Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Does the intellectual collapse of the exhausted SNP hint at Sinn Féin’s future?

Northern Ireland unionists might hope so but it’s a distant hope at a time when the unionist cause itself is drained of enthusiasm

Unionists in Northern Ireland, who have had little to cheer for some time, suddenly have a significant consolation: the intellectual collapse of the Scottish National Party. There may still be no sign of an electoral collapse but after 15 years in power, the SNP is exhausted and failing in office, undermining the independence cause it has made its own.

A tipping point occurred in February, when Nicola Sturgeon’s party claimed London would have to continue paying an independent Scotland’s state pension – a claim so preposterous it was widely seen as conceding independence is out of reach. In place of serious planning, the SNP has retreated to shoring up its base with fairy tales and manufactured grievances.

That criticism appears confirmed by Sturgeon’s proposal on Tuesday for an independence referendum next year, provided the UK Supreme Court rules the Scottish parliament can legislate for it, which is unlikely. Failing that, the SNP will treat the next general election as a de facto referendum.

This is a strategy of drawn out confrontation that increasingly frustrates supporters and opponents of independence alike. Scotland’s Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties have advised people to boycott any referendum next year. A farce beckons.

The lesson for unionists in Northern Ireland, while encouraging, is hardly flattering to unionism overall. The SNP has been undone by its single-mindedness and hubris but nobody measured out a precise length of rope and then cunningly stood back to let nationalism hang itself. The SNP secured its dominance of Scottish politics thanks to the disarray of its opponents – an intellectually exhausted unionism in Edinburgh and London. There is still no vision to actively counter the SNP, nor is it any great discovery that political fortunes eventually wane, even for an all-conquering nationalist movement.

This strongly echoes how Northern Ireland’s unionists are consoling themselves about a Sinn Féin-led government in the Republic. A commonly held view of this prospect is that it will be a fiasco for the South and frighten voters in the North, damaging the cause of a united Ireland on both sides of the Border.

Sinn Féin would certainly under-deliver in office – all parties do. It would grandstand over a Border poll, although the key vote in Northern Ireland would be outside its gift. The grandstanding might escalate as other policies falter. A Scottish-style scenario can be envisaged where this all comes to be perceived as one frustrating phenomenon, so that when the democratic pendulum inevitably swings against Sinn Féin it carries enthusiasm for unification away with it. Unionism just has to keep quiet and let political nature take its course.

While there may be a high degree of complacency and wishful thinking in this view, it is genuinely held. The lack of unionist alarm about a sovereign Sinn Féin government is noticeable. Many people in the Republic also believe Sinn Féin will be found out in office. However, everyone seems to assume this will happen within one five-year term. The SNP has been in power three times longer.

Symbolism

If unionism is confident that Sinn Féin would be exposed in government, does that not apply to Stormont?

Power-sharing makes it harder for any one party to be found out and the distinction between first and deputy first minister is purely symbolic but it is potent symbolism that Sinn Féin is using to promise Michelle O’Neill will be “a first minister for all”. Thanks to the DUP’s boycott, Sinn Féin can make that pledge and all blame for failure attaches to unionism. Ironically, if O’Neill was a success she would risk bolstering the union by making Northern Ireland work. The DUP has managed to squander that advantage for its cause. Even within the limits of a “sufficient rope” strategy, it is unionism that looks tied up in knots.

In Scotland, unionist debate is becoming more dynamic but also less directly applicable to Northern Ireland. There is discussion of a Canadian-type “Clarity Act”, establishing the exact process of succession in a manner that put Quebec’s separatism in cold storage. Doubts are stirring against the presumption of ever-greater devolution, or the wisdom of devolution itself. The Belfast Agreement pre-empts these conversations.

Although comparisons between Scotland and Northern Ireland must be heavily qualified, it is still striking how little attention each pays to the other’s politics.

Scotland sees Northern Ireland as a warning but not one worth following in detail. Westminster passed a law last month defining Northern Ireland’s unionist community as “the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition” and making the Ulster Scots the UK’s newest official national minority. This fulfilled a DUP demand in 2020′s New Decade, New Approach deal, yet it was barely noticed anywhere.

For now at least, the indifference between the UK’s constituent parts feels like a more ominous sign for the union than anything Nicola Sturgeon is planning.