The accelerated nature of the so-called “ash-for-cash” scandal in the UK-administrated north-east of the country has made the controversy a difficult one to comment upon. No sooner is an opinion piece published than the latest twist in the story renders the commentary out of date. Sinn Féin’s flip-flop responses to revelations about mismanagement and corruption in the application of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme in the Six Counties have made this particularly true. These stories are largely centred on SF’s partners in the power-sharing executive at Stormont, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and its leader, the first minister Arlene Foster. Though do not be surprised if news about individuals and businesses linked to other parties makes a headline-grabbing splash in the next few days or weeks.
Sinn Féin’s confused reaction to the RHI scandal has been partly attributed to the temporary absence and ongoing illness of Martin McGuinness, the SF deputy first minister, and very much the firm hand on the local rudder. However that speaks volumes about the party’s lack of in-depth leadership, at least as it relates to the north. SF seems lost at the moment (or is bound up with internal jockeying for power), even with his partial return to work, and all sorts of contradictory opinions are coming from within the normally disciplined and on-message membership. The Newsletter, an admittedly pro-union newspaper, has published a very useful timeline of the party’s national and regional reactions to the scandal.
- December 15th 2016 : Sinn Féin MLA Michelle Gildernew says that the “ongoing revelations” about the RHI scandal “have to be fully investigated”
- December 16th 2016: Sinn Féin deputy leader and TD Mary Lou McDonald calls for a “public inquiry as a matter of urgency”
- December 16th 2016: MP and Sinn Féin’s possible next deputy first minister Conor Murphy states that his party supports an investigation up to and including a public inquiry
- December 19th 2016: MP Conor Murphy reiterates that an inquiry must have powers to compel both witnesses and documents
- December 30th 2016: In a statement, Sinn Féin leader and TD Gerry Adams calls for a “robust and thorough investigation”, but avoids any mention of a public inquiry
- December 31st 2016: A Sinn Féin spokesperson states that the party does not support a public inquiry because it could “drag on for years at a significant cost to the tax payers and adding to the cost of this scandal”
- December 31st 2016: Belfast Sinn Féin councillor JJ Magee tweets: “I’m all for public inquiry I’m all for the truth we need to get truth out that’s most important thing”
- January 2nd 2017: Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney calls for an “independent public inquiry”
- January 2nd 2017: Sinn Féin chairman Declan Kearney’s statement is withdrawn by the Sinn Féin press office
- January 2nd 2017: Declan Kearney releases his initial statement, calling for a public inquiry, via his personal email
So what is going on with Sinn Féin, and why is it so determined to help its disreputable unionist partners in the regional administration at Stormont? Some have argued that SF is actually more concerned with defending the hard-won political institutions established under the Irish-British peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s. Many in the party fear irreparable damage to those cross-community bodies if the DUP retreats back into the communal extremism that characterised its politics for decades. Better, goes the argument, confusion, compromise and dirty deals in the corridors of power than people “encouraging” blood on the streets. Others suggest that Sinn Féin has no choice but to prop up the northern executive, which necessitates the presence of the majority Democratic Unionists and Arlene Foster, however tainted, since there is no other game in town (bar reaching for the metaphorical pikes in the thatch). While observers with a more realpolitik frame of mind point to recent constituency changes for the northern assembly, which could see SF lose five MLAs in any new round of elections.
Whatever the outcome in the coming period, there is no escaping the fact that the RHI controversy is likely to cost taxpayers in the north-east of the country some €577 million (£490 million sterling) over the next two decades, with the British government in London refusing to foot the criminally-inflated bill. Given that Britain subvents the otherwise financially broke Six Counties to the tune of £11 billion sterling a year, this may mean considerable hardship for the population of the region, nationalist and unionist. Throw in the looming disaster of Brexit, with the possible reimposition of British border around the north-east of the island, and the future is looking very bleak indeed for Britain’s legacy colony in Ireland.
