Sam McBride: After four years at the top of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill has good reason to be nervous

Michelle O’Neill has good reason to be feeling nervous these days.

Saturday, 15th May 2021, 8:28 am
Seen here in happier times, now Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill have cast Martina Anderson aside. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

The deputy first minister has been Sinn Féin’s northern leader for more than four years.

That is plenty of time in which to judge her abilities and performance – and few people have been impressed.

There is nothing like an election to clarify politicians’ thoughts and as each Stormont party prepares to face voters in next May’s Assembly election, there have now been two sudden moves to depose failing leaders.

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The toppling of Arlene Foster by the DUP and then the more carefully managed resignation of UUP leader Steve Aiken have taken out two of the three Stormont leaders who even within their parties have been seen to be failing over recent years.

Alliance leader Naomi Long and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood do not face that pressure because their parties are on the up.

Thus, there is one leader who has presided over electoral reversals who is still in post – Ms O’Neill.

It is in that context that a power struggle between Sinn Féin’s leadership and veteran republicans in Londonderry is unfolding.

Whatever the precise truth which lies behind Sinn Féin’s ruthless move to clear out many of its established operatives in the city, a central consideration must be that the party’s vote in Foyle has collapsed.

The 2019 general election saw an astonishing fall in the party’s support – a 169-vote majority for Elisha McCallion in 2017 was spectacularly converted into a majority of more than 17,000 for the SDLP leader as the Sinn Féin vote almost halved in the space of two years.

It was not a one-off. In the council elections earlier that year, Sinn Féin had seen its council support fall sharply, with the party’s share of the vote in the election to Derry and Strabane District Council falling from 36% to 28% in the space of five years.

And it was not just in the north west that Sinn Féin’s vote has been falling. South Down MP Chris Hazzard lost more than 4,000 votes in two years; West Belfast MP Paul Maskey lost more than 6,000 votes in that period, Newry and Armagh MP Mickey Brady lost more than 5,000 votes, and in Ms O’Neill’s own Mid Ulster constituency Francie Molloy saw his vote fall by almost 5,000 votes.

Only John Finucane’s triumph over Nigel Dodds masked a dismal election for the party.

Seven months earlier, in the 2019 European election, Mrs Anderson as the then Sinn Féin MEP polled more than 32,000 fewer votes than in the previous European election.

Yet when she lost that seat due to Brexit, Sinn Féin looked after the outspoken former IRA bomber, co-opting her back into the Assembly as MLA for Foyle just 10 days later.

Her behaviour in the European Parliament had appeared erratic at points, most infamously when she exuberantly said of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May: “Theresa, your notion of a border – hard or soft – stick it where the sun doesn’t shine ‘cos you’re not putting it in Ireland.”

Unsurprising, Mrs Anderson’s long history of gaffes continued once back in Stormont. Last July, amid anger at how the Sinn Fein leadership had disregarded public health advice at the funeral of Bobby Storey, the Foyle MLA told Ms O’Neill at a Stormont hearing: “Michelle, you had to be there. The republican family needed you there because you gave us comfort and guidance.”

Later that month she spoke openly about breaking Stormont’s pandemic guidance and helping others to do so. The following month, the former IRA bomber claimed that pensions for victims of the Troubles were mostly for “those who fought Britain’s dirty war in Ireland” and “mainly for those involved in collusion” – a claim so inaccurate that it was impossible for even Mrs Anderson to defend when challenged.

Now the Sinn Féin leadership has had enough. Last week Mrs Anderson posted a video in which she said that she had been “asked to stand down” by the leadership – along with the party’s other Foyle MLA, Karen Mullan.

In what seemed as close as a senior Sinn Féin figure ever gets to insurrection, Mrs Anderson said that the message from the leadership “came as a body blow” and that most of her colleagues who got in touch “urged me to stay on”. She went on to pointedly defend her record.

On Monday night, the former IRA bomber’s sisters posted a lengthy statement on Facebook, denouncing how the party had “humiliated” the MLA.

They said that Mrs Anderson was being used as a “sacrificial lamb” two MLAs were being “sacrificed by the party”, that the late Martin McGuinness “would never have allowed this disgraceful tactic to be deployed”, and that it was “a massive miscarriage of justice”.

Mrs Anderson’s husband, fellow former IRA bomber Paul Kavanagh, was a special adviser to Mr McGuinness. As recently as February, Sinn Féin appointed him to the board of the Education Authority.

In evidence of Sinn Féin’s normally iron discipline melting, one of the party’s sitting councillors, Sheamus Greene, wrote in response to the Facebook post: “She [Mrs Anderson] worked her socks off over Brexit but unfortunately hard work is seldom rewarded by some within our great party.”

Other republicans are delighted by the clearout, believing that the party has grown fat and lazy in the north while in the more competitive south it is surging ahead with a more professional team.

But the party leadership’s strategy in so openly forcing out the two MLAs carries at least two risks beyond the possibility of local revolt.

Firstly, by removing not just backroom party workers in Foyle, but a figure as senior as Mrs Anderson, if the party’s support continues to fall then the next tier of the party is Ms O’Neill as northern leader.

Having sacrificed others, she might find herself laid on the altar of Sinn Féin’s ambitions.

Secondly, the manner in which Sinn Féin has removed two female MLAs exposes how profoundly abnormal this party is.

Sinn Féin claims to be a normal democratic party. Yet here it asked two sitting MLAs to not even put their names forward for internal selection processes where party members could make the decision. Instead, they were told to go.

Sinn Féin has made much of its promotion of women and according to the Ulster Herald the West Tyrone constituency association was told that it could not select Barry McElduff as a candidate because “it was unable to accept a nomination of a male comrade where a sitting female MLA is also seeking the nomination”.

If – as is rumoured – Sinn Féin wants to replace at least one of the Foyle MLAs with a man, then that would have been impossible under its rules if the two female MLAs had put their names forward to stand.

In the week where this was unfolding, an unabashed Ms O’Neill was suggesting that the DUP’s ousting of Arlene Foster was somehow linked to misogyny in the DUP.

Speaking on the BBC’s Red Lines podcast this week, former Sinn Féin MLA Daithí McKay questioned whether removing the two MLAs in this manner will work.

The former North Antrim MLA, who was one of the party’s most talented Stormont figures, said: “I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of the processes that lead to these decisions” and said it would be better – even if it was “messy” – for the decision to be taken at a local level by members, rather than imposed from on high.

There was a time when republicans would not have publicly questioned decisions in this way.

After decades of increasing electoral success, Sinn Féin has stalled in Northern Ireland. Unless the party returns to growth next year, Martina Anderson won’t be the last senior figure tossed aside.

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