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Republicanism may get off the hook by taking a turn to Left

If Sinn Fein wishes to continue to administer Northern Ireland, it would be illogical to collapse Stormont over welfare reform. But if its objective is to grow as a radical party, then it might happily let that happen, writes Malachi O'Doherty.

Published 07/07/2015

Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
Queen Elizabeth II shaking hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are shown the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange by the Chief Executive of NYSE Euronext Duncan Niederauer
Republicans take part in the National Hunger Strike Rally in Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh organised by Sinn Fein

The assumption of most people in the northern media and political life is that the peace process has domesticated Sinn Fein.

They don't all use that word, but their understanding is that a radical Left-wing organisation that endorsed murder and sabotage for decades has been tamed; that its members are content to administer British rule and to encourage and facilitate capitalism. Most people don't doubt this, even as they marvel at what a miraculous transformation it has been.

And they may be right. There is certainly strong evidence for it, not least Martin McGuinness ringing the bell to open the New York Stock Exchange and shaking hands with the Queen.

By this common sense reading of Sinn Fein's position, it is now on a hook; it has taken a wrong turning and blundered into an issue that it cannot resolve.

Having decided to oppose (or, at least, tweak) the UK Government welfare cuts instead of rubber-stamping them, the way Scotland, Wales and previous Stormont administrations did, Sinn Fein has digressed from good housekeeping and made itself vulnerable.

It is now in danger of humiliation and penury. It must either reverse its campaign to oppose welfare cuts or it will bring the whole Stormont Assembly crashing down.

Ways have been found in the past to help it off hooks that were higher and sharper than this one. Go back to the hunger strikes of 1981.

It had dug itself into a calamitous situation and Fr Denis Faul saved it by persuading families of hunger strikers to have the men fed when they slipped into coma.The armed struggle itself was such a hook, and John Hume put together a project involving both governments and Bill Clinton to get it off that one.

And the IRA refusal to decommission weapons was another, and circumstances, including the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington, got it off that.

So, it may be that its old self-destructive habit of digging in and letting others sort out the mess is still at work. But look at the lessons it learnt from past periods of obstinacy; paradoxically, it thrived on them.

Every deadlock increased its vote and emboldened it as a party. Each was a stepping-stone to where it is now, contending for power in Dublin, potentially the largest party in Ireland.

So, we might have to ask ourselves if Sinn Fein quite likes the current stand-off and foresees huge new opportunities arising from it, just as it did with the others.

Certainly the party is digging in, with Gerry Adams warning now that the institutions are "hanging by a thread". He doesn't sound like a leader worried that he has taken a wrong turn.

But what opportunities might there be for Sinn Fein in this deadlock? Well, there is a gap in the political market and it might fill it. That gap is for a radical Left movement that will stand up to the Tories in the UK and rally diverse political energies in the Republic.

In Britain the Labour Party sees little prospect of getting into power other than by following much the same course as the Tories did, but with a more human face on it. But Sinn Fein has no interest in governing in Westminster, so it can say and do things that Labour cannot.

It formed allegiances with the English radical Left in the 1980s, so it has a legacy there and a tradition of thumping tubs in London, Liverpool and Manchester, and can do that again.

It has seen that Nicola Sturgeon won huge popularity even in England by articulating the anti-austerity argument during the election campaign.

Ms Sturgeon doesn't seem to be as keen on an alliance with Sinn Fein as Sinn Fein is on sharing a platform with her, but even without her by its side, the insights from her experience can be put to use.

So, if Sinn Fein's objective is to continue to administer Northern Ireland, then it would be silly to bring down Stormont over welfare reform.

But if its objective is to grow as a radical party, then it might happily let Stormont fall in a messy heap.

That might even be the route to reinvigorating the argument for a united Ireland.

With the Tories in power, Britain will be showing its harshest face and republicans will be better able to blame them for the mess that we will be in when the money runs out.

In fact, it might always have been too hopeful to imagine that Sinn Fein could work under the Tory umbrella.

Further ammunition for a radical republican campaign will come when the referendum on Europe heats up.

True, Sinn Fein has always urged no votes on European referenda, but this one threatens the prospects of a restored Irish border.

That vision has already created alarm in Dublin, which is urging David Cameron to be careful lest he restarts the Troubles as a side-effect of his efforts to placate Eurosceptics in his party.

And it may be that Sinn Fein foresaw none of this a year ago and just hoped it could be uppity about welfare cuts and then see Labour come back and ease the pressure.

But it may also be that the Tory victory has actually made Sinn Fein's long-term participation in devolution untenable.

It was already being sneered at on social media by former friends and members for taking its plum jobs and running Northern Ireland for Westminster.

Purist republicans who once looked up to the Adams/McGuinness leadership now revile them. That is the hit it takes.

Now, it is looking at the prospect of collapse and it may be more ready for it than many observers think.

Ministers who would lose their jobs were going to lose them anyway after the next election.

If Sinn Fein wants a comfortable life, then it will be a well-behaved, domesticated party, that will keep things running smoothly in the north and not jeopardise the continuity of devolved Government.

But it may sense the prospect of a big fight from a radical Left platform which would reinforce its anti-austerity image in the south, scupper devolution on terms on which others can be blamed and bring it back to the table in five years to negotiate yet another agreement with the battered unionists, who always find that there is less on the table for them every time they come back to it.

Nonsense, of course, says the common sense position.

It would just prove that it isn't fit to govern and its sliding vote would plummet further.

But that vote in the north is currently threatened from the Left, not from the Right.

So it's logical that that is where it has to shift to.

  • Malachi O'Doherty's biography of Gerry Adams will be published next year by Faber & Faber

Belfast Telegraph

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