Another SF ‘Victory’ On The Road To Nowhere
Cast your mind back to 1998. Remember Sinn Fein’s ‘No Return to Stormont’ murals and posters? Well, as we all know, those walls have been long since whitewashed and repainted and the posters safely packed way. If any reminder were needed it came recently in London, where Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey informed the assembled media that ‘all roads lead back to Stormont’. His comments were a nod in the direction of Arlene Foster, a reminder that while she may cut a deal with the Tories, the necessity of reviving the Stormont Executive remains the primary shared objective of both parties.
Adams also recently stressed the need to revive the Stormont institutions, describing them as an essential pathway to a united Ireland. This, of course, is pure nonsense. Irish unity is not on the agenda and will remain unattainable within the current constitutional dispensation. Adams is clearly softening the SF base for the imminent return of the Executive under Arlene Foster. Watch out for the RHI scandal being swept under a review or commission and soon forgotten.
Some years ago, Martin McGuinness speculated that we would witness a united Ireland by 2016. Amazingly, nineteen years after the signing of the Stormont Agreement, Sinn Fein has yet to attain legal recognition for the Irish language, never mind Irish unity. And those placing their chips on a victory in a sectarian ‘battle of the cradle’ will find no solace in a careful breakdown of the recent six-county vote: the inbuilt sectarian majority shows no signs of withering away. Furthermore, the decrease in the SNP vote in Scotland has put a second referendum on Scottish independence – along with any prospect of a weakening of the ‘union’ – on the back-burner for some time.
Clearly, Sinn Fein has just had its most successful Westminster election. Yet never has it wielded less influence in London, Belfast, or Dublin. The Stormont Executive remains on bricks; the Tory government is reliant on DUP votes; and the prospect of SF entering coalition in the south has greatly diminished, if recent polls are anything to go by.
Adams and his acolytes will no doubt derive some joy at having delivered a coup de grace to the SDLP. But irrespective of what one thinks of the 1998 Agreement, one must admit that the three strands which encompass the power-sharing institutions, the north-south consultative bodies and the east-west bilateral arrangements represent the implementation of John Hume’s long-term vision.
For close on two decades Hume debated with the Provisionals over the movement’s failure to embrace ‘unionist consent’ and its refusal to accept the necessity for power-sharing within the six-counties. Eventually, the bulk of the Adams-McGuinness leadership abandoned the republican position and embraced Hume’s analysis. Thus, the 1998 Agreement represents an ideological victory for John Hume. But for the SDLP, this victory would eventually come at a price: its electoral annihilation. This was a price Hume was prepared to pay, provided Adams and McGuinness could be cajoled into side-lining the IRA and agreeing to administer British rule in Ireland.
Notwithstanding recent contradictory soundbites from SF spokespersons, Adams urgently needs to revive the Stormont institutions. He knows there may be an election in the twenty-six counties within the next year or eighteen months. He must position Sinn Fein in government north of the border, a move which would enhance SF’s perception as a responsible party of government. There have been rumours in the mainstream media that Adams is expected to retire as party leader this autumn. I wouldn’t like to be holding my breath waiting on his departure. With an election imminent, he will hang around and roll the dice one more time, hoping he can get his feet under the cabinet table in Leinster House.
During the last twenty-six county election, Sinn Fein stated it would not enter government as a junior partner in any coalition. This policy position will change before the next vote. Sinn Fein members will be told of the need for difficult decisions. They will be told that to remain relevant, the party must enter coalition. Adams knows this will be his last opportunity to secure a ministerial portfolio and he will not have his hands bound so tightly next time round. But a newfound SF flexibility regarding any future coalition may not be enough. The current confidence and supply agreement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is as much about keeping Sinn Fein out of power as anything else. The six-counties was once described ‘as a cold house for Catholics’. Gerry Adams may well find the cabinet rooms of Leinster House equally as unwelcoming.