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Sinn Féin alone

As its base declines, Sinn Féin faces little coherent opposition from anyone it identifies with

Republicanism is fragmenting. That was  seen on Easter Sunday, when at least eight Republican groups held commemorations on Belfast’s Falls Road.

At protests in the North, it is common for various ‘dissident’ groups to have more presence that mainstream Sinn Féin. That party has a much smaller activist base than a decade ago. Paradoxically, as that base has shrunk, the vote has increased. The exodus of members has not affected the vote.

That was seen most starkly in last year’s assembly election for North Antrim. A councillor and 17 other activists resigned in protest when the party forced assembly Member Dáithí McKay to resign. Monica Digney, an able and respected former councillor, and one of those who had resigned, stood as an Independent. Sinn Féin’s vote increased by just under 3%. Digney polled just 435, lagging behind the Green Party.

That is a stark version of trends across the north. A few years ago, even Sinn Féin strategists believed the vote had plateaued, and might even fall back. In last year’s Westminster election, Sinn Féin took 29.4% of the vote. That was a 4.8% increase in a year.

The terminal decline of the SDlP has been hastened. Sinn Féin took the SDlP’s two perceived strongholds: South Down and, of greater importance, Derry.

That is not to deny the importance of the exodus. There is a disillusionment with Sinn Féin. An Easter statement from Óglaigh na hÉireann prisoners sums up the dissidents’ problems: “It’s clear that presently the revolutionary Republican community appear to be facing challenging times and lack strategic direction in response to these events”.

The largest single non-Sinn Féin grouping are the 1916 societies. There have spread out of their initial base in East Tyrone across the North, and into the South. They have a sizeable membership, mostly of an older generation, but they also have a small but significant membership from the post-IRA generation. They are an excellent symptom of how widespread the malaise in Republicanism is. They have engaged in some co-ordinated activity, such as calling for an all-Ireland Referendum on unity. However, their main activity is commemorations.

This is the only activity on which all non-Sinn Féin Republicans can agree. They certainly cannot on a central debate for Republicans: whether or not there should be an armed campaign. Most are opposed. some, mostly from the anti-armed-campaign cohort, are becoming involved in community issues as individuals or through different organisations. There is no issue about which ‘dissidents’ can coalesce. In 1969-70, the Republican movement split into ‘official’ and ‘Provisional’ wings. (The ‘Provisionals’ became today’s Sinn Féin, while the remnants of the ‘officials’ are the Workers Party). The ‘Provisionals’ derived from the anger of many young Catholics, and a belief that the IRA had spent too much time on left-wing politics rather than preparing to defend catholic areas.

This time, there is no single big issue to divide Republicans. There is a generalised unhappiness at Sinn Féin’s acceptance of Stormont and the PSNI. In some cases, unhappiness has spilled over into demoralisation. Some in Sinn Féin dismiss ‘dissidents’ as criminals. That is not to say there are not criminals using dissident groups as a cover; and others who, their war over, have turned to criminality but it is not the central case.

The dissident groups are fragmented. The new IRA and the continuity IRA are continuing their campaign, while Óglaigh na hÉireann has called a ceasefire. All armed groups are riddled by infiltration by security-force agents.

However, they have found a certain niche in carrying out punishment attacks. These grew by 60% between 2013 and last year. They are popular among a significant layer of the population in Catholic working-class areas. Part of the reason is the traditional hostility between the catholic minority and the police in the Northern state. Part is also that punishment attacks offer ‘quick x’ justice, without the necessity to take the time taken by a formal court system. Police seem willing to let punishment attacks continue, as long as the victims are perceived ‘hoods’.

Vigilantism, though, is not a basis for building organisations that will be a serious alternative to Sinn Féin in Catholic areas.

Sinn Féin could probably benefit from a bit of coherent opposition from people whose political premises, at least viscerally, it identifies with.

Anton McCabe