Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin quietly outflanks the SDLP

Party moves towards centre ground by calling for more devolution to Belfast

A speech by Matt Carthy over the weekend is seen as breaking fresh ground. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

A speech by Matt Carthy over the weekend is seen as breaking fresh ground. Photograph; Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

What does Matt Carthy have to do to get attention? Last Saturday the Sinn Féin MEP suggested “continued devolution to Belfast within an all-Ireland structure”, a heresy against the republicanism that has defined northern life and politics for decades.

Carthy, who heads his party’s united Ireland strategy group, delivered his speech at the Corrymeela peace centre in Co Antrim. So his remarks were serious, symbolic and scripted. Yet Northern Ireland’s media led all day with local tributes to Muhammad Ali and has largely ignored the speech since. That must have stung, like a bee.

There is no doubt that a comparable DUP musing would have been seized on as momentous. Perhaps the problem is the Border. Few north of it recognise Carthy and few south of it care about the North. A pity if so, as choosing a southern representative to challenge northern orthodoxy was revealing.

It would be a mistake to think that Sinn Féin’s musings do not count until Gerry Adams makes them. In fact, Adams has been flying constitutional kites for years. In 2011 he even said a united Ireland might not have to be a republic – the ultimate republican compromise. But the party president has too often presented these thoughts as whimsy, then undermined them with displays of bad faith, such as his 2014 remark (recorded unawares) that his goal is to “break these [unionist] bastards”.

Adams is not a credible advocate of new ways to unite people, so it is to some extent more significant when he hands the kite strings to another party figure – and the less like the boss the better. Adams’s previous champions of “unionist outreach” have been drawn from a northern inner circle almost comically hostile to unionism.

Northern term

Carthy’s speech was respectful but cautious, accepting devolution only as a “transitional arrangement” and avoiding any use of the term “Northern Ireland”, which, pathetically, would have ensured wall-to-wall coverage, given the shibboleth Sinn Féin has made of never mentioning the place it jointly governs.

Still, he broke fresh ground by framing “the coming together of Orange and green” in terms of the new DUP-Sinn Féin relationship, something else that would once “have been regarded as absurd”.

That relationship is necessitated by a two-party Stormont executive, the other three parties having walked out. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has sought to distinguish himself from Sinn Féin on the basis of “making Northern Ireland work”, which is a radically centrist position for even moderate Irish nationalism. Should Sinn Féin accept Northern Ireland’s existence, it seizes that position by default.

Outflanking Eastwood suggests the republicans are on tactical as well as strategic manoeuvres. If the SDLP is destroyed, Sinn Féin could become the largest party at Stormont. Making Northern Ireland work is also a good signal to send if you want to be in office in Dublin, making southern Ireland work. But there is nothing insincere about pursuing these objectives simultaneously – they are all compatible.

A fascinating innovation in Carthy’s speech was his recognition that Sinn Féin must do all the work towards its goal: “Republicans must be open, imaginative and accommodating in our approach to bringing about a united Ireland.”

Until now, Sinn Féin’s alleged unionist outreach project has been premised on both sides requiring “uncomfortable conversations”, a phrase coined by former party chair Declan Kearney. However, as defenders of the status quo, unionist do not need to have any conversations. They can simply respond to all suggestions of change with “no” or, if a liberal unionist, “no thanks”.

The traditional republican reaction to this has been to denounce unionism as a cross between racism and a psychiatric illness, so Carthy’s understanding is clearly an improvement. A useful question he might ask himself is how the UK could go about taking back Monaghan without upsetting too many of his constituents.

UK ease away

What of the devolution idea itself? Partition and the union are not the same thing, and they could be decoupled via the DUP’s brand of Ulster nationalism, with the North serving as a vehicle to ease unionists away from the UK – as, of course, the new province was originally designed to do.

How long might this vehicle trundle on in a united Ireland? Part of Northern Ireland’s continuing attraction might be as a recipient of UK funding, something UK taxpayers would definitely want to be transitional. Beyond that, any justification for a devolved region inside Ireland comprising both unionists and nationalists (presumably with no overall majority of either) would be tied up with shared experience, a common identity and the sense of a place apart.

As so much of that feeling derives from conflict and division, Sinn Féin has better reason than most to pass the baton on from the Troubles generation.

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