Sinn Féin Faces A Daunting Task

A piece from Tommy McKearney written shortly after the appointment of Michelle O'Neill as leader of Sinn Fein in the North. This article first appeared in Socialist Voice, February 2017. Tommy McKearney is a socialist republican and organiser with the Independent Workers Union.

Sinn Féin’s newly appointed leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, faces a daunting task as she begins to guide her party during a period of uncertainty in the six counties

Notwithstanding the fact that she is a politician of considerable experience and ability as outgoing minister for health in the Stormont Assembly, she faces several difficult challenges. Not only has she a short preparatory period before leading the party into an election in early March but she will be faced immediately thereafter with what are bound to be fraught negotiations with the DUP over the establishment of an Executive—and that may prove to be the easy bit.

The fundamental problem facing all political parties in Northern Ireland is not restoring the institutions but what to do with a failed political entity, locked helplessly within the United Kingdom.

Although there may be some small degree of electoral slippage for both major parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP are likely to remain the two largest groups in the Assembly. Thanks to the limited ability of the Stormont opposition, not to mention the absence of a visible alternative beyond that institution, the previous coalition partners will emerge as the only contenders for executive office.

Whatever the electoral tally may show, there is undoubtedly a wide gap to be bridged if an Executive is to be formed in the weeks following 2 March. Sinn Féin has been stung by criticism from its own supporters for its inept and often contradictory early-days handling of the “cash for ash” scandal. The party was reluctant to bring down the Assembly and felt angry when forced to do so and thus trigger an election. Michelle O’Neill will be obliged, therefore, to wring some noticeable concessions from the DUP before re-entering coalition.

Arlene Foster, on the other hand, has practically staked her reputation on acting tough with Sinn Féin while simultaneously rejecting any responsibility whatsoever for the RHI fiasco. This indicates the likelihood of stalemate, followed by direct rule, for some months at least.

There was a time in the not too distant past when both London and Dublin would have reacted with some alarm to the prospect of relations between Northern Ireland’s political parties breaking down. Not any longer, though. Put bluntly, there is virtually no prospect of this rupture in the Assembly leading to widespread armed activity, and at any rate the Irish and British governments are now wrestling with what both consider the much more important issue of Brexit. Consequently, the quarrelsome Northern politicians will be left on the back burner until Theresa May finds time to send someone in to force through a settlement.

No doubt an arrangement of sorts will be reached sooner or later. Both parties are acutely aware of what may happen when local political institutions are put in cold storage. Without the structures presented by the existence of a devolved administration and the public platform this provides, electoral parties tend to stagnate and even wither. Sinn Féin and the DUP are well aware of what happened to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP as a result of the prolonged period of direct rule during the 1980s.

Both parties, however, are caught in a bind. Stormont as now constituted allows them to exert a certain amount of influence but grants no real power. The recent ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court in relation to article 50 of the Treaty on European Union—i.e. Brexit—made this painfully clear when it “unanimously ruled that devolved administrations did not need to be consulted and did not have a right to veto Article 50 . . .” It might well have added that, deprived, as it is, of fiscal and political authority, this applies to all other matters of significance coming before the Assembly.

Making matters worse is the fact that those who have administered the six counties over the past ten years have no concrete plan for improving the situation. On the contrary, they have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to manage their responsibilities within parameters dictated by governments in London.

How impoverished their response to this has been is evidenced by feeble initiatives such as the proposed reduction in corporation tax and appeals by the first and deputy first ministers to foreign transnationals to come and exploit the North’s low-wage economy.

Moreover, it now appears that the absence of meaningful control over the economy may have played a significant part in the RHI (or “cash for ash”) scandal. Approximately 45 per cent of this grant was allocated to the poultry industry.¹ An impartial observer could be forgiven for thinking that this was, in effect, a disguised subsidy for a low-tech industry that, unsupported, might easily have been undermined by competition from abroad.

Interestingly, the scheme’s attraction for poultry farmers was reported by the News Letter as far back as August 2014,² a fact that may require answers from the then minister for agriculture, Michelle O’Neill.

Whatever conclusion will eventually be drawn from inquiries into this affair, it exposes inherent weaknesses in Stormont’s political and economic structures. The northern political entity is a peripheral region of the United Kingdom, locked in to London’s political and economic orbit. Unable to chart its own course, Northern Ireland is reduced to operating an opportunist economic policy, regulated and contaminated through the mean practising of sectarian politics.

Therefore, while the Assembly and the Executive may eventually be restored, they will continue to huff and puff and do little to improve the dismal lot of the region’s working class.

