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Sinn Féin’s problem with history hasn’t gone away

As the party’s leadership changes generation, the real question about Sinn Féin is not why has its support grown, but why hasn’t it grown more?

The untimely death of Martin McGuinness, at the beginning of a period when he had hoped to enjoy his retirement, is being mourned deeply in Sinn Féin and recognised much further afield as a great loss for Northern Ireland. The attendance and mood at his funeral on Thursday attested to that.

McGuinness’s exceptional personal qualities, the fact and symbolism of his own journey from war to peace, and his obvious commitment to reconciliation and the progress of politics in the North will be impossible to replace (although the cemeteries, as they say, are full of indispensable men).

His death also focuses Sinn Féin’s attention on the generational transition under way within the party, as the martial generation gives way to the “clean skins” of the younger cadre.

Look at those pictures of Gerry Adams giving the oration over his comrade's grave (from an ostentatiously Sinn Féin-branded lectern), flanked by Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill, if you want evidence of the process that is under way.


Maintaining the unity and integrity of the northern and southern wings of the party during this difficult and delicate process remains the highest priority for Sinn Féin – more important than the Dáil, than Stormont, than anything. One of the reasons why McGuinness and Adams were successful in leading the republican movement away from violence to politics is that they placed such a high premium on maintaining unity. If that made progress agonisingly slow sometimes, it also made it stick. Adams is not about to abandon that approach now.

The process will continue when Adams himself steps down, sooner or later. The accepted wisdom, including among many Sinn Féin people, is that Adams’s departure (a gradual stepping back is more likely, I feel) will open the way to a growth spurt in Sinn Féin support in the South, now the focus of its political energies.

But Sinn Fein’s problem with history may not disappear quite so easily.

Another story

On one view of it, Sinn Féin’s growth in the Republic in recent years has been irresistible, relentless, inevitable. But look more closely and another story emerges.

At a time when the established pillars of politics in the South, including the two old parties that have governed the State without interruption since its foundation, were battered and diminished by the economic crisis that shook the foundations of politics everywhere, Ireland had a ready-made home for all those disenchanted, formerly middle-ground voters.

Left-wing and frequently populist, avowedly anti-establishment, an outsider party untainted by the rage against elites that has coursed through western politics for nearly a decade, Sinn Féin was perfectly positioned for spectacular growth. Yet while voters lurched towards alternatives such as Podemos in Spain, the Five Star Movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece, the Irish electorate was much more cautious in its approach to Sinn Féin.

Support for Sinn Féin grew by three percentage points in the general election of 2011, and by another four points in last year’s elections. That’s steady growth, but it’s hardly meteoric, is it?

By contrast, support for Independents and others grew by half in 2011 and then doubled in 2016 to 30 per cent, more than twice the share of the vote won by Sinn Fein.

The real question about Sinn Fein is not why has its support grown, but why hasn’t it grown more?

Much of the answer to that, I think, is the obvious one: because the thing that Sinn Féin has been most associated with in the public mind is the IRA’s campaign of violence, and that was something to which the overwhelming majority of people in the South (and a majority in the North too) were opposed, many of them implacably.

Adams represents that military history to many people, and the diminished but continuing toxicity of the association with gruesome acts of violence clings to him. But he is not the sum total of it. McGuinness, after all, was soundly rejected by voters in the 2011 presidential election.

Irish Mandelas

The Sinn Féin narrative of Adams and McGuiness as Irish Mandelas is not one that many voters buy, frankly. Most of them recognise it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Many people have said in recent days that they would have done what McGuinness did had they been in Derry in 1969. Who knows? But John Hume demonstrated that there was an alternative path.

The efficacy or morality of either course can be debated ad nauseam. But what is not in dispute is that Sinn Féin and the IRA never persuaded more than a minority of northern nationalists to support them during the days of violence. And in the South, only a tiny minority of the public supported them.

People can have different views of the rights and wrongs of history. But these are facts.

Much has been made of McGuinness’s great change, eschewing violence, promoting politics, seeking reconciliation. But, as those who knew him best have pointed out, while he may have changed in his approach to his lifetime political project – moving from violent action against both the British and the Irish states to political engagement with them, recognising that the IRA’s campaign could not deliver his objectives but that politics might – this was a tactical switch, not a moral conversion.

McGuinness and his party stand by the IRA’s campaign. They have never said it was wrong, nor illegitimate, nor unjustified, right up to the end. That continues to put them at odds with most Irish people, and with an overwhelming majority of voters in the South. The orthodoxy in the party on this point remains rigid: no Sinn Féin candidate ever says the armed struggle was wrong, or even that it should have ended 10 or 20 years before it did. To support Sinn Féin is to endorse its view of Irish history.

So yes, Sinn Féin is extending its appeal; it is especially popular among young people who grew up after the Troubles; and it will probably continue to grow. But the party’s history remains a significant barrier to its progress in the South. Impressive and all as the events in Derry were, that will continue to be the case. History matters in Irish politics.