Monday, January 10, 2005

Themelves Alone?

As everyone knows at this stage, Sinn Féin has been fingered for the £26m heist in Belfast last month. Reactions to events have followed their expected courses (see also here, here and here) , but, given that the accusations against the Shinners seem to have the benefit of being true, they also seem completely justifiable. How can anyone be expected to sit in government, or indeed compete in elections, with a party that seems to either fund itself through these means or associate with a groups that do?

All well and good, putting aside the obvious glee of some people at being let off the hook of having to do the hard work of politics with people they don't like. One problem that remains, however, is how to deal with the 24% of Northern Ireland's electorate who voted Sinn Féin in the last assembly elections?

(Actually, SF's share of the vote is rising: it was 22% in the 2001 Westminster elections, 24% for the assembly in 2003 and 26% for the European Parliament election in 2004. At this rate, SF will be winning 100% of the vote by 2042. What can stop them with their amazing powers of persuasion???)

Aaaanyway, there is a serious question to be asked here. Even assuming that the SF vote is fragile for a variety of reasons, it would be strange to think that they won't garner at least a consistent 20% of the vote for the foreseeable future. I'm a little sceptical about the idea that this gives a party a mandate of any substance, but it does mean that booting the party out of power risks alienating a substantial portion of Northern Ireland's citizenry.

Just saying that people shouldn't vote for a group of crooks doesn't really solve the problem. They shouldn't, but they will (story via Slugger). Also, ignoring Sinn Féin's base would seem to at least raise questions about political inclusion in NI.1 Given this, it would seem that there is a real challenge in not talking to the Shinners and simultaneously giving that section of the community some stake in the running of the state.

1 I doubt it's a specifically Irish thing that a party's association with criminality doesn't undermine people's willingness to vote for it. For one thing, Silvio puts paid to that (subs required. For a review of the story, see here). It's not at all surprising that people have a range of reasons to vote for a party. It might be, moreover, that NI's bizarre political culture actually insulates parties from such carry on. I wonder.

Update: I'm just listening to Ian Paisley on this morning's BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (Realplayer required) and it strikes me that there's a slightly different way of looking at this. As democrats, we do tend to go on (and quite rightly) about what constitutes appropriate behaviour for political representatives, but we tend to be rather more obtuse about appropriate behaviour of and towards voters. If we want to boot one group out for their bad behaviour, what obligations do we have towards their voters, who may have perfectly legitimate concerns and needs that the party we're now refusing to talk to were representing. Or, have those voters forfeited their voices by voting for the crooks?

Update 2: It seems (via Slugger O'Toole) that Martin McGuinness has made comments about the mandate provided by 340,000 votes on the island of Ireland and how that mandate can be shut out. As I said, there are two things at stake here: the behaviour of parties and the needs and rights of voters. McGuinness conflates the two just as much as his opponents do. Sanctions for criminal activity cannot be set aside because of mandates, but voters cannot be set aside because of the criminality of their chosen party. Presumably they didn't vote for the heist. They did vote for a variety of other things, however.

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