If there’s one political conclusion which we can draw from the pandemic crisis of 2020, its that parties have had to work together to combat and defeat the virus and that political point scoring has had to be relegated to the back benches.
But try telling the republican movement that! The scenes at the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey along with Sinn Fein elected representatives snipping at Unionists in the face of the March lockdown could well lay the foundations for electoral damage to Sinn Fein on a scale not see since the disastrous Foyle Westminster defeat which witnessed the SDLP take back John Hume’s old Commons seat from the Shinners.
Throw in the eventual outcome of last December’s Dail election which saw an historic coalition of ‘auld foes’ Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to keep a resurgent Sinn Fein out of government in Leinster House, and the image of Sinn Fein’s historical tradition of ‘Ourselves Alone’ begins to falter.
The pandemic is no respecter of political voting trends and has forced political parties of all shades to have to work together across Ireland to protect the health services and contain the virus. Working with other parties does not sit easy with a party whose central ethos is ‘ourselves alone’.
Of course, Sinn Fein can return the serve over my last paragraph by claiming it alone is the true force fighting for Irish unity, equally claiming that other nationalist parties’ visions of unity involve, at the very least, the British still holding the purse strings.
In this respect, Sinn Fein has never moved beyond the argument over whether to accept or reject the Anglo-Irish Treaty of the 1920s which saw the island partitioned, the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, and the outbreak of the vicious Irish Civil War which saw republican butcher republican in a manner which made the notorious Black and Tans seem disciplined and honourable.
As a result of the Hume/Adams talks, Sinn Fein was brought in from the cold politically and the party became the leading voice for Northern nationalism by ‘stealing’ the SDLP’s traditional middle class Catholic voter heartlands.
The SDLP continues to play political ‘second fiddle’ to Sinn Fein. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Fein collapsed its ‘partnership’ with the DUP leaving Northern Ireland without a working government for three years.
In the republic, Sinn Fein presented itself as the party of protest against austerity and the establishment parties. But if the Stormont example was taken as a benchmark, even if Sinn Fein had become a part of a Leinster House coalition government, how long would that government have lasted until we had another ‘Stormont-style collapse’ south of the border?
Has Sinn Fein gained the reputation of being the ‘wrecking ball’ of Irish politics? Indeed, was the spark which prompted Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to bury their political differences and form a unique ‘rainbow coalition’ the fact that no one can work with the ‘ourselves alone’ party no matter how many Sinn Fein TDs occupy the hallowed benches of the Leinster House chamber.
Okay, it may have taken several weeks of hard bargaining to get the Fianna Fail/Fine Gael partnership up and running, but that delay was better than risking a re-run of the Assembly-style meltdown which occurred north of the border.
Sinn Fein would have to recognise that the key mistake it made in last year’s Dail General Election was not running enough candidates. And equally clearly, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael do not want another General Election in the next couple of years which could see Sinn Fein muster enough TDs that either establishment party would have no other choice but to form a coalition government with the republican movement’s political wing.
But apart from the era of the Chuckle Brothers onwards, Sinn Fein - since its formation in 1905 - has never truly been a party of government in Ireland. It has always worked best as a party of ‘stand alone’ opposition, snipping with cleverly worded spin at other nationalist parties, parties of the Left, and the Unionists.
The Chuckle Brothers routine of the late Ian Paisley senior and the late Martin McGuinness worked effectively because of the personalities of both these ‘big hitters’ in Northern politics. But the Arlene Foster/Michelle O’Neill relationship can never be spun as the Chuckle Sisters.
The SDLP’s capture of Foyle and South Belfast in the 2019 Westminster poll has given moderate nationalism the hope that it can find the ‘much sought after chink’ in republicanism’s electoral armour.
The Sinn Fein/DUP axis at Stormont will be put under even bigger strain because of Unionist unhappiness about the DUP’s track record. The failure of the DUP to take North Down (which fell to Alliance) and the equally damaging failure to hold North Belfast (which fell to Sinn Fein) in 2019 may make DUP strategists think that remaining in bed politically with Sinn Fein at Stormont is ultimately damaging the party.
After Paisley senior stepped aside as First Minister, Martin McGuinness knew that time was not on his side in maintaining any working semblance of a Chuckle Brothers ‘smooth government’.
One of his last acts was to collapse the Stormont Executive to allow Southern Sinn Fein a fighting chance of getting into coalition government in the Dail. That backfired after his death because Sinn Fein miscalculated the mood south of the border in terms of ‘work with anyone but the Shinners!’
Sinn Fein has to be seen as singing from the same community hymn sheet of defeating the virus as the other parties. If not, and it insists on ‘ourselves alone’, will the electorate punish Sinn Fein at future elections?
Oh yes, Sinn Fein can say it can always rely on its faithful working class heartlands. But how will the Storey funeral scenes play out with the Catholic middle class forced to endure socially distanced family funerals?
Then again, if Sinn Fein does play ball with the other parties in the defeat of the virus, how will republican heartlands view the fact of Sinn Fein being sucked even more into the British democratic process so that the party becomes nothing more than a revamped version of the now defunct Irish Independence Party?
Then there’s Aontu. Okay, just a minority movement at the moment which poses no electoral threat to Sinn Fein. But then again, the pandemic lockdown has seen a massive interest in religious worship in terms of online services.
Given Aontu’s emphasis on the rights of the unborn, is there the possibility that online worship could translate into voter support for Aontu? But maybe that’s a political migraine for Sinn Fein for another day!
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