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Pat Leahy: With opponents like the DUP and the Coalition, Sinn Féin doesn’t need friends

Why would pragmatic middle-ground voters want to change a successful Northern Ireland? Ironically, the party that is currently undermining that prospect most is the DUP

The Northern Ireland local elections resulted in an even higher than predicted haul of seats for Sinn Féin, underlining its status as the most popular party in both parts of the island. The prospect of it being simultaneously in Government in Dublin and Belfast within a couple of years, with Sinn Féin ministers in regular consultation with each other and answerable to the same leadership, is not certain; but it is likely. It would be one of the most dramatic changes in the political arrangements of the island in a century.

The trend in the North is by now well established, both in the party’s domination of the nationalist vote and the growth of the overall nationalist share of the electorate. The decline of the SDLP begins to look irreversible and perhaps terminal, at least with regard to the party being a serious player in Northern politics. On the other side of the sectarian divide, much the same seems to be happening to the Ulster Unionists. Meanwhile the Alliance continues to rise as the party of the middle ground – in every sense – of the emerging Northern Ireland: a place that is now 40ish per cent nationalist, 40ish per cent unionist, 20ish per cent other.

Of course, the shrinking of the traditional unionist vote and the rise of the nationalist vote are striking; but as our North and South series demonstrated, there are lots of other things going on too, and the expectation that demographics are destiny, inevitably to produce a united Ireland, is questionable to say the least, certainly within the medium term.

Indeed, one thing that was notable about the Sinn Féin campaign was its lack of focus on the unity question, preferring to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of local Government, “working for everyone”, as Newton Emerson remarked in these pages on Thursday.


It is unclear whether this is because Sinn Féin is beginning to realise that portraying a united Ireland as a done deal sounds to many unionist ears like malicious taunting or because, among the middle-ground voters the party is seeking to woo, banging the nationalist drum incessantly is not a vote winner. But either way, the party is keen to present itself as a government-in-waiting, keen to make Northern Ireland work, even if it still won’t call the place Northern Ireland.

The mystery to me is why the DUP doesn’t also try to make Northern Ireland work. An economically successful, self-governing Northern Ireland that makes the most of its unique status with a foot in both the giant EU and UK markets, and whose politics is evolving from the binary straitjacket of Green vs Orange into a place where consensus and compromise are required and outright majorities less imaginable – that would be an argument for the status quo there, not for change.

North and South, Sinn Féin is presenting a similar version of itself: serious, sober, preparing for Government.

There has always been an unspoken and unanswered question as to whether Sinn Féin actually wants Northern Ireland to work. After all, why would the pragmatic middle-ground voters – that Sinn Féin needs to convince to vote for a united Ireland – want to change a successful Northern Ireland? But ironically, the party that is currently undermining that prospect most is the DUP, supposed leaders of unionism. With friends like this, etc.

In the South, Sinn Féin is presenting a similar version of itself: serious, sober, preparing for Government.

The party’s recent U-turn on participation in EU and Nato military arrangements, whatever you think about it, demonstrated a clearheadedness about the reality of government in Dublin and a ruthless willingness to jettison policies and commitments that turn out to be politically inconvenient. “It’s not about throwing long-held policies out the window,” a senior party figure told me last week. That, of course, is exactly what it’s about. In the same vein, the party has adjusted its attitude to the EU, US multinationals (Mary Lou McDonald has even travelled to Silicon Valley to assure them they have nothing to fear from her party in Government), big business in general and the Special Criminal Court. Expect more long-held policies to be defenestrated as the election approaches.

Among Sinn Féin’s opponents, the recent dumping of the pledges to withdraw from Nato and EU (Pesco) military co-operation occasioned much finger-pointing and taunting; among those inclined to take a more considered view, it caused unease in equal measure. If Sinn Féin ditches all the mad stuff, the argument goes, it makes it harder for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to portray them as unfit for government, untrustworthy to continue the economic success of the Republic. Well, lads, that is sort of the point.

Opposition parties who have declaimed for years on the dangers of the Shinners being let loose on domestic, economic and foreign policy in Government can hardly complain too much if the party is abandoning its more radical policy positions. “How can they claim that things will change when they are promising not to change the things that have made the country so successful?” wails one opponent. This is, of course, exactly what Sinn Féin will do. The next 18 months and the subsequent election campaign will decide whether the party can do so credibly.

Rather than complaining, Sinn Féin’s rivals North and South might more usefully ask themselves why they are so fond of helping. In Northern Ireland, the DUP helps Sinn Féin present itself as the responsible party of Government, keen to get to work to solve the problems people really care about. In the Republic, the parties of Government spend as much time making excuses for the failure to deliver more housing, better public transport, healthcare and so on as they do getting the machinery of Government and the market to do these things. Sinn Féin is on a heck of a roll for sure, but it is blessed in its opponents.