Saturday 1 October 2016

To see what a mess Sinn Féin would make in government, have a look at the North

Colum Eastwood

Published 24/02/2016 | 02:30

'In the North, Sinn Féin has avoided choosing a ministry with any direct responsibility for the economy. It has had the chance to banish its image as economically illiterate, yet has failed to take up the challenge of ministerial office. Only Sinn Féin can answer why'. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
'In the North, Sinn Féin has avoided choosing a ministry with any direct responsibility for the economy. It has had the chance to banish its image as economically illiterate, yet has failed to take up the challenge of ministerial office. Only Sinn Féin can answer why'. Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Ireland is too small to tell two different stories. Word here travels fast and eventually duplicity becomes clear for all to see. You can't govern one way in Belfast and campaign the opposite way in Dublin without it being noticed and talked about.

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Last week, Gerry Adams suggested that if voters were looking for accurate illustration as to how Sinn Féin would govern in Dublin, they merely had to gaze up the road to Belfast. The Sinn Féin leader should be careful what he wishes for. Even a cursory glance at its record of government in the North tells a sorry tale.

Sinn Féin, alongside the DUP, has now held power in Northern Ireland for nine years. It is joint leader of the Executive with all major decisions requiring its joint approval.

By any standards, nine years of government is a good, long run and it's certainly long enough to face judgment on your record.

So how has it fared? In terms of popular perception, the news isn't good. In an opinion poll for the 'Belfast Telegraph', more than two-thirds (66.3pc) rated the Northern Ireland Assembly's performance as either 'not very good' (the most common option at 41.8pc) or 'very bad' (26.5pc).

It is clear that people in the North, whether unionist or nationalist, see Sinn Féin's time in government as representing failure after failure, broken promise after broken promise.

In a society still deeply divided, we are all at least united in our disappointment. They're the majority parties, but they don't have the support of the majority of people.

These poll numbers are not hard to explain. Look at the core issues of competence by which any government would expect to be judged.

Look at its record in investing outside of greater Belfast. From April 2011 to September 2014, businesses in the east of Northern Ireland received 81pc of funding, compared with 19pc in the west.

After nine years in government, that's not balanced regional development.

Such policies have a direct and real consequence.

An average 24,000 of our young people leave every year in the hope of finding work; 37pc of qualified school leavers head to Britain and beyond in the search of a university place.

Most don't return.

Sinn Féin's response? It has cut third-level funding in its last two budgets, resulting in over 1,000 fewer places with the promise of more cuts. The North is continuing to export our young people. That's not investing in the future.

In the public sector, its big economic idea is to invest in redundancies. It is currently engaged in a process of spending £700m (€895m) to put public servants out of work.

What's even worse is this money was meant to be used to invest capital in our ailing infrastructure.

Failures in our economy are devastating our society. In housing, 11,016 households are deemed to be homeless by the North's Housing Executive. Around one in four of our children and 21pc of our pensioners live in poverty.

One in five working adults struggles to keep their head above the poverty line.

Sinn Féin chooses to shy away from these statistics and these realities.

One of the most enlightening aspects of its time in government is its complete avoidance of economic responsibility.

Over the course of its nine years as the second-largest party in government with an entitlement to four full ministries, Sinn Féin has avoided choosing a ministry with any direct responsibility for the economy.

It has had the chance to banish its image as being economically illiterate, yet has failed to take up the challenge of ministerial office. Only Sinn Féin can answer why.

 

No doubt Sinn Féin will dispute all of these hard facts. It will claim that Stormont's devolved system has limitations. In this, it is right; Stormont has restrictions in terms of the fiscal levers it can manoeuvre. Creating positive political change is never a straight-forward task.

But even with this defence, it is again telling two different stories. Because in the Republic it barks loudly in absolutist and rigid tones and in the North it talks of compromise and complexity. Sinn Féin can't see and can't admit its own contradictions.

Whatever government has taught Sinn Féin in the North, it seems it has not taught it humility.

Colum Eastwood is the leader of the SDLP

Irish Independent

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