As with so many other states failed by a colonial past and contemporary capitalism, the North needs a transformative strategy. This requires frankness, honesty, and a willingness to contemplate options that will not please everyone. The northern state, as now constituted, is a failure and has to be replaced. That such a change will come about is no longer in doubt. The fall-out from Brexit, Scottish disenchantment with London and changing demographics are among the factors that guarantee this.

Simply waiting for events to take their course, however, is not an option in the volatile political arena that is Northern Ireland. The only responsible approach is to make sure that change happens under the best possible conditions and with maximum support from within the working class. To do so it will be necessary to introduce a programme that demonstrates (even if it cannot be immediately implemented) a clear and reasonable path towards a new and better society. Core issues detrimentally affecting working-class communities have to be given priority and solutions identified over the short, medium and long term.

It doesn’t take long to list problem areas that would form the basis of a transformative programme. Just as in the Republic, there is a homeless and rental-housing crisis in the North that can only be addressed by a comprehensive public housing strategy. The creeping privatisation of the National Health Service has to be halted and rolled back. Workers’ rights need defining, asserting, and defending. Adequate care for the aged must be made a priority. And the greatest stain of all—ubiquitous food banks in 21st-century Northern Ireland³—must be addressed and the need for them ended for all time.

To implement such a strategy it will be necessary to build a movement around progressive forces and identify a methodology for engaging with the situation. Let’s be honest: this won’t be easy, but the alternative is to do nothing while tolerating existing failure, as we wait for the situation to inevitably get worse.

As socialists, however, we believe we can succeed in this endeavour, because we always exercise “optimism of the will,” even in the North of Ireland.

1. Conor Macauley, “RHI scandal: Locations of RHI boilers revealed to BBC,” BBC News, 17 January 2017 (

2. Future of farming appears to be “Brites,” Farming Life, 22 August 2014 (

3. Just one example: “Giving generously to food bank,” Mid-Ulster Mail, 15 December 2016 (


  1. O Neill,s anointment from on high by the quisling $inn £eind president for life and beyond proves to me beyond doubt that as a party Q$£ are no more representative of their electoral base than the waffen ss were protectors of the jewish community what sort of democratic party is it where the membership have no say in who represents it? ,,they were well aware of scandal that the RHI scheme is for well over a year yet sat on it,and as stated O Neill was the agri minister , their outrage over the Irish language is also farcical, in their programme for govt in Jan they made no mention of it, they espoused the wonderful things that both themselves and the DUP were doing in govt , yet just over a month later we are told that the DUP had played them for fools and disrespected them for the last 10 years, the scandals and waste of public money that both these parties have been involved in are way beyond what should be acceptable in public office , both parties imo should be de barred from holding office ,they and Stormont are a circus without sand and very expensive clowns .

  2. Did the so called working class not reject all these ponderous social issues when they simply voted along sectarian lines and in the full knowledge that their elected parties are behaving immorally and unethically?
    The introduction of the Tory cuts to welfare and the public's initial fleeting concern and indifference to the formation of food banks with a three minute whimper, underlies how pliable the ‘working class’ are by the State and its apparatus. Socialists seem to be ever trying to create this united front of the working class. Judging by the last election it would seem that they are not interested and are quite content to put up with their own squalor rather than share it. Maybe it's time to re-evaluate that policy.....for very, very few, are listening!

  3. Niall without a doubt there is massive frustration out here by all thinking socialists, the trade unions and labour activists should imo be promoting a national strike a campaign of civil disobedience,anything rather than try a gee up or prop up that failed institution, the people need a good strong leadership ,not more of the same ,after all its the definition of insanity repeating the same fucking crap over and over again ,and hoping for something different ,
    Just before we buried Dolores price we held a white line picket on the Anytout rd I got into conversation with a couple of women who told me that they voted for quisling $inn £eind, whenI pointed out their failures in the programme for government and their failure to deliver on the most basic of their election pledges ,the woman said we have young lads coming into their mid teens we don't want them involved or banged up like their da,s , yes it may be peace at any price but its peace , this is exactly what has sustained quisling $inn £eind and their cronies in the DUP, that fear needs to be removed and proper working class politics inserted , this wont happen by tinkering around with Stormont its not working and those carpetbaggers that infest it are not interested in the misery that May and her tory mates are inflicting on the poorest here,

  4. Marty,
    The Unionist working class seem content as long as their squalor is British. Why bother trying to persuade them otherwise? Socialists have been trying that for years and have never broken that ideological thinking. I think it's time to stop wasting time and if they come along so be it but let's not waste time and energy trying to persuade them otherwise....the recent elections proved that and their Orange culture is underpinned by the Unionist working class. How many bands men are from the Unionist middle classes?
    To me the language of today's Socialists is just rhetoric. So what do we do?

