Artillery Row

A crooked eye

Sinn Fein, the press and the leadership contest which wasn’t reported

In the wake of the hanging chads crisis at the tail end of the Bush-Gore Presidential run-off a new “quote” emerged that was apocryphally attributed to Stalin: “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes”. As Slate Magazine noted at the time: “Let’s just say Joseph Stalin is not known to have waxed forth on the nature of voting and was singularly unconcerned with elections.” It could have been written about Sinn Féin’s approach to its own internal democracy.

With just one leader from 1986 until last year democracy has never troubled the party. Its “leadership” (a peculiarly opaque term used to describe a group of consisting mostly of increasingly elderly men) to whom all its public spokesmen are ultimately accountable is mysterious.

Accordingly we know little about who is in charge, never mind how decisions are made. What’s strange though is how SF’s odd state of affairs so rarely attracts attention from either the British or Irish media. Certainly not in comparison to the endless attention given to the go-to pantomime villain of Northern Ireland, the DUP, which has been the target of a long series of so-called scandals few of which ever end up delivering evidence of any actual corruption.

Peace journalism’s unspoken rule

Sinn Féin has been subject to problematic scandals, not least the PSNI announcement that the supposedly defunct Provisional IRA weren’t, and had been involved in the planning and execution of the former Provisional Kevin McGuigan in 2015. However the scandal very quickly sparked a crisis of conscience in Unionism, rather than nationalism and the media lens quickly segued away from potentially problematic questions for Sinn Féin to trouble within Unionism which saw Arlene Foster succeed Peter Robinson.

That, I’m afraid to say, is the way peace process journalism typically unfolds in Northern Ireland these days. The presumption seems to be that in order for the peace settlement to work, everyone else (but especially unionist politicians) must be scrutinised to within an inch of their lives. Whereas Sinn Féin is too dark and deep a hole for any journalist to contemplate looking into for more than a few fleeting moments.

A local colleague frankly admitted he would happily “kill a story rather than harm the peace process”

In an essay written for the British Council in 2006, senior journalist Ed Moloney writes of a day not long after the Belfast Agreement was signed when a local colleague frankly admitted to him that he would happily “kill a story rather than harm the peace process”. In the twenty years since, this view seems to have burgeoned into a complicit culture of omertà among journalists when the story uncovered features awkward questions regarding the nature and scale of Sinn Féin’s activities.

The gaslighting power of a dominant media narrative is shown by the fact that while Sinn Féin is solely responsible for bringing down Stormont’s power-sharing executive by refusing to nominate a Deputy First Minster, the preferred media take is that it’s the DUP’s fault for not agreeing to Sinn Féin’s terms for re-engaging.

Tear in the undemocratic fence

Nowhere is this voluntary media refusal to give Sinn Féin the same scrutiny as every other party more apparent than in the collective failure of the press to even address the absurdity of Sinn Féin’s professed political principles. For instance, their stated commitment to “absolute accountability and transparency in government” is nowhere contrasted with the complete absence of it within their own party structures.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire, long-standing Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd announced his decision to challenge the lacklustre Michelle O’Neill for the party office of Vice President. Award-winning journalist Suzanne Breen noted the peculiarity: ‘Sinn Féin didn’t do leadership contests, it had coronations. When Adams and McGuinness left the stage, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill were effectively handed their crowns’.

O’Dowd’s timing, no doubt, was chosen to signal both a generational challenge and a broader discontent amongst the grassroots with the party’s recent performance (or non-performance). In May, its council representation was sliced in two in the Republic. This disaster escaped the notice of many in the northern media (partition of the island means people on either side of the border take remarkably little interest in each other’s business), but it was a hammer blow to the party’s internal morale.

Having reached incumbency in Northern Ireland Sinn Féin has been unselfconsciously focused on developing its footprint in the Republic for the last ten years: first to the neglect of its interest in the north; then latterly to its complete abandonment. Using changes brought in through the St Andrew’s Agreement — which revised the less than sacrosanct Belfast Agreement — whereby only the largest two communal parties may nominate First and Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein has prosecuted a one-party boycott of Stormont for three years now. In effect, they’ve been allowed a one party veto on the existence of the ‘Agreement institutions’.

These days, folks like O’Dowd, and others of his generation, have been sidelined whilst the leadership — whoever or whatever they are — tries to maintain all of its strategic investment in Southern politics.

Story whiteout

No sooner had O’Dowd announced his candidacy than the leadership moved to ensure that there would be no internal debate, no hustings, no communications from the candidates to the membership. The lack of professional outrage from an otherwise vigilant local press was deafening.

Party President Mary Lou McDonald would only say they (‘the leadership’) had taken this astringent view of its own internal processes, “bearing in mind it’s an internal position”. What does that mean? Well, it seems no one north or south had the nerve to ask a direct question of them. Politics, if that’s what it is, without journalism is a curious business.

What this meant in practice was that a democratic event — essentially a leadership contest for Northern Sinn Féin — occurred without many journalistic indications that anything was actually happening. There was no internal debate, but rather more to the point, thanks to internal controls and culpable media negligence, there, in effect, was no public debate. Even Sinn Féin friendly commentators began to remark on the absence of the talented Mr O’Dowd from the party’s public pronouncements.

This was an electoral competition in which it was simply not possible for either candidate to lay out their manifestos or make any persuasive arguments for why they (and not the other) would make the best possible deputy leader for the party. As we got nearer last week’s Ard Fheis — party conference — matters took an even stranger turn, when the party graciously announced that while members could vote for either candidate, only the outcome — but not the numbers — would be announced.

With few exceptions, this odd arrangement was nodded through by the media as though it were the most normal thing in the world. I repeat, for the benefit of readers for whom this story is, well, news: a political party held a leadership contest in private and the free and unintimidated press, almost without exception, said nothing.

Much like the odd rewriting by the press of how it was Stormont fell — Sinn Féin walking away from their Agreement-prescribed obligations — these press indulgences of blatantly abnormal, non-political behaviour apply to Sinn Féin alone.

At his acceptance of defeat speech, O’Dowd sent a titter of nervous laughter around the conference room when he quipped that “rumours of my demise have been exaggerated”. No press inquiries for interviews with him were accepted afterwards.

A question of imbalance

It is commonplace for parties and their many proxies in the media to complain about imbalances in reporting. That’s part of the cut and thrust of democratic debate. In Northern Ireland, however, the problem is less what’s reported and more what isn’t.

It is not only unionists who pay the price. In 2013, in midst of an expenses scandal concerning an SDLP MLA, I discovered that Sinn Féin had set up a skeleton company called Research Services Ireland to channel expenses into one party owned entity. It was over a year before the story broke on mainstream media that the company had taken in £700,000 of public money, and even then it was buried in other stories. One Sinn Féin MLA said they had never heard of the company until they saw it on their annual expenses. Despite claims at the time that there had been no impropriety, the company was closed shortly after the revelation. By contrast, the SDLP MLA felt forced to step down from politics because of the very different, very sustained media scrutiny of their actions. They were judged and reported by normal standards, for want of a better term.

So far as the Irish media is concerned, Sinn Féin exists in what Douglas Adams called the “someone else’s problem” field, which, he added, “relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain”. This culture of knowing media omission threatens confidence in the power-sharing institutions set up by the Belfast Agreement, particularly, but not exclusively, on the part of unionists who feel locked into a selective cycle of unionist only “scandals”, which are vociferously and justly reported, while those of others are ignored. This may well be politics but it’s not journalism.

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