Unionists need to stop squabbling, and start taking Sinn Fein seriously

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I remember the shock that ran through unionism in 1981 when Danny Morrison asked, “will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”.

I remember the shock when Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún were appointed Education and Health ministers in 1999. I remember the shock when Alex Maskey became Sinn Fein’s first Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2002. I remember the shock when Martin McGuinness walked down the main staircase of Stormont in 2007 as Deputy First Minister. I remember the shock when McGuinness was photographed with a smiling Queen Elizabeth in June 2012.

There have been electoral shocks, too. In three of the last four elections (the 2010 general election and the 2014 Euro and council elections) Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party in terms of votes.

In the 2011 Assembly election the DUP won more votes and seats – helped by weak performances from the UUP, TUV and PUP. But the fact remains that only 55 of 108 MLAs are unambiguously unionist; only eight of the 18 MPs have unionist in their title; only 24 of the 60 councillors in Belfast are unionist; and of the 462 councillors in the 11 new super councils just 238 (a majority of six) are unionist – meaning that five of the councils have republican/nationalist majorities.

So when Martin McGuinness tells Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis that “it is our goal to become the biggest party in the North at the 2016 Assembly elections,” he has to be taken seriously.

And he also has to be taken seriously when he says that Sinn Fein’s goal of being the biggest party on both sides of the border “is achievable, and the symbolism of doing so on the 100th anniversary of the Rising would be massive. It would also be fitting, because Sinn Fein is the only party which is serious about building the kind of nation which was declared in 1916”.

It’s unlikely that Sinn Fein will win more seats than the DUP in the 2016 Assembly election: but it’s not impossible. The SDLP seems to be in free fall and four of its seats are vulnerable – and if they fell to Sinn Fein that would take them to 33 MLAs.

The DUP has 38 at the moment, yet the result of last year’s Euro and council elections suggests that about six could fall in tight fights with the TUV/UUP/PUP/Ukip.

So a really good day for Sinn Fein, combined with a really bad one for the DUP, could allow Sinn Fein to sneak ahead and lay claim to the title of First Minister.

As I say, it would probably require a ‘perfect storm’ of conditions for both parties, but nothing can be ruled in or out at this point.

But can you even begin to imagine the political, physical and psychological shock to unionism if, on May 6, 2016 (the day after the election) they were confronted with the prospect of Martin McGuinness as First Minister? Can you imagine their collective horror at the sight of a smirking, smug, puffed-to-the-gills-with-his-own-pomposity Gerry Adams giving them one of his enormously wordy Kumbaya speeches? The sort of stuff he was spouting on Saturday evening: “I believe all genuine progressive social and political forces across this island, including unionists and working-class loyalists, should develop a common platform for political progress. A new citizens’ charter, encapsulating fundamental principles could take us towards a citizen-centred, rights-based society. It could be a new departure in Irish politics.”

The one thing worth remembering about Sinn Fein is the sheer will power that underpins their belief in themselves and their ‘project’.

Irrespective of what is thrown at them by the media or their political opponents they never veer off track. They never allow themselves to be sucked into fighting a battle they cannot hope to win. Their culture of internal secrecy means that they don’t brief against each other and don’t use the media as a vehicle for settling scores or launching coups. At times they look and sound more like a cult than a modern political party. And so what? Their way of doing politics is clearly reaping electoral dividends for them.

Which means that unionism, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (all of whom have dismissed or underestimated Sinn Fein since 1981) should work out coherent strategies to counter their electoral progress. There’s always a tendency within unionism to wait until something has happened before they decide to address the problem. It’s not that they’re unaware of rustling in the undergrowth (the Anglo-Irish Agreement was being discussed 18 months before it was signed, yet Molyneaux, Paisley and even Enoch Powell dismissed the very notion of Thatcher doing a deal), they just seem to prefer to do nothing about it. It’s the equivalent of ignoring letters from your bank.

Sinn Fein believes it can eclipse the DUP in May 2016. Believes it and talks up the prospect. And when Sinn Fein sets its mind to something it builds the strategy and machinery to deliver the goal. Unionists need to recognize the political, propaganda and electoral shocks Sinn Fein has caused them since 1981 and work out strategies and responses.

May 6, 2016 is just 14 months away, yet the unionist parties are still squabbling with each other. In so doing, they make life much easier for Sinn Fein.