So, not all bad news then…
Indeed not all bad news. Not yet likely that people will “Reach for the metaphorical Pike in the Thatch”, (These days, its an Armalite in the attic!). Too much is at stake. I think SF, for the moment, has to keep the Unionist headbangers onside, and under some control and enforced cooperation. But compared to what is to come, as BREXIT inexorably isolates, strands and nearly bankrupts the North, complete with a border that resembles that during the recent war, it is a distraction. It does need to be dealt with, but that can be done by legislation. Cancellation of the contracts, and making people prove that their involvement was not a scam, with clear penal penalties for those found to be on the fiddle, is rather obvious. About 75% of the contracts would be abrogated over night. It would do useful damage to the credibility of the headbanger element in the Unionist parties, as well. So some clever Paddy shrewdness is called for on this one….The Chinese I-Ching hexagram, “Fire in the lake”, which means danger, also means “Opportunity”.
It’s been an education to see SF in the north-east minus the presence of Martin McGuinness. Even Adams’ has had difficulties exercising local control, stepping in somewhat belatedly to put his foot firmly on the lid of the simmering pot (though he has his own problems nationally). When the two eventually leave the leadership I could well see some internal (metaphorical!) bloodletting as people seek power and influence. The assumed Mary Lou succession might not be as seamless as some expect, at least as far as the Six Counties are concerned.
Better that McGuinness goes first, getting in the regional replacements at Stormont, followed by Adams’ and the national crew several months or a year later at Leinster House. Or the other way around, if possible. One hears that the Derry man was quite unwell until recently and all is not good yet.
One very interesting aspect you reference is possible lack of leadership in depth. Since 2011 and significantly increased numbers of TDs there’s been an obvious necessity for northern members to move south to supplement numbers with expertise honed over the years and one would have to wonder has this had an impact too.
It certainly seems so. There is no popular or universally admired SF leader in Stormont that the party looks to when McGuinness is away, especially when Adams and company are busy in Leinster House. The national party is slightly out of touch when it comes to “obscure” affairs like the RHI scandal, while too many chiefs are jockeying for position in the regional party. When McGuinness goes the impact on SF may well be greater than that of Adams. Mary Lou seems to have the future leadership in her pocket, with Pearse Doherty as her deputy (however he feels about that), but the northern party lacks similar big hitters. The next couple of years will be interesting.
There is a rumour going around that SF is considering jumping for an assembly election in the Six Counties this year, before McGuinness may have to announce his retirement (possibly related to health concerns). Not sure how much credibility I give it though it would make electoral sense. SF without McGuinness in a Stormont election would be in trouble.
I hadn’t thought about your point re McGuinness being a bigger potential impact than Adams. I think you’re right (even taking Belfast into account).
Electorally quite a lot could change.
“SF, for the moment, has to keep the Unionist headbangers onside, and under some control and enforced cooperation”. The method seems to be roll over and let DUP do what they want, which is not going down well in the Northern nationalist/Republican heartlands and wider community
Keeping an Eye on the Czar of Russia makes some fair points here, though I’d be more sceptical of any big benefit to the SDLP. And will Saoradh be ready to contest an election for an assembly it won’t sit in?
Blind faith in a leadership will inevitably make future leaders move elsewhere. SF in the north don’t seem to know what they are doing(bigger picture) apart from winging it perhaps that’s why no new leaders are on the horizon?
Could well be. The latest SF response to the RHI scandal is not looking too healthy, PR-wise. Or, indeed, in any other way.
SF is continuing to underestimate its electorate just like they did in the last election. People arnt stupid and it is obvious that SF are at sixes and sevens as to what to do with this debacle. So obvious even Arlene put it up to them that she ain’t scared of an election. In my book that’s a challenge and SF blinked. Doesn’t auger well for those that believed SF would be standing up to unionism. The cynic in me suggests their reluctance to truly push this could perhaps be because their could be ‘dirt’ on them too? Who knows but they need to control of the narrative imho.
Looks like Foster is calling SF’s potential “bluff”. She really is a combative politico. The (understandable in her case) hatred of republicans seems to be clouding her political judgement and then some. Or she really does think that SF is all talk and bluster.