Martina Anderson is a republican politician all Unionists should closely listen to.
This may seem an atrocious and insulting remark to make - especially from me as a Right-wing Unionist commentator - given the fact the former Sinn Fein MEP, now a Foyle MLA, had to apologise for her tweet (now deleted) which referred to ‘Britain’s dirty war in Ireland’ in relation to the Troubles pension scheme.
Her Twitter outburst was met with a torrent of criticism from across the political spectrum forcing the convicted IRA terrorist to delete and apologise.
This is not the first time Ms Anderson has landed herself in hot water over shooting from the lip. As an MEP, there was her notorious ‘where the sun doesn’t shine’ speech in the European Parliament.
At face value, it would be very easy to dismiss Ms Anderson’s litany of outbursts as simply a Shinner loose cannon. That would be a fatal tactical mistake, especially by the pro-Union community.
Ms Anderson’s outbursts have to be set in the context of the political changes which have taken place in Sinn Fein since the start of the Troubles.
Until the 1980 and 1981 republican hunger strikes, Sinn Fein was nothing more than a celebratory fan club for the Easter Rising participants of 1916. It was Bobby Sands’ and Owen Carron’s Westminster election victories in Fermanagh South Tyrone which convinced the republican movement that there was a bigger role for Sinn Fein than simply being an apologist for the Provos.
Initially, many Sinn Fein candidates were ex-prisoners as the republican movement followed the ‘ballot paper and Armalite’ strategy.
However, with the blossoming of the Hume/Adams talks, aimed at bringing Sinn Fein in from the political cold, the republican movement’s leadership recognised that if it was to heap the advantages of Hume/Adams, Sinn Fein would need to develop the concept of the so-called ‘draft dodger’ - Sinn Fein candidates with no prior link to the IRA in terms of membership, activities or convictions.
And so developed the ‘ballot paper and honours degree’ strategy enabling Sinn Fein to substantially eat into the middle class Catholic voter base of the moderate nationalist SDLP. This worked as eventually Sinn Fein eclipsed the SDLP as the main voice for nationalism in Northern Ireland.
But Sinn Fein was able to complete this mission by still retaining its own traditional working class republican heartlands. The price is Sinn Fein elected representatives attending commemorations to dead IRA terrorists, much to the consternation of the pro-Union community.
Certainly Sinn Fein has progressed - in terms of its public face - from a situation where its councillors at council meetings would not stand in tribute to security forces members murdered by IRA terrorists to a situation where the IRA’s former Derry commander, the late Martin McGuinness, shook hands with Queen Elizabeth.
What Ms Anderson represents is not some PR sugar-coated version of Sinn Fein, but the Real Sinn Fein. Her utterances represent the true core of the modern day republican movement.
During my 40 plus years in journalism, and also working as my late dad’s press officer and speech writer during his lengthy political career, I have concluded there are two types of Sinn Fein politician - those who can sugar-coat the republican movement’s true aims, and those who cannot.
Ms Anderson clearly falls into the latter category, hence the pressing need for the pro-Union community to listen to her utterances. She calls a spade a spade.
By listening to her speeches, statements and comments, the pro-Union community will be left in no doubt as to its genuine position should a united Ireland ever emerge.
During my dad’s 13-year term as an UUP MLA for North Antrim, I never recall any Sinn Fein elected representative or party worker ever ‘having a go at him’. His relationship was always polite and professional.
Even after retiring from Stormont, he maintained that courteous relationship in his capacity as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Castle Tower Special School in Ballymena, especially with then Education Minister John O’Dowd, the Sinn Fein MLA from Upper Bann.
Indeed, with one or two exceptions, my own relationship with Sinn Fein mirrored that of my late dad’s. The exceptions were probably caused by my comments as a columnist.
I can recall one incident when I met a Sinn Fein elected representative one day in a corridor of Parliament Buildings. We had been in the same politics class at university, and I stopped for a chat.
Some passing unionist representatives glared at me for having a short, polite conversation with this Sinn Fein representative, but there was no way I was going to be rude to one of my fellow ex-students and snub them.
Southern constitutional republicanism in the form of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael says a lot for politics in the republic when these two parties can join forces to keep Sinn Fein out of a coalition government, yet Unionists in Northern Ireland are expected to power-share with Sinn Fein.
So how should the pro-Union community play Sinn Fein in a post Covid 19 society?
Firstly, it needs to seriously determine who are the real voices of influence in Sinn Fein, not the ones who can simply trot out the republican rhetoric as if presenting a poem at a Presbyterian soiree.
And by influence, Unionists must understand fully the long-term aim of the republican movement. In doing so, Unionists must not swallow the Sinn Fein bait that the party is trying to rebrand itself as some kind of modern-day version of the now defunct Irish Independence Party, once fronted by murdered Larne councillor John Turnley.
Unfortunately, there are too many moderate or liberal folk within the pro-Union community who have become politically hypnotised with the clever soft spin of Sinn Fein that they conveniently forget the Shinners are an integral part of a bigger organisation called the republican movement.
Comments and outbursts by Ms Anderson may be blunt and insulting, but they should not be dismissed with the crude observation - what do you expect from a pig but a grunt.
In my honest opinion, forget all the rhetoric and fancy semantics from Sinn Fein spin doctors. Ms Anderson represents the true and real voice of the party specifically and the republican movement in general, so my message to the pro-Union community is equally blunt - listen to the right Sinn Fein voices in future!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com