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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Sinn Féin struggles to straddle border

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

If we were shown them six months ago, we would have assumed that most of the recent images of Northern Ireland had been digitally remastered. On Thursday, The Irish News carried a photograph of Jackie McDonald, the leader of the UDA; Sean "Spike" Murray, a leading IRA figure; and, Martin McAleese, husband of President Mary McAleese, chatting at a social gathering. The headline said "IRA and UDA leaders' first public meeting".

This followed images of Ian Paisley giving Bertie Ahern a gun at the site of the Battle of the Boyne; Paisley laughing with Martin McGuinness; and, Edwin Poots, the DUP minister for culture, reopening the Tower Museum.

The novelty value is diminishing but such images continue to surprise. It's because the DUP and Sinn Féin jumped straight into bed without the customary courtship ritual of chatting each other up and stepping out together. Soon, however, the honeymoon will be at an end and, as they set up house at Stormont, new divisions will emerge.

So far Sinn Féin, which has its eyes on the Dail elections, has been soft pedalling on any differences with the DUP. They are hoping the peace process will lift them in the polls and don't want to risk any damaging public rows with Paisley. As a result, Northern Ireland Sinn Féin members have had to bite their lips in Stormont in the hope of a pay-off in Leinster House.

Paisley's attitude to McGuinness, for instance, has struck some in Sinn Féin as patronising. McGuinness insists they are co-equal but Paisley calls him "the deputy" and even uses him as a straight man when cracking jokes. When Paisley invited Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to sample fadge (potato bread) he joked that "the deputy" could be counted on to "gobble up" any leftovers.

So far the protests at Paisley's presidential style have been muted, although Gerry Kelly condemned the "top dog talk" in a television interview and McGuinness reminds journalists that he and the first minister are equal.

At the first debating day of the assembly last Tuesday, the DUP was able to push Sinn Féin a little more than they can count on doing once the Irish election is over. There was a lot of congratulation and verbal back-slapping but the outcome of the day's debate was Sinn Féin did not oppose a unionist motion to rejoin the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, while the DUP voted down a Sinn Féin motion for a special Assembly grouping to consider women's participation in politics.

As Stormont beds in, Sinn Féin will increasingly have to mix it a little with their DUP partners. They will be on their own and cannot expect the Irish and British governments to support them in these tussles as they did during the peace process. As of now, the DUP and Sinn Féin will strive to achieve a peaceful marching season and more money from Gordon Brown for the north's infrastructure. That will probably preserve the current cordial relations until the July recess but in the autumn a fresh dynamic may come to the fore.

One issue will be the Irish Language Act which Sinn Féin negotiated at St Andrews and which has already been watered down in a draft produced by the British government. To pass into law it will require a cross-community vote supported by unionists. The relevant minister is Poots, not a noted gaelgoir. The DUP's bottom line appears to be that Irish should get nothing that is not available to Ulster Scots, for which the DUP have relatively few ambitions.

In his speech Paisley made no attempt to save Sinn Féin's blushes. "It gives me the greatest possible pleasure to support the motion. It is nice to know that our Queen is the head of the Commonwealth; through this motion, we salute Her Majesty. We look forward to the continuance of her good health," he declared.

While Paisley has been saying what he likes, Sinn Féin is focused on a different prize. Gerry Adams has been devoting himself to the republic's election campaign and has made it plain that he wants his party to be in government north and south. Seats in the Northern executive aren't an end in themselves; they are intended to give the party the bounce it needs to win enough seats south of the border to get into government with Fianna Fail. A place at the cabinet table in Dublin would mean Sinn Féin could operate the cross-border institutions from both sides, and make all the concessions they have made to the DUP seem worthwhile.

But Sinn Féin's predominantly Northern leadership may have overestimated the appeal of Stormont ministries. Voters in this week's Irish election may welcome peace in the north, but they are more focused on health, crime and the economy than what is happening in Belfast.

Adams stands high in the polls but his limited grasp of the detail on southern issues is an Achilles heel that was exposed during last week's RTE debate among the leaders of the republic's four smaller parties.

Sinn Féin made a mistake in putting Adams up against Pat Rabbitte, Trevor Sargent and Michael McDowell. They are all experienced parliamentarians while Adams has never taken part in any legislative assembly except the stop-go Trimble/Mallon power-sharing experiment. He is not even a candidate in the election yet he was debating government policy against politicians who have years of experience.

Under pressure, Adams fell back on platitudes about people having rights and played up his role in the peace process.

The all-Ireland agenda may not, in the end, be as much of a vote winner as Sinn Féin hopes. And if it doesn't get Sinn Féin into government in the republic, then it is also of limited value in the north where the party is locked into a devolved government.

It has hard economic and social decisions to take in two separate jurisdictions which, even if they have some synergies, frequently compete against each other. So far Sinn Féin's cross-border policies have been dominated by broadbrush pronouncements about economies of scale. They claim that running two separate health services on one small island is a waste of resources. They haven't actually said which hospitals or health facilities should be closed to achieve these efficiencies, however.

Reality bit when someone in Sinn Féin noticed the party campaigning to increase corporation tax in the republic – on the grounds reduced rates benefited only fat cats at the expense of ordinary PAYE taxpayers – and to cut it in the north, to produce more jobs for working people.

Now they want low tax rates everywhere.

Sinn Féin has identified being in government north and south as a panacea and a step towards Irish unity, but the party would be a minority in both administrations and would have to accommodate itself to very different partners in each cabinet. The danger for Adams is that instead of uniting the two governments, as he hopes, the two governments could end up partitioning Sinn Féin.


May 20, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on May 20, 2007.