Sinn Féin and Irish politics, North and South… August 1, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, European Politics, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The Left.
Tom McGurk had some interesting points to play around with recently. In a column on how ‘SF will be sharply tested by a period of transition’ he makes some very thoughtful points, and a few that I’d take issue with. The latter can be dealt with immediately.
Of course is worth contextualising his ideas in reference to the Quinn issue and the way that has developed in the last week or so which points up problematical issues for SF in how it campaigns North and South and on an all island basis.
Anyhow McGurk argues that:
Sinn Féin is now facing perhaps the most difficult transition yet of the many it has faced: how to turn a party of radical protest into one of a realistic political alternative.
Problem is – for SF – that the orthodoxy is already splitting at the seams in terms of parties who have cleaved to it. Whether it is Labour, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, that side of the political spectrum is well provided for. And far too much in this contemporary period ‘realistic political alternative’ is short hand for aligning with orthodoxy, as those of us who read Stephen Collins will know (although I suspect that more or less whatever SF does would be insufficient for him).
On a slight diversion, per se I find nothing wrong with SF seeking state power. To be honest I expect parties that want to reshape this or any polity to want that, and in advanced (!) democracies electoral contests are the only way to achieve it. That said not at any cost, and here of course we enter into a different discussion.
Anyhow McGurk does not appear antagonistic to the idea of an apology from the IRA or SF.
But of the interesting thoughts he has consider the following:
The party seems to be politically untouchable in the North for the next generation at least. Don’t say it too loudly, but the peace process is rapidly producing a very different North. For the first time in my memory, there’s even a genuine public culture of tolerance for difference.
Is this absolutely true about it being politically untouchable? Of course defining a generation is a tricky thing. And I guess it is possible to say that SF may have fair weather for a decade or so. But the sclerotic nature of both the dispensation extant in the North and the broader political environment balanced between competing nationalisms makes me wonder whether now that the old power blocs have been broken, with both UUP and SDLP in precipitous decline, whether the churn we have seen in the South in party politics might not be experienced sooner rather than later. Of course the SDLP hasn’t at certain levels fallen as far proportionately as FF.
Not surprisingly, then, given the dimensions of its political achievement in the North, Sinn Féin’s political antennae have been turned southwards like never before.
There’s little doubt that SF sees the context as being all-island. How that is practicable in daily application remains to be be seen.
At the outset, there were significant signals of the new emphasis, with the decision of Gerry Adams to decamp politically to the south and by the Martin McGuinness presidential election campaign. I sense that the experience of that campaign taught Sinn Féin how much work is still required here.
That I think is a good point. I think there was considerable surprise amongst at least some in SF that the venom directed against them was so pointed. That’s a bit curious given that the southern media was never shy about making that plain. But perhaps beyond that there was a sense that they remained/remain a small enough force in Southern politics. On the other hand I think it’s also important to see the McGuinness candidacy as in and of itself ameliorating that perception to at least some degree. The simple fact that he got through that campaign, and came in third – albeit on a low enough poll rating – was an achievement in itself. And altered the perception of SF more widely. Look at the poll numbers. A jump of in or around four per cent from their election tally for the Presidential contest, and now consistent polling 3 or more percentage points ahead of that subsequently. So the Presidential campaign wasn’t simply a learning experience for SF but was also an important lever in changing perceptions and growing their vote.
The handshake with Queen Elizabeth II, followed by McGuinness’s RTE television performance last Saturday night, points to the growing importance of the southern project.
Hard to know. I still think it has as much if not more to do with the North. That’s where it’s more direct result will be felt, not in a mass rush of Unionists to apostasy, anything but, but instead a sense that SF is taking that engagement seriously and in a way which Republicanism hasn’t hitherto.
And it has also been lucky with the handshake of history. Who could have imagined a political landscape more ideal for the party than the one created by the economic crisis and the subsequent electoral disaster that has hit Fianna Fáil? How extraordinary that, no sooner had Sinn Féin become part of the recreation of one failed Irish state, than the other one failed too.
This is a most interesting point, and well worth thinking about. The effects of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement has been considerable, and its effects on the North most particularly so. But what of its effects on the South? In parking, to some degree, elements of the nationalist project – at least in regard to FFs dominance of that particular strand – it removed a crucial aspect of the FF identity. The economic collapse has done similar damage to FF, albeit much more pointedly. Was the FF collapse inevitable? Well, perhaps not, although it is true that they vote share had been declining steadily, if relatively unspectacularly, during that period.
But McGurk is surely right that the ‘gaping hole at the traditional centre of Irish politics’ in the wake of the fall of FF is an enormous opportunity for SF. Thing is does that mean that SF should shift to the centre to do so, or is that even achievable. McGurk appears to hint at that idea…
Central to achieving this will be how it deals with the credibility and competence of its economic policy and management. Soon, it will also have to learn that – unlike the North, where political structures require its participation – down south, it’s a complex Irish political maze called coalition. But with whom?
For example, would it require a Fianna Fáil party heave for Éamon Ó Cuiv’s prediction to come true after he became the first to say the previously unsayable about the idea of a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Féin coalition?
But would such a coalition be viable, and what would FF gain from it? Particularly an FF that was – say – five or six TDs behind SF? I’m reminded of the competition between DL and the LP in the 1990s. The parties were actually quite distinct, but once in government there were those who argued that that distinctiveness was insufficient for them to maintain separate identities. Of course, as we know, DL carried on for some years after that, but the point wasn’t entirely without relevance. DL was unable, or unwilling, to carve out a clear left of Labour identity and so the logic (not one, by the way I agree with entirely) of a merger was strong. And a larger, more centrist SF would, at least from FFs perception, and in all likelihood too, be pulling votes from FF.
But it may be that that is moot. That the FF we now have, which appears fairly well centre right, albeit with some populist rhetoric once in a while (so no change there), is the one we will always have. And in that case why would SF find them a congenial partner.
What then of Labour? They’re arguably even more antagonistic to SF. And with good reason too. To be honest I can only see significant electoral defeat on a scale to pull the LP down into the teens or lower in terms of seat numbers allowing them to work with SF.
For the moment then expect SF to ignore, and not mention, such hypotheticals. They’ll want to grow their vote as best they can.
And McGurk has two other points well worth airing.
Since the beginning of the Troubles, there has been a pervasive sense in the south that the crisis ‘up there’ instinctively threatened stability down here. Huge sections of southern opinion, therefore, find it difficult to accept Sinn Féin as a natural and authentic part of the southern political spectrum. Crossing that cultural and political divide is what will ultimately test the Sinn Féin political project.
I’d argue that that attitude of ‘up there’ predates the Troubles and by quite some length of time. And it will hobble the SF project. But, as the SF project becomes more and more normalised by exposure to it through the Dáil etc that will dissipate to some extent.
Ironically, too, despite Sinn Féin’s political growth, its principal project – Irish re-unification – is not enjoying a similar revival. Recent polls in the North suggest that fewer nationalists are interested and, south of the border, there is even less enthusiasm. Could it be that Sinn Féin might finally cross its long-awaited finishing line, only to find it had dropped the baton en route?
This is crucial too. It is a little like the situation in Scotland where the SNP is trusted to run government/administration but its core political project is if not quite ignored, regarded as less important to voters. Of course realistically we know that the work of unity will take generations and consist of many steps. The prospect of that is one SF had best prepare, if it isn’t already, its people for. And many more beyond its immediate membership and supporters.
But as Quinn demonstrates, before we get close to the fulfillment of that goal the nature of political activity will throw up contradictions between principle, rhetoric and electoral progress in unforeseen ways. Best prepare for that too.