Call me conspiratorial if you wish but I have learned the hard way over many years that when it comes to Sinn Fein, under its current leader, it is best to first assume a conspiracy, or at least a much more complicated accounting, and then look for evidence of a more innocent and straightforward explanation.
So it was in that frame of mind that I switched on my iPad last night, logged onto The Irish Times website and discovered the article below. It is a statement by SF’s heiress apparent, Mary Lou McDonald that the party should drop its longstanding policy of only taking power in government as the majority party.
Now she says, in pursuit of power, Sinn Fein should be content to take seats around the cabinet table as the junior coalition partner.
This is no more than a recognition of reality since Sinn Fein has no chance in the foreseeable future of overtaking either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael and putting together a government as the dominant party.
But it is a major departure – what The Times calls ‘a significant shift’ – from what was initially presented to their membership as a principled stance on the issue of taking power, i.e. only in circumstances where SF called the shots.
It was instrumental in persuading a lot of the Provo grassroots to accept the idea of seeking power in what is still, for many republicans, a partitionist institution.
One thing to bear in mind is that Ms McDonald would never make such a suggestion without Gerry knowing all about it; indeed the modus operandi here is very reminiscent of the leader’s well-worn kite-flying tactic of yore, i.e. using lesser figures to test the water and leaving them to take the blame if the idea bombed.
So assuming. as we must, that Mary Lou is really speaking for Gerry, it looks as if the pledge is going to be jettisoned (just as the industrial wage policy also faces the dustbin) at a very interesting time.
Martin McGuinness’ serious illness must have served as an unwelcome reminder to Gerry Adams of his own mortality, and that time is running out if he really wants to secure his place in Irish history, viz. by leading a ‘republican’ party that has bums on seats around the cabinet table on both sides of the Border.
Better a seat as a minority member of a cabinet than no seat at all.
Then look at the wider context of Mary Lou’s statement, especially its timing.
It comes at a moment when the Northern arrangements appear to be in some disarray and an air of crisis perfuses. Martin McGuinness has been replaced by Michelle O’Neill, the power-sharing arrangements have effectively been suspended pending a new election and negotiations afterwards, and, more importantly, the SF grassroots are up in arms at the DUP, apparently enraged by that party’s skullduggery over the pellet fire scandal and eager to deal them a blow at the polls.
Anger and confusion reign. What a perfect moment for Mary Lou to announce a major shift in policy and principle.
Naomi Klein has written one of the great books of this age about modern capitalism, in my view. It is called ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and it suggests that governments and corporations use natural and man-made crises to push through, almost unnoticed, policy changes that otherwise would or could be resisted.
Klein posits that it is mostly economic change, neoliberal economic change in particular, that is notably the major beneficiary of this phenomenon.
But there is no reason why the same theory cannot be applied to politics.
Otherwise, you would have to believe the implied message in the second article from The Irish Times that I reproduce below. It is written by Brian Rowan and is a second-hand account of an allegedly turbulent meeting held at the Felons’ Club, in West Belfast, the IRA’s unofficial drinking den, at which Gerry Adams was, allegedly, hauled over the coals by the Provo grassroots over the RHI shenanigans at Stormont and at which the loudest cheer came when there was a call to bring the power-sharing institutions down.
As Rowan put it: ‘Adams has not only heard what people are saying. He has heard what he was being told to do.’ So, serious stuff.
Amongst those allegedly leading the mob that was giving Adams such a hard time was, according to the article, one Bobby Storey, the IRA’s former (?) chief of intelligence.
‘Big Bobby’, as he is better known in Provo circles, is famous for two things. One is his great skill as an intelligence boss. The other is his spaniel-like devotion to, and admiration for Gerry Adams.
Is it really credible that Bobby Storey of all people would lead, much less take part in the charge against the man he has worshiped and followed unquestioningly for decades?
Below are the two articles referenced above. The first deals with Mary Lou McDonald’s proposed volte-face on Sinn Fein’s government policy; the second is Brian Rowan’s piece on the Felons’ Club meeting. Enjoy:
The Irish Times
January 26, 2017 Thursday
McDonald open to SF being junior coalition partner;
Declaration by deputy leader marks significant shift in party’s position
BYLINE: Fiach Kelly
SECTION: FRONT PAGE; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 326 words
Sinn Féin’s Mary LouMcDonald has raised the prospect that Sinn Féin could take part in the next coalition government as the junior partner, saying she wants the party to be in power.
The move by the Dublin Central TD is significant, since it marks a shift from the previous Sinn Féin position that it would only take office if it was the dominant party.
However, the deputy leader, widely tipped to succeed Gerry Adams as party president, said Sinn Féin must have a “conversation” before the next election about taking up the secondary role.
Speaking on The Irish Times‘ Inside Politics podcast, Ms McDonald also said anyone entering government must be pragmatic about difficult decisions that must be made.
Sinn Féin’s problem with the difficult decisions taken by successive governments in the Republic, she said, is that the “tough decision is always the decision that hurts the little guy”.
“Why can’t we make some tough decisions that reach up into the upper echelons of society?” She defended Sinn Féin’s past declarations that it would enter power only as the major force in a coalition.
“People are understandably anxious when they look at the experience of other political parties that have gone into coalition and have either, in the minds of some, ‘sold out’ or left their politics outside the cabinet meeting room or have just not measured up or not performed,” she said.
“We are not in the business of doing any of those things.”
