By Danny Morrison
(for the Irish Examiner)
If the election results augur well for the future of one party above all others throughout Ireland, that party is Sinn Féin. Both North and South its vote has continued to increase and later today the party’s confirmation as the leadership of northern nationalists will be reinforced with the election of Bairbre de Brun to Europe in a close-fought contest with Jim Allister of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Throughout the twenty-six counties its representation at local government level has risen dramatically. Only a lack of sufficient organisation in other areas prevented it from tapping into a tangible sentiment for change.
What a story! From IRA prisoner Bobby Sands - a ‘blanket’ man from Belfast, endorsed by nationalists in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981 - to Sinn Féin rising nationally to become a force for change for the working class of this island and an example, internationally, of the fruits of struggle, the power of conviction and idealism.
For unionists it means that the nationalist community, historically neglected, then berated for seeking justice and equality, has never been more stoutly represented. And with confidence comes a generosity of spirit that the DUP, the other winner in the European election, will ignore to the political detriment of its community. As is its wont it will continue to perpetuate sectarian divisions, will serve a perverse and fundamentalist interpretation of life, and will test not only the mettle of nationalists but their goodwill and their patience.
For the Dublin government it means - the citizenship referendum aside - that its northern policy has to shift away from the OEsoftly, softly, approach of the SDLP (which unionists now look back at nostalgically, banked and exploited) to a more robust nationalist approach.
Politics (and with electoral endorsement comes responsibility) has superseded physical force, though we in the North continue to live in a society in a state of flux, a society which lacks legitimacy and consensus, and which is why there is continued ambivalence towards the role, status and future of the IRA.
The result in the North, combined with the vote for Sinn Féin in the South, is truly of historic proportions. It is a defiance of partition and the partitionist mentality. It unites political activists from Kerry to Kerrykeel, from Ballymun to Ballymurphy.
What happened to the SDLP, which once had a monopoly over the nationalist vote? Its candidate Martin Morgan is personable, did an excellent job as Belfast’s Lord Mayor, yet was never in the running. The SDLP’s politics, not its candidate, are to blame. The nonsense, until recently espoused by its ideologue, Alex Attwood, about us now living in a ,post-nationalist0/00 era, at a time when nationalists were being assassinated and burnt out of their homes because of their religion and convictions has left its residue. Its premature endorsement of the PSNI has also complicated matters and slowed down the momentum for change within policing
In the twenty-six counties Sinn Féin’s representation at local government level will be doubled and more. Only a lack of sufficient organisation in other areas prevented it from tapping into a tangible sentiment for change. At the time of writing, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty’s prospects are unclear, but the party will be consoled by the appreciation of how its overall vote will translate into increased Dail representation after the next election and the possible attainment of its objective of holding the balance of power.
This is clearly a remarkable success given how the mainstream parties in the South have ganged up against Sinn Féin, continuing to demonise the party and treating it as second-class. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the double-standard of insisting that in the North unionists have to share power with nationalists (that is, Sinn Féin) whilst proclaiming that no constitutional party in the South will participate in coalition government with Sinn Féin. The electorate is not stupid. It will be interesting to see how long that position is maintained when Sinn Féin becomes the ‘king’ maker.
The charge against Sinn Féin was led by Minister of Justice, Michael McDowell. He specifically attacked the party for calling for the release of those in Castlerea prison convicted in relation to the killing of Garda Detective Jerry McCabe eight years ago. The release of prisoners under the terms of the Belfast Agreement was extremely difficult and emotional for many families who had lost loved ones in the conflict. But the release of political prisoners was a necessary component of conflict resolution and an attempt to draw a line through the past.
Two British soldiers convicted of murdering a young Belfast Catholic, Peter McBride, qualified for release under the Belfast Agreement and were freed several years ago without any comment or objection from McDowell. Yet in relation to the Castlerea prisoners, who also qualify but remain behind bars, he stirred up public emotion in a partisan way aimed at undermining Sinn Féin’s attraction to new voters. Remarkably, his campaign had only a limited, tangible effect on Sinn Féin’s vote, even in Munster where the party looks like trebling its number of councillors.
The Fianna Fáil/PD coalition’s other recent contribution to the peace process, and to the resumption of negotiations in Belfast on Tuesday, was to seriously weaken the integrity of the Belfast Agreement and strengthen the hand of the anti-Agreement DUP. For years the DUP has been told that the Belfast Agreement, an international treaty that was massively endorsed in referenda by the Irish people in 1998, is non-negotiable. One aspect of that Agreement, in light of amending Articles Two and Three as a gesture towards unionist sensibilities, was, as a gesture towards nationalist sensibilities, to define anyone born in the six (and twenty-six) counties as having the right to Irish citizenship.
But by hastily pushing through the citizenship referendum (without sufficient debate and consideration), which now empowers the government to amend the Irish Constitution and the definition of citizenship, the government has handed the DUP on a plate the argument that the fundamentals of the Agreement can be amended.
This throws the Belfast Agreement into further disarray but shows how developments on one side of the border can shape and influence politics on the other, and is where Sinn Féin comes into its own as an all-Ireland movement representing not only the past, but the future.