Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Sinn Fein gains more power: are Christian values in Ireland under threat?

As devolved government returns to Northern Ireland for the first time in two years, a Sinn Fein leader takes the position of First Minister of Northern Ireland on the back of becoming the largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly in the 2022 elections.

With a Nationalist party now holding the most seats in Northern Ireland’s Stormont Parliament Buildings, and thus the First Minister position, the question may be asked what the future holds for Catholics north of the border under this new reality. 

Since the Assembly was established under the Good Friday Agreement – sitting since 1998 – the position of First Minister has been held by a leader of a Unionist party. The shift to a Nationalist or Republican leader marks an important, if merely symbolic, change for governance of the six counties.

The new First Minister, Michelle O’Neill – and leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland – holds the same powers and responsibilities as the Deputy First Minister, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) politician Emma Little-Pengelly. However, the First Minister is the first to greet official visitors to Northern Ireland and shares the same title as their counterparts in Scotland and Wales.

Sinn Fein, with 27 seats, followed by the DUP with 24, the Alliance Party on 17, along with the Ulster Unionists and SDLP with 9 and 7, respectively, make up the bulk of the Assembly. The balance of power is effectively held by the centrist Alliance with traditionally loyalist and national parties being essentially evenly matched.

Historically, Nationalism and Catholicism could have been used interchangeably, as could Protestantism and Loyalism/Unionism. But as secularised politics has taken hold, thereby diminishing sectarianism from a policy perspective, new fractures have emerged, with many questioning the binary nature of their politics in the respective jurisdiction. 

The emergence of the Alliance party is testament to a gradual move away from loyalty based on traditional sectarian divides, offering an alternative for supporters of either side who no longer identify with parties to which they previously may have been religiously tied.

Nationalism is no longer so easily interchanged with Catholicism, and both of the major nationalist parties, while holding fast to their commitment to re-unification with the Republic of Ireland, no longer offer a warm home for traditional and conservative Catholics.

With both Sinn Fein and the SDLP openly supporting and advocating for “progressive” social policies, some Catholics have pondered the historically imponderable – supporting the DUP, the party of Ian Paisley, who in 1998 interrupted proceedings of the European Parliament to denounce Pope John Paul II as “the antichrist”.

Upon taking up her role as First Minister, Michelle O’Neill announced: “We must make power sharing work because collectively, we are charged with leading and delivering for all our people, for every community.”

She added: “I wish to lead an executive which has the freedom to make our own policy and spending choices.”

This will raise the eyebrows of many Catholics in Northern Ireland who were shocked to see O’Neill joining Sinn Fein’s leader in the south of the island, Mary Lou McDonald, celebrating the repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion in the Republic in May 2018, with the rallying cry “The North is Next”.

They were true to their promise. Sinn Fein remained silent as Westminster in London imposed legislation on Northern Ireland that permits abortions in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and beyond that in other cases including no term limit in cases of life-limiting conditions, where there is a substantial risk that the baby would die or, if born, would suffer a severe mental or physical impairment.

In that instance, Sinn Fein made no claim to sovereignty or of undue interference in policy choices for Northern Ireland as the UK’s Conservative Party stood aside in facilitating a Labour-led proposition driven by Stella Creasy – that circumvented the democratic process – denying any representation or popular vote on the issue of abortion for the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.

Preference preceded principle in that instance and suspicion remains that Sinn Fein is wedded to its principles only as far as they prove instrumental and advantageous to its political agenda. While citizens on both sides of the Nationalist/Unionist divide were incensed at the overreach of the UK Government in dismissing the devolved authority in Northern Ireland – effectively imposing a new form of sectarianism from outside the country – the feeling emerged that the “community” that voiced concerns for the unborn child was not one that Sinn Fein wished to argue on behalf of.

The perception outside Ireland is that Sinn Fein is the Catholic party of Northern Ireland, but the fracture between Nationalism and Catholicism is deep and widening in present-day Irish politics.

In the south of the country, Mary Lou McDonald arguably gave the strongest performance in the public debates leading up to the introduction of abortion in Ireland, as public opinion swung from a 50:50 opinion poll position, a week from the referendum, to a 66 per cent to 34 per cent result in favour of abortion.

With a populist, socialist identity in the South, Sinn Fein is likely to be in a position to form the next government in Ireland with elections due in 2024. Opinion polls over the past three years have Sinn Fein as consistently the most popular party, with support from at least 30 per cent of the electorate.

It is possible that within the next 12 months, Sinn Fein will hold the top position both north and south of the border and become the largest party in both jurisdictions. 

This may be good news for those still holding out hope for a united Ireland but it does not bode well for Catholics across the country, particularly those who advocate socially conservative positions.

Sinn Fein have already indicated they will support the government’s position in the upcoming referenda in Ireland to remove constitutional protection for mothers who choose to stay home to raise their children, and to expand the definition of family from that of “founded on marriage” to “durable relationships” – the meaning of which no one has yet been able to entirely discern – nor to refute the assertion that it may constitutionally protect polygamy or polyamory. 

There are concerns that an authoritarian and uncompromising approach to governing exists within Sinn Fein that when coupled with an unwavering commitment to liberal progressive values will see conservative Christian values further marginalised – and punished – in both jurisdictions in the island of Ireland.