Friday 24 March 2017

Suzanne Breen: Grassroots revolt as the Sinn Féin leadership at last playing catch-up

Martin McGuinness announces his resignation as deputy First Minister at Stormont yesterday
Martin McGuinness announces his resignation as deputy First Minister at Stormont yesterday

Suzanne Breen

The Sinn Féin leadership didn't willingly collapse the Northern Ireland Executive over the 'cash-for-ash' scandal.

It was forced to take that radical step by its own electorate which was increasingly disillusioned by what they saw as the party's constant capitulation to the DUP. This was a grassroots revolt, with the Shinners' head honchos playing catch-up.

Anger at the Stormont elite in nationalist areas was once confined to dissident hardliners - ex-prisoners bitter at what they saw as a sell-out of traditional republican principles.

But disenchantment with the political institutions is no longer a minority sport in Sinn Féin's heartlands. Since the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) story broke last month, normally moderate citizens have expressed the most militant opinions.

Unlike other DUP-associated scandals, such as Nama, this one hits Northerners directly in the pocket.

Almost £500m (€563m) of taxpayers' money going up in smoke created a very powerful visual image.

And in winter, too, when fuel poverty hits the most vulnerable hardest, with old people huddled over single-bar fires, and mums and dads on the minimum wage telling their kids to put on another jumper as temperatures plummet.

In cafés, pubs, and supermarket queues, the chatter about RHI has been relentless, with the most mild-mannered, reasonable nationalists demanding Sinn Féin stand up to the DUP.

The party's refusal last month to support a no confidence motion in Arlene Foster in Stormont was deeply unpopular on the streets.

Sinn Féin has stretched itself considerably for the political institutions over the years, compromising to an extent that seriously challenged its own base.

But the unprecedented public anger on RHI, and the fact that People Before Profit is breathing down its neck in working-class urban areas, meant that the party could no longer run the risk of remaining so dangerously out of touch with public opinion.

So it huffed and puffed and yesterday did bring the house down. Once Sinn Féin needed to moderate its tone to win votes. But the changed climate means that the more hardline a stance the party takes during the Assembly election campaign, the better it is likely to perform.

There is no chance of the DUP dumping Ms Foster.

While she is author of her own misfortune - her unbridled arrogance and high-handedness turned a problem into a fully-blown crisis - there is no credible alternative to her as leader in the party's ranks.

The most likely replacement would be DUP deputy leader and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds.

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But he has always seemed content to play second fiddle and has never shown any hunger or passion to take control of the reins of power.

Ms Foster is genuinely popular with the party's grassroots. Former DUP leader Peter Robinson was respected for his intellect but never truly liked. She is loved because of years of travelling the length and breadth of the country to attend minor events in Orange halls and community centres no matter how early or late the hour.

Just a year ago, she had the unionist world at her feet. She seemed to combine the strengths of both her predecessors.

She was as smart as Mr Robinson but with Ian Paisley's warmth. She was as tough as nails but she knew how to work a room.

She brought the DUP unprecedented Assembly election success in May's Stormont poll and was in prime position to be generous and imaginative in office.

A political trailblazer who shattered the glass ceiling for women in, of all parties, the conservative DUP, there was a tidal wave of goodwill towards her when she became first minister.

Bar Martin McGuinness, her cabinet were cleanskins - younger politicians who were mostly all schoolchildren during the Troubles and carried no divisive baggage.

And yet it is Ms Foster, who never marched up mountains in the middle of the night or wore the Ulster Resistance's red beret, who has appeared to nationalists as more bigoted than Mr Paisley or Mr Robinson ever did during their tenure at Stormont.

There has been not one significant attempt to reach out to anyone beyond her own narrow political base.

DUP Sports Minister Paul Givan kicked a Gaelic football for the first time in November in what appeared to be a bridge-building exercise.

Then, he threw a political hand grenade at nationalists just before Christmas when he cut Liofa's £50,000 (€57,500) Irish language bursaries in what was seen as an act of extreme pettiness.

Ms Foster's tone throughout the RHI scandal has been hopelessly misjudged. Sniping and sneering at your rivals at every opportunity is not effective crisis management.

Had she adopted a humble, contrite approach and agreed to a public inquiry at the very start, the mess that she is now facing could have been avoided. Standing aside for four weeks to facilitate an independent investigation was hardly a big ask.

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She played the gender and Orange cards in the past week when they were utterly irrelevant, and diminished her own reputation in the process. Many of us thought she was far better than that.

Her unionist political rivals haven't actually landed any successful blows on her, it is Ms Foster who is damaging herself. I have never seen any party leader in Northern Ireland - and there have been many woeful ones - so ridiculed right across the community.

Of course, it would be unwise to write her off. She is far from finished politically.

The DUP will attempt to pen a siege-type narrative with a strong unionist leader under threat from treacherous republicans.

The challenge for both the party's unionist and nationalist opponents is to keep the focus firmly on 'cash-for-ash' and not allow the electoral landscape to be turned solely into an orange-green battlefield.

Irish Independent

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