Sam McBride: As power heads to Westminster, Sinn Fein’s strategy is far less obvious

Michelle O'Neill and Gerry Adams at Stormont this week.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Michelle O'Neill and Gerry Adams at Stormont this week.'Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Ever since the republican movement compromised on its demand for an immediate united Ireland, its strategy has been the gradual transfer of power from London to Belfast.

Alongside that gradual move of power to the island of Ireland, Sinn Fein attempted to use its Executive positions to slowly harmonise Northern Ireland with the Republic.

It hoped that the border would gradually become almost meaningless and that in that time support for a united Ireland would grow.

Aided by the EU and relative peace, the former vision was realised but support for a united Ireland has remained stubbornly low – even after the shock of the Brexit vote.

Addressing the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in 2011, Martin McGuinness told the party faithful that the party had achieved “the transfer of powers on policing and justice away from London and on to the island of Ireland – another significant milestone on our journey”.

Two years later, in a speech to the MacGill Summer School, Gerry Adams referred to the Belfast Agreement and “the logic and common sense of harmonising policies and services across this island”.

As recently as a year ago, Michelle O’Neill spoke of the party’s ministers “negotiating the transfer of corporation tax and [we] will be seeking other powers from Westminster”.

That final attempt to get powers on to the island of Ireland jarred with some economically left-wing republicans, because Sinn Fein was so committed to transferring powers from London to Belfast that it was prioritising its nationalism above its socialism, preparing to slash corporate taxes in return for getting the power in Belfast and harmonising it across the border.

On top of all that, the party managed to get the government to remove the power to suspend devolution at St Andrew’s, allowing republicans to argue that Stormont was a real Parliament, not one which was subservient to Westminster and which could be shut down at any point.

Martin McGuinness’s walkout from Stormont in January dramatically altered that approach.

But six months later nothing seems to have replaced that philosophy beyond aggressively taking on the DUP – something which has driven voters to both parties.

That was evident this week as on two occasions senior Sinn Fein figures demanded that the British government (and the Dublin government) involve itself more in the affairs of Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach coming to the talks.

Long forgotten are the days when Martin McGuinness warmly recalled how he and Ian Paisley had agreed that they could run their own affairs and didn’t need English ministers in Belfast.

Sinn Fein is now warning the government against implementing direct rule, despite the fact that there has been no budget and no democratic oversight of the civil service in Northern Ireland for three months.

But creeping direct rule began two months ago when Westminster legislated for a devolved matter by passing the The Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointments and Regional Rates) Act 2017.

Sinn Fein made no criticism of that at the time – and it would have been difficult to have done so, given that the legislation was necessary to allow for rates bills which bring in the money to pay for public services – and yet it was a hugely symbolic act which demonstrated Stormont’s inferior position to Westminster.

Now there is the prospect of a far more substantial piece of legislation – the Stormont budget – being passed at Westminster if Stormont does not return rapidly.

If that happens, it will undermine Sinn Fein’s argument about the significance of Stormont as an institution.

And yet, having declined to take up their places in the Stormont Executive, how could Sinn Fein denounce a British minister for fulfilling a duty for which their MLAs are being paid but are refusing to undertake?

The danger, for both the DUP and Sinn Fein, is that with a weak minority government in Westminster the passage of a Stormont budget through the chamber may no longer be a formality.

MPs could seek to recoup some of the £1 billion secured by the DUP or seek to change Stormont policy by inserting lines into the budget.

A fortnight ago Gerry Adams said that he wants Stormont back because “strategically that is the way to a united Ireland”.

If that is genuinely his thinking, for all Sinn Fein’s tough talk the party’s choice would appear to be either going back to Stormont without getting all of their demands or sacrificing the strategic route to a united Ireland.