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Eilis O'Hanlon: Sinn Fein actually doesn't care about getting women elected... it only cares about getting republicans elected

New West Tyrone MP Orfhlaith Begley has promised to 'reach out with an open hand' to unionists; whether that's anything more than empty rhetoric remains to be seen. By Eilis O'Hanlon


New MP Orfhlaith Begley, Sinn Fein, centre, with party leaders Michelle O’Neill, left, and Mary-Lou McDonald at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone

New MP Orfhlaith Begley, Sinn Fein, centre, with party leaders Michelle O’Neill, left, and Mary-Lou McDonald at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

New MP Orfhlaith Begley, Sinn Fein, centre, with party leaders Michelle O’Neill, left, and Mary-Lou McDonald at the count centre in Omagh Leisure Centre, Co Tyrone

Orfhlaith Begley, the new MP for West Tyrone, is the first woman ever elected to represent the constituency. Anyone who isn't aware of that fact yet really can't have been paying attention. Sinn Fein hasn't stopped going on about it since Thursday's by election, caused by the resignation of Barry McElduff after posing with a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head on the anniversary of the IRA massacre of 10 Protestants in the Co Armagh village of the same name.

One would think that Orfhlaith Begley had struck a decisive blow for women's rights, like Suffragette Emily Davison flinging herself under the king's horse at the Derby, rather than having taken the safest of safe seats for Sinn Fein, and that on a reduced majority too.

West Tyrone has only existed as a constituency since 1997, when Begley was already in school, so it's not as if she's had to overcome centuries of patriarchal oppression to wrestle the seat from male hands.

Nor, for that matter, did self-styled feminists in Sinn Fein ever get this excited when the DUP's Iris Robinson became the first female MP for Strangford, or Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP the first woman to represent South Down in 2010, or Alliance's Naomi Long overcame the then leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, to sit in Westminster as the first female MP for East Belfast following in the footsteps of seven male incumbents since the constituency was recreated in 1922.

Sinn Fein never got out the bunting for them, because it doesn't actually care about women being elected. It only cares about getting other republicans elected. Crowing about the composition of one particular candidate's chromosomes is just a sleight of hand to make its obedient voters feel all warm and righteous inside, like Michelle O'Neill describing herself, nauseatingly, as "a wee girl from Clonoe".

Indeed, with all due respect to Begley, it would have been a greater achievement had she managed to lose West Tyrone. She went into the seat defending a 10,000 votes majority. Sinn Fein could have put a rosette on a tortoise in that constituency and still romped home.

As shocks go, her win was right up there with Cyprus giving "douze points" to Greece at Eurovision.

What's significant about Orfhlaith Begley is not that she's a woman, but that she's a 26-year-old solicitor.

That's the story of republican politics in Northern Ireland in a nutshell. It's about the transformation of republicanism from a grass roots working class movement to a comfortable middle class career.

Begley studied politics and law at Queens University in Belfast, and has worked since as a solicitor in Portadown.

Not so long ago, this would have fitted the profile of people who were the backbone of the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein.

Gradually the edges are being smoothed off the republican movement, making it a safe home for property-owning professionals. It's another example of how a generation of Catholics used education as a route out of second class citizenship into prosperity and influence. Never mind the IRA, it was good A-level results that brought about change.

The same road is open to less privileged members of the Protestant community too, and taking it would have a far more advantageous benefit to unionism than tweeting racial insults at the Taoiseach.

Of course, Begley's ascension to the big time is also a testament to the persistence of dynastic influence in Northern Irish politics. Her father, Sean, was a Sinn Fein councillor for 26 years, and one-time chairman, on Omagh District Council. These sorts of connections definitely help, and not only in Sinn Fein.

Begley cannot be blamed for that. She's worked tirelessly in local politics, and probably didn't expect her chance at a seat to come so soon. It wouldn't have done had Barry McElduff managed to stop clowning about for five minutes.

Whether it marks as much of a dynamic, forward-looking change as Sinn Fein wants people to believe is another matter. Begley is more of a blank slate than the older generation of republicans, whose experience was on the streets rather than the lecture halls at Queens; but the message hasn't changed, and having it now presented by young, attractive, personable candidates with no baggage simply makes it easier to sell an unacceptable creed, sanitising the IRA "war" in retrospect.

Her pledge after being elected was that she wants to "reach out with an open hand in friendship to our unionist neighbours", saying: "I will work to seek resolutions rather than recrimination. I will work to build bridges." It's a pretty slogan. Whether it's anything more than empty rhetoric remains to be seen.

The most famous shot of Begley at last week's election count was when the returning officer declared that she was duly elected as MP for the area.

She was flanked for that announcement by two other women, party president Mary Lou McDonald and her deputy Michelle O'Neill, both of whom still robustly defend the reputation of a terrorist organisation which killed hundreds of people in the community to whom Begley now extends the hand of friendship.

Mary Lou may have called Northern Ireland's second city by the contentious name of "Londonderry" recently, and that wasn't nothing.

But in January she also attended a memorial service in Castlewellan, Co Down, to an IRA man who blew himself up with his own bomb whilst trying to murder members of the RUC in 1972. It was one of her first acts as Gerry Adams' anointed leader.

For her part, Michelle O'Neill has made something of a habit of turning up at IRA commemorations, and, in her first online interview as Martin McGuinness' successor as Sinn Fein leader at Stormont, made mention only of the deaths which republicans had suffered, not those they had inflicted. Whilst not being wholly responsible by any means for the failure to get Stormont back up and running, both women have also played their part in putting up obstacles to the return of devolution.

Words are lovely, but it's actions that ultimately matter.

The outcome may never have been in doubt, but if there is one positive sign to take from last Thursday's by election, it's that Sinn Fein and the DUP - the parties which have frustrated the popular will to make power-sharing work - both saw a reduction in their vote, whilst the Ulster Unionists, Alliance, and, most notably, the SDLP's Daniel McCrossan, another twenty-something law graduate, all saw increased support.

The bump in their numbers is a long way from being significant enough to revolutionise the overall grim picture, but tiny encouragements are sometimes the best that can be hoped for in Northern Ireland.

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