This week should have seen Sinn Féin in the sunny uplit lands of opposition, to borrow a phrase from UK politics. Instead the party has dug a political and PR hole for itself and jumped in feet first. Despite the many attempts by SF representatives and supporters to justify the huge gathering at the Belfast funeral of Bobby Storey, the senior backroom figure in SF and the former Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army at the tail end of the northern conflict, the damage to the party’s reputation with the electorate north and south has been done.
Of course this is not the first time that the organisation’s own hubris and entitlement, borne out of decades of political isolation and persecution, has got it in trouble; but this has certainly been one of the more egregious examples of recent times. With a centre-right government in power nationally, and one quite possibly intent on ushering in a new era of neoliberal austerity in the wake of the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis, Mary Lou McDonald and company were well placed to claim the leadership of the Opposition in Dáil Éireann, putting other left-wing and centre-left parties in SF’s shadow. Not anymore. Or at least not until the deep memory of the voters begins to fade. And long before that we will likely be in the middle of the next Covid-19 wave when every utterance and criticism of government action by Sinn Féin in the winter months will be countered with reference to the Bobby Storey controversy by ministers and the conservative press.
To exacerbate matters the bizarre actions by the local SF cumann in the constituency of Dublin South-West and its nomination of the divisive figure of Paddy Holohan for the mayorship of South Dublin County Council is another party own goal. And though the Ard Chomhairle acted with speed, effectively suspending the organisation in the area, further damage has already been done to the SF’s battered standing.
While most readers will appreciate the pressure that was on the leadership of Sinn Féin and the wider (Provisional) Republican Movement in relation to the funeral of Bobby Storey most of us would also expect the party leadership to have resisted that pressure and to have abided by the restrictions that we as a nation have collectively agreed to. The failure to do so, and the apparent willingness to break the lockdown rules, is a reminder that some in the party still regard themselves as citizens of the Republic of We Ourselves Alone.