Tuesday, 10 January 2012
Whither Sinn Féin?
Where is Sinn Féin going? "Nowhere, in the south anyway" was the answer Eoghan Harris gave, a few short years back. Then at the last election Sinn Féin almost trebled its numbers in the Dail. Even this was a minor disappointment for some of the more ambitious party members.
Writing in The Irish Times today, Paul Cullen reckons the party have a five-year plan and are working "with a view to further gains in the next general election and the pivotal role in forming the next government that would accompany such success".
Since that statement could be made about nearly any political party, Cullen has hardly produced a major insight. If you listen to the Shinners' opponents, and to some extent to Cullen, you would conclude that their goal is power and that they have ditched and will ditch any principle to acquire that power. But power to do what?
Ask the average punter on the street what Sinn Féin stands for and you'll be told "A united Ireland". How would gaining power or sharing power in the south advance that ambition? Well, some people believe that the sight of, say, a Sinn Féin Minister of Education in the south meeting with a Sinn Féin Minister of Education in the north would be a powerful symbol of the strides the party has made towards Irish reunification. Those opposed would say that like the cross-border bodies, such a meeting would be a meaningless gesture, the kind that Fianna Fail and other southern governments have been making towards Irish unity over the last eighty or ninety years.
It depends on how you see Irish unity coming. If you believe it will come, if at all, in one intense, probably violent short period, as did the establishment of the Irish Free State, you'll dismiss Sinn Féin in government in the south and north as sell-out window-dressing. If you believe that Irish unity will come gradually, as more and more powers shift into the hands of Irish people, then you'll see Sinn Féin's five-year plan and beyond as important and so far, in the teeth of fierce opposition, successful. The increasing integration of the party into mainstream politics north and south can be seen as the betrayal of everything Irish men and women fought and died for over the past forty years, or the practical, patient movement towards realisation of their dream.
One thing is sure: the major barrier to Irish reunification now lies south of the border, not north of it.