Yesterday evening a proposed Bill to ban fox hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland was narrowly defeated in the Stormont Assembly. The Bill, which was brought by Alliance MLA John Blair, received 38 votes for banning hunting with dogs, and 45 against outlawing the practice. The intention of the bill was to bring the laws in Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
Cast your mind back to February 2020, in the run-up to the general election here in the Republic. In an email to the Irish Council Against Blood Sports, (ICABS) the President of Sinn Féin, Mary Lou McDonald said: ‘Sinn Fein is opposed to foxhunting and we will vote in favour of a ban at the next opportunity.’
Last night represented one such opportunity for the all-Ireland party to indeed back up the words of its President into votes and action. However, the Sinn Féin members of the assembly voted against the bill. Sinn Féin MLA, Declan McAleer, who is chairman of the Stormont Agriculture Committee said his party does not agree with a ban on hunting, but that there are elements of the Bill which it does agree with.
The hypocrisy is clear to see. In the run-up to a general election in the Republic, Mary Lou McDonald was unequivocal in her and her party’s complete opposition to the practice of foxhunting and yet one of its senior assembly members in the North has clearly stated his party has a contradictory stance.
This is not the only contradiction we have seen from Sinn Féin by their words down south and their actions up north where they are currently in Government and have been almost consistently since 1998.
Fracking is another controversial topic in which Sinn Féin has been accused of hypocrisy in terms of its policies on each side of the border. Derry city PBP Councillor Maeve O’Neill said has said that Sinn Féin and its Executive partners can’t be trusted to ban fracking. She argued that local anti-fracking activists have ‘exposed how the divergence in Sinn Féin’s anti-fracking policy north and south,’ and added that they ‘could have massive implications.’
Abortion rights have been in sharp focus in Irish politics for the last few years. In 2018, following the vote to repeal the 8th amendment to lift the near-total ban on abortion services in the Republic, there were jubilant scenes outside Dublin Castle. Alongside many politicians like Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, was Mary Lou McDonald with her party colleague and the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill. An iconic image of that day was the two leaders with beaming smiles holding a sign saying, ‘The North is Next.’ This was in reference to the lack of reproductive rights available to women in the north at the time.
Despite this clear intent, the actions of Sinn Féin in the Stormont Assembly have been anything but clear. Since then, the party has been criticised by both sides of the abortion debate. Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, formerly of Sinn Féin claimed the party was ‘speaking out of both sides of their mouth’ on the issue. Also, former People Before Profit MLA Eamon McCann criticised the party for sitting on the fence when it comes to abortion legislation.
So what does this matter for voters in the Republic? Given the dominance of Sinn Féin in recent poll results, it is difficult to bet against them to be involved, if not leading the next government down south. A recent Sunday Times / Behaviour & Attitudes Poll for the month of November gave Sinn Féin a staggering 37% of first preference votes, well ahead of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on 21% and 20% respectively.
The divide becomes even starker when the poll is narrowed to the 18-34-year-old age bracket. In this case, Sinn Féin polled a whopping 48%. Clearly, the party has attracted vast swathes of younger voters in recent years. Many young people are eager to break the duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that has dominated Irish politics since the foundation of the state. Many young people feel these parties no longer reflect the more progressive, tolerant and equal Ireland that they aspire to live in.
Much of this Sinn Féin surge has been helped by the difficulties and tough choices that have been forced upon the current government parties. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has yet to be tainted by government in the Republic and has benefitted massively from this in a political sense.
However, it is important to look at Sinn Féin’s role in government in Northern Ireland, both in its actions and its inactions. Issues such as climate change and abortion rights are very important to young progressive Irish voters, many of whom make up the 48% in the recent poll. It is on these issues which Sinn Féin have misled and deceived voters on both sides of the border.
Many of those who know the party closely understand the party is far more divided than the unified 32 county party it likes to portray itself as. In fact, the College Tribune spoke to former UCD Sinn Féin Chairperson, Christine O’Mahony, earlier this year who said that the party’s branches in Northern Ireland ‘are much more conservative.’
For now, Sinn Féin in the Republic remains in the comfort of opposition. Their legitimate criticisms of the current government have resonated with many, but to ignore their actions in government elsewhere could lead to mistrust when faced with the enormous burden of power in the Republic.
Conor Paterson – Co-Editor