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Fintan O’Toole: What if Sinn Féin makes Northern Ireland viable?

Sinn Féin has abandoned both anti-capitalism and the principle of making Northern Ireland unworkable, adopting economic policies that are not much to the left of the Republic’s mainstream

Forty years ago last weekend, Gerry Adams, who was then about to become president of Sinn Féin, explicitly endorsed the IRA’s tactic of shooting business people to scare companies away from investing in Northern Ireland.

Adams was being interviewed by the BBC as part of its coverage of the UK’s general election campaign of 1983. He was asked about the IRA’s policy of assassinating potential investors.

“The IRA”, he said, “clearly stated that it was involved in these operations in order to frighten away outside investment.” The interviewer interjected: “Which you endorsed?” Adams replied: “Oh which I endorsed, and I accept that what we have to achieve in this country is the situation where the British Government cannot govern, that the British Government cannot propagate to the world that we have a normal system here.”

Yet Adams actually won that election in West Belfast. Did this, I wonder, make him the first politician in Europe ever to be elected on a promise to scare off investment in his constituency and thus create fewer jobs?


This, moreover, was an area with appalling levels of unemployment. In the inner wards of Catholic West Belfast, where most of Adams’s vote came from, more than 40 per cent of heads of households were out of work.

The situation for workers in Northern Ireland was already dire. Registered unemployment in 1980 was 131 per cent higher than it had been in 1970. The IRA’s policy of killing investment by killing would-be investors didn’t cause this crisis, but it certainly deepened it.

Yet, by his own logic, the strategy so firmly backed by Adams in 1983 made a kind of sense. If Northern Ireland was to be shown to be ungovernable, it was necessary for its economy to fail – and the worse it failed, the better.

There was, too, a tinge of ultra-leftist wishful thinking: the more miserable the conditions of the working class could be made, the quicker it would be forced to rise up and overthrow capitalism. Sinn Féin shared this idea with European terror groups of the time, like the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, that also murdered businessmen.

All of this is worth revisiting because, after its latest triumph in the local elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin is more determined than ever that, if and when the Assembly and the Executive are restored, it will take control of the Department for the Economy, which has previously been a unionist fiefdom. It wants to run the economy it previously ran people out of.

It is, of course, perfectly entitled to do this. And its desire to do it is a reminder that, however grim some things may still be up North, they are immensely better than they were 40 years ago.

Unionism – certainly in the shape of the DUP – has lost its economic marbles

Yet while the transformation is welcome, it is also strange. For it means that on one of the most basic of questions, hardline nationalism and hardline unionism have changed places.

That basic question is: should Northern Ireland’s economy be allowed to work? Work, that is, in both senses – as a polity that functions politically because its economy provides enough decent employment.

Sinn Féin once had a very clear answer to that question – absolutely and unconditionally not. Whatever the cost in bloodshed and destitution, Northern Ireland must not, as Adams put it in 1983, “have a normal system” of economic and political life.

Unionists, on the other hand, believed that it could and must do so – though their ideas of what is “normal” were fatally askew. It seemed fundamental to unionism that the North could exist as a viable economy.

Now, though, unionism – certainly in the shape of the DUP – has lost its economic marbles. It tried its best to engineer the hardest possible form of Brexit and (implicitly at least) to re-establish a hard Border on the island.

It has (so far) refused to acknowledge, let alone come up with a plan to exploit, the economic potential of Northern Ireland’s open access to both the EU and UK markets. Its strategy has been, to quote its erstwhile hero Boris Johnson, to “f**k business”.

But meanwhile, the only thing that Sinn Féin now wants to shoot towards business people is come-hither looks. It has abandoned both anti-capitalism and the principle of making Northern Ireland unworkable and adopted economic policies that are not much to the left of the Republic’s mainstream.

This is good political strategy. There is no point in making a place ungovernable when you have the chance to govern it yourself. And Sinn Féin has long since realised that there is a limit to the number of votes to be gained by promising to keep your constituents unemployed.

Yet there’s still a hovering question: what if Sinn Féin really does make a great success of regenerating the Northern Ireland economy? What if it manages to use the opportunities of the Protocol to replicate the Republic’s success in becoming a major base for US investment in the EU? What if it makes Northern Ireland viable?

It’s a fascinating question, not least because I suspect that Sinn Féin itself does not quite know the answer. We can but hope that it gets to find out.