Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: How Sinn Fein got into a spin over who to blame for the political vacuum

Republicans badly need a strategy to avoid censure for sabotaging the Stormont talks with pointless 'red lines', writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Being director of communications for Sinn Fein is simultaneously the hardest and easiest job in Northern Irish politics.

It's the hardest, because how many times can you be trotted out to put a positive spin on the party's latest own goal without becoming overwhelmed with embarrassment?

"Gerry said what? Please tell me you're joking. You're not?" (Sigh). "Okay, leave it to me, I'll see what I can do."

It's the easiest job, meanwhile, because the answer to every crisis is invariably the same. You either blame the unionists, blame the two governments, or blame the media.

It's just a question of playing a quick game of rock, paper, scissors in the office to decide which one gets the nod each time.

It's safe to say that Ciaran Quinn, who currently holds the position of republican publicity guru, is not having the best time of it in that respect.

First came a swathe of internal allegations about a toxic culture of bullying in the party.

Then the attack on the Dublin government's recent budget was totally overshadowed by a silly row about the price of a bottle of wine.

No sooner had that been put to bed than the Press team was dealing with a leak suggesting the ard chomhairle had intervened to stop the party's Stormont figurehead, Michelle O'Neill, cutting a deal with the DUP's Arlene Foster to restore power-sharing.

As for the polls, they're not looking good, either. Latest figures down south show Sinn Fein trailing way behind the two main establishment parties, on whose voters republicans have long set their greedy sights. The Republic is turning out to be a harder-than-expected nut to crack.

Clearly, the impression of intransigence and incompetence which has settled on Sinn Fein since needlessly collapsing the Executive in January is taking its toll.

What to do? Sinn Fein called in the communications cavalry and Ciaran Quinn hit back with a column in the latest edition of An Phoblacht, where he claims that talks "have been blown off course by the constant media spin by the two governments".

There you have it. It's not Sinn Fein's insistence on a stand-alone Irish Language Act and legislation on same-sex marriage, despite the fact that, this time last year, it was in government without either being in prospect.

It's not even the DUP's refusal to budge an inch on those issues. Indeed, it was remarkable that there wasn't a single criticism of Mrs Foster's party in that article.

Instead, all the blame was being shifted towards London and Dublin. And that's no exaggeration. Noting that days have been lost to dealing with allegations about the ard chomhairle pulling the plug on a possible deal and that this was damaging the political process, Quinn insisted that "all of this was due to media spin by government politicians and their handlers". Not some. Not most. All of it.

Talk about ingratitude.

Since taking up his new job before the summer, Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, has been bending over backwards to make excuses for Sinn Fein's stubbornness.

The Taoiseach, despite some clumsy comments about the size of a majority needed to bring about a united Ireland, has also been hanging tough on Brexit in ways only calculated to irritate Westminster. Unappreciative to the end, Sinn Fein still went for Dublin's jugular.

Does the party have a grand plan? Or is it just panicking right now? Ciaran Quinn's bizarre article in An Phoblacht suggests the latter.

Because it was bizarre, no question about that. A communications director is supposed to be the one who keeps his head while all around are losing theirs. This was more of an "everything but the kitchen sink" affair, as Quinn threw all he had into a desperate attempt to prove that Sinn Fein has done nothing wrong.

He even compared the British Government's reluctant pledge to take back control of the local budget to the Spanish government's belligerent threats to Catalonia, before claiming (in reference to those reports about the ard chomhairle vetoing a deal) that "in truly Kafkaesque fashion, Sinn Fein was being asked to prove that God doesn't exist - an impossible task".

It was as if he just kept piling up grievances in the hope that the collective effect would hypnotise his audience into forgetting one crucial, inconvenient truth: namely, that progress in talks is entirely in Sinn Fein's hands.

There are only Sinn Fein and the DUP in the room, as the Ulster Unionists' Doug Beattie points out. Everyone else is being shut out.

If you don't want to give an impression of intransigence, don't be intransigent. Simple.

Sinn Fein runs one of the largest media management operations in these, or any other, islands. That it is losing the PR war is not evidence that it's being outmanoeuvred by a sneaky rival dirty tricks campaign. It's simply proof that people are not dumb. They can recognise a lame excuse when they hear one.

That's what's making Ciaran Quinn and his army of under-pressure Press office underlings so desperate.

Sinn Fein collapsed the Assembly in January, demanding Arlene's head on a plate. That seems to have gone by the wayside. Instead, it tried to turn the stand-off into a crusade for minority language and gay rights.

As it becomes increasingly clear that it simply doesn't have sufficient interest in restoring the devolved institutions, it's now about avoiding the blame for the collapse of talks when it happens. The party just hasn't figured out a coherent strategy for doing so yet.

In its place is one bit of crisis management after another, like political Whack-A-Mole. This reactive, rather than active, approach never suits Sinn Fein. The party is a much better operator when on the front, rather than the back, foot.

Ciaran Quinn's railing against reality shows a party which is normally so sure-footed losing control of events. The problem is that it has helped create a situation so dire that direct rule is no longer the bogeyman it needs it to be.

At this stage, it might come as a relief to many in Northern Ireland, who just want to know that someone is making decisions about things that matter.

It could be worse. Sinn Fein spokespersons have had to defend much worse in the past, but no amount of eccentric waffling about Kafka and God and Catalonia can hide the obvious floundering.

Needing forward momentum, Sinn Fein has, instead, become becalmed in a sea of its own making.

A communications director cannot fix that.

Skilled politicians can sell any deal, but even the best advertising wizards will struggle without having an actual product to bring to market.

Belfast Telegraph

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