Sinn Féin at the Crossroads

Following Sinn Féin’s historic victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Pauline Hadaway questions whether the party’s long accommodation to the Good Friday Agreement has left it with the political capacity to lead a united sovereign Irish nation.

One hundred years after the northern Unionists seceded from the Irish Free State, Sinn Féin, the party of Irish re-unification stands poised to nominate the First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Executive, with the DUP, the largest Unionist party, relegated to the status of deputy.  The designations are largely symbolic, as power-sharing makes Executive decisions subject to the agreement of both first and deputy first ministers. However, in upending the relative positions of the main Unionist and nationalist parties, Sinn Féin’s seeming pre-eminence marks a significant moment in the history of a state, whose founding purpose was to secure and maintain a permanent Ulster unionist and Protestant majority. 

Much has been made of the transformative potential of Sinn Féin’s electoral breakthrough, most notably in the British media, and it has been heralded as a catalyst for future constitutional change. Others have focused less on the forward march of Irish nationalism and more on the slow death of Unionism, interpreting Sinn Féin’s electoral victory as one more element in a gradual accumulation of an assortment of political currents and events, which, quickened by Britain’s decision to leave the EU, are ‘coming together to create the sense of ending’. 

For some, that sense of imminent closure is symptomatic of a deeper turn away from the kind of polarised politics of nationalism and Unionism, that are currently playing out in Unionist demands that the Northern Ireland Protocol be rescinded on the grounds that it damages Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom. There is evidence that the fragmentation of the Unionist vote, a consequence of the parties’ decision to back Brexit, is fuelling support for the ‘neither nationalist nor Unionist’ Alliance Party, which has doubled its Assembly seats. This gives hope to some that Northern Ireland is shifting towards a new more consensual politics.  While voting patterns are still strongly determined by religious and communal affiliations, voters are growing impatient with the brinkmanship and choreographed crises that regularly paralyse Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The argument goes that nationalist and Unionist parties, though still reliant on mobilising their communal blocs to keep the other side out, will increasingly confront new generations of voters prepared to prioritise social issues and economic interests above old tribal loyalties. 

As the post-election dust settles, two possible—and seemingly contradictory—political futures appear to be taking shape. The first proposes further movement towards a border poll, which, fuelled by a growing climate of opinion, North and South, could determine the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland in favour of Irish reunification and ending the Union with Britain. The second proposes further consolidation of a non-aligned, pragmatic centre ground, populated by new voters and politicians, opposed to what they see as the cultural and political straitjackets of traditional Irish nationalism and Unionism, and determined to build inter-communal consensus around economic problem-solving and shared values of partnership, equality and mutual respect. This leaves Sinn Féin, the new leading party in the North, with a choice: whether to ride the popular wave of support for Irish unity among its core constituency, by pressing for the end of the Union and advancing the project of national reunification; or to focus on building a coalition with the centre ground of smaller parties, independents and civil society actors that largely define themselves in opposition to what they see as the zero-sum politics of nationalism versus Unionism, to the futile struggle between two conflicting claims to national sovereignty. In line with a long-standing strategy of using the structural and ideological framework of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as a vehicle for achieving Irish unity, Sinn Féin seems likely to pursue both options simultaneously.

In promising to lead her ministerial team to Stormont and get them to work ‘putting money back in people’s pockets and fixing the health service’, Michelle O’Neill speaks to a growing consensus that believes politicians must put aside sectional differences, get the power-sharing institutions up and running and make politics work for ‘all the people of Northern Ireland’: ‘the people have told us during the course of this election that they expect us to work together. The people are right.’  As is so often the case, one side’s heartfelt appeal for good governance and reconciliation, doubles up as a rebuke to the failings of the other: in this case the DUP, who are refusing to nominate a Deputy First Minister without substantial changes to the Protocol.  Having spoken to the centre ground, the First Minister-elect then spoke directly from the GFA playbook, when she hailed her party’s victory as ‘a defining moment for our politics and our people’ [my emphasis]. Having made an appeal for Northern Ireland politics to get back to normal, Sinn Féin’s Northern leader reconnected with her core constituency, through a coded affirmation of her party’s ambition to fulfil the historic destiny of the Irish people.   