  5. Niall a chara yes there is an deeply rooted bitterness ingrained within a large section of loyalism, but and heres the but a chara in 1932 the Falls and the Shankill rds united in fighting together in the outdoor relief riots, big house unionism was rocked and used the orange card to divide and conquer ,in 1934 protestant workers from the Shankill rd attached to the republican congress were attacked by right wing republicans led by Sean Mc Bride at Bodenstown ,I have talked to a number of ex combatants from the unionist side ,they recoginise that the bitter seeds planted by unionist leaders over the past has been to the determent of the protestant working class , I believe the penny is dropping slowly I admit but dropping all the same,we need now more than ever to unite together to fight both the orange and green big house unionists that need to keep both sections of this community separated in order to maintain their positions ,its no easy task but it has been attempted so many times before ,remember the leaders of the united Irishmen were Presbyterians, so what do we do you ask ,well a chara we stick at it what else can we do .

  6. Niall,

    " Socialists have been trying that for years and have never broken that ideological thinking. I think it's time to stop wasting time and if they come along so be it but let's not waste time and energy trying to persuade them otherwise.."

    I see your point but then it is doomed to fail. There needs to be an alliance across the sectarian divide at a working class level. For years the PUL working class community lived in fear of the Provisionals so this cannot realistically be expected to happen overnight. I don't mean to muddy the waters here but rather point out that trust needs to be built. A lot of people in my community are sick of the DUP but vote for them for lack of a better realistic alternative. But the cards are stacked in the DUP's favour unfortunately. The who point of socialism is its inclusiveness, ignoring a working class based on a sectarian divide should be anathema to us.

  7. Marty,
    1932 and any other blips like that were exactly that – blips on the radar. The United Irishmen were not as United as we are lead to believe and by the time they actually got around to doing something the Orange card had been played.
    Ex loyalists may recognise those seeds but they are still content to sit in their squalor as long as it is British. If they recognise those seeds then they surely must be intelligent enough to recognise that partition was also one of them....but it would appear to be a seed that they are not willing to acknowledge or forgo.
    The rhetoric of uniting the working class is fine and only acceptable within the British State of Northern Ireland. Throw in partition as a dividing seed and the unionist ranks withdraw to their British squalor which is apparently different to Irish squalor....’unionist ranks’ Jesus the answer is in the title....maybe it's the accent! I don’t really know what needs to be done Marty but I’m sure we need to drop the rhetoric.

    Steve R,
    I understand what point your trying to make Steve but prior to 1969 there were no Provisionals but there existed an extremely sectarian British Unionist State that the Unionist working class underpinned and still do...even in 1932. Prior to 1798 there was the penal what?
    I’m not stating that we ignore the Unionist working class, I’m definitely not saying that we ignore anyone because they are of a differing religious persuasion or atheistic for that matter, what I am asking is that we stop the emphasis on not moving forward until they agree to come along. If they listen and decide it is the way forward then fine but currently it is quite clear that they don’t want to. As ‘socialists’ we need to review what exactly we are doing.

  8. Niall look up the definition of rhetoric "the art of effective or persuasive

  9. Niall look up the definition of rhetoric and you will read its the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing , so a chara if we want to persuade other than by example and dialogue how do you suggest that we do so,we need to persuade our fellow countrymen that they are and have been made fools of by unionism but remember to take a look at the eejits who vote for quisling $inn £eind most of them call themselves socialists,if we fail to persuade both then Connolly,s whoop it up for liberty speech really is a warning from the past ..

  10. Niall,

    Understand you now, cheers. But educating the unionist working class is the key. At the minute the bigots in the DUP stir up fear for their own end. Socialists have a duty to get rid of the boundaries of class regardless of what those boundaries are. Easier said than done, but having a socialist alternative that is based solely in one side of the community not only goes against the ethos, it's also doomed to failure. Too easy a target for the twats at the top.

  11. Steve R,
    But the socialist alternative wouldn't be based on one side, the terminology and dialogue used would be universal and reflective of socialism's tenets so as not to create a barrier to all who you wish to appeal to. As I say put the message out there but don't hold everything back because one particular group of peoples out there don't want to come's a tough one to try and sort out Steve but I think we have stop trying where we are constantly failing.