A Sinn Féin focus on the cost of living in the Stormont election has sparked controversy, with the DUP, the SDLP and the Irish Republican Socialist Party all rowing in to criticise the temporary downgrading of the party’s Irish unity agenda.
At a campaign event in the Titanic Hotel on Monday, party president Mary Lou McDonald told the media the cost of living crisis was the “big, big issue” for families in the North.
She said: “The big priority for Sinn Féin after this election is to get back to work quickly so that the Executive can get money into people’s pockets to help with the rising cost of living, and to provide badly needed investment into our health services, and in particular to deal with waiting lists.
“Rising costs are putting a huge burden on workers and on families, who are struggling to keep food on the table and to keep their homes heated.”
She added while “wider political issues” needed to be addressed during the campaign, most people were focused on “the here and now and the need to get by”.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill also said this week that people are not “waking up” thinking about Irish unity. She was reacting to a opinion poll carried out by an English university which claimed that while Sinn Féin is set to be returned as the largest party, support for Irish reunification within the Six Counties has fallen to 30%.
“It’s one in a long line of polls. I looked very briefly at the figures this morning but I don’t think people woke up this morning thinking about that,” she said.
“I think people woke up this morning thinking about the cost-of-living crisis. I think people woke up this morning around the pressure they feel right now.”
The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson claimed Sinn Féin is “running away” from a referendum on unity because, he claimed, it had realised that is “not what people in Northern Ireland want”.
Ironically, Donaldson has himself been forced to pay attention to so-called ‘bread and butter’ issues after opinion polls showed that less than in one in ten voters in the North consider the DUP’s main political agenda, opposition to the Irish Protocol of Brexit, to be a key concern.
Sinn Féin’s main nationalist rivals in the SDLP accused Sinn Féin of “living in fantasyland” in its support for Irish reunification. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood claimed the party had been forced to shift the focus of its Assembly election strategy away from the constitutional question to the cost-of-living crisis. “It’s slow learners as usual,” Mr Eastwood told the PA news agency.
Dan Murphy of the Irish Republican Socialist Party was critical of the idea that a better standard of living and Irish unity are contrary ideas. That is “certainly not the message” that Irish Unity activists should be putting out, he said.
“Economic and social failure are in direct correlation to the partition of Ireland.
“The cost of living crisis is a crisis created by capitalism, created by greed and created by the continuous thirst for profit by big business, and like any crisis it is the working class, our most vulnerable who have to suffer and pay the price.
“This crisis cannot be reversed by Stormont, nor can it be stopped by handing out another few hundred in grants. We as Irish Unity activists need to be putting forward a long term message, that the answer to our socio-economic problems can only be resolved via Irish Unity and specifically the creation of the 32 County Socialist Republic, where the interests of the working class are put before the interests of the elite.”
He claimed Sinn Féin are “scared to put forward this message, they are afraid to look too radical. They are playing electoral political games on the topic of Irish Unity as they look over their shoulder to appease the business elite both north and south.”