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Republican attempts to ride two horses at once cut no ice with sceptical unionist voters

Michelle O’Neill and Peter Doran represent a new generation, but old questions remain, says Nelson McCausland.

There have been significant comings-and-goings in the ranks of Sinn Fein. Michelle O’Neill has been moved up and Dr Peter Doran has been moved in and Jennifer McCann has already gone. Sinn Fein can be extremely opaque, but the changes help us to understand what is going on at the heart of Irish republicanism.

Dr Peter Doran is a native of Donegal and now a law lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast.

His profile on the Sinn Fein website makes no mention of his previous Green Party membership, but rather describes him as “a life-long activist on peace issues”. Most people will find it strange that a “life-long peace activist” is standing for a party that glorified decades of terrorism.

Many Sinn Fein politicians have a background in the Provisional IRA and that gives them an authority within the party.

That doesn’t apply to Peter Doran and indicates that Sinn Fein are trying to broaden their base and their appeal.

A university lecturer may appear more acceptable in some areas than a former terrorist.

But this is hard to handle. When Dr Doran was asked to condemn the IRA murder of Edgar Graham, who had also been a law lecturer at Queen’s, he declined to do so.

And that illustrates the problem of trying to ride two horses — trying to reach new voters and, at the same time, hold on to the core republican base.

He expressed “sorrow”, but he can’t condemn an IRA murder while, at the same time, Michelle O’Neill turns up in Clonoe to eulogise the organisation that carried out that murder.

What is the credibility of a university law lecturer who can’t condemn a murder?

Meanwhile, Michelle O’Neill was hand-picked by Gerry Adams and installed as the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland.

There are similarities to the Sinn Fein vice-president, Mary Lou McDonald TD, in that Michelle and Mary Lou are both women in their forties and neither of them has had any involvement in the IRA. But there is a major difference.

Here, Adams was probably faced with a choice between Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy and the choice of O’Neill is understandable. Murphy, as a convicted IRA terrorist, would be an easy target for unionists.

Unionists would also point to the tribunal that found him guilty of discrimination and then ask if that is what Sinn Fein means by equality.

But Adams knows very well that a northern version of Mary Lou would not carry the clout required for a northern republican leader. Mary Lou started out in Fianna Fail and does not have the republican pedigree of Michelle O’Neill.

She suits the Irish Republic, where Sinn Fein see opportunities for growth, but northern republicanism requires someone with a harder republican edge. Michelle O’Neill fits that bill.

Certainly, there will be some changes in personnel and that is mainly about succession-planning and the need to strengthen their Assembly team.

There has been criticism of their performance by nationalist commentators and grassroots republicans. Adams will hope that the changes will enable them to up their game.

Indeed, the first change was made on December 6, before Christmas and before an election was called. Jennifer McCann, who served a prison sentence for shooting a police officer, left and was replaced by Orlaithi Flynn, a 29-year-old with a Master’s degree in politics. The first important fact here is that, while she was not in the IRA, her father was a veteran republican.

The second — and equally important — fact is the date, which could suggest that Sinn Fein were already getting prepared to force an election.

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