McDonald’s Sinn Féin stands at a complicated crossroads

For Sinn Féin, the terrain is far more complicated. Its identity is at stake as it seeks to adjust and expand, writes Gerard Howlin.

Leo Varadkar this week called on Sinn Féin to take its seats at Westminster in what was partly slapstick politics.

For Mary Lou McDonald, it is also an omen of the knack needed to ride the tiger without ending up in its belly. She is leader of her party at a fork in the road.

Gerry Adams for years enacted for Sinn Féin the essential political purpose that the Queen Mother did for Britain, as living memory. While she was alive, so was the Blitz and Britain’s finest hour. So it was too for Sinn Féin since the ceasefire. The whiff of cordite, which offended many, was incense for their own, even as they abandoned the old faith and its traditions.

Now the longest-serving nationalist leader since de Valera has stepped down. Martin McGuinness is dead. Marrying continuity with change is going to be increasingly difficult.

If Varadkar’s was a well-crafted swipe, exciting the deep parliamentarian tradition of the Fine Gael base, McDonald’s rebuttal probably had the better of him. He hadn’t thought it through, she said. If he had, he hadn’t let the facts get in the way of a good political line.

She pointed out that, “without a whole series of very powerful and very disruptive political dynamics being unleashed, [he] hasn’t really sat back and thought about this”.

The point is that abandonment of abstentionism now, without intense preparation internally, would lead to greater problems on the ground in nationalist Northern Ireland than they could potentially solve in London.

It’s not at all clear what the party’s seven MPs could deliver on Brexit. And then there is the added inconvenience, that it is surely inconceivable that they would vote for what Theresa May has negotiated. Sinn Féin may have run a pallid Remain campaign, on the back of years of EU bashing, but the tide has turned. It is determined to swim ahead of it, all the better to leave the DUP stranded.

Telling Sinn Féin to take its seats at Westminster, to earn the Queen’s shilling it has taken for years, is for now a purely political play. Therein lies the danger. It is played because it has an audience in the south at least. It is the dilemma the party is splayed across, as it tries to build on its base without losing it. Ordinarily political parties seek to move their base across social and economic issues, and geographically in constituencies.

But for Sinn Féin the terrain is far more complicated. Its identity is at stake as it seeks to adjust and expand. None of this is new. But it was well cloaked during Adams’s long tenure. His past had a long afterlife. Now it’s over.

The damning analysis of Sinn Féin’s trajectory isn’t that of its constitutional competitors. It comes from dissident republicanism. In that telling, every principle has been abandoned for nothing. Office in a Northern Ireland statelet it vowed to destroy was substituted for the republic some died for and for which more were murdered. Ending abstensionism in the Dáil broke a fundamental principle that mattered. It counted because it broke ideologically a line of command going back to the first Dáil, and then devolved to the Army Council.

Smashing up the theology signified something fundamental, because principles sometimes matter. It mattered more because taking seats in the Dáil was de facto recognition of partition and of Northern Ireland. Being in office in Stormont was only another small step after that. The new strategy of politics alone would deliver instead, said Sinn Féin. In a fundamental sense, they have. We have peace, if not reconciliation.

But there is no republic as envisaged. There never could have been in this short timeframe. That’s the fundamental problem with politics. Sustaining momentum over decades, in changing and challenging circumstances, requires extraordinary capacity and tenacity.

The fact is after every other compromise, no issue of real principle remains in relation to taking seats at Westminster.

There is raw politics on the streets, of course, but that’s another matter and it is very important. Why abstensionism matters most now is that it signifies the vestige of an identity that has been largely abandoned for uncertain rewards. It is the elevation of procedure into principle, in a situation where very few can be credibly pointed to.

The substantive difference between the oath required of MPs — to “swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs, and successors, according to law. So help me God” — is flummery compared to the service provided by sitting in the provincial assembly of her majesty’s most troubled province. The symbolism of all this bears down on the practical politics of moving on fundamentally but credibly.

There is talk in Sinn Féin of cosmopolitanism nationalism. That’s why Liadh Ní Riada saying she would have worn a poppy as president is important. It was a gesture that was at least premature, and probably unhelpful within her own party.

What cosmopolitanism nationalism means in Sinn Féin is visiting frequently with Syriza in Greece, before it fundamentally compromised its own radical promises. It extends to championing Catalonian independence which, in part at least, has an underbelly that is the antithesis of cosmopolitan.

And there is endless flag waving and fraternal gladhanding with Cuba and the Palestinian Authority. The reality of this nationalism, however, is that it resonates centuries later with William Molyneux’s The Case of Ireland for an identity based on caste and creed, and effectively dependent on the exclusion of others. It is nationalism that requires one group winning and, by inference, another losing. It is traditional, it is logical, but it is not cosmopolitan, and it is the crevice between what Sinn Féin is and how it wants to be perceived.

There won’t be Sinn Féin MPs at Westminster. More tellingly, it is unclear how the party can move on out of a deeply tribal past. It grew its base by distilling public anger and marshalling its members in a culture that mimicked its own past. But the surrounding culture has changed completely. Ask the Catholic Church or An Garda Síochána. The embarrassing nonsense about its politicians living on the average industrial wage was in the end like an old story told about the Blitz.

If it was ever true, it hasn’t been so for a long time. Ironically, complete crisis in Northern Ireland, or another deep economic downturn here, could benefit Sinn Féin.

It understands the playbook, but the party hasn’t proven adept at adapting to wider cultural change or of marrying its base, especially in Northern Ireland, to the humdrum of an increasingly aspirational society.

There is a sense that it is unsure of itself. The central figure of decades is no longer centre stage. In Mary Lou McDonald, a remarkably able politician seems stuck in harbour, awaiting departure for a

destination as yet undecided upon.

For Sinn Féin, the terrain is far more complicated. Its identity is at stake as it seeks to adjust and expand

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