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The Election, the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin August 5, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, The Left, Uncategorized.
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An article in a recent issue of Fortnight Magazine by Adrian Guelke [fortnight] (the site is a year or so out of date) has some food for thought. Discussing the prospect of renewed negotiations for the convening of the Assembly at Stormont and the establishment of a new Executive, composed presumably of the DUP and SF, Guelke notes that politics in the UK and the RoI has in many cases driven, or impeded, the process.

He particularly notes that this year, of all years, with an election looming in the Republic and the Blair leadership moving towards it’s end, although when that end will actually be seems to be something of an imponderable, there must be a temptation for the various parties to hold back in the hope of something better around the corner. For the DUP that something better would be a Conservative government. Guelke proposes that the Tories ‘abandoned bipartisanship on the peace process years ago’ – something worth teasing out further at some point. Whether David Cameron would actually bury the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement is an interesting question. Hard to see what he would gain from it. More likely it would be a case of killing it with disinterest. Having said that certain British political commentators, including former Conservative Michael Portillo consider that Cameron is unlikely to win at the next election, and that it will take him a further four or five years assuming he’s given the opportunity. In that situation some in the DUP suspect that a Gordon Brown government might be more favourable towards the Unionist position. Perhaps, but as Guelke notes, Brown is unlikely to want to disassemble one of the key achievements of New Labour.

Where the analysis get’s really interesting is in relation to how the politics of the GFA will impact, or not, upon the politics of the General Election in the Republic. Guelke notes that while the ‘people down south seem to take events more seriously than the folks across the water to judge from the media coverage…that won’t in the least prevent political parties in the Republic from giving the highest priority to their own electoral interests’.

Guelke thinks that the election ‘will be close…with the odds against the present incumbents retaining power’. Hence the performance of Sinn Féin will be of particular significance, and he suspects that ‘Sinn Féin is likely to come in for some rough treatment…and it is quite likely that attempts to drive down the Sinn Féin vote will involve revelations about past Republican misdemeanours regardless of their possible implications for the peace process’. This, he proposes, might prevent Unionists from jumping into an Executive for fear of what is coming down the line.

What is telling about this analysis is that the reckoning of political parties in the Republic is judged to be entirely dispassionate as regards the GFA. Local comes before national, as it were. Indeed local is supremely more important than national. As is blindingly obvious it is one of the interesting, and ironic, quirks of the GFA that enticing Sinn Féin into the structures has entailed making it, indeed transforming it (as far as is possible), a key political player in the North. And that has had the add-on effect of making it potentially a significant political player in the South. But one is arguably entirely contradictory to the other, or to put it another way, presumably it’s not just Eoghan Harris who feels a shudder down his spine at the thought of a vigorous Sinn Féin in an Executive with the DUP, or working within the Policing Board. Such an outcome would – to some degree or another – undercut the old, and often legitimate, charges regarding SF. Arguably such an outcome might further legitimate a non-physical force Republican viewpoint and with that would come further gains for Sinn Féin – a virtuous cycle as it were. And that holds true for both north and south, and for all parties to a greater or lesser extent.
Actually what is notable to date is that political attacks on Sinn Féin have been somewhat muted. There have been periodic controversies over the ‘Disappeared’, Garda McCabe and others, but the traction of these has – as far as one can judge from the polls – been limited. Perhaps those who vote Sinn Féin on a regular basis are unlikely to be prised away from their choice. Again one wonders whether the muted tone of the attacks is calculation or just circumstance. If the latter that would be a consequence of the decision to fully decommission. With no weapons Sinn Féin simply becomes another, albeit not insignificant, largely left of centre party (whatever about Pat Rabitte’s protestations to the contrary on the Election Ireland podcast – which if he believes what he says he believes on that issue he must be more or less the last person in Ireland to do so). If the former, it may also be as a result of decommissioning and a wish on the part of the other parties not to highlight Sinn Féin for fear of raising their profile, or reminding their base just what it is (or was) about them that makes them (or made them) so different.

Of course that is now, and the future is the future. Three weeks before an election it might make perfect sense for Labour, Fine Gael and the PDs to throw up the danger of a resurgent Sinn Féin if it looks like that would be one of the few viable options for Fianna Fáil to regain power. That would certainly energise their respective bases. On the other hand Fianna Fáil has to play this one astutely too. Sinn Féin has been fairly successful in nibbling at the greener edge of the FF vote over the past six years. Fianna Fáil will be eager to stop any further rot before it starts. And in all this the GFA is – well, forgotten to be honest.

The above is to some degree predicated on Sinn Féin not sitting in a new Executive. But what if it is?

Then the situation is changed for everyone – including Sinn Féin. Suddenly it becomes a party of government – once again. The image of Sinn Féin Ministers traipsing south to canvass for existing and prospective T.D’s must send an equally unpleasant shudder down Eoghan Harris’s spine, and again not just him. Yet, would this, arguably triumphant moment for Sinn Féin necessarily play out as well as they might expect? Yes, they’d be in government, but they’d also be in Stormont. It won’t just be the dissidents, impotent and infuriated, sitting on the sidelines pointing this out. Will the SF base be entirely delighted by the prospect?

Now, whether it’s likely that the Executive is restored in November is difficult to judge. Various observers blow hot and cold on the prospect.

The problem is ultimately that attack Sinn Féin and you attack a vital leg of the GFA. I’ve watched numerous Dáil debates over the last two years where issues relating to Sinn Féin or PIRA have come up. These have ranged from decommissioning through to the murder of Garda McCabe. In every instance, whatever the spin afterwards, I felt that all those who commented in the Dáil on these issues pulled their punches to a very large degree. That may be a tribute to the level of political discourse in this state (which it arguably is), but it may also be due to a recognition that without SF on board the game ‘wasn’t worth a candle’ to coin a phrase…

But perhaps the situation is different now. PIRA has gone away, Sinn Féin isn’t invulnerable, and the GFA is no longer necessarily the only game in town when the two governments can talk of ‘joint stewardship’. That may make it more tempting to attack Sinn Féin and that might be a mistake for those who do the attacking since it might just burnish the credentials of the party.

And perhaps, behind it all, Sinn Féin might not be entirely unhappy with a situation in which they remain a growing party of political dissent within the South as de facto joint authority is imposed upon the Six Counties. They have the consolation prize of their MPs and the greening of the local authorities in the North.

Which effectively means that the events of the next six months north of the Border will be as important as those south of it in determining the shape of the General Election.

Happy days.

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