For too long they have sat at the back as others made big calls
The thinking is that middle grounders in the North, who will be needed to carry such a vote, don’t want to be governed by Sinn Féin, so they would be spooked by Mary Lou McDonald becoming Taoiseach.
This middle ground is crucial. It is, presumably, people who vote for Alliance and the smaller parties, people who are so unconcerned about national identity that they might vote either way, depending on the circumstances of the time. One of those circumstances might be a smaller UK led by Boris Johnson or his like.
So if a Sinn Féin Taoiseach might tilt such people towards the Union, a Conservative government in London, particularly one that is rampaging through the NHS and the BBC and oblivious to Irish sensitivities, might tilt them in the other.
I can only speak for myself in that I imagine myself to be a middle-grounder. I might vote for a united Ireland. I am sure I will get the chance in the next 10 years or so, and I might vote to stay in the UK. I am sure there are others like me who will not be driven by sentimental notions of identity, who don’t need constitutional affirmation of their identity anyway.
Sinn Féin is doing all it can in the south to demonstrate that it is a responsible party ready for government but the two big clouds over its credibility are its retrospective endorsement of the Provisional IRA campaign and its ‘democratic centralism’. It appears that even members elected to parliaments do not determine party policy, but that this is handed down.
This calculation of Beattie’s suggests that unionists should not fear the rise of Sinn Féin down there.
This is one of the little paradoxes that arise in democratic politics.
Another one faces the Labour party in Westminster. Would the survival of Boris Johnson be a good or a bad thing for them?
Keir Starmer’s job in politics is to confront and belittle the leader of the Conservatives, whoever that happens to be. But what about a leader who is damaging that party and deflating its future electoral prospects? Is such a leader not a gift to Labour, much as a Sinn Féin Taoiseach would be a gift to unionism?
Micheál Martin was asked if it wouldn’t be a good thing for southern politics if Sinn Féin was to win an election, show its true colours, make a haims of governing and then get wiped out in a future election.
He said that would be jeopardising the welfare of the country to make a political point and he wouldn’t want to risk that.
He will have read the Sinn Féin budget proposal on their website and seen how much money the party expects to spend. It is in danger of making the same mistake that Jeremy Corbyn made, promising more than the electorate can find plausible.
Ironically, voters who thought Corbyn too profligate with public money, didn’t foresee how much the Tories would have to spend to manage Covid. Imagine if Johnson had said in 2019 that he planned to send everyone home from work and pay them most of their wages if they couldn’t carry on with their jobs from their living rooms.
Big spending turned out to be a lot easier than anyone anticipated.
But there wasn’t much of a middle ground in England in 2019. The country was horrifically divided over Brexit and voted for Boris’s oven ready deal in preference to the nationalisation of the railways and a host of other goodies.
This suggests to me that middle grounders should be more assertive.
It’s all very well having a few academics writing for the Economist or the New Statesman about fiscal viability or whatever, but if there is a vision available to us of an equal and healthy society that doesn’t fret about identity then it would help if middle grounders were as passionate about that as the extremes are about their unnerving visions.
Take sectarianism. Our whole political culture just assumes that it will always be with us. Or it will gently whither away as sensible young people grow older and demand better.
And some of the most sectarian forces in our society claim not to be sectarian at all. Old IRA men will say they had nothing against the Protestants they shot. Old loyalists will say they were only defending the Union.
The Catholic school system claims it is only looking after the spiritual welfare of its young and not intentionally laying down a fault line right through society.
And unionists will say we just want good government but you’re not really one of us if you don’t stand for the Queen and the flag.
Isn’t there a riposte to all of this, a naming of sectarianism for what it is? A middle ground that isn’t just sensible and patient but downright assertive?
Doug Beattie is probably right to gloat a little at the prospect of Sinn Féin damaging its own project by growing so big and strong without disowning the IRA that it scares sensible people away.
Keir Starmer must be enjoying the sight of Johnson crumbling into insignificance. But thriving on the failures of others is no sort of political ambition when there is work to be done.