Asked if she would consider entering power as a junior partner, she said: “You are right. That is a conversation that we need to be having between now and the next election.
“I want us to be in government, I believe we will be in government in the South. We won’t be in government for the sake of it. It won’t be personal careerism or for the cheap thrill of headlines or the history-making moments of it.
“We can only go into government when we are confident that we are in a position to deliver.”
Sinn Féin meeting that brought political crisis to a head
In Belfast’s Felons Club they cheered a call to ‘bring the [Stormont] institutions down’
Mon, Jan 23, 2017, 15:43
Felons Club in Belfast: after a meeting in the club in early January “Sinn Féin pressed a political nuclear button that has thrown Northern Ireland into uncertainty”.
Inside the Felons Club in west Belfast the mood was immediately obvious. On a Saturday afternoon in early January several hundred republicans packed an upstairs room to hear Gerry Adams, first in a public speech and then in a private briefing, after the media had been asked to leave.
A developing political crisis in Northern Ireland was about to be brought to a head. Within 48 hours, Martin McGuinness had resigned as deputy First Minister also forcing then First Minister Arlene Foster out of office.
Sinn Féin pressed a political nuclear button that has thrown Northern Ireland into uncertainty.
Almost 20 years after Good Friday 1998, the threads of that historic agreement – one that was held up internationally as the way to confirm and consolidate peace – have loosened and are coming undone.
Republicans are now questioning the worth of the Stormont institutions and a decade-long relationship with the DUP at the head of the Northern Ireland Executive.
This was the mood inside the Felons Club that Saturday in January. Within hours, news filtered out that when that republican gathering moved into private session, the loudest cheer was in response to a call to “bring the institutions down now”.
In other words, collapse Stormont. “People have reached the end of their tether,” a senior republican said that evening. “The anger in our community is palpable.”
Old ghosts of unionist rule
The question being asked, he said, is: “Why are you up there [in Stormont]?”
For now, the Sinn Féin leadership has no answer to that question and, after the McGuinness resignation, the message being delivered to the republican grassroots is that there will be “no return to the status quo”.
The audience at the Felons Club included many of Sinn Féin’s elected representatives in the North – including party chair Declan Kearney, MEP Martina Anderson, Stormont MLAs Gerry Kelly, Raymond McCartney and Michelle Gildernew and, on stage with Adams, new party leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill.
Adams has not only heard what people are saying. He has heard what he was being told to do.
For over two decades, a key consideration for the republican leadership has been the cohesion of its movement and party and community.
During that period, Adams and McGuinness have relied on a small group of senior republicans to be their eyes and ears, to take the pulse and to know the mood.
Among that small group are a number of Belfast republicans, who were significant figures in the IRA leadership and who have been part of the transition into peace and into politics. Bobby Storey, Seán Murray and Martin Lynch were all inside the Felons Club.
“They are not just reflecting it, they are the mood,” another republican told me. He means that key group, working closely with Adams and McGuinness and other senior republican figures such as Ted Howell, have come to that point of questioning the credibility and viability of the Stormont political project.
When such senior figures speak, they cannot be ignored. The talk now is of the need for “qualitative change” if the political institutions are to be restored.
Republicans have been reminded of the old ghosts of unionist rule. They accuse the DUP of not embracing, indeed of ignoring, the principles and rules of partnership and power-sharing – the foundation stones on which the Good Friday Agreement was built.
There are big issues on which they have made no progress – a process to address the vexed questions of the past, the shelved plan for a Maze/Long Kesh peace centre and an Irish Language Act.
So there is a mood, seen and heard in the Felons Club, that has to be managed; managed at a time of transition in the republican leadership, which is having to be accelerated because of McGuinness’s illness.
Health Minister Michelle O’Neill, who has taken on a more prominent role in recent times and who was on stage with Adams in the Felons Club, now steps into that position of leading the Sinn Féin Assembly group.
For many in the Northern Ireland communities, McGuinness will only ever be seen in an IRA frame, his name linked to the bombs and bullets and death and destruction of a decades-long conflict, but his story reads from war to peace.
There have also been remarkable moments of reconciliation. His meetings with Queen Elizabeth and his participation in a debate with PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton in west Belfast in 2015.
Within the republican community, there was recent anger and criticism of McGuinness’s presence in London at the unveiling of Irish artist Colin Davidson’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth.
“They [republicans] saw it again as him reaching out, stretching, and nothing coming back,” said a source with knowledge of events, meaning nothing coming back from the unionist political leadership.
This criticism is part of that wider mood and questioning. Now, after almost a decade in government, there has been a very public breakdown in the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Leaving another Sinn Féin event at the Felons Club last week, the influential Belfast republican Bobby Storey shouted across the road towards journalists: “Let’s go.”
It was a reference to the election – scheduled for March 2nd. But, let’s go where? This is the unanswered question.
A new agreement to achieve the certainty of partnership in government and to settle impossible issues such as legacy will take time.
If there is no Northern Ireland Executive, what fills the gap? Some unionists are predicting a long period of direct rule; the pressing of a rewind button until some way forward can be found.
That new agreement to achieve the implementation of old agreements could mean a very long negotiation before the Northern Ireland Executive is rebuilt.
Beyond the election, politics will enter what a senior republican called “uncharted waters”.
There is also concern that dissident republicans will attempt to step into the space, fears underscored when a police officer was wounded in a gun attack in north Belfast on Sunday evening.
Brian Rowan is the author of Unfinished Peace