The full-barrelled attack by Andersonstown News correspondent “Squinter” on Gerry Adams in the run-up to Easter shows the extreme political fragility of the Sinn Fein political structure. If anything the grovelling front-page apology in the post-Easter edition simply accentuates that fragility and the shock effect of a direct attack on Adams from the ‘Belly of the Beast’ – from the centre of the Sinn Fein propaganda machine. A process that has eaten Ian Paisley and son within ten months could yet devour Adams.
The movement is growing more fragile from a number of directions which appear as sudden shocks or crises. The stability that is left rests on the utter demoralisation of their membership, of a layer who are directly employed or employed as ‘community activists’ and in the utter absence of a convincing political alternative from within republicanism.
The most immediate shock here comes from the winding up of the IRA military structure. The political collapse of republicanism massively increased the layer of demoralised youth inhabiting areas like the Lower Falls. These youth, so deeply demoralised that they have no great concern about their own lives or the lives of those around them, feel they have no reason to be afraid of ex-prisoners or of those with close IRA connections. The IRA still have the capacity to kill these youths, but doing so they put themselves at the mercy of the DUP and the British and increase the likelihood of the expulsion of Sinn Fein from Stormont. Keeping their bums on Stormont seats is nearly the only policy that the Shinners have left. The result is that the Sinn Fein base suddenly find themselves defenceless, without the natural immunity that connection with the IRA conferred and dependent on the RUC/PSNI for defence. Naturally the RUC/PSNI have no deep concern about the protection of Sinn Fein or of working-class communities.
The Squinter article explores that raw nerve and ties it to a growing realisation that in fact Sinn Fein have achieved nothing through their rapprochement with imperialism and unionism. The Andersonstown News represents a small business class, mostly a middle class ‘Sinn Fein Nua’, who have done quite well from the grants that have been targeted at them, but expected it to be followed by major investment that never came. The fact that Sinn Fein have lost out on issues like the Irish language, police devolution and the new sports complex have not gone unnoticed, nor has the weakness and incoherence of their response.
A new and more burning irritation has emerged since the Dromore by-election, the DUP, seriously rattled by the success of Jim Allister and anti-agreement unionism, feel the need to humiliate Sinn Fein and demonstrate unionist triumphalism. This led to the serious backfire of an attempt by Sinn Fein to wrap the green flag around them by commemorating the deaths of IRA volunteers in Gibraltar and at the Funeral after. The DUP responded by forcing Sinn Fein to meet in the equivalent of a broom cupboard – squeezed into their Stormont office. This humiliation is becoming a daily occurrence and Adams threats of retaliation are tired and unconvincing.
Finally there is the outcome of the Southern election. Sinn Fein’s practice was to speak out of both sides of its mouth at once, with vague radical blather for the working class constituencies and hard right wing policies for its business backers. Under the pressure of election Adams tore up the blather and unveiled a party of the far right committed to economic policies dictated by big business – a party with no policies of its own and nowhere to go in a political landscape crowded with far right nationalist parties.
The attack on Adams stops well short of a critique of the St. Andrews agreement. The assumption is that there are nationalist gains to be made but that the Sinn Fein leadership are too incompetent to make them. In fact the Andersonstown News attack was an attack from the right. The paper was well ahead of Sinn Fein in pushing the present deal. Its ‘independent’ stance in the republican apparatus consists precisely of having the freedom to strike out to the right of Sinn Fein and express views that are not yet current in the mainstream. It was this paper that led the drive to establish sporting relations with the police and then to give the police an open platform in the paper. It was this paper that constantly distorted its reporting and slandered it opponents to win support for Adam’s policies and push the police into nationalist areas. These right-wing forces are now impatient. The old relics of the military campaign are an obstacle to a modern, middle-class Catholic party, able to push sectarian privilege and cut deals with the Unionists and British.
But Sinn Fein appears too fragile for this logical development to take place. The only stable base they have is Adams and the former military structure. The fragility was shown up by the initial panicky reaction, where Adams attacked the police and announced yet another multi-agency solution, followed by the counter-attack of the grovelling apology enforced on the Andersonstown News, followed by the Stalinist air-brush that took the squinter column from the paper’s archives and from the journalists own blog. The final outcome is that Sinn Fein are given a direct phone line to the police so that they can rush to the defence of the workers!
The Andersonstown News has got too big for its boots. Its idea that the suits, led by the group's managing director Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, can deliver real gains is simply a pipedream. However the unsayable has been said and no amount of file deletion can put the genie back in the bottle. In fact Squinter may have said too much. In arguing that the police do not protect communities and that the agreement has not generated prosperity and investment he is inviting his readers to draw the conclusion, not that they need a sharper suit at the head of the party, but that its time to reject an agreement that has revived the sectarian hell-hole in the North and met none of the needs of the working people who inhabit it.