rule might apply to public libraries.
So I emailed Libraries NI on Friday to ask about the clinic that Sinn Fein were advertising in the Falls Library, and received this reply: “I can state categorically that Sinn Fein has not booked Falls Road Library for an event.
There is, however, an electoral registration clinic taking place tomorrow (Tuesday). This is one of a series of events, in a number of venues, under the auspices of the Electoral Office, working through the West Belfast Partnership Board.”
That seemed clear enough. Whatever the Sinn Fein leaflet may have implied, this clinic was actually “under the auspices of the Electoral Office, working through the West Belfast Partnership Board”.
That was interesting, because if registration clinics were being organised “under the auspices of the Electoral Office”, working through community organisations, that would open the door for other community organisations in all areas to run such clinics “under the auspices of the Electoral Office”.
However, when a DUP delegation met the Electoral Office, they were told that the Electoral Office had nothing to do with the clinics in west Belfast.
So what led Libraries NI to think that these clinics were taking place “under the auspices of the Electoral Office”, with no mention of Sinn Fein?
That takes the Electoral Office out of the picture, but what was the role of the West Belfast Partnership board?
Did the board members know about it and what do they think about an event they are supposed to have organised being portrayed as a Sinn Fein event?
There is a complex and close relationship between Sinn Fein and much of the community and voluntary sector in nationalist communities, but it is a relationship that is often overlooked or wilfully ignored by policy makers.
So, were Sinn Fein members involved in the organising of these events, and what are the implications of that for other political parties wanting to book libraries and leisure centres? This certainly deserves some investigation.
I am totally in favour of electoral registration events as part of the democratic process, but have Sinn Fein found a way to manipulate the system to their advantage, and are they being allowed to get away with it?