Sam McBride: With his goal receding, ageing McGuinness faces forlorn future

Martin McGuinness and Colum Eastwood  shake hands at the Foyle count, while People Before Profits Eamonn McCann watches on, having taken an SDLP seat there while his party took a Sinn Fein seat in West Belfast. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Martin McGuinness and Colum Eastwood shake hands at the Foyle count, while People Before Profits Eamonn McCann watches on, having taken an SDLP seat there while his party took a Sinn Fein seat in West Belfast. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A century ago, as the dominant Irish nationalist leader of his era saw his dream slipping away, he mused on the nature of political failure.

John Redmond, who against the odds had brought Ireland to the brink of Home Rule, delivered a speech in the House of Commons which identified that political goals sometimes recede slowly but relentlessly to the point that they are finally gone.

Addressing MPs less than a year before his death at the age of 61 as he faced the unravelling of his years of toil, Redmond said: “The life of a politician, especially of an Irish politician, is one long series of postponements and compromises and disappointments and disillusions. As we grow old, and this of course bears in upon me, we feel our ideals grow dimmer and more blurred, and perhaps many of them disappearing one by one.”

Redmond went on: “And many of our cherished ideals, our ideals of a complete, speedy and almost immediate triumph of our policy and of our cause have faded, some of them almost disappeared.

“And we know that it is a serious consideration for those of us who have spent 40 years at this work, and now are growing old, if we have to face further postponements...”

Martin McGuinness – now five years older than Redmond when he delivered those words – would not relish any comparison with a man who was resolutely in the constitutional nationalist tradition, and who was derided by the republicans of his era as a weakling prepared to work with the British.

But, reflecting on the election results delivered over Friday and Saturday, the man who is now the dominant leader of northern nationalism must at some level ponder his own once heady ideals of a united Ireland brought about by “the cutting edge of the IRA” and wonder what the future holds.

On the face of it, Sinn Fein as a party is still dominant, and has recently made significant gains in the Republic.

But the nature of republicanism is that the success of the party is only ever a means to uniting Ireland - not an end in itself.

After Thursday’s election, it is hardly an overstatement to say that the prospect of a united Ireland is now bleaker than at any time since partition almost a century ago.

While opinion polls had in recent years shown record levels of support for the status quo and nationalism’s total vote was slowly shrinking, Sinn Fein could at least attempt to argue that its own inexorable rise would be the vehicle which some day might lead to Irish unity.

The party’s manifesto for this election limply committed the party to “build support for island-wide referendums on Irish unity within the lifetime of the next Assembly to deliver an agreed Ireland”.

That in itself was a humbling climbdown from the claims a decade ago by Adams and McGuinness that the border could be removed in time for the centenary of the Easter Rising. Last month that moment came and went with pageantry and speeches - but not even a half-hearted push for a border poll.

Now even the manifesto pledge to press for a border poll within the next five years looks impossible to achieve. With Sinn Fein having lost a seat and nationalist parties having lost votes, the Secretary of State will not feel the slightest pressure to hold a referendum.

As the votes were counted on Friday, it was immediately apparent that nationalism had suffered a bad electoral outcome, with an unusual drop in turnout in many westerly seats where nationalist politicians expect to get elected.

But the longer one considers the figures emerging from Thursday’s election, the more alarming the result becomes for the two nationalist parties.

Sinn Fein had the biggest percentage point drop (-2.9%) of any party; it was followed by the SDLP (-2.2%).

There were a handful of nationalist independents in several of the constituencies – but that was the case five years ago, too, and doesn’t diminish the scale of what is a startlingly rapid decline.

Irrespective of whatever gains Sinn Fein makes in the Republic over coming years - notwithstanding the symbolic and real significance of any future Sinn Fein positions in government in the Republic - the Good Friday Agreement to which it is a signatory means that it is in Northern Ireland that its major task lies.

Unless it can convince a majority in Northern Ireland to support a united Ireland, electoral success south of the border will count for little.

The danger of this reversal in fortunes for electoral nationalism is that some republicans who have stuck with Sinn Fein while it has been on the rise could now look at the bleak prognosis for the coming years and decide that a united Ireland will never be brought about by politics.

Ahead of the election, the Roman Catholic Church issued comments which could have been seen as advising practising Catholics not to vote for Sinn Fein because of its stance on abortion and perhaps even not to vote SDLP due to its pro-gay marriage position.

The DUP has claimed that it picked up votes from socially conservative Catholics and anecdotally that is unquestionably the case, although the level of such cross-community voting is likely to have been extremely small.

Likewise, the avowedly pro-choice Green Party and People Before Profit have gained from the nationalist parties in this election, suggesting that nationalism is losing both socially conservative and socially liberal voters.

But on social and economic issues, if Northern Ireland continues on the path to normal politics, the SDLP and Sinn Fein are likely to face further pressures.

Both parties are left of centre. At a time when the major issues were related to the Troubles or tribal disputes such as parades, those parties’ other positions received less scrutiny.

But in a five-year Assembly term which has been dominated by an ideological dispute over welfare reform, who does a right of centre Catholic vote for?

This election has seen Martin McGuinness comfortably returned as the deputy First Minister and the undisputed king of northern nationalism.

But unless the SDLP and Sinn Fein make radical changes, their future appears distinctly forlorn.