Belfast Telegraph

Why Sinn Fein needs to forget about unity and focus on Brexit

The party is lost in a sea of policy initiatives and it needs to change tack, says Eilis O'Hanlon

It's like Santa's Grotto at Sinn Fein headquarters at the moment. They're producing policy initiatives faster than the elves in the workshop are churning out PlayStations.

One day it's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness unveiling a new consultation document on "reconciliation" while sulking because unionists won't join in with his fantasies about a united Ireland.

Next day it's Gerry Adams pledging that the Orange Order would have official recognition in the event of all-island reunification - though was that ever in doubt?

What were the Shinners planning to do previously - make it a proscribed organisation? Only someone as out of touch with reality as Gerry could make it sound like a generous concession to allow his opponents to exist at all.

In the past few days Sinn Fein has even begun calling for a united Ireland football team, presumably in the belief that, where 30 years of terrorism didn't work, the prospect of getting a bit further in the World Cup might.

Well, you can't blame them for trying. It's not as if they have many better arguments for unity.

Partly, this is another outburst of post-Brexit silliness. After the vote in June Sinn Fein convinced itself that a united Ireland was just around the corner and that it had better start making preparations for it in double-quick time.

As the Scottish Nationalists are also discovering, it's not quite that straightforward - and it certainly isn't inevitable.

Wanting to stay in one political and economic union is not the same as wanting to face life outside another one; but nationalists on either side of the northern stretch of the Irish Sea suddenly fancied that they were on the brink of fulfilling their lifelong ambition for independence from Westminster.

They started to sound like former Liberal Party leader David Steel, who, in the aftermath of his party's alliance with the newly-formed Social Democratic Party once famously told members at the party conference: "Return to your constituencies and prepare for Government."

Sinn Fein has taken to urging its supporters in similarly excitable fashion: "Return to your cumanns and prepare for Irish unification."

The disappointment may be immense when they realise that it ain't happening. In fact, there may even be a good argument right now for letting it have its precious border poll, as only a resounding No will be sufficient to prove to it that Brexit has not progressed it as far along that road as it naively hoped. Whether it'd get the message even then is debatable. Sinn Fein is good at avoiding facts.

What this flurry of fanciful proposals and hare-brained schemes really masks is a profound malaise in the heart of the republican team at Stormont as to precisely what it's doing there.

What, for example, is Martin McGuinness for? What does he do?

As he hosts another pointless Press conference, launching some equally pointless new policy document on "peace-building" and moaning that republicans' supposedly grand gestures on reconciliation are not being reciprocated - as if shaking the hand of the Queen makes him the Bogside's answer to Martin Luther King - the Deputy First Minister looks increasingly irrelevant.

It's not like being Vice-President in the United States. Were, God forbid, something to happen to Arlene Foster tomorrow that rendered her incapable of carrying out her duties, her place would be taken not by McGuinness, but by DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, just as Arlene replaced Peter Robinson.

Being the Deputy First Minister is nothing but a consolation prize, even if a careful illusion is maintained that the office he shares with the First Minister is a 50/50 enterprise.

It was probably knowing this that made McGuinness run off to seek the Irish Presidency in 2011.

This latest "izzy whizzy, let's get busy" act from Sinn Fein looks like more of the same displacement activity to hide the fact that all the moves right now are being made by the DUP woman and that its man just seems to be a passenger who's come along for the ride.

Nowhere has his toothlessness been more cruelly exposed than over that lovely chap Dee Stitt. McGuinness has asked the loyalist leader to "reconsider" his position as head of Charter NI, which has £1.7m of public funds to distribute in east Belfast.

He could have come out and demanded an end to the dodgy allocation of so much public money to even dodgier organisations and individuals; but he can't do that, because that would upset Sinn Fein's own legion of dodgy fronts, which all have their greasy hands in the till, too.

So, McGuinness is reduced to insisting all is well with the Social Investment Fund when it clearly isn't, while issuing feeble calls to Stitt to do the decent thing. Why should he? No one seems inclined to make him.

Suddenly, even SDLP grandee Alban Maginness is having a go at the Deputy First Minister for his "embarrassing position" on this issue. When the SDLP thinks you're looking foolishly weak, too, it has to hurt. It's like being told by X Factor contestant Honey G that you can't sing.

So, what better way to distract the republican home crowd than with some conjurer's cheap tricks? Don't look at that hand, look at this one.

Don't mention my ineffectiveness on a range of issues which actually matter, look at all these things I'm saying and doing about something that doesn't matter in the slightest.

It's not as if there aren't plenty of things Sinn Fein could be doing to pass the time between its beloved elections.

Instead of worrying about what banner future footballers should be playing under, how about coming up with some concrete proposals as to how farmers and manufacturers and small businesses in Northern Ireland are meant to cope with the serious consequences of Brexit?

Unfortunately, when Sinn Fein had the chance to do so, at the Taoiseach's all-Ireland forum on the matter, it skipped the chance to make a positive contribution in preference for blaring out slogans about Irish unity.

Arlene Foster should have gone, if only to listen to the concerns of the business community; but at least she didn't turn up and start singing God Save The Queen.

Sinn Fein manages to turn everything into the same 'Four Green Fields' pantomime; and if it thinks anyone is fooled that this is a sign of strength rather than weakness, it is sadly mistaken.

One concrete proposal on economic growth would be worth a hundred policy documents about who gets what after Irish reunification.

Irish unity isn't coming soon, but Brexit is. Is Sinn Fein content to let Arlene Foster call the shots on that, too?

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