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Jon Tonge: Whisper it, but Sinn Fein could be happy with victory for Boris Johnson


Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill

Michelle O'Neill

Sinn Fein's ard fheis this weekend will be a mixture of excitement and nervousness.

Major political change looms, with the possibility of a significant shift towards Irish economic unity. But several potentially tricky election contests are about to unfold. Foyle, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, North Belfast - and Michelle O'Neill versus John O'Dowd.

As the delegates assemble in Londonderry, they might be forgiven for privately having mixed feelings about a Boris Johnson election victory.

Brexit may be anathema to a party which has now been pro-EU for two decades, not that you would always think so, reading some of the critical material in An Phoblacht. Yet a Boris Brexit might be functional for Sinn Fein's overarching Irish unity project.

For what Johnson proposes in terms of an all-Ireland economy arguably advances the cause of Irish unity more effectively than the abstention, armed struggle and episodic participation which have characterised republican tactics over the years.

All-Ireland regulation of goods? Tick. An All-Ireland customs regime, even if Northern Ireland formally remains with the UK's? Tick. Goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland treated as exports not internal trade, if likely to head onwards to the EU? Tick. Unionists apoplectic about what they see as the marginalisation of Northern Ireland within the UK? Tick.

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Whilst Sinn Fein would never publicly admit the functionality of a British Tory election triumph, whisper it, but it might be far from disastrous for the Sinn Fein project. Northern Ireland's prospective closer alignment to Ireland and the EU, in terms of economic rules at least, could generate profound constitutional implications.

The unionist-leaning or neutral business classes may come to appreciate economic unification so much that the European Union, not the one between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is their favoured alignment.


John Finucane, Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Michelle Gildernew

John Finucane, Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Michelle Gildernew

Getty Images

John Finucane, Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill and Michelle Gildernew

With Irish unity no longer seen as threatening, they might conceivably vote in favour of such in the border poll which will surely eventually come.

Unionists are certainly alive to the danger. As the DUP acknowledged at its recent conference session on New Generation Unionism, a successful defence of the UK Union needs to find support for it beyond those backing unionist parties.

Before we get to all this though, there is the small matter of Sinn Fein's own battle for Vice-President between Michelle O'Neill and John O'Dowd. There has been more republican election canvassing on the Shankill than there has from either of these two candidates, in a strange, silent contest.

Candidature yes; campaigning no - a phantom election. Given that neither candidate has been able to articulate their particular party prospectus, the purpose of the ballot is unclear.

O'Dowd was encouraged to stand and has a few big-name backers but taking part was a bold move in a party which does not encourage such prominent contests.

That is not to say there have not been robust debates over the years - abortion policy, for starters - but the policies, not the personnel, have been the matters at stake.

Immediately beyond the conference hall, a much noisier contest will be taking place, for the votes of Foyle constituents.


John O’Dowd is hoping to replace Michelle O’Neill as vice president (Liam McBurney/PA)

John O’Dowd is hoping to replace Michelle O’Neill as vice president (Liam McBurney/PA)

PA Wire/PA Images

John O’Dowd is hoping to replace Michelle O’Neill as vice president (Liam McBurney/PA)

The contest in 2017 was fraught, the SDLP pointing accusing fingers at the big growth in proxy voting in republican wards and Sinn Fein suggesting sour grapes as the party finally captured the SDLP's citadel.

Given the rules of election coverage, Sinn Fein will not get free BBC airtime in Northern Ireland for Mary Lou McDonald's presidential speech on Saturday night, although RTE will cover the speech.

Perhaps party supporters not in attendance will watch Northern Ireland versus Holland instead. Perhaps.

Sinn Fein has travelled a long way politically since the first ard fheis I attended as an observer (1996) when "alternative" decision-making structures were in place.

Its politics have become more normalised and the party has had to contend with criticism from republican hardliners, some active in the city in which the party assembles for its conference.

One policy not up for debate is the one about which many people have been fixated, abstention from Westminster.

There is no internal appetite for change and no prospect of the required two-thirds majority being found to alter the policy.

There are many within Sinn Fein who see abstention as a fundamental republican principle.

Others, like Mitchel McLaughlin, honoured by the party this weekend for his political service, have long stated that the core reason is because there is no strategic value in going to Westminster.

Rather like Stormont then. McLaughlin told me this nearly two decades ago, so the principle versus tactic difference is hardly new. The sum of those parts though, is the status quo.

Sinn Fein swearing an oath of allegiance to a UK monarch is not going to happen. The real question is whether the party can perform well enough at the election to stop the SDLP doing so instead.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the DUP and UU

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