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Michael McDowell: Does it matter how Sinn Féin organises itself?

Control of SF is exercised by an eight-member ‘politburo’ with a five-three Belfast majority

Joe Joyce wrote here on Monday about Sinn Féin participation in government. And his opinion piece drew the usual reaction from online readers who use anonymity to hide their membership of a well-drilled phalanx of trolls. No surprise there.

His central thesis – that Sinn Féin is not, and will not be, a conventional democratic political or parliamentary party – is completely true. But of itself, that may not impress some considerable section of the electorate who are looking for something different from the current political party orthodoxy. So what, they may ask. How does it matter if they are different? Here's how.

Members of other parties are allowed to voice disagreement with their parties' positions in the media and in debate in either House

They do not hold regular meetings of their Oireachtas representatives, otherwise known as parliamentary party meetings. I was a little surprised when one of their Oireachtas members told me that. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. It is entirely consistent with their espousal of Lenin’s principle of democratic centralism – the doctrine that when the ruling body of the party makes a decision or adopts a policy after internal discussion, all members must thereafter uphold the decision or policy upon pain of expulsion for public dissent. This rule allows no public discussion or dissent.

Even with the draconian Leinster House system of losing the party whip for disobedience, members of other parties are allowed to voice disagreement with their parties’ positions in the media and in debate in either House. The PDs were the only party with rules that guaranteed no loss of the whip on issues of personal moral conscience. That was availed of on a few occasions.

The leader of the parliamentary party cannot, under Sinn Féin’s rules, be chosen or ousted by a vote of their parliamentarians. Can you imagine what the reaction would be if British prime minister Boris Johnson changed the rules to provide that he could only be removed at a national conference or by some committee meeting at the Tory central office?

As Joyce noted, day-to-day control of Sinn Féin is exercised by a small eight-member “politburo” known as the Coiste Seasta that has a five-three majority from Belfast. As he also noted, this committee, when last listed, contained no person with a public profile or any name recognition in this State. The party’s director of finance has stated openly that they do not want its public representatives to control it. Its Ard Comhairle has 48 members, including 11 Stormont MLAs, two abstentionist Westminster MPs, and only six TDs. These bodies decide on Sinn Féin voting and policy at Leinster House.

The recent “cash-for-ash” scandal inquiry unearthed the fact that the responsible Sinn Féin Stormont minister took instruction on the issue via a special adviser from an unelected Sinn Féin official in its Belfast office.

At no point in the history of the independent democratic Irish State has any group sought a mandate to govern while tightly controlled by persons un-elected by the people

A Sinn Féin TD has very little status different from any ordinary party member and much less status than any member of the Ard Comhairle or Coiste Seasta. He or she cannot decide to participate in media discussion without party permission. Elected Sinn Féin TDs and Oireachtas members face de-selection by the party’s officers. Their staff is selected by those officials and are answerable to them.

If there were to be a coalition involving Sinn Féin, their ministers or candidate for taoiseach would not be chosen by their elected members of the Dáil. That would be decided by their Ard Comhairle, dominated as it is by the inner sanctum of the Coiste Seasta in Belfast. Ministers would resign when told to do so by the party’s officers, just as MLAs and Senators have been told to do in the recent past.

There would be no possibility of a Sinn Féin minister opposing the party’s line or siding with coalition partner ministers in cabinet votes. The budget would be subject to internal party approval. This is the reality of their modus operandi – not some imagined malign scenario. The lads in Belfast would even decide on the date of general elections in the Republic.

At no point in the history of the independent democratic Irish State has any group sought a mandate to govern while tightly controlled by persons un-elected by the people. But now that scenario is becoming thinkable. Those who complacently dismiss the Trumpian assault on the Capitol as an American near miss should look again at what is looming here.