15 May 2014

It is one of the great ironies of Irish politics that Sinn Fein, the party most opposed to partition is actually the most partitionist. Much to the annoyance of other parties, Sinn Fein seems to be a different animal north and south of the border and gets away with it. Apart from the association with the IRA which is obviously much more upfront in the northern Sinn Fein, there is a quite different approach to economic and social issues. In the North, the party has been in Government implementing the policies of the Tory Government and the ‘austerity Chancellor’ George Osborne, whereas in the South, the party has voiced bitter opposition to any such policies. The party is also more socially conservative in the North with considerable opposition to abortion.

North or South Sinn Fein: take your pick. All of this would be no more than sheer political chancerism were it not for the very serious issue of SF presenting itself as a party of potential Government in the south, with a greater prospect than ever of this happening. SF is now at about 21 % in the opinion polls. They could easily form a Government under the increasingly left leaning FF, who are on 25%. Alternatively, a brave SF could actually build a Government itself by linking up with independents and other left wing groupings.

Such a prospect might strike terror into the hearts of middle Ireland and this is the very point: just what does Sinn Fein represent, and which SF would we be getting? A lot of the southern Irish public, and middle class voters, would not be too alarmed if they thought they were getting the northern SF, generally implementing British Government policy with the solidly respectable DUP.  But what they get instead is SF the perpetual ‘protest party’ which, while impressive in opposition, doesn’t seem to have any credible or broadly palatable economic policies, and worse still, might actually undo all of the hard work done under the bailout programme and our painfully gained economic recovery.

This SF dilemma has been painfully revealed by a major row in the North over the party’s refusal to implement the UK’s social welfare reforms, already introduced in Britain. After months of foot dragging, it seems a deal was finally done with the DUP last week but was torpedoed by Gerry Adams, who wants SF to retain its southern image as a protest party, with no hard cuts and generous welfare payments. This has caused great consternation in the North, including among more moderate centrist elements in SF, who resent the influence of Adams and the Southern lefty element on the party in the North. Apparently, Adams was worried about how the welfare move would play in next month’s local and Euro elections, both in the South and in the North. But this too shows a blindness, as the southern electorate are indifferent to what goes on in the North- which is why SF has been able to get away with being two  different parties.

The social welfare fudge has major implications, potentially causing hundreds of millions in costs (which will be visited elsewhere on the Stormont exchequer, and on the Northern taxpayer) as well as severely straining the DUP-SF partnership. And such a fudge has happened before. In 2007, SF got Northern water charges deferred, but at a cost of £200m, which the party acknowledged and then tried to reduce the impact of. But no such contingency plan exists this time. Indeed, by opting out of the UK system welfare system, the Stormont administration may have to create a new and separate system which could cost hundreds of millions. But SF would sooner be seeing ‘standing up to Tory cuts’, even if it brings financial ruin.

All of which will alarm a Southern electorate that sees SF riding high in the polls and supposedly preparing for future Government. It begs the questions of which SF is in charge, the lefty protest one, or the centrist reforming SF which has been in partnership with the DUP? And how can we trust that SF, down here, will ever be fit for Government, or willing to implement hard decisions, when they cannot put through this fundamental welfare reform, already applicable in rest of the UK? It’s all well and fine to have spirited performances by Mary Lou MacDonald at the Public Accounts Committee, but for voters it is ultimately about bread and butter issues and job creation, not something that will be helped by SF’s proposed punitive tax increases and ‘anti-capitalist’ measures. So which SF is in charge, or does the old Castroist Gerry Adams, straddling the border, still call all the shots?