Protestant Sinn Fein

Could there ever be a Protestant Sinn Fein? In his Fearless Flying Column today, controversial political commentator, Dr John Coulter, addresses the thorny issue if the so-called republican charm offensive to Unionism could ever result in a Protestant wing in Sinn Fein.

This week marks the 20th anniversary in February 1998 of the death of one of the most contentious British MPs – Enoch Powell, who served as Ulster Unionist MP for South Down for a period.

While Powell is best known for his warning on immigration during his time in the Conservative Party and the famous or infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, he is also accredited with branding the rival DUP ‘the Protestant Sinn Fein’.

While Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech has been twisted by those who favour mass immigration to the United Kingdom, we could also twist his ‘Protestant Sinn Fein’ observation to ponder the reality of the republican movement’s supposedly new found warming to its Unionist brothers and sisters if incoming Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald is to be believed.

Taken to its natural conclusion, could a day ever come in the future where we could see sizeable numbers of Protestants voting Sinn Fein, even to the point where there would even be a significant number of Protestants joining Sinn Fein – hence the phrase, ‘the Protestant Sinn Fein’.

The huge problem facing such a concept as ‘the Protestant Sinn Fein’ is the reality of the conflict when Sinn Fein acted as the apologist for the slaughter of Protestants by its military wing, the Provisional IRA, whether those Protestants were members of the British security forces, loyalist organisations, the Loyal Orders, or in the case of Kingsmill – simply Protestant workers coming home from a day’s work.

While Protestantism can boast, historically, a significant Irish nationalist tradition, and even some liberal Protestants – especially among the clergy – could be perceived as favouring a united Ireland, the modern membership of Sinn Fein is overwhelmingly from the Catholic tradition in Ireland.

Is Sinn Fein 2018 supposedly holding out the political hand of friendship to Unionism merely an electoral stunt to encourage more Southern voters to give the party a crack at government as a minority Dail partner?

After all, if the founder of both the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and the DUP, the late Rev Ian Paisley, could form a ‘chuckle brothers’ partnership at Stormont with the IRA’s former second in command in Londonderry, the late Martin McGuinness, is it not also politically conceivable that a day might come when a large number of Irish Protestants – north and south – not only voted for Sinn Fein, but joined the party and changed it from within?

Look at how the DUP has changed since the turn of the new millennium when significant numbers of Ulster Unionists left the UUP and both voted and joined the DUP. DUP2018 is a far cry from the ‘Never, never, never’ DUP1985 party fronted by Ian Paisley senior.

Likewise, when Sinn Fein was founded in 1905 – ironically, the same year as the Ulster Unionist Council – that nationalist movement was not a full-blown republican party, but favoured the solution of Dominion Status for Ireland.

It was only really after the doomed 1916 Easter Rising and the insistence of British General ‘Bloody’ Maxwell to have the main Rising conspirators executed by firing squad that Sinn Fein jumped on the bandwagon of wanting a full-blown 32-county democratic socialist republic.

The essential problem – even if Unionists can clear the supposedly insurmountable hurdle of Sinn Fein’s past links to the IRA – is the mixed messages currently coming from Sinn Fein.

The key question many Protestants must pose is: “Will the real Sinn Fein please stand up!” That’s the key challenge to the republican movement from Unionism. We have on one hand, pussy footing platitudes from Upper Bann MLA John O’Dowd in Northern Ireland, and then on the other, historical eulogizing from Mary Lou McDonald at a commemoration to a dead IRA terrorist.

The clear impression coming from the rhetoric of Sinn Fein is that it is two parties in one movement, so which one should Unionists listen too?

If Sinn Fein is truly serious about wanting to work with Unionists, then it needs to stop the word play and cease sending its mixed messages.

But then again, maybe the mixed messages coming from the republican movement is clear evidence that the Gerry Adams ‘old guard’ has lost control and the supposed new leadership-elect now has yet another divided republican party on its hands.

Would Sinn Fein really want thousands of Protestants across the island joining its ranks? Would the best way to defeat Sinn Fein as a movement in Ireland be for thousands of liberal-minded Protestants to join Sinn Fein and change its policy of celebrating IRA terrorists from within?

Look, too, at how the Alliance Party has changed now that liberal Presbyterianism now rules the roost in that centrist movement. It was not an overnight sensation, but a gradual takeover.

Look at how liberalism has wrecked the once-mighty UUP. Look at how the ‘suck up to Sinn Fein’ policy of Hume destroyed the SDLP. Look at how a DUP deal with Sinn Fein spawned the Traditional Unionist Voice party.

Indeed, the influence of thousands of ex-UUP members now voting for and even joining the DUP has been to rebrand the party as a mirror image of the UUP movement once fronted by the late Jim Molyneaux.

Rumours abound on the Hill at Stormont about a looming Assembly poll on Thursday 3rd May. Liberal thinkers in both the UUP and SDLP fear such a May poll would only further polarize political thinking in Northern Ireland, returning even more DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs as the state reverts to a two-party system with both the UUP and SDLP reduced to political fringe status or total insignificance.

Before the original Stormont Parliament was axed in 1972, an almost similar system existed in Northern Ireland – Unionists had The Unionist Party; nationalists had The Nationalist Party, and from time to time, those on the Centre boosted the ranks of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party.

In 2018, Unionists have the DUP; nationalists have Sinn Fein, and the Centre has Alliance and the Greens. Ironically, the key to developing any realistic concept of a ‘Protestant Sinn Fein’ will be Brexit in March 2019, which will force Northern Unionists to have to think significantly on an all-island basis.

The Queen has laid a wreath at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance to Ireland’s war dead who fought the British; Martin McGuinness shook hands with the Queen; Southern Irish politicians have taken part in Remembrance Sunday commemorations and other memorial events to mark the thousands of Irish men and women who served, fought and died for the British forces in two world wars and other conflicts.

Is the only way Sinn Fein can attract significant Protestant voters only by clearly distancing itself from IRA commemorations?

In 1986, Paisley senior was to the fore in the Ulster Says No campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Three decades later, he signed up to the St Andrews Agreement which heralded in the DUP/Sinn Fein power-sharing Executive at Stormont.

In 2018, Mary Lou McDonald urged closer ties with Unionist brothers and sisters – but will it be 2048 before we see a significant ‘Protestant Sinn Fein’ political movement? Never, never, never, I hear you yell – now, where have I heard that sentiment before? 

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.

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.

1 comment to ''Protestant Sinn Fein"

  1. That would be hilarious if all of a sudden ten thousand prods applied to join the Shinners!

    They could hardly say no either, lest be thought sectarian!


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