Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Moderates should beware, it's not in Sinn Fein's nature to be generous for long

John Finucane was victorious for Sinn Fein in North Belfast
John Finucane was victorious for Sinn Fein in North Belfast
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Northern Ireland has given the world many great things, from hot chocolate to the penalty kick. On Thursday night, it made history for a different reason, namely the first MP who has ever been elected after refusing to condemn a murder attempt on his rival.

It would be impossible to overstate how much Sinn Fein needed John Finucane to win against the DUP's Nigel Dodds.

It has not been a great year for the party. There were disastrous results in the Republic's local and European elections earlier in the summer and poll showings have been consistently poor.

Now, following on from a recent by-election victory in Dublin, North Belfast has given the party another early Christmas present.

Even leaving aside Brexit, it is not rocket science to understand why Finucane won. The DUP is as much of a bogeyman to moderate nationalists as Sinn Fein is to moderate unionists. The chance to oust Nigel Dodds was too tempting to resist.

In a divided society, such feelings are only natural, even among those who would normally have no love for Sinn Fein. Moderate nationalists who voted for John Finucane on Thursday did not do so because they have been dangerously radicalised. They just wanted the DUP to receive a humbling.

Tactical voting may have had little effect in the rest of the UK, but it seems to have been embraced with enthusiasm in Northern Ireland, which makes it tricky for Sinn Fein to take away one grand overarching lesson from this election.

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Widely varying swings in different constituencies sent back different messages. People were not voting as rumps, they were making local decisions.

Sinn Fein would be foolish to ignore, though, that its vote is down across the whole of Northern Ireland, even in West Belfast, and spectacularly so in Foyle, where the SDLP's Colum Eastwood secured a huge personal, as well as party, endorsement. Voters clearly want devolution back.

While republicans can in no way claim the overall picture as a triumph, that probably won't stop them trying to do so anyway. There are now more nationalist than unionist MPs for the first time. Sinn Fein will be seeking to claim as much credit for, and gain as much advantage from, that seismic political shift as it can.

The emergence of a revived pan-nationalist front has been evident in so-called "civic nationalism" for a while. Now, it's shifted dramatically over into politics, too.

At this election, the Taoiseach, who is leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party, effectively endorsed Colum Eastwood, whose SDLP made an electoral pact with Sinn Fein, which Leo Varadkar still insists is unfit for government in Dublin. His main opposition rival in the Dail, Fianna Fail, is equally hostile to Sinn Fein, but ended up as part of a strategy which handed North Belfast to republicans. These contradictions will make both parties less able to take the moral high ground against Sinn Fein during the next election down south.

In that respect, Mary Lou McDonald's party has been detoxified to an extent that they could not have hoped for until relatively recently and seems to be enjoying the cessation of hostilities.

As results rolled in through the early hours of Friday, the online love-in between nationalists of various hues was remarkable. Never have such nice words been said about the SDLP by diehard Provos. How long it lasts is the question.

In this election, a hatred for Brexit brought nationalists together. It suited Sinn Fein to come in under that umbrella and, right now, they appear largely willing to share the victory with other pro-Remainers, allowing a collective win for the opponents of Brexit to mask an otherwise disappointing night for the party.

But there are already some signs that this consensus might not survive a hard winter. The SDLP manifesto was direct and focused. Its title was: Stop Boris, Stop Brexit. The Sinn Fein manifesto was equally unambiguous, but with a different slogan: Time For Unity.

Some in the party, such as Paul Maskey, who was returned as MP for West Belfast, are already pushing that harder, more partisan message by claiming this election, even with a shrunken Sinn Fein vote, as a mandate for a border poll.

If they're not careful, moderate nationalists could find themselves quickly reduced to bit players in Sinn Fein's reunification drama once again, especially with an election in the Republic expected within months.

Sinn Fein will want to maximise its chances in that poll by exploiting the current fluid political situation in Northern Ireland.

It's not in their nature to be generous for long and, with all eyes turning to the Assembly in the coming months, the mutual backslapping could soon give way again to a more ferocious fight for nationalist hearts and minds.

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