Michelle Gildernew speaks at Sinn Féin's manifesto launch. Photo:Getty
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Sinn Féin manifesto: both more and less important than you think

Sinn Féin won't take their seats at Westminster. So what is their manifesto for? Mainly, it's a dry run for the contests that really matter to the party in 2016.

Sinn Féin's manifesto, launched on Monday, may claim to be about the 2015 election but in reality the policies are aimed at drumming up support for the Irish general election and bolstering support in the Northern Ireland Executive election, both taking place in 2016. Realistically, as Sinn Féin continues to abstain from taking their seats in Westminster, they can have little influence on the incoming government. It will be those elected as MLAs in Northern Ireland and TDs in Ireland that may be able to enact many of the policies mentioned in the manifesto. This is all but admitted in the manifesto which refers to ‘the island economy’ and references the support of people ‘across Ireland’, this support is hardly pertinent to the Westminster election where only a section of the island is represented and the majority is a separate jurisdiction.

One of the major themes of the manifesto is anti-austerity. Again, abstention means that they can't logically hope to influence any votes in the House, and therefore, can’t end austerity. However, anti-austerity is a platform that Sinn Féin have used extensively in Ireland and to good effect, such as utilising the anti-water charge protests to gain support. The latest figures show they are polling 24 per cent in the Irish polls suggesting that they have the chance to shape the next government. Interestingly, they also continually mention working on a stronger ‘island economy’. While naturally the Irish and Northern Ireland economies have many links and there is overlap in some areas, for example the two jurisdictions share a tourism board, it isn’t possible for the Westminster government or its MPs to control the economy of an independent country. However Sinn Féin are likely to retain their position in the Northern Ireland executive in 2016 and if they were to form the next Irish government, most likely as part of a coalition, it would make co-ordinating the two economies as easy as they can ever hope it to be without reunification.  

The manifesto also announces that Sinn Féin will call for a referendum on a united Ireland in the next parliament. To have a referendum on reunification would require the consent from both the UK and Irish governments. Simultaneous referendums on reunification are a key part of what Sinn Féin stands for generally, and it is likely that an Irish government if they agreed to reunification would do so subject to a referendum. It would also require the consent of the Northern Ireland executive unless they intend to have the Good Friday agreement collapse. They argue that this is a part of the Good Friday Agreement which has yet to be brought to fruition, however this is not strictly true. The Good Friday Agreement states that a referendum on reunifying Ireland should be held in a situation where it would seem a majority want reunification. Despite this being a vital and important part of the agreement, there has been no suggestion of increased support for reunification, therefore it is not an outstanding issue for the next British government. As such, while this is something that could be put in place if they had enough influence in Westminster, it would be a complicated situation and one the next government is highly unlikely to want to risk in the current climate. Although Northern Ireland is currently fairly stable, there have been some stalemates between the DUP and Sinn Féin such as the current welfare reform bill standoff. Attempting to introduce a referendum on a united Ireland at the moment, even if it were to be accepted by the Irish government, could cause lasting damage to the Good Friday Agreement and the Executive.

Finally, one of the few major pledges in the Sinn Féin manifesto that actually would concern MPs is the promise to obtain a further £1.5 billion in funding for Northern Ireland. Realistically, there have been massive cuts across the UK and whoever forms the next government will have to balance the budget carefully. Abstaining means that Sinn Féin has no negotiating power when it comes to voting in the House. With no sitting MPs, they will also be unable to strike a deal similar to the Gregory deal in Ireland in 1982, struck by an independent TD who negotiated extra funding for his under privileged constituency in return for his support to form a government. This was possible as the main parties were so close together in terms of vote share, he held the balance of power. Many small UK parties may well find themselves in a similar situation in the days after the election. Secondly, Sinn Féin claim they will demand a separate referendum on EU membership for Northern Ireland. This is entirely impossible, Northern Ireland is not a member of the EU as an individual jurisdiction but as part of the UK. As was clarified in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, should any part of the UK want to be a member of the EU in their own right they would need to reapply.

This manifesto is not particularly important in terms of the 2015 Westminster election. Realistically abstention makes the majority of their promises impossible as they have no bargaining power and their supporters are aware of this. However, it does have a purpose as dry run for Sinn Féin’s campaign in the 2016 Irish and Northern Ireland elections. They can test their policies in an electoral contest without major repercussions; losses in Westminster won’t be a dent in Sinn Féin’s influence. Defeats in Stormont or Dublin would leave a bigger mark.   

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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