WHAT’S IN A name? Well according to Sinn Féin’s Phil Flanagan: quite a lot. He has taken exception to erection of signs along the border saying ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland.’
Flanagan rightly points out in his statement that the tourist board in 2004 advised against the use of such signs pointing out their divisive nature. However, Flanagan goes further by stating that communities along the border ‘suffer the negative impact of partition on a daily basis and a large proportion of are completely opposed to the unnatural division of Ireland.’
Yet one would wonder whether Mr Flanagan’s own party are not too far away from putting ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ on their own policy documents as the gulf between their actions in government in the North and their protestation south of the border widens. Since the last election, Sinn Féin has become leader of the opposition to the various austerity measures pursued by successive Irish governments since 2008. The party had made solid electoral gains by attracting disaffected voters fed up with reduced government services and cuts to pay and benefits.
Yet in Northern Ireland, the party is implementing these very same policies they are opposing in Dáil Éireann. Take education for example where the Sinn Fein minister, John O’Dowd, talk about the need for “sustainable schools policy” which he noted could lead “to the closure of 70 schools”. The party in the Dáil voted against the 2010 Budget which cut €6 billion in January 2010 yet two months later voted in the Assembly for a budget which cut £3 billion over four years.
“Issue of devolution”
Now, party supporters will say there is a difference between being in government in a regional devolved government in Belfast and a fully independent state in Dublin. However surely this argument runs counter to Sinn Fein’s raison d’être of opposition to British interference in Irish affairs. If a party founded on the principle that policies in Ireland ought to be made by and for the Irish people is now claiming that it is introducing cuts at the behest of malign influence in Westminster then surely even the most humblest student of Irish politics could be forgiven for asking what are they there?
Even this defence runs contrary to some of the party’s statements on the issue of devolution. In early 2010, the party was a driving force behind attaining the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. Their party leader Gerry Adams, at the 2010 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, told delegates about the victory the party had achieved in bringing more powers back to the Irish people. Yet in the same breath, they are saying that these powers are limited in themselves as the British government ultimately decides what they can or cannot do.
More worryingly for the party is that these divisions between the Northern and Southern wings of the party had now crept into issues outside of policies being implemented in the Assembly. The recent case of Sean Quinn saw the bizarre appearance of the local Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew claiming that Quinn has been “treated disgracefully by the Irish government” and in Dublin her party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald was quick to distance her party from supporting the businessman saying “neither loyalty nor emotion can be allowed to get in the way of justice being done in the Quinn case or, indeed, any other that may arise”.
“Your best defence becomes your biggest detriment”
The problem for Sinn Fein is that what one day can be your best defence can quickly become your biggest detriment. If elected representatives on both sides of the border pursue two divergent policy platforms then the party effectively becomes an umbrella organisation where the only unifying event is the annual party conference. While it is easy politics to point out the ‘partitionism’ in things like road signs, the party’s leadership could do well to reflect on the partitionism in their press releases and policies.
Why is this so important for the party going forward? For decades the party had told Irish voters that they are the only party to represent constituents on both sides of the border and now that they are achieving that goal with increased electoral support the party needs to now give serious thought as what they say and do on both sides of the border.
Hoping that voters do not notice the inconsistencies and critiques is not a strategy for the future. Continuing in this happy muddle will surely only lead voters to question the party’s capacity to truly represent voters on a thirty-two county basis.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster.