By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
There’s no doubt some discussions on future strategy took place at Stormont on Monday when Sinn Fein brought together the party’s TDs and MLAs. There are 41 of them.
However, it was the powerful symbolism of the meeting and its location that was important.
First,it was the largest gathering of TDs ever at Storrnont. There have been many visits of individual TDs and ministers over the years usually on a courtesy visit, sometimes as part of the interminable negotiations that dragged on from the mid-nineties until 2007.
Monday’s photo-call was different because it was the first time any party had brought its whole Dail contingent to Belfast for a party political purpose, It was a tangible sign of the importance Sinn Fein attaches to its all-Ireland dimension and the symbolism was lost on no-one, least of all on those for whose benefit the performance was staged, unionists and the increasingly marginalised SDLP.
Secondly, although there were TDs from Dublin and Cork, it’s fortuitous for Sinn Fein that the party has a TD or MLA in every single border county. Linking up with Sinn Fein MLAs in every single border county in the north Sinn Fein’s southern border TDs comprise a physical as well as a political link across the border.
This connection is reinforced by Sinn Fein councillors in all the same counties. Again, it’s a first for any political party since partition.
Of course ifs part of Sinn Fein’s assembly election campaign, a visible demonstration of the party’s size and power across the island. That much is obvious.
Nevertheless it’s more than that.
It’s evidence that with Gerry Adams in leading the Dail team the position of northern nationalists will form an integral part of the strategic thinking of Sinn Fein in the Dail.
Quite simply Sinn Fein is the only party that could have done what they did on Monday. The gathering emphasised that the other nationalist parties, Fianna Fail and the SDLP are parties organised in one state on the island, with thinking confined to the one state they operate in.
For Fianna Fail to hold a meeting in Stormont or the SDLP to convene in the Oireachtas would be unthinkable, for the very obvious reason that they have no presence in the respective chambers. They would have to be invited but again it would be to meet members of a different party not to gather round a table for a meeting with their own party members. In that respect Monday’s meeting at Stormont was a signal breach in the political wall partition built on the island and on that score alone its significance will not be lost on unionists.
Perhaps Peter Robinson had a hand in the arrangements because the ‘in your face’ presence of such a bloc of Sinn Fein representatives will do wonders for DUP election prospects. The wording of the SF press release was instructive in itself saying, “this first meeting will focus primarily on advancing the united Ireland and all-Ireland political agenda”.
A calculated riposte to Peter Robinson who on 1 March, the day after SF’s success in the Dail elections, called on unionists to get behind the DUP to “stop Gerry Adams’s all-Ireland strategy in its tracks”.
It should also be said that the whole exercise performed a valuable educational function for the TDs most of whom had never been to Stormont before and some of whom were visiting Belfast for the first time. It will help to have had sight of the place when Sinn Fein TDs in the Dail begin talking about the north as they assuredly will in the run up to the assembly elections.
It may be some time before there are any tangible results of a cross-border Sinn Fein strategy. A single Stormont meeting will not produce those results but the fact that the meeting took place at Stormont and not in Leinster House is important.
The photo-call may, as they say, be ‘for the optics’ but behind the scenes there is clearly a determination to make progress on an all-Ireland agenda beginning with the border counties, which have suffered neglect for so many years from being on the periphery of two states.