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Newton Emerson: Sinn Féin rides two horses in chase of hobgoblins

Party's agenda North and South leaves nothing to chance – something for everyone

Does it matter if Sinn Féin has different policies on either side of the Border?

This question was raised in two Dáil debates last week over abortion and fox-hunting.

It is becoming a standard "gotcha!" for TDs from other parties to point out Sinn Féin "rides two horses", as People Before Profit's Paul Murphy put it during the fox-hunting exchange.

Sinn Féin does not help itself by insisting all-Ireland policies do matter and pretending it always has them: the contortions Matt Carthy TD put himself through on RTÉ radio over fox-hunting earned further ridicule in the Dáil.

However, others have looked foolish by making trite North-South comparisons. During the main 2020 televised election debate, Leo Varadkar attacked Mary Lou McDonald over homelessness in Northern Ireland, although this statistic is defined so differently by Stormont a comparison is meaningless.

Rather than getting caught up in republican ideology, it would often be better for Sinn Féin to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

Some of the party’s worst blunders in office have come from trying to be consistent. The most egregious example was the welfare reform crisis from 2012, when Sinn Féin stalled Stormont for three years because it would not sign off benefit cuts in the North while opposing them in the South. The stand-off was finally resolved by passing the relevant powers back to London – reverse republican ideology.

In 2009, Sinn Féin jumped on the bandwagon against Dublin’s Poolbeg incinerator and decided it had to make this an all-Ireland policy. It withdrew support at the last minute for an incinerator beside Belfast Harbour, long planned by 11 councils and approved by public consultation, scuppering waste management for the entire eastern half of Northern Ireland. This remains unresolved: the proposed site has been moved to a hill above Belfast, where Sinn Féin shamelessly supports residents’ objections.

Sinn Féin has liberal anti-hunting voters in Dublin and conservative pro-hunting voters in Tyrone

Environmental issues, or social policy questions such as abortion, are hard for republicans to nuance North and South without implying differences in society or geography. Yet people and places are hardly uniform across the island as a whole. On RTÉ, Matt Carthy desperately insisted “there is no difference between Sinn Féin voters on either side of the Border”.

On the same programme, Aoife Moore of the Irish Examiner explained Sinn Féin has liberal anti-hunting voters in Dublin and conservative pro-hunting voters in Tyrone and finds it convenient to partition one from the other.

The same urban-rural split can be observed within the Republic and within Northern Ireland. In that sense, the Border is incidental. The real significance of the fox-hunting story is that Sinn Féin’s northern blood-sports set still calls the shots.

Economic policy disparities should be easier to justify, given the obviously different cross-Border context. The ideal explanation, from Sinn Féin’s perspective, is different policies to deliver harmonisation. On devolving corporation tax to Stormont with the intention of reducing it, Sinn Féin batted away accusations of left-wing hypocrisy by saying it wanted the same rate North and South.

Policy differences are trickier where there is no evident harmonisation.

Stormont is completing its first ever budget under a Sinn Féin Minister for Finance, Conor Murphy. His only party predecessor, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, failed to produce a budget in his year in the role before Stormont's 2017 collapse.

Murphy's progress has been notable: he has bounced a fractious five-party Executive into agreeing, or at least not disagreeing, a draft budget for 2 per cent cuts across all other departments to fund an 8 per cent increase for health. That involves all Sinn Féin Ministers cutting services to give money to an Ulster Unionist Minister.

Stormont has a significant taxation power: domestic and commercial property rates

Less impressive are Murphy’s two explanations for why cuts are necessary: that London has not given him enough money; and Stormont cannot raise its own revenue. Both are demonstrably untrue. UK funding has risen by more than enough, even discounting extra Covid-19 payments; too much of it has simply been squandered while health service reform has not been delivered. Stormont has a significant taxation power: domestic and commercial property rates. Bringing domestic rates up to the level of equivalent taxes in Britain would raise all the revenue Murphy is seeking for health.

Asking for cuts instead is a strategy of blaming the Brits, low-tax populism and avoiding criticism in the Republic, where Sinn Féin opposes the local property tax.

There are enough differences between the northern and southern taxes and their economic and political contexts to stand over a practical distinction. Sinn Féin might bolster its reputation in the South if it called for financial discipline in the North. But it has clearly decided too few voters in the Republic would pay sufficient attention and it is probably right.

To understand if consistency is foolish or not requires following Northern Ireland politics more closely than most people South of the Border seem to think it deserves.

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