Election Focus – Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein remain committed to its policy of not taking its seats in Westminster, seeing the 2010 campaign as a springbroad for next year’s Stormont elections.

Sinn Fein remain committed to its policy of not taking its seats in Westminster, instead seeing the 2010 campaign as a springbroad for the one they view as mattering more – next year’s Stormont elections. That said, the party enters the election for the first time as a party of government, following its historic decision in 2007 to enter a coalition with its old foe, the DUP. In the same year party members took the unprecedented step of voting to support Northern Ireland’s police service after years of hostility towards it.

By 2008, Sinn Fein’s commitment to pursuing solely political means to achieve its aims were confirmed following the IRA’s disbanding. And last year, its political re-birth was confirmed as Martin McGuniess was voted Northern Ireland’s most popular politician.

In February this year, the Hillsborough Agreement proved a boost to Sinn Fein, having secured its objective of devolving policing and justice power and a review of the regime for regulating parades, which nationalists had historically seen as favouring the unionist Orange order.

On the face of it, Sinn Fein can look forward to at the least maintaining the seats it holds in Westminster. However, dig a bit deeper, and the renaissance isn’t necessarily all it seems. In 2008 Sinn Fein’s education minister, Caitríona Ruane, confirmed that the 11-plus exam would be abolished, arguing that “academic selection is both unnecessary and unjust”. However, the decision has come in for substantial criticism from the UUP.

By 2009, as concerns grew that the Assembly could collapse altogether, Martin McGuiness and Peter Robinson engaged in a very public spat over the time frame for the devolution of policing and justice, a new low in their relations, and last year, the party was forced to explain the size of its expenses, despite not taking its seats at Westminster. Questions also remain over the future of the party’s president, Gerry Adams, following a series of allegations over his brother’s behaviour and his recently reported comments about the IRA.

What is more, despite a renewed drive to see a united Ireland, polling data reported by Left Foot Forward suggests Ireland’s difficulties in coming through the economic downturn, with the harsh measures taken by Dublin, make Sinn Fein’s dream of a united Ireland unlikely to progress in the near future. It has not, however, stopped Sinn Fein’s regional development minister, Conor Murphy, calling for a referendum on unity by 2016.

Putting all this to one side though, it remains the case that Sinn Fein do not see the UK General Election as the most important date on their calendar, which would explain Gerry Adams’d some what mooted response when the election was called:

“Sinn Fein have been preparing for this election for some months. Our activists have been out on the doorsteps and we now look forward to the campaign.”

In the event of a Tory victory, a collision with Sinn Fein seems almost certain, as reports suggest the Conservatives and their friends in the UUP could change the goal posts to prevent Martin McGuinness becoming first minister in the event of Sinn Fein being the largest party after the Assembly elections next year. Last September, Left Foot Forward revealed that McGuinness had “never seen David Cameron”; he said:

“I do not have a high regard for the Tories, and I suspect the feeling’s mutual.”

As Labour’s Stephen Pound, a member of a Northern Ireland Affairs committee, warned:

“This is the bonfire of bipartisanship … For the Conservatives to imply the carefully constructed architecture is subject to a wholesale review opens the door to chaos and the end of any form of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

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