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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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories