Sean Oliver, Sinn Féin Co-ordinator for England, Scotland and Wales, talks to Theo Russell about the effects of the economic crisis in Ireland and the future of the peace process following the elections in the north and the change of government in London.
Theo Russell: How has the economic crisis affected the north of Ireland in comparison with the Republic?
Sean Oliver: There’s a much larger public sector and state employment in the North than in the south, partly because of the history of the conflict and the lack of investment, so we haven’t been as badly off as the South so far.
The spending cuts just announced include £128 million for the north, with possibly big cuts in health spending which accounts for 40 per cent of the overall Executive budget, so we are going to be hit.
TR: What is Sinn Féin’s strategy for tackling the crisis?
SO: We are attempting to grow the private sector in the North, developing indigenous industries, the social economy and local business people, but we are also saying that what we need is an all-Ireland economy.
At the moment we have two separate economies competing for investment, with 1.5 million people in the north and 4-5 million in the south, two tax systems, and two currencies, which makes things very complex, especially in the border areas.
At the moment we are completely dependent on the block grants from London. In the past the Unionist parties have said no to local taxation powers, with a Sinn Féin motion calling for fiscal powers for the Assembly failing due to unionist opposition.
In the last years of direct rule there was an attempt to introduce water charges, and there has been pressure for privatisation, but this has been ruled out by Conor Murphy, the Sinn Féin Regional Development minister with responsibility for utilities.
We have seen substantial sums invested in infrastructure in the North by the Irish government, and work is ongoing on major improvements to the route linking Dublin and Donegal. The Unionists have always opposed “interference” from Dublin in the north’s politics, but they don’t seem to have any problems when it comes to handing out money.
TR: What’s your assessment of the Westminster election results in the north?
SO: Sinn Féin topped the polls, not for the first time - we also achieved this in the 2009 European elections - and we are also the biggest party in Belfast, in terms of votes.
In South Belfast former Belfast mayor Alex Maskey pulled out of the contest to attempt to maximise nationalist representation by giving a clear run to the SDLP candidate. Many hoped that the SDLP might do the same in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, allowing Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin a clear field, but the SDLP didn’t respond.
This episode damaged the SDLP’s image, many SDLP supporters were unhappy, and their vote fell by 50 per cent in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
Michelle Gildernew eventually won the seat for Sinn Féin by four votes, after three recounts – and this was despite all three Unionist parties - the new UUP-Tory alliance (UCU-New Force), DUP, and Traditional Unionist Voice - not standing candidates to give independent Unionist Rodney Connor a free run against her.
TR: How do you see the future of Unionist politics developing after the leaders of both the main parties lost their seats?
SO: There is an ongoing debate among Unionists about re-aligning Unionism in the face of Sinn Féin’s growing electoral success. The DUP had a good result in the election apart from the loss of Peter Robinson’s seat, where Unionist voters rebelled over revelations over his luxury lifestyle, expenses claims and suspect business dealings.
The rejectionist Traditional Unionist Voice led by Jim Allister (which broke away from the DUP after they went into power-sharing with Sinn Féin) did very poorly compared to their 2009 performance, lacking any strong candidates other than their leader, as well as any clear alternative programme, and failed to win a seat.
The DUP had a much more positive campaign, dropping its anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric and offering devolution as the best option on offer, in contrast to the TUV’s negative “doom and gloom” message. After this election hopefully the DUP will feel under less pressure from the rejectionists.
Up to now the DUP hasn’t really prepared it’s constituency for change or consulted its members about change, with Paisley going into devolution in a very sudden, and to some unexpected, way. But now things are very different and they are realising this is the real world.
The loss of the last remaining UUP seat at Westminster was the end of an era. The UUP were the rulers of a one-party state for 50 years, and the bigger unionist party right up to the early 2000s.
North Down MP Sylvia Hermon was previously one of the UUP’s strongest assets. She refused to stand under a Tory banner as her natural leanings were closer to Labour. She stood this time as an independent and was re-elected.
TR: Was the electoral pact between the UUP and the Tories a blunder on David Cameron’s part?
SO: When the ‘Ulster Conservative Unionists - New Force’ came to appointing candidates, almost all of them were UUP and hardly any Conservatives stood in the North.
The Conservatives’ Northern Ireland spokesman, Owen Paterson, presented Tory policies as a “new politics for the UK, with no sectarianism or Orange-Green tribalism”.
But then it was revealed that he had been talking to both the main Unionist parties about unionist unity. The secret talks he organised caused major damage for the Unionist-Tory alliance and he was seen as lining up with the Orange Order and Unionism. (The secret talks led to several prospective Conservative Westminster candidates resigning).
TR: Do you expect any problems with the peace process with the new government in London in place?
SO: Sinn Féin has met with Cameron and Paterson, and has made it very clear that there is no option to change the Good Friday Agreement, an international agreement guaranteed by both the Irish and British governments. Given his role in the ‘secret talks’ debacle with the unionists, Martin McGuinness has commented that Paterson is now on “a steep learning curve”.
After the 2011 Assembly elections there is a strong possibility that Sinn Féin could be entitled to hold the position of First Minister in the Executive. Although the First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts are in reality co-equal, the title is still psychologically important to unionism. In this situation the Unionists may consider the attraction of uniting into a single party, but there would be many obstacles to be cleared on their way to that.
TR: What are Sinn Féin’s priorities for its work in Britain at the moment?
SO: We were very pleased with the success of the London Irish unity conference (on February 20 this year), but we see that as just the beginning of a process of putting Irish unity on the political agenda. We want to follow up on the issues which arose at the conference, as well as to develop our work outside London, and continue working with the Irish community and progressive forces.
TR: How does Sinn Féin see the peace process going forward?
SO: Developing relations with the Unionist community is a major priority, working in the Assembly and Executive and with the Unionist community. The north-south process is still ongoing, and twelve years after the Good Friday Agreement the all-Ireland Parliamentary and Civic Fora still haven’t been set up, so those are also important priorities.
TR: What’s your assessment of the dissident republican groups at the moment?
SO: The dissident groups still have the capacity to carry out armed actions, but they don’t have any significant popular support and haven’t stood candidates in elections since 2007. There are now a plethora of dissident organisations, with a small number of people moving between them. They also have links with anti-social and criminal elements involved in drug dealing.
I also believe that some sections of the British security establishment can’t come to terms with people like Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly being in government, and share the same interest as the ‘dissidents’ in damaging the political institutions. It is widely suspected by many nationalists that some of these groups have been infiltrated to the highest level.
In another development, the INLA and Irish Republican Socialist Party ended their armed campaign last year and also declared support for the peace process and institutions.
TR: What is the current situation regarding crime and policing in the north?
SO: Drugs are a big issue for everyone, while extortion and gangsterism remain big problems in working class Unionist communities. There are more nationalists joining the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), but, rather than acting as a recruiting sergeant in the nationalist community, Sinn Féin’s position is that the PSNI needs to prove itself.
We are now in also daily contact with the PSNI dealing with issues in local communities, and part of all of this we recognise that they too are on a learning curve, with some in that organisation finding it a new experience to adapt to ‘normal’policingwork.