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Sunday 17 May 2015


The old leaders of Sinn Fein just won't let go

Sinn Fein election count

Last week, among the British political parties licking their wounds were Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Labour lost 48 seats and the Liberal Democrats 49: Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg resigned immediately.

Leadership elections are being organised and the parties are having a fundamental debate about what went wrong and how they should adapt their thinking in the light of new realities.

Differences are being aired and alternative visions are being presented to the membership. It's painful, but it's what political parties do when the electorate spurns them.

Although the SDLP kept its three Westminster seats, its share of the vote declined. Senior figures like Seamus Mallon, once its deputy leader and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, and Mark Durkan MP, an ex-leader, have publicly urged Alasdair McDonnell - who is 65 years old and has been in the job for less than four years - to quit the leadership for the sake of the party.

Sinn Fein, which had been raucously predicting gains, lost one of its existing five seats and had a serious setback to their project of greening the west.

Their vote declined, they embarrassingly exposed their hidden sectarianism and they were challenged on doorsteps about their continued refusal to take their Westminster seats. They saw unionists invigorated by their vote increase, the UUP coming back from zero to two seats and an open door for unionists in Downing Street. They had an unexpectedly serious challenge from the left in Adams's heartland of West Belfast, the Scots Nats becoming the sexy Celts, and years of patient work, cuddling up to the British Labour movement, went for nowt.

Were there calls for Gerry Adams, their president - who is 66, has been in the job for 32 years and is annually elected unopposed - to resign? Or for a conference to look critically at their performance and re-examine their policies? You must be joking.

Sinn Feins dream was to keep their five seats - for Gerry Kelly (the Old Bailey bomber) to take North Belfast from the DUP's Nigel Dodds; for the personable Mairtin O Muilleoir, who had been a successful Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, and whose rhetoric was all about reaching across divides, to take South Belfast; to damage the SDLP badly by taking Mark Durkan's seat in Foyle and maybe even slip through two competing unionist parties to take the DUP's seat in Upper Bann.

Despite his duties as a member of Dail Eireann, Adams was very much the front-man of the campaign.
He was angry, because Peter Robinson's DUP and Mike Nesbitt's UUP had done a deal to give each other a clear run in four seats and support each other's candidates: the DUP stood aside in Newry and Armagh and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and the UUP obliged in Belfast East and Belfast North.
Unionists called this "maximising the unionist vote": Adams said it was "aimed at preventing equality of citizenship, frustrating political progress and imposing a Tory austerity agenda".

He was furious that the SDLP refused his offer of a similar pact. As they had done in 2010, they said they wanted no part of a "sectarian headcount".

Adams described this in March as "a monumental strategic blunder" and deplored Alastair McDonnell's "elevation of petty self-interest above the wider needs of society and the future of the political process".
Embarrassingly, and almost simultaneously, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the Sinn Fein incumbent Michelle Gildern was describing the unionist pact as, yes, "a sectarian headcount", explaining that "Sinn Fein don't do sectarianism".

Someone should have told Gerry Kelly that before, some weeks later, he distributed an election leaflet highlighting that, in the 2011 census, North Belfast was 45.67pc Protestant and 46.94pc Catholic.
"Make the change. Make history," it said.

In the flood of denunciations of blatant sectarianism from politicians and commentators north and south, Adams and other spokespeople were reduced to gibbering about government statistics and repeating endlessly that Kelly "didn't have a sectarian bone in his body" - to which a wit responded: "True, he has the full sectarian set."

Amazingly, the chairman of Queen's Sinn Fein society actually joined the criticism. It will be interesting to see how long he lasts in the party.

In the end, in Belfast North, the nationalist vote went down and Dodds beat Kelly by more than 5,000 votes. Adams, Mary Lou and McDonald took selfies with Kelly and spun as positively as they could.
Despite playing the Bobby Sands card a couple of days before the election, with vigils commemorating his death on hunger strike and lots of guff from Gildernew about what everyone owed him and other martyrs, Sinn Fein lost what Gildernew had called "Bobby's seat".

On election day, Mairtin O Muilleoir tweeted: "We are set to come top of the poll in sth Belfast." He came fourth. In Foyle, Mark Durkan's vote went up. And to Sinn Fein's disbelief, in West Belfast, the People before Profit candidate, who said he was a socialist and neither nationalist or unionist, attacked Sinn Fein from the left and punched a heavy hole in their majority, coming second with 6,798 votes.

This added to the perception that, slowly, there is a slight shift away from tribalism. For though the Alliance Party lost its seat because of the unionist pact, its vote went up. Moderate unionism is growing in strength and Peter Robinson has shuffled his front bench to present a more centrist image.

Apart from assailing the wicked Tories and unionists and their war on the working classes, Sinn Fein have been rather silent as they waited for the oracle to deliver his pronouncement on what all this meant. It wasn't until late Friday night that Adams finally published his blog, which was illustrated with several selfies of himself and various acolytes.

What had Sinn Fein done wrong? What had they learned?

Nothing, apparently. They had run "a positive forward looking campaign… based on the progressive policies of Irish unity and equality of all citizens".

At Westminster, the other Northern Ireland parties would not be king-makers, but court jesters. And Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would be going on and on as before.

What did anyone expect? It's not a normal political party. It's a cult.

Expect a lot of 1916ery to deflect attention from 2015.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards