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.   

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump