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Sinn Fein could lose its image as the ethnic nationalist party

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Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

PA

Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

When Barcelona manager Luis Enrique reflected on his team's historic comeback against Paris Saint-Germain last Wednesday, he didn't pretend there was some grand plan. He conceded that soccer is a "crazy game" - and left it at that. He was lucky that PSG were nervous, and Barcelona's carefree and chaotic play may have added to that nervousness - but was there a strategy? Probably not.

There was, however, a strategy at play in Sinn Fein's Assembly Election "win" last weekend. You will never see a Sinn Fein strategic plan. It's not that one doesn't exist; I suspect in the bowels of an office in West Belfast there is one. Sinn Fein is too clever to publish it, but the timing of the Assembly elections and the party's campaign in it were a work of strategic genius. We often see organisations publish strategic plans. The Department of Justice published one during last week.

It was, predictably enough, a collection of the generic goals it hopes to achieve and some vacuous value statements. But it wasn't a strategy, because while goals are central to a strategy, the strategy starts with a problem or challenge, and sets out how you will get around this.

Why would you publish what your weaknesses are? You wouldn't expect a military leader or a football manager to announce these to the world in a flashy brochure: ''Because our players are short, we're weak in the air, and particularly vulnerable to high balls. To counteract this we'll try to hold onto possession with short accurate ground passing.'' Sinn Fein wouldn't publish a strategy, because it knows it would help its opponents. But from the election campaign we can see what it might be.

Sinn Fein's goals are pretty clear. It wants a united Ireland. And it doesn't just say this, it really does want one. All the guff about building a socialist republic could be dropped in a heartbeat, but unification is crucial to the party.

It had one serious problem in Northern Ireland and another in the Republic. In the South, most people over the age of 40 still associate Sinn Fein with terrorism. Its long-term strategy here is to "mainstream" the Provisional IRA's violence.

It used the 1916 centenary commemorations to put Bobby Sands up beside Padraig Pearse, to make them both "freedom fighters" not "terrorists". New generations will buy this line.

In the North, it had signed up to a peace agreement that made Northern Ireland pretty normal. The relative success of the peace process meant that only 13pc of people in Northern Ireland want a united Ireland in the short-to medium-term.

The normalisation of Northern Ireland makes the dream of unity ever distant.

For most in the North, the Border isn't an issue anymore, because it barely exists.

In a normal Northern Ireland, nationalism versus unionism becomes an irrelevant anachronism.

That's why Sinn Fein needs to introduce perennial "crisis" and "breakdown" to Northern Ireland's governance.

With Brexit, that crisis was gifted it. The Border became a real issue, and that dream of a united Ireland looks more realistic than ever before.

It also became an issue in southern politics, helping Sinn Fein put Irish unity on the agenda down here.

But in the short-term, Northern Ireland Sinn Fein faced a couple of serious challenges.

In 2016, for the first time, it found itself in government effectively alone with the DUP.

The other nationalist party, the SDLP, was in opposition, which meant that for the first time Sinn Fein was open to charges that it wasn't governing well.

Before that all the parties were in it together, there was no campaigning on governing competence.

The Cash for Ash scandal meant the SDLP could associate Sinn Fein with governing incompetence. Sinn Fein's refusal to vote no confidence in Arlene Foster fed a narrative that Sinn Fein was giving in to the DUP on too many issues.

There were reports that grassroots nationalists were unhappy with the Sinn Fein leadership. Add to this that Sinn Fein had a pretty bad Assembly election in 2016. It had failed to mobilise its support.

So the Cash for Ash scandal offered an opportunity to go back to the people. But it could not go back to them on those terms. That would have helped the SDLP. Sinn Fein knew this, and immediately changed what the election was about.

When he forced the Executive's collapse and effectively called the election, Martin McGuinness said: "Sinn Fein wants equality and respect for everybody. And that's what this process must be about."

From then on you never heard Sinn Fein willingly bring up Cash for Ash. The party managed to make the hardly important Irish Language Act central to the campaign.

Equality and respect were trotted out, and government waste and incompetence ceased to be issues; destroyed as effectively as a wood pellet in a Co Fermanagh barn.

This made it harder for the SDLP, the UUP and Alliance parties to run the campaign of moderates versus extremists it wanted. Sinn Fein was helped by the DUP. With Foster's comments on "feeding the crocodile", she became the most effective recruiting sergeant for nationalism (and perhaps for unionism also).

While she didn't have a good election, the crocodile comments may have helped her staunch the flow of support from the party as a result of the RHI scandal.

Unionism is smarting from its defeat, and will be paranoid about losing its primacy.

Sinn Fein will try to reframe politics in Northern Ireland as a battle between conservative unionism and Sinn Fein leading a progressive alliance of nationalists and moderates.

Gerry Adams announced as much on Friday. It can use gay marriage as a wedge issue to split moderate and liberal unionists away from the fold.

Appeals to unionist unity and unionist retrenchment will only help Sinn Fein lose its image as a narrow ethnic nationalist party. Done well, and UKIP and other Brexit nationalists help out here, it could make Irish unity look like the progressive option.

Sunday Independent