Letter from Wicklow: Stormont back in the North, Sinn Féin slipping in the Republic

With a mixture of fanfare and cautious optimism, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Stormont assembly finally is up and running after a two-year impasse.  Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill is the first ever nationalist First Minister in the six counties and Emma Little-Pengelly of the Democratic Unionist Party is her deputy.

The lengthy stalemate stemmed from the post-Brexit requirement for checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. To a substantial swathe of unionists, this was an abomination.  Following months of painstaking negotiations, an accord that eliminated checks for items remaining in the north and assuaged concerns about the north’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom was reached.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was able, just about, to sell it to his party.  There was, and is, a good deal of internal grumbling and dissent – as well as the incandescent rage of the intransigent Traditional Unionist Voice head, Jim Allister, at what he has repeatedly branded a “sell-out.”  It is not easy to comprehend their perspective; this is an objectively good deal for Northern Ireland, and the best that unionists could have hoped for.

Moreover, it is beyond time that the Stormont assembly return to the business of seeking solutions to the myriad vexed problems that do not run along the old “green” and “orange” fault lines and are affecting the people who trusted the members of the legislative body to represent their interests.  One can only pray that two women of a new generation, O’Neill and Little-Pengelly, will forge a solid, collegial relationship and effectively govern a society that continues to change apace.  May this be the last collapse of an institution that so many vested so much hope in the wake of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.

In this rather delicate context, some observers attacked Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald, for emphasising how important an occasion this was for nationalists and republicans in that having one of their own in charge was a giant step on the road to a united Ireland.  Others contended that it would be dishonest for the Dublin-based TD (member of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of parliament) to say anything else.  Considering all the circumstances, though, her staying so doggedly on message probably was a misstep, albeit a minor one.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s advantage in the polls has diminished as this country faces into local, national, and European elections in the next year.  It has held steady at the top, but the emergence of immigration as an animating issue is responsible for an undeniable erosion in its base. 

Its overarching pro-immigration stand is at odds with many workingclass voters who wish to reduce the number of newcomers Ireland takes in.  In the aftermath of the Dublin riot in November, McDonald and other Sinn Féin politicians went in a more conservative direction.

This seems, on the one hand, to have proven a case of “too little, too late” for the less affluent citizens whose support they have relied upon.  Opinion surveys suggest that some of them have drifted to immigration-skeptical independents or small, far right groupings.  On the other hand, some young people, who are left of centre, shut out of the housing market, and, hence, drawn to Sinn Féin’s effective spokespeople and more radical policies on these matters, have apparently gravitated toward other parties on the left.

Sinn Féin is still in enviable shape.  The party should win the most seats in the forthcoming contests.  But the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party coalition will derive solace from these declining numbers, even as their own haven’t surged.  The strategies employed and the pivots made in the looming campaigns will be fascinating to monitor.  The local and European elections are in June.


RIP John Bruton

His faith informed him

Sadly, John Bruton, the taoiseach (prime minister) from 1994-1997 and later European Union Ambassador to the United States, died on Feb. 6. His critics used to claim that the proud Fine Gael man was a “West Brit” and one even referred to him as “John Unionist.”  They now recognise that he was absolutely correct in arguing that the backgrounds of all people in Northern Ireland had to be accounted for in pursuit of an end to armed conflict and in condemning the IRA’s litany of violent acts unwaveringly and unequivocally. 

Indeed, his contemporaries from decades ago, pundits and historians have acknowledged that he and UK Prime Minister John Major laid a lot of the groundwork that made possible the breakthroughs in the peace process that their successors, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, are widely credited for.

Watching the coverage of his funeral and burial, two things struck me.  First, yet definitely not for the first time, was that the Irish “do death” very well.  The rest of the world could learn from how empathy, sensitivity, gratitude and, yes, humour  are typically to the fore. Second was at a personal level for me, as a practising Catholic whose faith informs his outlook.  Bruton was recalled frequently as a devout Catholic.  He wrote a book, “Faith in Politics,” during a very busy retirement.  In it, he examined the appropriate role of religious faith in the public sphere among other things.  In this regard, words in the funeral oration delivered by the current taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, resonated with me.  “John was pro-life…he believed that political parties could be a broad church and a big tent, especially on issues of conscience and faith.”  Would that more of my fellow Democrats concurred.


Doubts about Biden

on rise with the Irish

I have noted in this space previously that the attentiveness of Irish people to American politics is extraordinary.  And to a greater extent than ever before, there is a razor-sharp focus on the presidential election.  As part of a broader poll, The Irish Times recently asked people who they favour to be the 47th POTUS: Biden or Trump.  The latter was preferred by merely 14 percent; 50 percent opted for Biden; 32 percent want neither.

It is surprising, in my estimation, that President Biden, who literally basked in a four-day reciprocal lovefest across this island less than twelve months ago, has only half of the Irish in his corner.  The questions and comments that are routinely put to me reflect genuine worries and doubts about his age and capacity.

What I suspect is a significantly stronger factor in the shift in sentiment is his administration’s ongoing funding of Israel’s war efforts in Gaza, notwithstanding reportage of the president’s opposition to the Israeli Defence Force tactics and dislike of Benjamin Netanyahu.  There is the moniker bestowed on him by leftist TDs and activists: “Genocide Joe.”  There are the dodges from government ministers when journalists query if they will challenge their counterparts on the annual mid-March transatlantic pilgrimages to the US.

And there is the disgust with someone they expected better from that I hear daily from friends, neighbours, and colleagues.  They refuse to accept my retort that they have a fair point, but that President Biden is between a huge rock and a very hard place, politically speaking, at a crucial historical juncture.

Many Irish have lost the loving feeling they had for Joe Biden.  At this stage, the unfortunate truth is that a majority would say that he is obviously superior to Trump – and not much else.  It has been a swift fall from grace.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all!


Larry Donnelly is a Boston born and educated attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway, and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs, and law in Ireland and the US.  @LarryPDonnelly