A Moment In Time: How Sinn Féin Could Win It All

Written by Matt Ellison.

A week is a long time in politics, the cliché goes.

One week ago, Sinn Féin were in the media crosshairs as a result of a scandal that saw party members posing as independent pollsters. In the week since, embattled Tánaiste Leo Varadkar had to come clean about his own election campaigns’ propensity for using paid students and even fake business cards in a similar capacity to portray non-existent market research companies to unsuspecting voters. By the time the Sunday Times released its latest poll yesterday, Sinn Féin had surged to a historic 10% lead over the party of Michael Collins.

A week is a long time in politics.

It’s poor form, therefore, to try and predict with any degree of certainty what will happen a week, a month, a year from now in an Irish political arena in the thrust of so many historic firsts. We have a Civil War Coalition now, the unthinkable of the unthinkables. We have had, until recently, the majority of the workforce in this modern, neoliberal tax haven furloughed and kept at home on the government dime in response to a civilisation-shattering global pandemic. The Tánaiste, the number two man in the aforementioned Unthinkable Coalition (and champion of said neoliberal tax haven), is under criminal investigation by An Garda Síochána. Who can predict what next month will bring, in any way that doesn’t leave them with egg on their face?

Short of any lofty predictions, then, we can at least step back and take a breath, and take appraisal of the way things look right now, in this precise moment in time. Because as of today, June 14th 2021, it looks like we are staring in the face of a historic watershed moment for the island of Ireland, and the political party who bears the name of the movement that won it free of the Empire exactly 100 years ago.

A week is a long time in politics – or so, you can imagine, the DUP are currently telling themselves. Already mired in internal controversy over the alleged purging of political opponents, newly coronated DUP leader Edwin Poots and his deputised pick for First Minister of Northern Ireland Paul Givan now find themselves facing an all-too-familiar force of nature in Stormont: Sinn Féin’s hardball.

Edwin Poots MLA in 2013, then-Northern Ireland Health Minister

With the resignation of outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster, Sinn Féin have dragged their heels on the formal appointment of a Deputy First Minister from their own ranks, required to reform the Power Sharing Executive that governs in the North. The party has claimed that having “scoped out” Mrs. Foster’s replacement, they feel that Edwin Poots’ promise to uphold an agreement to recognise Irish as an official language of Northern Ireland was made in “bad faith”. For his part, Edwin Poots has reiterated his full commitment to the New Decade New Approach deal agreed last year to restore the Power Sharing Executive, of which recognition of the Irish language is a key facet. If Sinn Féin cannot be mollified by Saturday, the Executive will collapse, and a snap election likely looms for Northern Ireland.

And this is what must be giving DUP grandees nightmares.

A poll released little less than one month ago showed Sinn Féin storming ahead to an unprecedented 9-point lead over the DUP in Northern Ireland, off the back of Poots’ election as party leader. This gives Sinn Féin significant incentive to seek a snap election, and may go some way to explaining their sudden apparent discomfort over a language provision that their DUP governing partners have pledged to uphold.

A 9-point lead in Northern Ireland. A 10-point lead in the Republic. Sinn Féin has not seen numbers like this since the British General Election of 1918 (and the rest, the cliché says, is history). Furthermore, with the wrangling over the New Decade New Approach deal, Sinn Féin are in a position to unilaterally collapse the Northern Ireland Executive and, they may hope, force an election that allows them to seize power in Stormont. For the first time in the history of the statelet, a Catholic Republican will hold the post of First Minister of Northern Ireland. For the first time in the party’s history since the Provisional Republican movement agreed to contest elections in 1986, Sinn Féin will hold a Head of Government posting in one of the three parliaments it formally contests elections. And they’ll hold it with a 10-point lead in their other major jurisdiction of the Republic.

It’s impossible to say what Sinn Féin are really thinking. The next election in Northern Ireland is set for just 11 months from now. The DUP has been trending downwards in the polls ever since they catastrophically elected to back Brexit, to the ruination of the Northern Irish Unionist cause. It is unlikely a figurative dinosaur like Edwin Poots (figurative; in that he doesn’t believe they existed) is the miracle tonic the party desperately needs to reverse their dire political fortunes. It is unlikely, therefore, that Sinn Féin needs to game the system to force an early election to take advantage of their high polling numbers. Such a move could indeed backfire, and invite criticism from the broad Northern Irish left, as well as the government in the Republic they are working to depose.

Sinn Féin’s TD Mary Lou McDonald, left, Irish Leader of the Opposition; and Michelle O’Neill MLA, right, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

But such cynical politicking is far from outside the realm of possibility, especially given the pedantry of the current Sinn Féin-DUP drama. It’s not inconceivable that Sinn Féin will try to force an election to storm to power and capture one of the two seats of government on the island that they will almost certainly require if they are to make a convincing case for triggering the referendum that would see if unified. In power in Northern Ireland, they will be able to offer voters south of the border a free preview of what Sinn Féin governance would look like. If they’re smart, they’ll champion soft socially democratic causes over partisan sectarian issues, to convince as-yet-unconvinced voters in the Republic (not to mention opposition factions like the Social Democrats or People Before Profit) that Sinn Féin’s gentle leftism is legitimate and not simply a Republican affectation.

Already in government in a quarter of Ireland’s provinces, Sinn Féin would thus be in a unique position to challenge the uneasy Civil War Coalition when the time comes to pay the piper. One government versus another, with one track record versus another. Already boasting a double-digit lead in the polls today, Sinn Féin would appear likely to enter into that death struggle with a distinct and historically unprecedented advantage. And if the Republic follows in the footsteps of Northern Ireland to elect Mary Lou McDonald as its first female Taoiseach (and replace the portrait of Eamon de Valera in the Taoiseach’s office with that of Countess Markievicz), Sinn Féin will find themselves in uncontested control of Irish politics, north and south, for the first time since the First Dáil sat in 1919.

None of this may happen. Sinn Féin might agree to reform the Power Sharing Executive this week and confirm Paul Givan as First Minister, with Michelle O’Neill returning to work as Deputy First Minister. Sinn Féin may even go on to lose its heady polling lead and return the DUP to power next year as the result of a wide-ranging Unionist election pact to block Nationalist candidates, out of fear of how close the Unionist cause came to finally blowing it all. Fine Gael could rebound, as they did before just this time last year in response to the Caretaker Government’s adept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another decade of right-wing governance, north and south, could relegate Sinn Féin to the back benches as one Civil War party or the other returns to their agreed-upon role as Leader of the Opposition in Leinster House. And all of this will have just been a solitary moment in time, a single week where the doors of perception were thrown wide open and all manner of possibilities were laid bare to consider.

But at this moment in time, with Sinn Féin in a commanding lead in both Irish states and holding all the power in the negotiations to form Northern Ireland’s next government, at least one person with the ear of Michelle O’Neill or Mary Lou McDonald has surely noticed that, as of today, as of this week, Ireland’s destiny is once more in the hands of Ourselves, Alone.

Just as it was this day a century ago.

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