By Steve Bell
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (annual conference) was held in Athlone on November 10th and 11th. With around 2000 in attendance it reflected the rapid growth of the party since last year. The central theme of conference was a demonstration of its preparedness to take up governance, on both sides of the border.
In the north Sinn Féin is the largest party in the Assembly, and the largest party in local government. For Westminster, Sinn Féin is polling 31%, compared to 25% for the DUP. If secured at the next General Election that would represent a new record for the party.
The DUP’s continued reservations about the post-Brexit trading arrangements (Protocol/Windsor Agreement) are only part of its hesitations about returning to the Assembly. Sinn Féin’s success means the DUP has to accept that a republican woman, Michelle O’Neill, as the First Minister in governing the six counties. For 18 months the DUP’s membership has baulked at this step, as much as it has pressed the British government for changes to the Windsor Framework.
In the south all the signs are that the next General Election will become another breakthrough for Sinn Féin. In the last election in 2020, Sinn Féin ended a century of two-party dominance when it secured 24.5%, compared to Fianna Fail’s 22.2% and Fine Gael’s 20.9%.
The next election has to be held by March 2025, and an election in late 2024 is a distinct possibility. To reflect population growth, the number of Teachtai Dala (MPs) will increase from 160 to 174. Thus an overall majority will now require 88 seats.
The challenge in the south
Sinn Féin’s leader Mary Lou McDonald told the Ard Fheis that “Our ambition is to lead government in the south. A new government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for the first time in a hundred years. Just imagine that. That would be the very best outcome for the General Election.” It certainly would be, but it is not the most likely outcome. If Sinn Féin secured the 32% in won in a recent opinion poll it would win 65-67 seats in the Dáil (Parliament). That’s still considerably short of the 88 required for a simple majority. While there was no debate at the conference on coalition, it is understood that such an outcome would require the decision of a future, or special, Ard Fheis.
As a dress rehearsal, there are important council and European elections in June 2024. These are very interesting because Sinn Féin did badly in the equivalent elections in 2019. At that time the party lost 78 council seats, and two of its three MEPs. This likely originated in the problems of a generational leadership change in February 2018, and a distinct lack of clarity on Sinn Féin’s attitude to government.
Since then it is evident that the new generation of leadership has demonstrated real balance and authority. Equally, the party is clearly focused on the prospect of governing. As a result, some commentators are predicting Sinn Féin could win up to 5 MEPs, regain council losses and add a further 100 seats.
Waiting for the break in the north
Consolidating the progress made in the north depends upon the Assembly resuming its functions. Declan Kearney, national chairperson, told international guests that there was no indication of its resumption “any time soon”. Michelle O’Neill, in her conference address, restated her commitment to be “a First Minister for all”, referencing her attendance at a cenotaph commemoration the previous day. But there remained a sense of frustration in conference discussions about the political freeze.
Since the Ard Fheis, there have been indications that the ice is breaking. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar suggested that Stormont would return “before Christmas or early in the new year”. British Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, said that talks with the DUP are in their “final phase”.
More significantly, in a BBC interview, Peter Robinson, former DUP leader, said he hoped for a deal within the next number of weeks”. The former First Minister retains a reputation of some influence, unlike other ex-DUP leaders Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots. He stated, “There’s a stage where unionists have to recognise that we really have pushed this one, we have got a good deal – not everything we wanted but the rest that we do want I think we’re in a position to argue for it and to achieve it using the assembly as our base for doing it.” This is music to the ears of current DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, whose primary problem is holding the party together in returning to the Assembly.
This was rejected by the most prominent hardliners. DUP MP Sammy Wilson told the BBC, “I certainly don’t get the impression that we are close. He must have different information than I have.” He went on to state what was needed was to restore the north’s place in the union, not to have laws imposed from the EU, and to remove a trading border in the Irish Sea. If essential this would require the north to be removed from the EU single market and have the Good Friday Agreement overturned – or, alternatively have Brexit overturned. Little wonder that agreement has yet to be reached.
The first real sign of impatience by the British government was the announcement on 20th November that no funding would be allocated to the north out of the government’s “Levelling Up” fund. Minister for the fund, Michael Gove, said “given the current absence of a working executive and assembly, the Government is not proceeding with this round of the Levelling Up Fund at this time.” This would be worth £30 million, and the government’s action was described by Sammy Wilson as “economic blackmail”. At the same time, the Irish government has emphasised its preparedness to help restore power sharing “in any way economically”. The republic’s minister for public expenditure, Paschal Donohoe, stated that there was E500 million in the Shared Island Fund available for north/south projects.
