Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? Sinn Fein, Part 1

Continuing on with Cleenish’s previous posts which can be read here, here and here, we are going to move on to Sinn Fein, the black sheep of politics on this island. Again, apologies for the delay with posting this, however, moving continents is never easy folks.

The party of militant republicanism, renowned for its organisation, energy and strict internal discipline. It has a reputation for strategic thinking and is widely believed/accepted that the party plans for the long-term with political calculations being made on this basis. Sometimes do you not wonder if these strategic abilities are a bit over-stated and that such a reputation may hide a multitude of errors and failures? I certainly do. It is also possible that the reputation may be reflective more of other parties focus on short-term tactical advantage rather than any great strength in strategic thinking on Sinn Féin’s part.

sf ard fheisWe shouldn’t therefore blithely assume a confidence in Sinn Féin’s abilities but rather critically analyse the approach & plans being adopted. They may, or may not, be effective and as a nationalist I am more concerned with the potential of actual outcomes.

For a long-time Sinn Féin was a single issue party, the issue being of course to end partition and British rule in Ireland. Whilst the party has broadened its scope and capabilities on other issues, the national question is still very much a central tenet. You would think therefore that of all the nationalist parties it would be best placed to produce a well thought out coherent strategy for advancing to that goal. Yet I for one have a lot of doubts.

With such a focus shouldn’t it be expected that as nationalists we’d have a sense of forward movement? Personally I have a gnawing sense that the strategic plan is not well founded and hasn’t been clearly explained or expounded upon. Tactically they have been found wanting on a number of topics, with the campaign for a border poll exposing the party for not thinking though the obvious questions and issues that would be thrown up by journalists. All very disappointing stuff.

The party certainly has a past, with members who have a history of violence or resistance, depending on how you want to view it. The past still induces a level of disdain, contempt, even hatred amongst members of the Irish media and of the intellectual/chattering classes. We have recently seen how the SPAD bill has spilled over into often ill-tempered exchanges between SF and the SDLP. What I find really disappointing is that many of these exchanges are between young people, with the past infecting the next of nationalist activists. (Although as an ordinary nationalist of a certain ‘age’ 😉 I have sometimes a shake head moment at the sometimes pious and righteous tone of some of the SDLP Youth). It would appear the past and the justification or otherwise of the IRA campaign, will be used as a political weapon. Looking back helps to inform our future but using the past to fight the present only leads to nationalist myopic thinking and essentially is self-defeating exercise.

It is difficult at times to see how the past can be overcome for the party; only time, a new generation of representatives such as the phil flanaganexcellent Phil Flannagan (that’s the Fermanagh bias showing 😉 ) and a nuanced message on the past may help address the ingrained negativity. What is clear though is that there is currently a glass ceiling, both north and south, that will limit Sinn Féin ambitions and potential to affect change. They may have reached their zenith in the north and in the south it is almost certain that the party will only ever be a minor party, at best the third party ahead of labour.

This provides the context within which to examine what seems to be the Sinn Féin strategy.

The party plays the political game with its cards very much close to its chest; it is hard to discern internal factions and the internal decision making process. It gives the impression of a team with a strong central policy making / strategic core. This concentration provides a focus and an ability to think on a longer timeframe. It also leaves the party open to misguided thinking and been overly influenced by a small group of individuals. Although at times the impressive Martin gives the impression lately of ruling the roost north of the border and sometimes you get the sense that he is at variance (or ahead) of others in the party in his attempts to allay the concerns of unionists.

The strategy would appear to have a number of different strands, namely;

  • Winning power (or influence) in both parts of the country, in order to effect change.
  • Learning from the SA experience on ‘healing’ the nation, as part of a process to open some unionist minds to a new Ireland
  • Waiting and relying on demographic change
  • Protecting the republican base from dissident encroachment

The first thought I have is that the idea of winning power on both parts of Ireland is now rarely mentioned or promoted by the party. A realisation perhaps of their limitations. You certainly do not hear of too many all-Ireland outcomes being delivered or being heavily promoted by Sinn Féin. The party itself seems content to have the North/South council assume a low (to non-existent) public profile. I find it strange that certain party individuals are more than happy to bask in the glow of Titanic Quarter/centenary, Jubilee, G8 and the promotion of vague ‘economic’ packages from the UK capital and make a great play of respecting PUL culture through facilitating marches, funds for bands, Nomadic and HMS Carline, the tolerance/promotion of multiple identities (Rory) and support (from some) for integrated education?