It has become commonplace to point out the obfuscations of political power-sharing, with its tactical use of constructive ambiguity, carefully crafted to conceal sectional agendas and contradictory positions. Back in April 1998, within a week of publicly embracing the GFA as a template for building a shared future, the then Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, was justifying power sharing to party members in terms of a ‘temporary renunciation of revolutionary demands’ that would act as ‘a bridge to the future…with considerable potential’ for advancing the republican struggle. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, was confidently reassuring his party that bringing nationalists into power sharing was a sure-fire strategy for copper fastening the Union. While Sinn Féin advised its members to ignore the minutiae of the power-sharing deal and focus on the long-term strategy of reunification, the Ulster Unionists were searching the small print for qualifying clauses and rights of veto. One side claimed that the deal was a vehicle for completing its unfinished revolution, while the other congratulated itself for having made sure that the completion date for any nationalist project—revolutionary or otherwise—would remain conditional on the will of the majority—ie, themselves.

What has distinguished Sinn Féin’s approach to power-sharing throughout its 15-year experiment in government with the DUP, is less its shrewdness in exploiting the flexible architecture and calculated evasions of the GFA, and more the tenacity of its faith in the potential of its participation in the process to act as a mechanism for building support and advancing the cause of—what it now terms—Irish unity.  Combining elements of strategic realism with large amounts of wishful thinking, Sinn Féin’s transitional strategy ultimately rests on a belief that the dynamics of historical, political and demographic change, combined with a capacity for relentless negotiation, will inexorably move the process towards the realisation of the Irish nationalist destiny. 

The GFA never promised a final settlement nor even a transition towards a pre-imagined endpoint. It was rather an invitation to enter a peacebuilding process, where the primary objective has always been to keep the process moving. The rhetoric of transformation and reconciliation covers the strategic void at the heart of post-agreement politics, while the commitment to making politics work lends a sense of purpose and moral coherence to the technical and managerial business of moving the process forward. In contrast to the purposeful actions that flow from political agents willing and able to control and master their external environment, power-sharing rests on the willingness of participants to demobilise their political agency and adapt to the expectations of others. In Easter 1916, when the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic summoned the people of Ireland to its flag to strike for the ‘unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible’, it spoke to men and women willing to act not simply as bearers of an identity, but as collective makers of their own destiny. The GFA recasts these purposeful men and women in the role of facilitators and co-producers, managing, monitoring and adapting to increasingly uncertain and unstable environments.  

Underneath the transformational rhetoric, the conceptual ambiguities that hold that process together both reflect and exacerbate a deep incoherence, disorientation and uncertainty about political purpose and goals.  The temporary renunciation of Sinn Féin’s central goals —the primary condition for entering the GFA process—has changed the party’s political purpose. For, in making the achievement of self-determination in a unified, sovereign Irish nation conditional on acknowledging the equal legitimacy (if not the permanence) of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland, the process has rendered the goals of Irish nationalism indeterminate.  With no clearly stated interests or agreed endpoints, the process of managing communal conflict has become the permanent politics of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin’s strategy of achieving reunification through building an Ireland of Equals, is an attempt to resolve these contradictions by adopting new forms of ‘nationalism’ that seem to be moving closer to models of regional governance within the European Union and further away from the sovereign 32-county republic that inspired past generations.  Combining elements of independence and forms of autonomy within existing but culturally reconfigured states, these new, niche nationalisms, designed to meet the rising expectations of upwardly mobile, business and managerial classes, are unlikely to inspire mass political movements or to answer the cries of the poor.  

Sinn Féin is in favour of retaining the Protocol as it ‘prevents a hard Irish border and is a mitigation against Brexit’. Many supporters of Irish unity may see poetic justice in the success of Irish nationalists in placing limitations on British – and indeed Unionist – aspirations to exercise greater control over economic and political decision making.  Much of the history of British rule in Ireland has been dominated by coercion, discrimination and injustice. More than anything else, Britain’s historical denial of Irish self-determination exacted the heaviest price on ordinary Irish people, Catholics and Protestants, living on both sides of a border imposed a century ago against the will of the majority. But it is telling that it was not Sinn Féin’s carefully crafted plans for a transitional strategy towards reunification that reinvigorated the constitutional questions of partition, the border and Britain’s authority to govern in Ireland.  Rather it was millions of ordinary British voters determined to assert the principle that citizens be fully empowered to exercise the maximum control over political decision-making and to hold their elected politicians to account. It was that decision in June 2016 which took Britain out of the EU and placed Ireland’s unfinished revolution back onto the stage of history. Asserting that same democratic principle in Ireland would inevitably mark the end of the Union with Britain, opening up the necessity and opportunity for reimagining relationships between British and Irish citizens from all backgrounds and denominations across the whole of these islands. The question for Sinn Féin is whether the party is willing and able to boldly follow through on the opportunity created by the British electorate.

Thanks are due to Kevin Bean for his analysis of the ideological origins of New Sinn Féin, in The New Politics of Sinn Féin (2007) Liverpool University Press.

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