The continuing crisis of perspective for unionism
Whether withholding or offering funds, the two governments are putting pressure on the DUP. The general consensus in the business community in the north is that the Windsor Framework is protecting business. Increased north/south trade is more than offsetting any loss in north/Britain trade. The north continues to show some of the best growth in the UK, second only to the London region. And, from a commercial point of view, the north’s political uncertainty deters investment.
Whether there is an early restoration of Stormont or not, it is clear that the crisis of perspective for unionism remains pronounced. It no longer delivers to its supporters higher living standards. Since supporting Brexit and aligning its fate to the Tory government, the DUP has lurched from crisis to crisis. It’s preoccupation with constitutional questions such as the integrity of the 1800-1801 Acts of Union are preposterous and irrelevant to the population of the north.
In fact, the DUP’s disastrous line of the past seven years has not only seen its influence wane. It has also damaged the community it claims to lead. For although the economic position of the north after Brexit has been protected, that protection will not be adequate to protect the living standards of the majority of the population, regardless of community.
A recent study by Paul Gosling (1) highlights the disadvantages being visited upon the north by British policy in comparison to Britain and Ireland. Issues of living standards are not just immediately important, given the bipartisan support in Parliament for continued austerity. Such issues will also form a key element in the growing debate on Ireland’s future, and the momentum towards a referendum on the border. Whether the union or Irish reunification appears to best defend living standards will have massive, perhaps, decisive impact in a border poll.
Gosling’s study reveals that: “Pay levels in Northern Ireland have increased at less than the rate of inflation, meaning that they are falling in real terms. They are also rising in nominal terms more slowly than in Great Britain or Ireland – and are therefore falling faster in real terms, increasing the pay gap. This in part reflects Northern Ireland’s higher dependence on public sector employment, which has been subject to years of austerity policies. Northern Ireland’s position relative to Great Britain in terms of pay and household disposable income is therefore declining.” (p189-190)
On benefits and pensions, Gosling states: “Comparing the welfare benefits system North and South, the amounts payable and the period for which benefits are paid are complex and superficial analysis is unreliable. It is, though, notable that the devolved government in Northern Ireland spends more per capita on welfare support payments than the other UK administrations, with mitigations introduced to avoid some of the impacts of austerity imposed by the UK government and implemented in Great Britain. Despite this, support for people in deprivation tends to be greater in Ireland than in Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK.” (p196)
As confirmed in Hunt’s Autumn Statement reductions in welfare support will continue. This is especially bad news for the north: “Despite its lower level of inequality, Northern Ireland has a much bigger problem of poverty than Ireland does, while the UK as whole has an even worse problem. The Joseph Rowntree Trust reports that 18% of people in Northern Ireland live below the internationally recognised poverty line. The figure for the UK as a whole is 18.6% and for Ireland it is 13.1%.” (p198)
As for the DUP’s support for Brexit, against the majority of northern voters, the legacy is of a dead weight. “The Office of Budget Responsibility assesses the ongoing negative impact of Brexit on UK exports and imports at 15%. The Centre for European Reform (CER) calculates that UK GDP fell by 5.5% as a result of Brexit, with investment falling by 11%. These macroeconomic impacts affect personal incomes. CER’s analysis estimates that the UK lost £40bn in tax revenues resulting from Brexit: the effects of this will be felt in various unspecifiable ways, in terms of government expenditure, which may include spending on capital investment, the NHS, education and skills, as well as personal financial support in terms of lost opportunities to cut tax rates and increase welfare benefits.” (p203) In comparison, the Irish government is working with a surplus in government revenues.
Multilateral bodies, like the IMF and OECD, predict faster growth for the Irish economy than the UK. Inevitably, government revenues will be higher for the faster growing economy – with a positive result for infrastructure investment, social services and welfare provision.
The historic crisis of the DUP, and Ulster unionism more generally, lies in the decline of British imperialism. The growing marginality of the north will not be resolved by insisting on maintaining a tie that is strangling the north. While struggling to “protect” the union the DUP is not protecting the unionist, or any other, community. Continued abstention will accelerate, not resolve the DUP’s crisis.
