Sinn Féin’s suspension of Daithí McKay is a recognition of its problems in developing a new Northern generation.
The party’s lack of second-tier talent is all the stranger given its reputation for leadership, organisation and strategic focus. This is becoming an open concern among the wider republican electorate.
McKay, 34, resigned from his North Antrim Assembly seat last week over a witness coaching scandal at Stormont’s Nama inquiry, which he had chaired.
The young assemblyman had once been considered a rising star, itself a sign of Sinn Féin's dimming firmament. Sending private Twitter messages to a loyalist flag protester you are about to publicly cross- examine is not the conduct of someone most parties would mark for promotion. McKay's alleged accomplice in the coaching affair, Sinn Féin activist Thomas O'Hara, has appeared in a video for his local GAA club that makes him look like a character from Father Ted.
Nor is McKay’s poor judgment an isolated case. In 2014, he became the punchline in a major assembly expenses scandal after renting two constituency offices directly beside each other. McKay never made it to his party’s front bench, but sadly he would have fitted right in.
While almost everyone is impressed by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the rest of Sinn Féin’s executive team has invariably been a conspicuous disappointment.
Successive Sinn Féin education ministers have been blamed across the board for damaging the school system; successive Sinn Féin agriculture ministers have incurred huge EU fines for farm subsidy schemes that should be simple to administer. Sinn Féin's only culture minister boasted of disliking books and plays, yet still managed to make building a GAA stadium controversial in West Belfast.
It is telling that South
MP Conor Murphy is sometimes cited as a possible successor to
. During his time as a
minister, Murphy was found guilty by an employment tribunal of sectarian discrimination and nepotism in public appointments. The tribunal added that his testimony had been “implausible and lacking credibility.”
Sinn Féin’s current great hope is 57- year-old Minister for Finance Mairtín O Muilleoir. Before holding elected office he enjoyed mixed fortunes as a publisher of party-linked newspapers and was best known for his accidentally amusing blog, in which he once famously complained about Union Jack labelling on potatoes in Sainsburys. Has Sinn Féin not had enough trouble with flag protesters?
It is possible to discern in all this a pattern of favouring candidates who are educated, female, middle-class and have no IRA past, or some combination of the above. It also looks like this attempt to move the party upmarket is becoming increasingly ad hoc as it fails to produce any standout performers.
A large part of the republican movement is deeply ambivalent towards Stormont and of course a large part of Sinn Féin is now in the Dáil.
None of that should stop such a pragmatic organisation from making good use of the Assembly as a training ground.
The longer the mediocrity continues, the more it seems a permanent setback occurred in 2005, when Sinn Féin’s formal talent development suffered a profound calamity.
The party had established what was in effect an undergraduate training programme for aspiring politicians, complete with course material and written exams. On January 30th, after a field trip to Derry for a Bloody Sunday commemoration, many of these young people were dropped off at a Belfast bar that was about to witness the IRA murder of Robert McCartney. The trainees did not witness it, however, nor the IRA clean-up operation that followed. In statements to police, 71 people claimed to have been in the pub’s one square metre lavatory. That was the end of the programme, while only a few brief careers emerged from the Tardis toilet. It seems that everybody else went home to their horrified families and were told to have nothing more to do with Sinn Féin – and the wisdom of that advice has sunk in across a new generation.
A striking feature of student politics in Northern
is Sinn Féin’s weakness, compared to its success elsewhere and its influence on campuses in the past. The party’s university presence has shrunk, even as the student body has approached a two-thirds Catholic majority. Sinn Féin’s style of politics was rejected outright at Queen’s University Belfast two years ago, when the party forced a union vote supporting a united Ireland and lost, after large number supported neutrality.
For some time, nationalist and republican students aspiring to politics have joined the SDLP or Fianna Fail –the former offering respectability, the latter with the buzz of the future about it, albeit always seemingly 10 years away. Sinn Féin offers neither. There is a strong sense that it has simply missed its window.