Newton Emerson: McDonald changing Sinn Féin’s tone but not its tune

Plea to ‘think the unthinkable’ but no original thoughts so far

In her Easter oration, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald “delivered boilerplate full of the usual platitudes on welcoming unionists into a united Ireland”. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

In her Easter oration, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald “delivered boilerplate full of the usual platitudes on welcoming unionists into a united Ireland”. Photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

 

Sinn Féin’s annual Easter message has become a curiously well-mannered ritual. Large parts of it are generally about unionists and those parts are officially addressed to unionists, yet it is not delivered in any meaningful way to unionists, because there are none at the gravesides to hear it and few heed the resulting reports. The imagery of Easter orations, with paramilitary uniforms and replica weapons, is not conducive to outreach.

Still, unionists should have shown more interest in this year’s statements, coming as they did from a new Sinn Féin leadership.

As with most southerners, unionists are presumably too theoretical a concept to McDonald to provoke a visceral reaction

In 2016, when Gerry Adams first announced his intention to stand down, he said this would be part of a 10-year “transition plan”.

Mary Lou McDonald became party president only two months ago, so little transiting at this stage might be expected – yet change is already perceptible.

Wheeling Adams off-stage has immediately improved the tone. That remains true if the former party president is still pulling the strings, as many unionists believe, and if the IRA “army council” is still directing policy, as Sinn Féin’s own members believe, according to a 2015 monitoring report. Even in outreach mode, Adams could rarely resist a malevolent dig. McDonald does not do this, or seem to be fighting the urge to do it. As with most southerners, unionists are presumably too theoretical a concept to her to provoke a visceral reaction.

U-turn

Sinn Féin’s willingness to return to Stormont under February’s abortive deal was a U-turn driven by Adams but it now carries McDonald’s stamp. The poor nature of that deal for republicans gives it the appearance of an order from the south to northern colleagues, who seem to have been told to back down for the greater good. Where Belfast’s IRA hardliners fit into this is a question for unionists to ponder – is McDonald pulling the strings?

January’s defenestration of Tyrone MLA Barry McElduff over a tweet fits a similar pattern.

Stormont brings in the dynamic between McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, whose improvised post as “Northern leader” has now been regularised by her appointment as deputy leader. O’Neill is growing in reputation but is clearly McDonald’s junior, in contrast to the diarchy of Adams and Martin McGuinness.

In an intriguing development this week, McDonald announced Adams would not be Sinn Féin’s candidate for the Áras. Whenever this decision was taken and by whom, merely announcing it was significant. It looked like a pointed assurance that Adams is yesterday’s man.

At the Easter orations, O’Neill and McDonald delivered boilerplate speeches full of the usual platitudes on welcoming unionists into a united Ireland.

As former UUP leader David Trimble liked to say, fine words butter no parsnips.

O’Neill was criticised by unionists for demanding a Border poll within five years – a legitimate republican goal in line with the Belfast Agreement but one that still looks, in the absence of imminent victory, like an Adams-era ploy of creating permanent crisis.

A Border poll is Sinn Féin policy, however, so this could be filed under stating the obvious.

McDonald devoted the first half of her speech to women in Ireland and the second half to unionists and a united Ireland. She called on her graveside audience to “think the unthinkable” but expressed no original thoughts.

United Ireland

However, in a Sunday Business Post interview published the same day, she raised the idea of a devolved Stormont in a united Ireland.

This is a kite Adams flew several times in recent years but McDonald gave it fresh emphasis.

Strictly speaking, this is also in line with the Belfast Agreement, whose mechanism for unity is for Northern Ireland and Stormont to survive intact, with sovereignty simply transferring from London to Dublin.

That might be a practical necessity as a transition plan but otherwise it is irrational. A Border poll would be won by a nationalist majority. Why would that majority want to continue partitioning itself from the rest of Ireland, still beholden to Stormont’s unionist veto?

In another Easter statement heavily trailed by Sinn Féin, MEP Matt Carthy called on unionists to start planning for unity from a position of strength – a republican canard that, no matter how well-intentioned, always sounds slightly menacing. What plans are implied in unionism’s absence? Carthy’s call is also irrational: unionists will not plan for a united Ireland unless it happens. To do so any earlier would be, from their perspective, weakness.

If McDonald is leaning towards a devolved Northern Ireland in a united Ireland this could be a Southerner’s instinct to keep the entire society in the North at the theoretical distance, or at least to assure Southern voters of ongoing quarantine arrangements. That is not what would happen, however. Northern Ireland would evaporate, the Republic would inherit the North’s entire population and unionists will not help to plan for any of it.

None of this is insurmountable but the onus falls on those who want change to confront what it means.

Next Easter, perhaps, McDonald will be ready to say that unsayable.

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