How much is Sinn Féin willing to give up in its quest for power?

The party is on the one road — into government — but they ought to be wary of trying to be all things to all voters 
How much is Sinn Féin willing to give up in its quest for power?

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in triumphal mood at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis at the Helix in Dublin. Picture: Damien Storan/PA

It used to be the case in Ireland that you waited until you entered government before you gave up your principles, but Sinn Féin does claim to be the party of change.

Yesterday, Mary Lou McDonald's party voted to change its long and dearly-held policy against non-jury courts, which were once described as "the single biggest denial of fair trial rights in our legal system", according to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL).

It was put to Ms McDonald on Saturday that the move appeared cynical, considering Sinn Féin came under considerable criticism in the last election over its objection to the court and Fine Gael is still beating it around the head with it. She said the summation was "wrong".

SF opposed non-jury courts

At the annual Dáil debate on the act in 2019, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, the party’s Cork South Central TD, called for the right to a jury to be protected in the Dáil. One assumes any further speeches will have to have the words "except in exceptional circumstances" added on to the end.

Despite opposition from everyone from the UN to Amnesty International, Sinn Féin has decided to let go of one of its core policies in what appears to be a blatant attempt to counter any further criticism that might come its way on the issue.

Ógra Shinn Féin member Adrian O’Gallagher from Co Donegal was one of those who spoke against the motion. He said a non-jury court was something the party “should not advocate for, due to human rights abuses”: 

We have seen in the past how non-jury courts were used against republicans. Although things have changed, the idea of non-jury courts is still a denial of human rights.

In a bizarre twist, delegates watched on as the young of the party called on the membership to stand its ground, while Gerry Kelly — the second most powerful Gerry that Irish republicanism has ever had — called on the crowd to back the three-judge court which denies the accused of their right to be tried by a jury of their peers. At one point, he called it "sensible".

Now the conflict in the North is over, appearing "sensible" has become the name of the game.

On the one road...

As the party continues its exponential rise in the polls, it seems unlikely that anyone will catch up to it any time soon, and the party won't give an inch now that it is on the one road to government — north men, south men, comrades all.

The soundings are already there. We often hear the term "in a Sinn Féin government". We are being prepped for a Taoiseach in Mary Lou, and it seems they're willing to do anything to get there.

We see the same actions north of the border, where the party claims to be pro-choice while MLAs abstain on draconian abortion legislation, and the only excuse given is that it won't play into the hands of a DUP "stunt".

A party with representatives wearing 'Repeal' jumpers in Dublin, and choosing not to vote against anti-choice legislation in Belfast, takes voters for fools and is no way to impact the meaningful change this island needs and Sinn Féin claims it so desperately wants.

If the price of power is sacrificing basic human rights to get there, then it should be a price too high to pay for a party that claims to believe in social justice.

Left will be wary 

The slide to the centre was somewhat predictable as the party continues to shore up voters who would never have given it a vote before, and the party seems to have decided that alienating those who supported it because it wanted radical change is a risk worth taking.

Those on the left will be made more wary of Sinn Féin because of decisions like Saturday's, and they will be justified in their concerns.

The theme of the ard fheis was "time for change" as they voted to continue with the consensus on non-jury courts, and we can expect more of the same as the party becomes even more guarded on its road to power.

A Sinn Féin government north and south looks more likely now than ever as the housing and health crisis in both jurisdictions continues unabated, so trading in on things it once claimed to believe in is perhaps inevitable for a party that has always been expert at playing the long game.

But being all things to all people means you run the risk of being nothing to anyone.

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