Ballot Box And Honours Degree

John Coulter with a fresh eye on a fresh start. An edited version of this column appeared in his Ireland Eye print edition of Tribune magazine on 18th December, 2015. Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

  • In his latest Ireland Eye column in Tribune magazine, political commentator Dr john Coulter explores the long-term implications for Unionism and Republicanism in the so-called Fresh Start document as ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ vie for political control of the various parties. 
Smooth coronation, not bitter confrontation seems to be the ‘in motto’ now that yet another political sticky plaster known as Fresh Start is being applied to the cancer called social unrest in Ireland.

Labour’s former comrades in arms in Northern Ireland, the election-battered, moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party unveiled a surprise at its recent annual party conference when delegates voted to depose their current traditional nationalist boss, the aging South Belfast MP Dr Alasdair McDonnell with the much young Assembly member Colm Eastwood, who represents the party’s emerging socialist republican wing.

The latest initiative to save devolution was the Fresh Start agreement, hammered together after several months of nail-biting talks and large doses of brinkmanship. In reality, the sticky plaster label was simply to keep the existing Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein Executive government in power until next May’s Stormont General Election.

So far as the SDLP is concerned, it doesn’t matter who leads the movement. It has been constantly battered since the original 1998 Good Friday Agreement by an increasingly slick Sinn Fein electoral bandwagon.

Within days of the SDLP leadership coup, the DUP unveiled that its leader and Stormont First Minister was shortly to retire and would not lead the party into the May 2016 poll.

Unlike the rival Ulster Unionists who constantly aired their dirty linen in public, the DUP wants peace between the modernisers and fundamentalists in the party. So the party has split the leadership in two – one to lead the Westminster party, the other to be First Minister at Stormont.

Former UUP politician Arlene Foster is to become First Minister, while devout Christian and North Belfast MP stays as the party’s Commons boss. And so peace reigns once again in the DUP!

This leaves all eyes firmly focussed on Sinn Fein’s ability to smoothly replace the party’s aging double act of Gerry Adams in the Dail and Martin McGuinness at Stormont. Both men have one last throw of the electoral dice to throw.

Next year marks the centenary of one of the most iconic events in the republican calendar – the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising, which laid the foundations for the modern IRA.

Sinn Fein’s electoral aim is to be in power in both jurisdictions of Ireland by the end of 2016. Campaigning on an anti-austerity ticket in the Republic could see Sinn Fein and Adams become a minority partner in a coalition government in the Dail, with the former West Belfast MP becoming Tanaiste (deputy prime minister).

Given the splits within unionism, Protestant voter apathy and Sinn Fein’s demolition of the SDLP at the ballot box, McGuinness is odds-on to become First Minister, and so it would be ‘job done, Sinn Fein rule in both parts of Ireland’.

The problem for Sinn Fein is what faction of the broad republican movement will replace the Adams/McGuinness cross-border partnership.

A recent police/MI5 report concluded what even the dogs in the streets across Ireland have known for decades – the Provisional IRA’s ruling Army Council is not only still intact, but also running Sinn Fein.

This has fuelled considerable speculation that the hawks are set to return to the leadership of the movement’s political wing. When Sinn Fein seriously entered the electoral arena after the 1981 republican hunger strikes which claimed the lives of 10 IRA and INLA prisoners in the now closed Maze jail, being a terrorist activist was a key condition to becoming a Sinn Fein politician.

A leading republican propagandist coined the iconic phrase of the ‘ballot paper in one hand, and the Armalite rifle in the other’ – a clear reference as to how the political campaign worked hand in glove with the IRA’s terror war.

However, since the Good Friday Agreement, a new maxim has emerged in the movement’s vocabulary – ‘a ballot paper in one hand and an honours degree in the other’.

Increasingly, a new brand of so-called young ‘draft dodgers’ has emerged within Sinn Fein and has been getting elected. This new generation of young Sinn Fein politician is university educated and did not serve an apprenticeship in the Provos – hence the jibe ‘draft dodgers’.

This does not mean that all the young Turks emerging in the republican movement are doves. Given that the Army Council still calls the shots in Sinn Fein, many feel the doves have had their day and it’s time for republican hardliners to flex their muscles in the party once again.

If more hawks start to hold key posts within Sinn Fein, it could stem any future defections to the dissident republican terror factions who feel Sinn Fein has compromised too much, not just in the Fresh Start deal, but in the running of Stormont itself.

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