With every choreographed moment, Sinn Féin look more like a party of the centre

Jennifer O’Connell: The contrast with the DUP’s image management could not be sharper

One of the most significant publishing phenomena of the past decade is built around a gallingly simplistic notion. What you put out into the universe is what you get back from it.

It may not be remotely scientific – nobody puts childhood cancer or even, say, letters from Revenue out into the universe – but that hasn’t stopped the hordes lapping up books about the so-called law of attraction since Rhonda Byrne borrowed the idea from a 19th-century clockmaker and turned it into a book, The Secret, in 2006. Snigger all you wish, but with 35 million copies under her belt, the former TV producer is chuckling harder.

If Sinn Féin party members have been channeling the philosophy that you catch more flies with honey than excrement, the DUP seems to be deep in its antithesis, a genre known as anti-self-help, which includes such breezy titles as The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have With People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do.

There’s Michelle O’Neill again, a few days later, soberly and thoughtfully announcing she will attend the coronation of King Charles III in the service of peace and reconciliation

This transformation has been under way for a while, but the contrast between the approach of the two parties to image management has been particularly sharp in recent weeks. Sinn Féin is manifesting its way to the brighter future it can’t stop talking about, while the DUP sulks in the corner.


Here’s Sinn Féin’s deputy leader and Northern Ireland’s putative first minister Michelle O’Neill posing for selfies with Joe Biden with a smile every bit as broad and American as his. She has been waxing lyrical in the style of a Silicon Valley start-up about that “brighter, better future” ahead, reminding everyone that she is “striving forward” towards the “exciting opportunities” it will bring.

There she is again, a few days later, soberly and thoughtfully announcing she will attend the coronation of King Charles III in the service of peace and reconciliation. Her statement was the kind of skilful piece of political communication we’ve come to expect, referring to “our differing and equally legitimate aspirations” and “respectful and mature engagement”. There was the all-important reminder that she remains, as those tech companies would have it, laser-focused on the party’s core mission – “I am an Irish republican” – while simultaneously positioning her as an international leader. All of this, of course, is part of a strategy to convey the message that a united Ireland is inevitable.

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It is a sign of how dramatically things have changed that the actual decision for O’Neill to attend the donning of the regal crown is entirely unsurprising. It would have been more of a shock had she turned the gig down. Still, the statement landed the way it was designed to and the overwhelming response to the announcement was positive.

Even the halfhearted smattering of abuse from people like former party colleague and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín – who demanded to know “what happened to Neither King nor Kaiser” – only served to make Sinn Féin look stately and mature by comparison. It’s all a long way from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald marching in the New York St Patrick’s Day parade with an “England, get out of Ireland” banner. There were mitigating arguments – as Niall O’Dowd subsequently pointed out, the banner is deeply embedded in the tradition of the parade. But what McDonald didn’t understand then, she gets now. Optics matter.

A speech on Europe at the Institute for International and European Affairs in Brussels last week showed even more clearly how far she has come. In an address replete with the now-mandatory references to that bright future, McDonald said Ireland should be at the “very forefront” of the European Union, praised the EU for its handling of the Covid pandemic and for its support for Ireland during the Brexit negotiations. She also criticised it for “growing militarisation, deregulation, privatisation, and the reflexive unleashing of austerity” in times of hardship. And as Irish Times journalist Cliff Taylor notes elsewhere this weekend, it’s not outside the bounds of possibility that the party will abandon plans to tax the rich. With every well-choreographed moment, Sinn Féin is looking more and more like a party of the centre.

It was all a reminder, if any were needed, of how far the DUP is languishing behind Sinn Féin in the image management stakes

Scowling and sulking ferociously in the opposite corner are the DUP, whose communications strategy seems designed to convey the message that the world is out to get them. Former leader Arlene Foster’s extraordinary cribbing about perceived snubs by Biden, whom she said “hates the UK”, elicited a denial from a senior aide. (Mind you, a few of his interjections in the past – including the time he brushed a BBC reporter off with a “The BBC? I’m Irish” – would suggest she wasn’t wildly off the mark.)

DUP MP for East Antrim Sammy Wilson chimed in with an even worse crime: Biden isn’t just “anti-British” and “pro-republican” but may even be “trying to force the UK to fit into the EU mould”. Their colleague Ian Paisley subsequently questioned Biden’s capacity and said “he has made a number of let’s just say mispronunciations and comments that are irreconcilable with the English language”.

It was all a reminder, if any were needed, of how far the DUP is languishing behind Sinn Féin in the image management stakes.

The biggest challenge for Sinn Féin now, of course, is to keep the base on message with this new, more mature, inclusive version of itself, particularly as it is forced to widen its ranks to less experienced – and a few entirely inexperienced – candidates between now and the 2025 election. The last thing it needs is any more outbreaks of Up The ‘Ra! in a pub. The base might love it, but they’re no longer the target audience.