It’s a sign of how little political movement usually exists in Sinn Fein when the deselection of an unremarkable MLA is treated like a minor earthquake.
Coming on top of the party giving Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan their marching orders in Foyle, the decision to drop Emma Rogan in South Down is being portrayed by some as a purge.
The party is in dire need of a shake-up on this side of the border. Its personnel on Assembly benches pale into insignificance in comparison to the talent on display in the Dail.
Conor Murphy and Deirdre Hargey are very capable ministers. John O’Dowd is by far Sinn Fein’s most impressive performer in Stormont.
He can think on his feet and comes across as more his own man than some colleagues. Too many others appear to be robotically reading from a script prepared centrally by the party.
Colm Gildernew has been an accomplished chair of the Health Committee. Why Sinn Fein haven’t made more use of him out front with media during this pandemic is baffling.
Pat Sheehan has ruffled a few feathers in other parties, but he’s always worth listening to.
Many of the others are just nondescript. Some were perhaps selected for that very reason, but it’s also a reflection of a party culture which doesn’t encourage its elected representatives to show independence or personality.
The firm grip of Sinn Fein centrally is always felt. No other party operates day-to-day in a manner that curtails the individual freedom of its representatives as much as Mary Lou McDonald’s.
The old Adams-McGuinness ways still survive in Sinn Fein. Of course the iron discipline means fewer embarrassing leaks, or rows making the headlines. The spat over Martina Anderson’s removal is a rarity. Normally, internal tensions remain behind closed doors.
But not allowing its representatives to breathe, and develop a measure of independence, disadvantages Sinn Fein at a time when the SDLP has upped its game, and has allowed the profile of its individual MLAs to grow. John Finucane remains the only stand-out addition to the party’s ranks in recent years. The fact that he built a successful professional career and then moved into politics means he is more sure-footed in his contributions than others who, having been merely promoted through the ranks, are less autonomous.
Veteran Sean Lynch is not running again in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In South Down, Emma Rogan is being replaced by Councillor Cathy Mason. It’s a constituency Sinn Fein can’t take for granted.
Chris Hazzard won it from Margaret Ritchie in 2017, but the SDLP closed the gap in 2019 when they were 1,500 votes behind. There has been talk of its high-profile South Belfast MLA Matthew O’Toole, whose uncle owned the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, running there in the next Westminster election.
The competition within nationalism is clearly every bit as fierce as it is among unionists across the political divide.