Denis Bradley: Sinn Féin unable to grasp opportunity talks present
Party adrift after McGuinness and unable to compromise for long-term goals
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the Northern Ireland Assembly, party president Gerry Adams and deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald at party’s ardfheis in Dublin in November. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
In the film Molly’s Game, running in cinemas at the moment, protagonist Molly Bloom’s psychologist father tells her that she is going to have to squash three years of therapy into three minutes. Sinn Féin might well take the advice and squash some serious self-analysis into the next few weeks.
Sinn Féin has never been so nervous and unsure of itself as during the last few months. The party is nervous about going into government with the DUP and nervous about staying out of government. Some people, when they get to a certain stage of nervousness, want to incessantly talk about the problems they are facing. I have seen people in such a state stopping near-strangers in the street to tell them their worries.
Sinn Féin has phoned thousands of people, inviting them to public meetings throughout the North, to explain its dilemma and ask for advice on what it should do. In a way, it is very impressive. Especially because those who are invited come from the broad nationalist constituency and not only from the ranks of the party.
A great deal of the nervousness is put down to the death of Martin McGuinness. Party members, commentators and most especially unionists think Sinn Féin is very lost since McGuinness died. There is some truth in that. McGuinness had the gift of the dramatic moment, arising from his ability to understand and articulate the emotional mood not just of his own party but of the nationalist constituency. That is a gift not easily replaced and its loss would unsettle any party. But if the truth be told, the nervousness goes beyond the loss of McGuinness. It goes deep into the psyche of Sinn Féin.
The public meetings critiqued the arrogance of the DUP, the duplicity of the Tory government and the uncertain commitment of the Irish Government. The bias of the presentation was clearly towards not going back into government unless and until the DUP changes its stance. The mantra sustaining and explaining that stance is a sentence from McGuinness’s resignation speech: “No return to the status quo.”
Given that the outcome of that decision would be an absence of devolved government, the future strategy boils down to lobbying the Government to prevent direct British rule by resurrecting the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
Within those impressive public meetings there was no sign of self-reflection. And certainly no self-criticism. Maybe that is par for the course for any political party. But dominating the input of every Sinn Féin speaker is the consciousness, maybe the subconsciousness, of being solely responsible for the unification of Ireland. It is a responsibility and a burden that no other political party (still) carries. There is a nod of recognition that in the past and in the future other parties and civic nationalism were and will be helpful but there is not an iota of doubt or embarrassment when it is stated that without Sinn Féin Irish unity will never be achieved.
That responsibility or, more accurately, that burden is Sinn Féin’s strength and, ironically, its weakness. It explains to a great degree the energy, dedication, discipline and focus of the party. It explains its importance in the future affairs of this island, North and South. Those are some of the positives. But it also explains how it left John Hume in danger of losing his party while it took nine months to consult and persuade its members of the need for a ceasefire.
It explains how it took too long in joining the new policing arrangements in the North and how canonical the party was in explaining the distinction between support and accountability. It explains the tetchy relationship with every Irish government and every other nationalist party since the beginning of the peace process.
It also explains why the DUP ran rings around Sinn Féin in government. Even though Sinn Féin had little governmental or managerial experience, it wouldn’t consult outside expertise. Every political adviser was appointed from within the party’s ranks. It explains how a working-class party that works tirelessly on behalf of its own people often gives an impression of haughtiness and superiority. It explains how some members get confused between the primacy of the party and its primary purpose.
If that confusion and tension is not recognised and addressed then the new round of talks is likely to fail. The tragedy of that is Irish unity has never been more realistic, acceptable and more achievable than any time in the last hundred years. The Border and political identity are at the top of the political agenda in a manner not experienced since the 1920s. And this is happening at a time when the population mix is approaching parity.
There are even signs that unionism is beginning to believe that its dominance is no longer tenable and is softening to debating the possibility of a new and agreed Ireland. Nationalism is settled and patient. It has lived this scenario for 100 years, another few years is neither here nor there. It has long accepted that there are two narratives on this island and that both must have their place. It is more than willing to be adaptable and generous. At such a time and with such an opportunity, it is pathetic that the political party which sees itself as primarily responsible for unity is convincing itself that its job is to put manners on the DUP.
Lack of pragmatism
Even within the narrow perspective of manners and respect the lack of pragmatism and prioritisation is glaring. Where is the wit to know that every time a Gregory Campbell says there will be no Acht na Gaeilge an extra 100 people join an Irish language class? Where is the political pragmatism that knows the last time there was a vote in the Stormont Assembly the greater number voted for the introduction of same-sex marriage.
Where is the pride that believes Sinn Féin can be as good if not better than the DUP at the art of politics? Where is the honesty to admit that Sinn Féin is terrified that it will lose a few votes if it is seen to soften its stance and negotiate its way back into government? Where is the statesmanship to know that this is a time for generosity and flexibility? Where is the sense of priorities to know that the awkward, stubborn and fearful unionist people are key to the debate and to the settlement of an agreed Ireland?
But beyond all that, to extract a sentence from McGuinness’s resignation speech and pit it against the years and the effort he put in to reach out to unionism is, at least, simplistic and most probably unfair. There are plenty examples of him taking criticism in the short term to achieve a longer-term result. More of that is what is needed going into this new round of talks.
Denis Bradley is a journalist and former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland