Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Sinn Fein all for accountability and transparency ... er ... except when it comes to its own elections

Vice-presidential race was a missed opportunity to prove that the leopard has - finally - changed its spots, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Michelle O'Neill, Elisha McCallion and John Finucane lark around in front of a Derry Girls mural at the weekend
Michelle O'Neill, Elisha McCallion and John Finucane lark around in front of a Derry Girls mural at the weekend
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The American actor Tim Matheson played the role of the US vice-president in the TV show West Wing, but he was under no illusions that his character was anything more than a minor cog in the White House machinery.

"Vice-president is the bridesmaid," he said. "Nobody wants you. You're just in the way. You're there to play a subsidiary role. You're like the middle child, or the poor relation."

If Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd is looking for consolation after failing to unseat Michelle O'Neill as the party's vice-president at this weekend's ard fheis, let that be it. The deputy leadership of any political party isn't much of a job. Some don't even bother having one.

Being second-in-command in Sinn Fein carries even less prestige, because no one actually believes the puppets who are dangled in front of the electorate as the acceptable face of Irish republicanism are pulling their own strings.

Even Gerry Adams's successor as president, Mary Lou McDonald, isn't her own woman, as was proven last year when she was quickly hauled back into line after suggesting that now wasn't the best time for a border poll.

If Mary Lou isn't free to steer the party in the direction that she thinks best, how much less meaningful is the title of vice-president? That might explain why members were apparently content for Michelle O'Neill, who has hardly shone in the role since taking over from McDonald herself in 2017, to continue doing, well, whatever it is that she does.

It may also be why the contest was the dampest of squibs. The announcement that O'Neill had seen off her challenger was even slipped in by Belfast's Alex Maskey between speakers on Saturday, as if he was apologetically interrupting a game of bingo at the local church hall to ask the owner of a particular car to move it because it was blocking the exit.

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The audience, an obedient lot, applauded dutifully, but it was a curiously undramatic moment.

Sinn Fein hasn't even revealed by precisely how much O'Neill won. No other party would get away with keeping its own members in the dark in this way.

That Sinn Fein simultaneously preaches to others about openness only makes the situation more farcical.

"We propose absolute accountability and transparency in government," the party insists in its statement of principles.

But not, it would seem, in its own backyard.

This might be the way raffles are run in republican drinking dens, with the best prizes divvied up between the favoured few, but it hardly befits a process to elect senior leadership positions. Even many loyal republicans think the vice-presidential race was a missed opportunity to prove the leopard has changed its spots.

Sinn Fein has never been a party which conducts its business in the light of the sun. Decisions are taken behind closed doors.

This could have marked an emblematic change. Instead, there were no hustings and John O'Dowd didn't give a single media interview during the whole contest. How were ordinary members meant to know what the rival candidates were offering?

O'Neill said after her victory that it "campaigned internally", but it gave an obvious boost to the incumbent that her rival, a former, well-regarded, education minister at Stormont, was effectively turned into the Invisible Man.

For those who expected Sinn Fein to change following the departure of Gerry Adams, this contest has been a reality check; but it does sum up the party's difficulty at this particular point in history.

Republicans' confidence should be high, as Brexit energises the push towards Irish unity. Underneath it all, they're lacking drive and direction.

Even the commencement of the General Election campaign has failed to rouse them, with the exception of North Belfast, where John Finucane has high hopes of taking the seat from the DUP's Nigel Dodds.

They're not alone in that listlessness. So far, it's been a soporific campaign all round. The posters are up and candidates are knocking on doors, but it hasn't really taken off yet.

It could be election weariness, with Northern Ireland having been dragged to the polls many times in recent years. Or it could be that Sinn Fein just hasn't worked out how best to respond to a fluid political situation that may still have some unexpected twists and turns to come.

The accepted narrative was that it was Gerry Adams who was holding back Sinn Fein's rise and that, once he retired, the party's anti-austerity, anti-Brexit message would strike a chord with younger voters tired of established politics.

Instead, Mary Lou McDonald has had a disappointing start to her tenure as leader.

It has lost a raft of MEPs and local councillors in the Republic. The next Dail election - expected within six months - will likely leave her with more questions to answer.

That someone as capable and articulate as O'Dowd appears to have no future in the party will hardly encourage others to stay the course.

Some have already left to join Aontu, giving a voice to anti-abortion traditionalists who no longer feel welcome elsewhere.

It's not yet strong enough to make a significant dent in Sinn Fein's support, but votes cannot be taken for granted.

O'Dowd's immediate and gracious reaction to the loss suggests that he's going nowhere.

But neither is the party to which he belongs - and that's the real problem.

Sinn Fein is in a state of transition. The old hardline paramilitary model is no longer viable, however many times Martina Anderson MEP makes a spectacle of herself by shouting "Tiocfaidh ar la".

She was at it again at the ard fheis, like an eccentric aunt doing her party piece at a family get-together. So much for unionist outreach.

As long as it continues to daydream about a fictitious past, Sinn Fein can never move on and embrace a genuinely democratic alternative.

Mary Lou, in her keynote address, stressed that Sinn Fein was ready to enter government in Dublin, as long as an Irish unity referendum was on the table.

But it's hard to see how any party could do a deal with a movement that continues to act in this cloak-and-dagger way.

This was her third ard fheis as leader and these awkward reminders of the party's abnormality keep surfacing.

For a while, it looked as if Sinn Fein might be ready to knuckle down and concentrate on bread-and-butter politics, rather than grand constitutional rabble-rousing. Then along came Brexit to reignite the fixation with the border.

Until that issue is done and dusted, it's unlikely Sinn Fein will be able to decide what sort of party it wants to be in the long term.

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