From top: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (right) with Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill MLA at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dublin Castle last week; Derek Mooney
There was a time when Sinn Féin was the master of targeting. It used to know to aim its attacks and not to waste its time or resources.
But not anymore. Maybe it’s the loss of the old big beasts or the ascent of a new middling style of leadership, but whatever the cause, it is increasingly clear that it has lost its ability to target.
We saw it last year with the misguided and misfiring presidential campaign. We saw it last week with its no confidence motion in Simon Harris. While it was supposedly aimed at the floundering health minister, most Sinn Féin speakers had Fianna Fáil in their sights.
They were not the only ones. Minister of State, Jim Daly… no, me neither… bizarrely concluded that the best way of defending Harris against Sinn Féin criticism was not to launch himself at the provos but rather to join them in lambasting Fianna Fáil.
If Sinn Féin wanted to get rid of Harris and cause an election, they would have gone after the independent TDs whose Tá votes are keeping the Taoiseach and his ministers in office.
But they didn’t.
This Sinn Féin propensity to miss the target was on display last weekend when it went into an online meltdown over SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood telling the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis, referencing Donald Tusk’s recent comments, that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a border poll in Ireland with no plan on how to deliver it.
No sooner had the applause for Eastwood died down than the online warriors were tetchily pounding their keyboards slamming Eastwood, the SDLP and its partners in Fianna Fáil.
It was like a bad rerun of the outrage from Farage, Rees-Mogg, Davis et al as they responded to EU Council President Donald Tusk saying there would be a special place in hell for Brexiteers who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan as to how to deliver it.
Just like the Farage and Johnson, Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill walked straight into the trap and manged to self-identify as wanting a border poll without having a plan on how to deliver it.
Really? Is the Sinn Féin of Michelle and Mary-Lou, telling us that it has looked at the absolute mess and mayhem that Cameron, Farage, Gove and Johnson have created in Britain by having a referendum for which they had not prepared and whose consequences they had not considered… and concluded, hell yeah… let’s have some of that?
All O’Neill has succeeded in doing is showing that their talk about border or unity polls now is mere sloganising.
Sinn Féin has no more interest in having a meaningful border poll that has a chance of passing, than it is in sorting out the health service problems here or the welfare/PIP mess in the North.
Sinn Fein’s concern is with having unity as a hashtag, a slogan, a way to hype up the base. It’s direct from the Trump playbook. Border Poll now is the provos’ build the wall and it is every bit as useless
Speaking at the Seanad Brexit committee two years back, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern addressed this issue directly, saying:
Having a sectarian or political headcount is the last thing that we should do. Yes, there should be the provisions for reunification for the future. At the meetings I have attended people have tried to jump on that and say that we should have a border poll as well.
This is not the time for that. There will be a time for it, and we should all work as hard as possible to get to that time and convince people and win them over, but do not insert the issue into this debate.
What Ahern said in 2017 is what Eastwood said in 2016, 2017, 2018 and again last Saturday: there will be a time for a border poll, that time is coming, and it is when it is when the necessary work has been done to have the poll, and to win it convincingly.
This is no small task.
What would a United Ireland look like? Would it be a unitary 32 county country with one parliament and government in Dublin? Does unity mean tearing down the parliament at Stormont and dismantling institutions there?
It is not a new question. It is one I have spoken about here on Broadsheet before and, as I mentioned then, it is a question that Sean Lemass posed during his famous Oct 1959 Oxford Union speech, given shortly after becoming Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader. In that address, almost sixty years ago, he openly accepted that:
“…Irish reunification could be considered on the basis of an arrangement under which the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland would continue to function with their present powers, while an all-Ireland Parliament would exercise the powers in relation to that area now exercised at Westminster.”
In other words, Northern Ireland could and would continue to have self-government… assuming that the Assembly and Executive as established under the Good Friday Agreement are re-established any time soon.
Also recall that Lemass was referring to a Stormont parliament and government which did not have power sharing and was unionist dominated.
I have no doubt that there will be a border poll at some point over the next decade and, like Bertie Ahern, Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin, I see now, as we finally begin to see how Brexit will play out, as the time to start preparing for that pre-campaign phase.
The first step in that preparation is to learn the lessons of Cameron’s disastrous and divisive vote now, plan later, Brexit referendum. With their badly targeted attacks last weekend we can see that Sinn Féin has not even reached this point.
Meanwhile the FF/SDLP partnership are already several steps ahead, including heeding the advice of Tiernan Brady and seeing how it is possible, as Brady demonstrated with successful marriage equality referendum campaigns in both Ireland and Australia, to have a campaign and pre-campaign process that both informs and unites people.
With their SDLP/FF partnership, Eastwood and Martin are well positioned to get moving on the next critical step of engaging openly with others, across communities and divides to discuss and explore how a new Ireland might look and feel from its day-to-day political operation, to how its health, welfare and transport systems might mesh, to whether it should have new flags, symbols or even an anthem.
It’s a complex task, but an exciting one. The question for Sinn Féin is whether it is ready to catch-up on reaching the target, or does it just want to continue taking aim at it, and missing?
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney