Monday, February 15, 2016
Sinn Féin in government: The Northern experience
While it may be unpalatable for some, the party has shown it can get the job done
Whatever Fine Gael,Fianna Fáil, Labour and some of the southern commentariat might say, there is a fairly broad consensus in Northern Ireland, based on some 17 years of experience, that Sinn Féin can do government.
And if Sinn Féin does end up in a Dáil coalition when the votes are counted after February 26th, the expectation on this side of the Border would be that they would do government in the South too.
After all, if a republican and avowedly socialist party – although there is less emphasis on the socialist these days – could share power with a unionist and proudly right-wing DUP, why couldn’t it share power with Fianna Fáil and/or Labour and an amalgam of Independents and micro-parties?
Professor John D Brewser of Queen’s University Belfast believes that people in the Republic might be surprised about how Sinn Féin would perform in government.
“Sinn Féin Ministers have committed themselves to abide by the legal, bureaucratic and political constraints that surround their office as government Ministers, even to the point, for example, of their departmental civil servants [rather than them personally as Ministers] making recommendations for [British] public honours,” he says.
“Sinn Féin Ministers have been squeaky clean, even more than their DUP counterparts, when it comes to propriety,” says Prof Brewer, who heads the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s.
But Sinn Féin in Government Buildings would be different and unsettling for some. Having Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty fronting departments might take some getting used to. Then again, it would be nothing compared to the sharp intake of unionist breath that occurred when in 1999 former IRA commander Martin McGuinness was put in charge of their children’s education.
Trade unionists, academics, and business and farmers’ representatives contacted for this article were generally of the view that Sinn Féin Ministers in the North are as good or as bad as any minister in the South.
Or as one keen observer of the party in Stormont and local government in Northern Ireland put it: “Sinn Féin have been remarkably practical. They realise that they have to make concessions and deals just to get the day in.
“They don’t act like screaming Trots because they know that is not how business gets done. They don’t like to be seen as the political establishment but that is what they are.”
Sinn Féin has been in the Northern Executive since 1999 when McGuinness took over Education and Bairbre de Brún took on Health. After previous years of stop-start government, Sinn Féin, with the DUP, has been the dominant party in the Executive since 2007. The party held four of the 13 full ministries, with the DUP in charge of five, and each having a junior ministry.
Despite the past two years of dysfunctional Stormont politics that was rescued through the November Fresh Start agreement, Sinn Féin has operated the Northern Executive as effectively as the other four parties with which it shares power. Departmental work continued alongside the political crisis.
And notwithstanding the political problems of the past two years, Deputy First Minister McGuinness at least managed to prevent Stormont from collapsing. He worked well with arch pragmatist Peter Robinson and so far his relationship with his successor, Arlene Foster, has been positive, although IRA attacks from the past that wounded her father and could have killed her keep intruding. It will be gloves off when the campaign for the May Assembly elections kicks in but already McGuinness and Foster are planning a programme for government for the next Northern executive.
John O’Dowd, who is in charge of the Education portfolio, is the most impressive of the regular Sinn Féin Ministers. Northern Ireland for political, religious, parental and philosophical reasons does not have shared education but it has a decent education system. O’Dowd is on top of his brief and engages easily and forthrightly with the various education sectors - primary, second-level, trade unions and Catholic and state school heads.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Michelle O’Neill is popular with farmers, many of them from unionist backgrounds, and has a strong relationship with the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
It has been trickier for Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Carál Ní Chuilín who faces complaints about lack of funding from arts and sporting bodies. She has so far also failed to get the huge Casement Park development off the ground. But these problems are similar to those Ministers in the South regularly face.
Prof Brewer believes that Sinn Féin is wedded to dealing with “disagreement non-violently and solely by political means”.
“Sinn Féin government Ministers have not given up on their political first preference of a reunited Ireland but have nonetheless effectively discharged their duties as Ministers to make Northern Ireland’s power-sharing deal work,” he says.
In the final analysis how Sinn Féin would perform in Government in the South could be down to the four Ps: the past, populism, pragmatism and personality.
The past would cause it problems but based on its Stormont experience Sinn Féin would deal with them through brass-neck politics.
Engaging in populist politics could quickly lead to coalition deadlock but a Sinn Féin desire to be in office on both sides of the Border in 2016 and beyond might bring forth a more pragmatic Sinn Féin approach to government in the Republic.
Finally, there is the issue of personality. It is frequently commented upon how McGuinness’s easy and cordial nature has helped resolve many a tricky situation at Stormont. There is a widespread conviction in Northern Ireland that had Adams rather than McGuinness taken on the deputy first minister, role the executive would not have run nearly as smoothly.
Ultimately, any analysis of the party’s fitness for government may prove academic. But when all the votes are counted former commitments could be discarded and the lure of power could prompt the other parties to come courting Sinn Féin.
Gerry Moriarty (condensed article)