MMcGWhereas little is practically accomplished in the promotion of the Irish language, in promoting a sense of, and pride in, of Irish nationhood, in establishing Irish national outcomes and having practical expressions and recognition of the Irish identity in our part of the country.

Do you ever wonder why this is the case?

Has the party become complacent, given the lack of serious competition from the SDLP, and have slowly been seduced and distracted by the exercise of power (even if largely administrative power) or is all part of a deep long-term cunning plan?

We may all have our opinions as to the answers, my own take is that there is a mixture but the overall outcome is that party’s approach leaves the nationalist agenda open to manipulation/subversion by the ‘Agents of Change’ axis of  ‘letsgetalongerists’ and British/NIO.

It would appear that the Sinn Féin strategy has been very heavily influenced by the South African experience and allied to the belief that demographic change are in their favour, it is a strategy based on the premise that only a relatively small number of unionists need to be convinced that their future is best served in an all-Irish context. A basic assumption that history and demographics are on the side of Irish Nationalism & Republicanism. This basic 50+ gameplan is complimented by a programme of initiatives, messages and measures aimed at re-assuring the Unionist community on the full recognition of their traditions and identity. For the strategy to work it is vital to ensure that the PUL community is relaxed, comfortable, and not feeling under threat It is hoped that space is opened up within that community for a more open, progressive mindset capable of accepting the possibilities of a New Ireland.

On a negative perspective the party has to ensure that any potential/positive vote on a UI will not trigger a doomsday scenario for the PUL community, invariably leading to another cycle of violent confrontation in Ireland.

Perhaps one of the lessons that have been drawn from South Africa is that successful management of societal change is built on managing the feelings of fear, of loss whilst also massaging confidence in the communities place in the future, changed environment. Seen within this framework the raft of messages, of quiet conversations and gestures aimed at the unionist community makes more than some sense (e.g. Queen handshake, Jubilee, support for Titanic, Nomadic, HMS Caroline etc). If you think that Sinn Féin pulled some of its punches to accommodate Unionism, then perhaps this explains why?

The National Reconciliation initiative is an attempt routed within this strategy albeit married to a nationalist mindset, however I think it also serves to demonstrate the difficulties that nationalists/republicans face: the very basis and terminology of the initiative; defining the nation in Irish terms and the reconciliation it seeks makes it an immediate turn-off for ordinary unionists. The basic premise means nothinggerry kelly to the people it’s aimed at and will not gain their attention. It is therefore a very hard sell from the beginning to unionists, with their innate British identity and attachment to the UK.  Language is all-important and must be couched in terms that resonant with the audience. The same policy may need two different narratives, with messages and approaches to suit. This may be of interest to provide the background. 

Sinn Féin has been very adept at slowly managing its own base, molding the direction of thinking and preparing expectations well in advance of hard decisions & policy changes. Is it now using that experience to help shape a change process for the Unionist community, to reflect the changes that flow from demographic changes? Don’t flag up the mmm flag issue (sorry – couldn’t resist) or OO marches (ouch), and just goes to show that events, particularly in Ireland, will always have the capacity to skew any plans.

A requirement of the National Reconciliation initiative is to engage with, and to actively listen, to the responses from unionists and loyalists. Active listening also implies a consideration of taking account of the answers. The rationale behind this approach may require further compromise from traditional republican thinking, and that may be a further step in the ‘peace process’ and/or the parties strategy for a UI.


17 responses to “Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? Sinn Fein, Part 1

  1. FC: thought-provoking blog – maith thú. I think SF’s reconciliation programme will never make headway with a hard core of unionism.On the other hand, I see some signs of a new sense of Irishness among people who would identify themselves as unionist. I think that sense will deepen and widen if SF make genuine reconciliation gestures. In between those two extremes, as it were, there’s the large body of unionists/Protestants who, like a large number of Catholics/nationalists, more or less go with whatever is shaped for them, providing the shoes don’t pinch too much. That big indifferent or non-political grouping is nothing new – I was reading Montaigne and despite all the war and pestilence raging around, he and a lot of other people went on being concerned with the everyday, non-political matters that preoccupy so many of us for much of the time.


    • Thanks Jude but the provoking of thought must go to Cleenish and the time he took out to write these.

      You are certainly right about there being a hardcore of people within unionism for whom their will be no reconciliation, and this is actually quite sad but I do not believe for one moment that these folks are the majority and while they may have an over abundance in political representation at present, I am of the belief that this cannot go on indefinitely.

      SF really need to grasp this opportunity for reconciliation otherwise they may start to wane. I do believe that they are the best at playing the long game, at preparing the ground for what happens next or what they would like to happen next and this has obviously stood them in good stead up until the present.

      The problem, IMHO, they may face, is in becoming slightly irrelevant and being sidetracked into issues such as reconciliation becoming the sole focus of their project when in fact they should also be focusing on being an effective party of government, one that is competent in the delivery of an agenda and can wield power in the manner their voters expect them to.

      Reconciliation may just happen without any kind of top down narrative, it is happening right now as we speak with people working away together, socialising together and just living together.

      At the end of the day, I think people are in the main interested in the incidentals in life, or at least they are a lot more preoccupied with them than the big questions we navel gazers like to ponder and argue about.

  2. Personally my own view of Sinn Féin is that of a party losing contact with its grass roots and most committed (or likely to be committed) members. Indeed at one time SF had “party activists”. Now it has “party members” like any other political grouping and that is symptomatic of the problems in the party.

    The old dynamic of street-politics is gone to be replaced by a more cosy, behind-closed-doors attitude to getting things done. That may be how “real” politics works in Ireland but it hardly energies people. Or the right sort of people. SF is attracting a new generation of careerists – career politicians – when it needs a few more ideologues.

    On reunification I find it astonishing that the party has yet to put on the table its preferred form of a Reunited Ireland. At least some in the SDLP have indicated their preference for a sort of Belfast Agreement in reverse with a regional northern executive/assembly within a reunited Irish state.

    SF should lay out its programme for reunification and a reunified nation-state. This pussy-footing around is ridiculous. Now is the time to put up or shut up.

    Likewise the party needs to ease back on playing footsie with Britishness and Unionism in the context of the north-east of the country. Shaking hands with the British head of state is welcome but only when it is accompanied by a clear vision of removing that person’s offensive and irredentist titled-claims on the island-nation of Ireland.

    Finally on the Irish language and the rights of Irish-speaking citizens and communities, Sinn Féin’s policies are a joke. They are almost literally back of the envelope stuff. To say that SF has an Irish language “policy” is to stretch the English language to breaking point. There is NO policies worth talking about. If SF wants to get serious about the indigenous language of our island-nation then they better start looking to the Israelis, Québécois, Catalans, Basques and Flemish on how it is done.

    Otherwise they are no different from the rest of the Anglophone/Hibernophobic herd.

    • Seamas,

      I too would share some of your concerns on the party and its membership, however, I genuinely wonder how serious the drift from activist to member really is and how much can be ascribed to people looking back with some nostalgia and saying ‘it was different back in my day’. I’m not saying that your observation is not correct, but I’m sure you’ll appreciate that it is hard to quantify or put something like an observation into something quantifiable, hence my raising of the point.

      I do still see the party as one that has probably the best and most effective grass-roots activism on the island, without a shadow of doubt, though that is not too difficult nowadays and is no reason to be smug on anyone in SF’s part.

      On what it’s plan or idea of what a UI would look like, again, at least the SDLP have a proposal, yes, but I do wonder if that proposal can be used as a means to strangle the very notion from birth, that the SDLP are in fact boxing themselves in by declaring their position from the outset. Perhaps (and maybe I am giving them far too much credit for this) they will say, ‘OK, let’s have a discussion on what a UI would look like by making this a broad, pan-nationalist discussion where we invite unionism knowing they will say no and we get on with the business of shaping this UI safe in the knowledge a lot of the parties will not bother turning up to discuss.’ It’s kind of reminiscent of a Mammy FC trick of getting me to exercise my free will when I was a child when in fact she had got me to exercise her will.

      On the Irish language, I will have to defer to you on that score Seamas. I have heard many people complain about their ;lack of real policy on the development of the language North and South and tbf, I am no languages or education expert. This is something I find most disappointing as, though I am abroad, I do believe it is the right of anybody on the island to be able to have facilities and opportunities to learn, speak and use Irish in their everyday lives.

  3. My own views on SF’s strategy has always been to do the unionist outreach work, and make sure that it’s done in a sincere/genuine way, not a propagandistic way.

    Its easy to talk about outreach to make yourself seem statesmanlike etc., without really being genuine. What matters now is to be very very genuine about it. Don’t do for instrumental reasons as part of a shiny PR package. Do it for its intrinsic merit.

    I have also warned about two problems of the “demographic” approach:
    *gives the impression you don’t think that argument and persuasion counts for anything.
    *it is an approach that leads to inaction rather than proaction.
    *its also an approach that results in people arguing against sharing and integration north of the border, even though these are good things, because of a fear it might “kill demographics”.
    *In the story of Ireland, it will be so much better for the harmony of the ultimate nation if the UI comes about after a genuine persuasion effort, and national conversation, rather than a sitting back and waiting for protestants to be out-bred.

