Analysis: Brexit both an opportunity and a threat for SF

Sinn Fein has demanded Northern Ireland should remain within the EU because a majority here voted Remain
Sinn Fein has demanded Northern Ireland should remain within the EU because a majority here voted Remain

One of the hallmarks of a well-run political party is that it can quickly seize an unexpected opportunity.

In that regard, Sinn Fein has historically been better than most of its rivals.

Yet in the aftermath of last month’s unexpected vote for Brexit, the party appeared to have been caught as unprepared as everyone else.

The party did have a contingency plan for the possibility of a Brexit vote and that was to call for an immediate border poll.

With an unusual level of repetition, the party repeatedly demanded such a poll in the immediate wake of the result, releasing four separate statements within a six-hour period on June 24 making that demand.

But although that tactic persisted for a few days, the British and Irish Governments’ predictable statement that there will not be such a referendum appeared to take the wind out of the sails of the policy. It now is hardly mentioned when Sinn Fein figures speak about Brexit.

The replacement policy was broader and demanded that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU because a majority here voted Remain. Unlike the border poll position, that stance is shared by the SDLP.

Appealing to the views of 56 per cent of voters – far beyond Sinn Fein’s own supporters – is far more expansive than a call for a border poll which almost no one believes to be winnable for republicanism.

There is the potential that this will be the moment when some of those who would have voted for the Union if there had been a border poll suddenly decide that they want an EU future and can be persuaded to vote for a united Ireland in order to realise that aspiration.

But the embarrassment of Sinn Fein’s stance on welfare reform – when the party also saw a chance to reach beyond its core support – shows how that such appealing policies are not without risk.

Sinn Fein repeatedly claimed that it would stop welfare reform in Northern Ireland but, after several years of political instability and budgetary turmoil as a result, last year had to admit that it could not do so and instead voted welfare reform legislation through the Assembly.

In recent weeks, Sinn Fein has been building up the hopes of some supporters that it can stop Brexit, using phrases such as “Brexit is not a done deal” and pledges to “defend and honour” Northern Ireland’s Remain vote.

In doing so, there is a danger that Sinn Fein will actually further expose its political impotence at Stormont, showing how little leverage it has to fulfil those promises.

And in broader political terms, such a strategy could poison relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein at a point where both parties appeared to have resolved to work together like never before.