Sinn Féin’s vision of the future looks remarkably like its one model version of the past

Of the recent visits to the USA by politicians with influence on political development in Northern Ireland, Mary Lou McDonald  seems to be the one who has been reported the more fully. Something to so with the nature of the events in which she held centre stage, perhaps.

As reported in the Irish Times, Sinn Féin leader and TD, Mary Lou McDonald speaking to the New York Bar Association described Ireland as living in ‘dying days.’ Albeit that she was referring to the partition settlement, it was maybe not the best choice of words at the present time.

There was little that new or fresh in the party messaging she shared with her audience.

Whether deliberate or otherwise, the Sinn Féin President borrowed from the recent obsession of An Uachtaráin Michael D Higgins with the British Empire to claim that Brexit reflects a hankering for an imperial past and narrow British nationalism.

Come to think of it Mary Lou could not see her way to attend the NI Centenary Service in Armagh, at least not until after the President politically gazumped her.

There may be no one better placed than the Sinn Fein leader to comment on the most narrowly defined forms of nationalism but it is surely lazy politics to cite thwarted desire for empire as any major factor in support for Brexit. I don’t recall many of those with whom I engaged during the referendum mentioning a return to imperial days. The polemic may have an appeal for some but it is hardly grounded in empirical fact.

Evidence, I would argue of Sinn Féin’s default preference for struggle over what’s past rather than squarely facing the tough realities of the present.

In the post-Second War years, when the United Kingdom faced challenging economic difficulties as a result of that gargantuan war effort, successive post-Suez, British governments have recognised that, even if they so desired, the country lacked the public appetite, as well as financial and military capacity, to sustain a colonial policy aimed at empire-building in a period when global ‘winds of change’ were blowing in the direction of the independent sovereign state.

Indeed, if criticism is to be made of recent history of the British Empire it would be more pertinent to analyse the manner in which it was dismantled in haste; precipitated by overwhelming circumstances and the UK’s diminishing global role.

Indeed, if criticism is to be made of recent history of the British Empire it would be more pertinent to analyse the manner in which it was dismantled in haste; precipitated by overwhelming circumstances and the UK’s diminishing global role.

Tabling “desire for empire” as a serious motivation for Brexit reveals an infatuation with the doctrinaire rhetoric of the immediate post colonial period in the 60s and 70s or the writings of Franz Fanon and similar theorists, with whom many former IRA combatants have, according to their own personal stories, a close, if uncritical, affinity.

Fanon was likely not mentioned in New York, but his influence was undoubtedly present just the same.

The influence of a desire for more control over immigration, disengagement from the perceived excesses of Brussels bureaucracy and a different role for the United Kingdom within the global economy were similarly ignored. As someone who voted to remain I would take issue with all of these but recognise that a nostalgic desire for an empire resonated with few, if any.

Continuing in freedom fighter mode, Mary Lou, as reported, forecast that there would be a vote on Irish unification in 5 to 10 years. In yet another example of ‘Sinn Féin overreach’ her claims in all probability ensure that this old perennial will remain pertinent in the elections for the NI Assembly in May 2022 (which to the cynics eye often appears to be its only real purpose).

It will serve to camouflage the shortcomings of governance in which Sinn Fein holds a pivotal role in regard to the issues she referred to, namely “infrastructure, healthcare, housing, economic policy and taxation arrangements.” It is failings in these areas which “scar the lives of many in our society” and not as she fallaciously claims the “legacy of empire.”

In regard to Irish Unity and questions about flags and anthems she is reported as saying that “these will form part of an overall discussion.” Perhaps she was unaware that according to recent polling, a sizeable majority of people in the Republic of Ireland see these as ‘not up for discussion’ when considering a merger of the two jurisdictions. But then, Christmas time in New York is a time for fairy tales and perhaps some boys of the NYPD choir were ‘singing Galway Bay’, nearby.

Being in the USA, it was opportune to laud the Good Friday Agreement; not as an “end point” but rather as a mechanism for “a democratic pathway to Irish unity.” Linking this to the Ireland and Northern Ireland Protocol by referring to a “need to keep to agreements” to avoid “undermining the political process” only serves to underline Sinn Féin’s fragile commitment to Hume’s ‘agreed Ireland.

It would seem that the Protocol and refusal to accept Brexit as a UK-wide decision-making referendum, the outcome of which any democrat has to respect, are commissioned tactically. The ballot box has not yet fully replaced the old armalite mentality of her movement’s Armed Struggle days.

As a side comment on accepting referendum decisions, has anyone ever heard Co Donegal TD Pearse Doherty or any other member of Sinn Féin call for ‘special status’ for the county in view of Donegal being the only county to oppose abortion changes in the Republic of Ireland?

To judge from the content of the speech to the New York Bar Association, Sinn Féin remains wedded to an activist ideology which, whilst claiming to want to create a new inclusive future, seeks to future-proof development in Northern Ireland within a pre-determined Irish nationalist and republican ideal; drawn it seems from the Henry Ford school of marketing which offered customers any colour of Model-T as long as it was ‘black’. The bad news for Sinn Fein strategists is that you now only find one in a museum or preserved in a private collection. However beloved they were at the time, they are now thoroughly obsolete.

Sinn Féin is just one of many of political parties which might do well to heed and adhere to the words of American author James Baldwin:

Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

You can only build a future by facing the realities of the present and, sadly for them, at present there is no majority support for the proposals with which Mary Lou McDonald entertained her US audience.

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