Some difficulties of preparing for government
Preparing for government includes drawing up workable policies. The Ard Fheis registered three key policy issues that a Sinn Féin led government would prioritise – housing, health and climate action. On housing the aim is to launch “the biggest house-building programme in the history of the state”, and to reduce rents. On health it is to “end the two tier service where money allows the queue to be jumped”. On climate change it is to “actually meet ambitious targets on emission reduction and renewable energy”, rather than constantly miss them, as the current Coalition government has.
In these areas Sinn Féin has spent considerable efforts to refine policy. It speaks with confidence from serious research, and practice. But preparing for government isn’t only about drawing up domestic programmes. It is also about positioning the potential government in the web of international connections and constraints. This is about anticipating how your government would react to a breaking crisis in international relations. Here Sinn Féin’s leadership has not been so sure-footed.
At the 2022 Ard Fheis the most controversial question was the party’s response to the Ukraine war. The position adopted by the leadership was supportive of Ukranian national rights against Russia without qualification. In particular, the national rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine were ignored. The vote was carried by a very slim majority. Prioritising the integrity of the state over minority rights actually clashes with Sinn Féin’s own enthusiastic defence of Basque and Catalonian rights, which featured again in the Ard Fheis this year. So the line on Ukraine seemed to be premised on maintaining a connection with EU/US allies, without sharing their war-mongering.
However, this year the Ukraine barely rated a mention. The leadership’s proposal was carried without discussion, and without motivation from the platform. The motion contained an “unequivocal condemnation” of Russia, called for an immediate end to “Russia’s war”, for international efforts to achieve peace, and for the “application of international law”. It made no mention of minority national rights, nor of NATO’s military involvement and expansion. This is making the record, rather than making a difference. The failure of NATO’s proxy war includes a huge blow to the EU states’ economies. At some point, a realignment has to take place, unfortunately Sinn Féin is not placing itself to stimulate that.
This year the war on Gaza found the party on more familiar ground. Support for the Palestinians is in the DNA on contemporary republicanism – along with support for Cuba and South Africa. There were many powerful and moving contributions in conference in response to the horrors being inflicted upon the Palestinians. Certainly the response given to the Palestinian ambassador to Ireland could not have been warmer.
But there had been a problem in the response of the leadership. After October 7th there were some tensions, Matt Carty, Foreign Affairs spokesperson, in his first response did not explicitly condemn Hamas. Mary Lou McDonald did , shortly afterwards. Overall a position was promoted fully supporting the Palestinians, opposing civilian deaths, and supporting a ceasefire and political solution. The Dáil and Irish government also adopted a policy in support of a ceasefire. The Sinn Féin leadership held meetings not just with Palestinians, but also with ambassadors from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, demonstrating how a Sinn Féin government would also utilise diplomatic channels.
However, as the bombardment of Gaza intensified so the tactical promotion of Irish government policy became more complex. There were Irish nationals whose exit from Gaza had to be negotiated with the Israeli government, and an Irish school student who was being held by Hamas.
A debate began in the solidarity movement and within Sinn Féin as to whether the Israeli ambassador to Ireland should be expelled or not. Here the response of the leadership was very cautious. The leadership resolution published in the conference agenda neither called for the expulsion, nor for the pursuit of a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the Irish government. But the pressure inside the party ranks must have been considerable. For Mary Lou McDonald, at the podium, stated that Sinn Féin supported the expulsion of the Ambassador, and would place a motion to the Dáil on pursuing a case to the ICC. Immediately, the roar of conference was very loud. It felt as though it was as much relief as approval. Here was evidence that the leadership in preparing for government remains responsive to the basic concerns of republicanism.
The 2023 Ard Fheis was an inspiring event. Activists, old and new, are facing up to the prospect of republican led governments, north and south. The new generation of leaders are receiving endorsement from growing sections of Irish society. The challenges are immense, but so too the opportunities. Europe, in this conjuncture, has so few beacons of hope for social progress. Sinn Féin remains one of the brightest.
(1) Paul Gosling, “Who is Better Off: the Irish, the Northern Irish or the British? A Regional Economic Comparison”, Published by Royal Irish Academy – https://doi.org/10.1353/isia.2023.a908962