    For this approach to work the party needs to have a new leadership and needs to develop a bigger more plural sense of Irishness. Those unionists who are calling themselves Irish, they probably are thinking of the Irish cricket team, the Irish rugby team, the Church of Ireland, these Irish things that are not emphasised often as part of this bigger broader Irishness that is wide and many.

    Which brings me to one aspect of Cleenish’s posts that puzzled me…. the idea that there was something non-republican about investments in Nomadic and the Titanic Centre. These have been great successes for the economy and tourism industry. If I am understanding C correctly, these might be regarded as “protestant” things. But above all else republicans believe in equality regardless of religion.


    • In many ways I agree with you on that score Factual, that we need to discuss Irishness as being something as wide as possible. I do feel that Republicans (IMHO) intrinsically have little problem with this notion either, whilst they also ask that a particular part of being Irish is also respected which is something that I think is obvious that political Unionism is unwilling to do. I stand to be corrected though.

      But I wonder how much hay or good will can be made through a reconciliation process where one party clearly does not want reconciliation. I ask you, if you apologise for everything, real or imagined, would it move this place forward? I don’t think so, whether it is the right thing to do or not. This is one of those times I do not get all doughy eyed and utopian and instead I get hard headed, it needs to be EVERY SIDE saying they did ill, otherwise it’s pointless.

      For instance, we had Saint Jim of North Antrim on BBC Radio and he was unwilling to condemn terrorists, namely the UVF. If he is a man of peace, a champion for those killed illegally, the innocents, then you would have expected him to have had no problem condemning this violence perpetrated, yet he was supposedly a bit tongue tied. This merely serves to highlight my point, the formula for progress in the North is one where we all agree on something and to move forward at once or there is no progress.

  4. Great post, on which I have a few observations.

    The problem with SF working to make the current constitutional arrangements so effective in the North is that the better job they make of this – the less inclined some/many ‘nationalists’ will be to vote in favour of reunification in future border polls. Nationalists could become increasingly comfortable with an arrangement that allows them to be Irish without upsetting the whole apple-cart. .

    It must have come as a shock to Sf when the last census showed just how many Catholics regarded themselves as ‘Northern Irish’. While they will argue this does not necessarily correlate with the percentage who would vote for reunification if given the chance. It is a stark reminder that its not just unionists that need convincing when it comes to reversing the constitutional status quo.

    The fact that a significant element of unionism seems to be lurching violently to the right will be a blessing for many republicans eager to
    prod nationalism from its comfort zone within Northern Ireland. But it should not be up to the more obnoxious extremes of unionism to convince nationalists of the benefits of reunification. Sf should be laying out in detail why ordinary nationalists would be better off and that is not something they have done effectively to date – IMHO.

    I’m not privy to the deliberations of the party leadership and it may well be that they don’t currently see the urgency of this. A decisive border poll is way, way off and for now they could be focusing on other aspects of their political project. But I feel it does highlight the need for SF to reaffirm, rehearse and possibly review the main arguments for reunification.

    • Gweedo, many thanks for dropping by and for the thoughtful response above.

      In many ways, I would have to agree with you about SF needing to get some kind of strategy or vision up that is hard and fast, but then again, I wonder what would happen if they did. We all know that the likes of the Sindo in the South and a whole host of media outlets in the North would pour scorn on it, obfuscate figures and sling enough mud at it that it would come across as naive in the extreme on their part, therefore, I wonder if keeping their powder dry is the best way forward?

      I also would have to agree with the principle that they should not be solely relying on the incompetence of their opponents to try and win this battle, as tempting as it is and as regular as clock work their opponents are when it comes to shooting in the face people who may be swayed to their cause (I’m thinking of so called unicorns).

      For my part, I think we need to see SF working for its voters. At present, MMcG is doing a sterling job of looking statesman like. He has not risen to the bait laid out by Robbo et al in relation to the past few months, however, there is an agenda that the voting populace has agreed to and I do not see it being enacted at all. This will only lead to people moving away from SF and to whom, I don’t know (definitely not the SDLP IMHO) or worse still, they simply abstain. I think SF needs to bring back the spark that it had in the late 90s when it was a definite project, where it felt like a start up and it was exciting as opposed to becoming a bit of the establishment. Lets seen what happens next sure.

  5. Pingback: Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? Sinn Fein, Part 2 | footballcliches·

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