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.
We 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 excellent 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?
Whereas 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 nothing 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.