Back to Basics - Sinn Fein

In the fifth and final part of his series on the way forward for the main political parties in the North, Political Commentator Dr John Coulter examines the future for Sinn Fein and emphasises that the route should be to remodel the republican movement as an Irish Patriotic Front along the lines of the dominant Scottish National Party.

Sinn Fein needs to move away from the ethos of ‘Ourselves Alone’ and build a new, modern, democratic patriotic front of republicans if Irish unity is to become a reality rather than a mythical aspiration.

The main barrier which Sinn Fein faces in creating this Irish Patriotic Front is the party’s past links to the Provisional IRA. That stereotype will get worse as Ireland nears the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, partition and ultimately the Irish Civil War when republican butchered republican in atrocities far worse than seen during the War of Independence with the notorious Black and Tans.

It must never be forgotten in Sinn Fein’s desire to rewrite Irish history that more IRA members were executed by pro-Treaty Free State forces during the civil war than by the British during the earlier Tan War.

As for the creation of a Patriotic Front, why can’t Sinn Fein already use the current Pan Nationalist Front? Simple answer. Sinn Fein needs to create a modern movement it can dominate.

The existing Pan Nationalist Front comprised the SDLP, Sinn Fein and was the brainchild of the Dublin government in the aftermath of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the creation of the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast.

In the Pan Nationalist Front, Sinn Fein was a minor player; in the new Irish Patriotic Front, Sinn Fein will be the leader of the republican pack. Sinn Fein has not only recognised the futility of an IRA terror campaign, but also that any realistic hopes of Irish unity will not be achieved through the front door at Stormont, but through the back door in Dublin’s Leinster House.

Electorally, Sinn Fein has reduced the once-dominant SDLP to fringe status. With a Dail General Election looming, Sinn Fein is perfectly poised to become a minority partner in a coalition government with Fianna Fail.

Perhaps a price of that coalition would be that Fianna Fail does not carry out its pledge to contest elections in Northern Ireland, making FF a natural successor to the poll-battered SDLP and a realistic rival to Sinn Fein in the six counties.

A key tactic will be Sinn Fein’s ability to integrate its electoral gains in both the Republic and the UK. In mainland Britain terms, it can only effectively use its seven Commons MPs by finally ditching the political dinosaur policy of abstentionism.

If Sinn Fein’s greatest ally at Westminster, Labour boss Jeremy Corbyn, is to be handed the keys to Downing Street, he will need Sinn Fein MPs to swallow their pride, take the oath, and join the Scottish and Welsh nationalists in an anti-Tory ‘rainbow coalition’ – assuming the pragmatic DUP doesn’t steal Sinn Fein’s clothes and form a DUP/Labour deal instead.

In Westminster terms, Sinn Fein needs to rebrand itself as the Irish version of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and anti-monarchists within the Labour Party. Sinn Fein needs to become a 21st century version of the former Mid Ulster Unity MP Bernadette Devlin who took her Commons seat following a by-election.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein must get the Stormont institutions restored, thereby building its North/South political platform for Irish unity using the cross-border bodies. By taking its Westminster seats, Sinn Fein can ensure it can assist the Government in getting the best possible Brexit deal for the people of Northern Ireland.

By using its Dail TDs and Stormont MLAs as an all-island team, it can push for a campaign to have all of Ireland back in the European Union given that the Republic is still part of the EU and Northern Ireland voted ‘Remain’ during the EU referendum last year.

In laying the groundwork for this all-island EU scenario, Sinn Fein ironically needs to take a leaf from the election-battered UUP’s history. During the Unionist Party’s years of dominance at the original Stormont Parliament, which was axed in 1972, one of the most influential groups within the party was the West Ulster Unionist Council, which comprised Unionists from the west of the River Bann.

The West Ulster Unionist Council held a dominant role in the overall ruling Ulster Unionist Council and was a power base for former UUP leader Harry West.

After the recent Westminster General Election, Sinn Fein holds every Commons seat – and much of the territory - west of the Bann.

In this respect, Sinn Fein should take advantage of these gains from both unionism and the SDLP and form a West Ulster Republican Council, which would work in partnership with Sinn Fein elected representatives directly across the Irish border from Northern gains in counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Effectively, the West Ulster Republican Council would create a power block that, on paper, would rub out the Irish border, thereby reducing unionist influence to counties Down, Antrim and small parts of Armagh. As the centenary of actual partition looms, the WURC would practically re-partition the northern part of the island again.

At Stormont, it would not be good enough for Sinn Fein to simply have the institutions restored. Perhaps part of the price of Sinn Fein taking its Commons seats would be for new legislation allowing a return to the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which allowed for the largest designation to lay claim to the coveted post of First Minister.

The DUP got this changed to the largest party at St Andrews in 2006 because it knew it could defeat the rival UUP in any future Assembly poll. But the recent Stormont snap poll earlier this year has left Sinn Fein only one seat behind the DUP, but more significantly – unionism is a minority designation within Stormont.

Tactically, the DUP wiped the electoral floor with the UUP and TUV in June’s Westminster General Election. If this result was repeated in the next Stormont election, the DUP could sweep up many of the UUP’s existing 10 Stormont seats. But would Sinn Fein be able to capture enough of the SDLP’s current tally of MLA seats to pass the DUP?

However, if Sinn Fein got the largest designation, rather than largest party rule restored at Stormont, it would strengthen the republican party’s hand in capturing the coveted First Minister’s post.

That would also give Sinn Fein the voting power to make the position of First Minister a clear, stand-alone post rather than the current joint post with the deputy First Minister. Two separate offices could be formed, effectively allowing Sinn Fein’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill to become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in time for the centenary commemorations of the formation of the Northern state.

Sinn Fein could increase its all-Ireland agenda by campaigning for Northern Ireland MPs and MLAs to not only have speaking rights in Leinster House, but also voting rights. Likewise, Sinn Fein must insist that all of the island can vote in the Irish Presidential elections so that any future campaign could benefit from Sinn Fein’s substantial Northern voter base.

  • Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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