Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein in government

May 10, 2007

In early May, Green Left Weekly's Emma Clancy spoke to Ciaran Quinn from Sinn Fein about the new power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which restores power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, ending London's direct rule of the six counties. From 2003-06, Quinn was Sinn Fein's deputy general-secretary, and he is a member of the party's Ard Chomhairle (national executive). He is currently living in Sydney, where he is coordinating Friends of Sinn Fein Australia.

Firstly, on the new power-sharing agreement between Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's DUP; how do you think the executive will function? Do you think it will actually be workable?

It's one of those things, if you look at it on paper, no. But that's based on history and the positions that have always been put forward, up until Paisley agreed to go into the executive. From here, we're working on a whole new script, new territory. There are obviously going to be serious difficulties, but with strong enough commitment, those difficulties can be overcome and we can make it work. There are safeguards in the form of two vetos; Sinn Fein and the DUP both have veto powers. But both parties want to avoid a situation where the executive is unworkable.

What are the main priorities and goals of Sinn Fein going to be in the government, and how are you going to achieve them?

It flows from our priorities for Ireland: it's about creating equality and prosperity, and ensuring human rights. In terms of the executive, we've got three ministerial posts. Education's a key one for us and we want to do away with the system where children have to sit an exam at the age of 11 and that determines whether they go on into a grammar school or secondary school — if you're from a working-class background, you're more likely to end up in a secondary school, so you're unlikely to have the chance to go on to study at university. It's a very unfair system that has a real impact on people's lives and futures. The other priority is economic development, and we'll also continue to negotiate with and develop the justice ministry.

Agreeing to recognise the Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary) was the key to paving the way to establish this power-sharing government, but the politicised and sectarian nature of the PSNI is so deeply entrenched: how does Sinn Fein propose to overcome, and break down, the political nature of the force? Is it possible?

Well, that's part of the job ahead of us. Some changes have taken place in terms of recruitment and training. One of the significant ones has been that in the old RUC, the officer would have to swear an oath of allegiance to the state; in the new PSNI, they swear an oath to uphold the rights of the individual. So it's about trying to change an organisation that by and large has been based on repression, harassment and discrimination, and trying to turn it away from that, and we're facing a lot of problems.

One of the more recent developments has been that now recruitment has to be 50:50 Catholic/Protestant. But the key change, which we in Sinn Fein pushed for, was a change in the structure: the accountability of the police force is the crucial issue, and instead of being accountable to the [British] Northern Ireland Office, it is now accountable to the local elected minister.

We're trying to build a force that's representative of and accountable to the community, but there's a long way to go, and a huge amount of work to do before we can achieve that.

I've my own experiences of policing, which have been negative. I visited the hearings [during] the Patten Commission [the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland — an inquiry into the politicised and sectarian nature of policing] after the [1998] Good Friday Agreement, to listen to the testimony, and one thing was clear above all else: no matter where they were in the north, even if they were in an affluent area, the experience of Catholics was always negative when it came to policing. If you were stopped in a well-off area and you had a Catholic name, you were still a Fenian, and you were still harassed. We've always called for change; but now we're involved and want to be a real force for making change on the ground.

What's been the response of unionists and republicans to the agreement?

Well it's largely been positive on both sides. The DUP entered this because they believe it's in the strategic interest of unionism, and I don't think they'll block it from functioning. There are still some fundamentalists who oppose any form of negotiation with us, but they're a small minority.

On the republican side, we have the overwhelming support of the republican and Catholic communities in taking these steps, as a step towards unification: it's better to have the [Northern Ireland] assembly than no assembly.

There are republicans who disagree with Sinn Fein's strategy of entering this government, and on these terms, who fielded candidates against Sinn Fein in the March assembly elections. What's Sinn Fein view on this dissent, and how significant do you think it is?

The republican movement has long suffered from fractures and schisms in regards to tactics. In Sinn Fein itself, we have a structure of internal discussion and consultations, and went through a long process of engaging with members and the community about our strategy, to try to achieve a united position, and currently have overwhelming support for our policies.

In terms of republicans who don't agree with us, we'll try to engage with them, but some of them won't engage at all. Some of them organised to put up candidates across the six counties in the elections, but they got less than half a per cent of the vote, so it seems fairly clear that they're lacking any popular support.

There appeared to be a certain level of dissent, with a layer of republican activists saying they wanted an alternative strategy, but who didn't have the organisational capacity to put forward a viable alternative in the most recent elections.

One of the common criticisms from republicans is that they don't like aspects of the peace process. And I've no problem with that. I don't think any republican I know would like to get involved in policing; it wasn't something we set out to do. But in terms of our strategy, I think it's something that we need to do. It's not about liking it, it's about how to advance the struggle. And they haven't come up with an alternative.

So what would you say is the general strategy of Sinn Fein today for achieving the national liberation and unification of Ireland?

Well, it's the strategy of any liberation movement: it's about building popular support, across the sectarian divide, and to do that, we put forward our vision, but we also have to be showing that we're delivering as we go along; and we have to win a degree of power to do that.

The economic development in the six counties, as in the rest of Ireland, has benefited many but has been very uneven, with high levels of poverty and inequality. Is overcoming economic inequality still a goal of Sinn Fein? Do you view it as a question of national oppression, and are there other significant factors in ongoing national oppression in the six counties?

Inequality is not just a national question, but yes, there certainly is that aspect to it. The economy in the six counties is practically non-existent, and it's dependent on London for subsidies of about £6 billion a year. There's also been a move by the British to privatise water — you have to wonder what a state's for if it can't even provide water! This has been opposed by us, and in fact by all the other parties; republican, nationalist and unionist parties. Throughout Ireland, creating a decent public health-care system is also a big concern we're fighting for.

There's also unfortunately been a rise in racism and anti-immigration sentiment in Ireland in response to a sudden surge in Eastern European migrants, especially from Poland. Community groups, which we're involved in, have sprung up around the country to organise against racism. The key in combating this prejudice is education, but crucially, establishing equal rights, pay and conditions at work for these migrants, who are currently being badly exploited by companies as cheap labour.

In terms of national oppression, one of the hardest issues to overcome is that of entrenched sectarianism. People are still divided by the state; you're segregated at workplaces, and you're not segregated by legislation, but because people don't feel safe in them. We have to overcome sectarianism in the form of Orange marches, and just general sectarianism: I still couldn't safely walk down Shankill Road [known for its Unionist character, in Belfast]. We need we have a state where people can live and work where they choose.

The fact is that the Northern Ireland state was established on a sectarian basis, and as long as it's there, and as long as that's the basis that underpins it, the questions of democracy and equality won't be solved.

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