Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin

Deaglán de Breadún (Merrion Press). Reviewed by Patrick Murphy.

This book, offering an insight into the political rise of Sinn Féin, is a highly readable romp through contemporary Irish politics. However, as Deaglán de Breadún draws us into our recent political history, he gently unravels many of the threads which have been woven together to form Sinn Féin’s political clothes.

This book offers a useful insight into the political rise of Sinn Féin, partly through what it contains and partly because of what it leaves out. What it contains is interesting. If it had included what has been omitted, it would have been even more interesting.

It is a skilful piece of writing which identifies, largely without comment, the people, events and thinking which brought about the transformation of a political party from supporting sectarian violence into a position of Irish political prominence.

Instead of his own comment, the author seeks the views of party members, critics and observers. This aspect of the book best reflects de Breadún’s work as a top-class journalist. His attention to detail is impeccable and his narrative style is entertaining and informative.

Despite this, the book does not live up to its claim of offering a comprehensive analysis of Sinn Féin’s rise. Indeed, it largely lacks analysis. What it offers instead is description, information and insight, which allow readers to construct their own analyses.

There is no harm in that. It allows everyone, whatever their views on Sinn Féin, to come away with their opinions confirmed. There is an analysis for everyone in the audience – which is largely how Sinn Féin operates in any case.

However, the book has an interesting omission. It largely ignores Sinn Féin’s current role in government. The party now governs 1.7 million people on this island in a coalition government and, in describing Sinn Féin’s rise, it would appear reasonable to examine the style, content and consequences of that governance – if only to give some idea of how the party could be expected to perform in government in Dublin.

You could argue that the book is about Sinn Féin’s rise in the South – a Southern book for a Southern readership. But even if we accept this argument, it is difficult to explain that rise without explaining the Northern origins of the party’s populism.

By abandoning the war for a united Ireland, the party gained a level of uncritical media coverage rarely seen in Irish politics, together with unquestioning support from the administrations in London, Dublin, Washington and Brussels. The party’s Northern switch from a “bad” to a “good” public image laid the basis for its popular support there, which subsequently spilled over into the South, especially when the economy collapsed.

But for most people in the South, Northern history ended with the Good Friday Agreement. There is little public or media awareness of how Sinn Féin’s Stormont policies are largely similar to Fine Gael’s.

Sinn Féin is dismantling a significant section of the North’s public sector. 10,000 civil service posts are being cut. Corporation Tax is to be reduced in the hope that the private sector will replace the job losses.

The health service is in crisis. Emigration is high. Funding for education has been slashed and the university sector is now coming under the control of Stormont’s department of the economy – an ideological approach to education which even Mrs Thatcher did not consider.

Some of the gains of the civil rights movement have been reversed through the demise of the Housing Executive and the gerrymandering of the entire local government boundary system to allow Sinn Féin and the DUP to control equal numbers of district councils.

Stormont’s £60 million social investment fund remains largely unspent five years after it was created. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s heartland of West Belfast still has the highest child poverty level in the UK. The party’s silence during NAMA’s sale of its Northern portfolio has yet to be explained.

What the party preaches in Dublin is largely the opposite of what it practices in Belfast.

The book wonders how sexual and other scandals in the North have largely left Sinn Féin unscathed in the South. The real mystery, however, is how few people in the South appear to know or care how the party’s right-wing policies in Northern government are diametrically opposed to its left-wing policies in Southern opposition.

By way of illustration, the author did not interview a single person from the North, other than Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. No one from its coalition partners in Stormont was asked for an opinion.

In one way that is the book’s weakness. In another way, it is its unwitting strength. By ignoring society, economy and politics in the North, this book unintentionally illustrates one of the main reasons for Sinn Féin’s rise in the South: the Southern electorate is largely unaware of Sinn Féin’s policies in the North, including its recent concession to Westminster of power over welfare payments.

Only politically-related sex and violence in the North warrant coverage in the Dublin media. By ignoring Sinn Féin’s role in a huge right-wing shift of Northern politics, society and economy, this book has missed a significant aspect of the party’s performance. It is that omission which perfectly illustrates how the party has benefitted from partition by proclaiming conflicting policies North and South.

If they ever print a second edition of this book it might helpfully include an additional chapter: “What Sinn Féin gets up to in Stormont.” Or would that spoil the Southern narrative?

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