McElduff resignation shows Sinn Féin yielding to public pressure

Three-month suspension was far short of solution to quell public and media anger

Barry McElduff: Mary Lou McDonald spent a few days insisting his suspension was “a proportionate response” for a “stupid” stunt.

Barry McElduff: Mary Lou McDonald spent a few days insisting his suspension was “a proportionate response” for a “stupid” stunt.

 

If the Barry McElduff controversy was a test for Sinn Féin, the party failed it, then passed at the repeats.

McElduff submitted his resignation as an MP on Monday following a week of controversy arising from his now notorious Twitter video.

When the storm over McElduff’s post initially arose, Sinn Féin acted quickly. The party’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, was keen to project her authority on the issue.

Following a meeting with McElduff, she issued a statement saying, “I have suspended Barry with immediate effect for a period of three months.” The sanction carried her personal authority. However, it was also hopelessly misjudged.

It soon became clear that the three-month suspension was in no way adequate to quell the public and media anger at the McElduff caper. The media questioned Sinn Féin politicians at every opportunity. Sinn Féin’s political opponents in London and Dublin swarmed all over it.

But Sinn Féin is used to that; part of its esprit de corps is based on the sense of itself as the party that threatens the establishment. It is used to media criticism.

But this was different. Even many of the party’s own supporters in the North, among whom are many victims of loyalist and British state violence, were horrified.

Toxic episode

In the Republic, the episode was even more toxic, and potentially more damaging. One of the great brakes on the party’s growth south of the Border has been its association with, consistent defence of and occasional celebration of the IRA’s campaign. The IRA’s campaign never enjoyed the support of any more than a tiny minority of people in the South. And though Sinn Féin will never resile from its defence of that campaign, it is not especially keen to remind people of it either.

Often political analysis – sometimes through wishful thinking – in the South presumes political damage to Sinn Féin when reminders of the violent and sometimes sectarian past of the Republican movement land in the middle of political discourse. In recent years, these have often centred around the person of Gerry Adams.

But polls suggest that whatever damage Sinn Féin may suffer in these instances, it usually recovers quickly. The same will probably be the case here.

These controversies do not so much take support away from Sinn Féin, but rather prevent it from growing its support. The party’s representatives end up talking about the past, not the present or the future. It’s one of the reasons why the party’s growth over the past decade – a time of unprecedented political opportunity for a left-wing party with populist tendencies – has been solid, rather than spectacular. The party’s history is clearly a different dynamic in the North. But in the South it has stymied its growth.

McDonald vs Adams

One of the party’s hopes is that Mary Lou McDonald can overcome this. Adams is the creator of modern Sinn Féin; but he is also a symbol of its past. And politics is always about the future.

But it is a delicate line that McDonald must walk. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is more important to Sinn Féin than maintaining party unity. There will be no overt distancing from the past, no backsliding on the justice of the armed struggle, no admission that the movement was mistaken in its pursuit of its “long war”. McDonald may not have to carry coffins, but she will have to attend a few commemorations.

But she will have to do all this while signalling to floating voters in the Republic that Sinn Féin is about a better health service, a fairer redistribution of income, public services, social progress, equality and so on. That, after all, is the whole point of changing the leader.

McDonald and other Sinn Féin representatives spent a few days last week insisting that McElduff’s punishment was “a proportionate response” for a “stupid” stunt. Although criticism mounted, the approach was to tough it out. Though the position was uncomfortable for Sinn Féin, it was hardly unfamiliar.

By the beginning of this week, in particular after a devastating interview on RTÉ radio with Alan Black, the sole survivor of the Kingsmill massacre, that position had changed.

Sinn Féin responded to pressure, and McElduff resigned. The party’s leadership was forced into doing something it hadn’t wanted to. In other words, responding to the conventional imperatives of politics, Sinn Féin became a bit more like a normal political party this week. It’s a moment worth noticing.