Thursday 21 September 2017

What life's really like in a Sinn Fein-run fantasy land

Sinn Fein boasts that it doesn't 'do' austerity, but its record in government in the North shows that it does nothing to stop it either

Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams TD (Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins)
Sinn Fein Leader Gerry Adams TD (Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins)

Eilis O'Hanlon

Hearing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras rubbish the latest EU bailout deal whilst simultaneously urging people in Athens to accept it raised eyebrows in some quarters, but perhaps it should have been predicted. Syriza is simply borrowing one of Sinn Fein's favourite tactics.

Meeting the Queen to shake hands, whilst members join protests outside, for example. Or signing up to austerity measures in the North, while pretending they would fight them to the bitter end in the Irish parliament.

Most dramatically, it took the form of a recent court ruling which criticised the very administration of which it is a part for not doing enough to end poverty in the North, despite being under a mandatory duty to do so under the St Andrews Agreement.

The response from Sinn Fein's Jennifer McCann, a junior minister in the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, was to welcome the ruling and say that it was "in line with SF's position".

Which is all kinds of bizarre, however one looks at it. Sinn Fein is in government in the North. It could have initiated a policy on poverty at any time, had it wished to do so. Instead, the executive in the North actually shelved an existing policy which had been drawn up by the British government when the region was under direct rule - but now Sinn Fein apparently still wants the credit for making the right noises about tackling poverty anyway.

Meanwhile, poverty in deprived communities in the North remains at eye-popping levels at the same time as Sinn Fein insists that it is resisting the imposition of welfare and budget cuts. This hypocrisy was exposed again in the Dail last week by the Fianna Fail leader.

Micheal Martin was particularly scathing about Martin McGuinness's assertion that "Sinn Fein doesn't do austerity". In response, he pointed out that "over 46pc of children in West Belfast are living in poverty", whilst "pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland is a third higher than in the UK." Martin's take on all this was that the governing parties in the North, DUP and Sinn Fein alike, were more intent on throwing shapes than actually tackling serious social problems.

Tellingly, Gerry Adams' response was to say in Irish: "That's very funny." Who's laughing?

In some electoral wards of West Belfast, the figures are even worse, with more than 60 per cent of children in poverty. Its rate of teenage pregnancy is double the average for the Six Counties, and it has the second lowest proportion of over- 16s in education. The area also has the highest waiting lists for social housing; has seen significant rises in suicides, as well as alcohol and drug dependency; and a third of people are on anti-depressants (the number has increased sharply since the end of the Troubles). A republican paradise it is not.

It's not all Sinn Fein's fault. The North's dependency on public money means each reduction in Westminster funding has a profound negative impact. But Sinn Fein invariably shifts blame for all social problems in areas which it has controlled for decades on to easy bogeymen with British accents rather than accepting its own share of responsibility for the malaise. The mantra is always the same: Blame the Tories.

The excuses simply don't wash anymore now that Sinn Fein is permanently ensconced in government.

It hasn't gone unnoticed. Squinter is the pseudonymous name of a columnist with the West Belfast based Andersonstown News. He wrote an article in 2008 criticising elected representatives for not doing enough to revive the community, singling out Gerry Adams for particular blame. "They hope," he wrote of Sinn Fein, "that nobody will think to ask whose job it has been for the past 20 years to get investment and jobs and to generate community confidence and optimism."

The column was duly pulled, and a front-page apology to Adams printed, with not a word of complaint from Sinn Fein which likes to pontificate about press freedom.

Two weeks ago, Pearse Doherty was in Athens for the referendum, and has since pointedly criticised the Eurogroup and the Irish government for opting to "side with the strong instead of those that needed support and solidarity."

Yet this is precisely the charge of which Sinn Fein itself stands accused, as those at the sharp end of the downturn have the injury of ever deeper cuts in their living standards added to with the insult of the party's highfaluting rhetoric about doughtily fighting austerity .

Having binned the British government's own blueprint for tackling poverty, the least the DUP and Sinn Fein should have done was draw up on of their own. Instead, like Syriza initially treating the funding it received from the EU with contempt despite having no other source to replace it, the recent High Court ruling exposes the Northern administration for playing fast and loose with people's lives because its focus is always on how to best take advantage of the political fall out.

The result could be the same in the North as it has been in Athens - namely, the imposition (or re-imposition, in Belfast's case) of effective direct rule - but there's a sense that Sinn Fein might prefer this option because it at least gives them a convenient scapegoat to blame for unpalatable economic decisions.

As Martin pointed out in his speech, Sinn Fein has never nominated a single candidate to any of the principal economic ministries. That really is quite astounding in a party which claims to be ready and able to fix not only Ireland's economic malaise, but that of the entire eurozone with other left-wing parties. It's like a football team which is too afraid to compete in a Sunday pub league promising to win the Champions League.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Sinn Fein has avoided getting directly involved in economic management in the North because it's easier to protest than to make real decisions.

Mark Durkan and Sean Farren of the SDLP respectively took the finance post when they shared power with the Ulster Unionists in an earlier incarnation of the Stormont assembly. Since replacing the SDLP as the main nationalist party, SF has consistently ducked the same challenge. That is not serious politics.

"Sinn Fein doesn't do austerity" is a stirring slogan, but it's meaningless if the only reason SF doesn't do austerity is because it doesn't do anything at all, and it's obscenely irresponsible if the effect of doing nothing is that austerity happens anyway, and more severely.

Syriza has shown that this is where unrealistic promises can lead. The onus is on Sinn Fein to show why it wouldn't happen here too.

Sunday Independent

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