How will Sinn Fein’s electoral gains In the Republic impact on the SDLP and on Unionism?

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Make no mistake about it, Sinn Fein’s performance in the General
Election in the Republic of Ireland is already resonating in Northern
Ireland . UUP leader Tom Elliott got short shrift recently from his
former Westminster bedfellows David Cameron and Owen Paterson in
pressing them to change the rules governing the appointment of First
Minister to make sure Sinn Fein couldn’t hold that post should that
party top the polls in the Assembly election in May. The Secretary of
State, much to Mr Elliott’s chagrin said there will be no tinkering
with the current structures of the Executive without all party
support. Unionists’ concerns will be ever greater now on back of Sinn
Fein’s success in the Republic. I held to the view, contrary to other
media and political opinion, that Gerry Adams’s decision to throw his
hat in the ring in Louth was an inspired decision but not even he
could have anticipated the tsunami of publicity which attached itself
to that move which was especially timely just ahead of the FF/Greens
implosion. It reminded me somewhat of Sinn Fein’s standing Bobby Sands
for election in Fermanagh South Tyrone in 1981 when he was on hunger
strike. There was an obvious read across from the attention afforded
Gerry Adams’s entry into Louth to Pearse Doherty’s running in the
Donegal by-election from which he emerged triumphant. Margaret
Ritchie’s intervention North or South in political life is bearing
little fruit these days. The Adams strategy and success in the General
Election will have a knock on effect in Northern Ireland. The
electorate North and South is ahead of the media and the
establishment. Voters are clearly seeing past Republican sins of
yesterday. The media and rival politicians threw everything including
the kitchen sink, at Gerry Adams in West Belfast and in Louth, the
disappearance of Jean McConville, alleged IRA membership etc. None of
this stuck, with Adams topping the polls in both constituencies. The
former Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux used to speak of the need
for a long period of ‘decontamination’ being necessary before Sinn
Fein could be acceptable in government. As a serious viewer and
admirer of RTE TV and Radio Current Affairs, the treatment of Sinn
Fein in the election coverage left a lot to be desired. There was much
talk of Fianna Fail being so ‘toxic’ no one wanted to be electorally
associated with them. In some media circles Sinn Fein was treated
accordingly. Trebling/quadrupling a vote in any election is
remarkable. It was left to two of the most brilliant dispassionate and
insightful political analysts on RTE, Noel Whelan and John Bowman in
conversation with Pat Kenny to seriously assess and evaluate Sinn
Fein’s achievements with Bowman predicting another election in a
year’s time would result in Sinn Fein winning more seats than Fianna
Fail. He underscored the attraction of Micheal Martin to the female
voter and to young people but he argued Fianna Fail doesn’t have SF’s
laser accuracy in identifying it’s target. Why did it take until the
final quarter of the count to address Sinn Fein’s upward swing? If
that party had merely delivered in working class areas in Dublin then
one could half rationalise the decision of the media to ignore it’s
showing. The Sunday Independent boasts 1,006,000 readers. Had those
readers not checked the fine print of their paper they would have had
trouble noticing how Sinn Fein voted in the election. Every Unionist
in Northern Ireland is well informed, especially DUP ministers and
politicians who sneered at the ‘redundant’ Baron of the Manor of
Northstead. We might soon hear again talk of ‘unionist pacts’ and
‘deals’ ahead of the Assembly elections in May. It was also Jim
Molyneaux who concluded the IRA ceasefire was one of Ulster’s ‘worst’
days. He knew that all had changed with an end to IRA violence. All
the old ‘certainties’ attached to violence had disappeared – the
Union, unlimited financial backing for security, with many
questionable policing and army controversial killings camouflaged
under the cover of ’emergency.’ Quite often Unionism didn’t even feel
obliged to overtly condemn loyalist killings and activity against the
ferociousness and grotesqueness of the IRA’s violence visited on the
whole community. Ironically Unionism is back at the same water jump.
Sinn Fein tails are up. Busloads of missionary young people will soon
be travelling Northwards from as far away as Kerry to drive up the
Sinn Fein vote in the Assembly elections and to try and put Margaret
Ritchie’s family out of it’s Parliament Buildings home. The Sinn Fein
anthem will be the inverse of the DUP’s – ‘Only Sinn Fein can win post
of First Minister for Nationalists.’ Margaret Ritchie will holler from
the rooftops but will she be howling at the moon? Sinn Fein will
further justifiably treat Micheal Martin’s talk of electoral
involvement in Northern Ireland with contempt. Sinn Fein will
underscore it’s ‘all Ireland’ credentials having more elected members
to houses of parliament on this island second only to Fine Gael. There
will be another wind at Sinn Fein’s back. The 1916 anniversary is on
the horizon in five years time. This is a huge incentive for a hungry
all Ireland party. None of this provides much comfort for Unionism. I
write this having regularly documented over the past year the
remarkable renaissance in Peter Robinson’s leadership. Politics here
is again fascinating for the serious students in the class. 












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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.

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