In the 1997 general election Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair to a man carrying a Ming vase across a slippery floor, tiptoeing gingerly towards a Labour victory.
The same description fits Sinn Féin as it approaches Northern Ireland’s assembly election on Thursday, cautiously edging towards a potentially momentous win. The prize is to emerge as the region’s largest party and claim the post of first minister – a symbolic and psychological breakthrough for Irish nationalism given Northern Ireland was designed to have a permanent unionist majority.
Sinn Féin’s response to this giddy prospect has been to run an ultra-guarded, disciplined campaign that minimises gaffes, surprises or spontaneity – anything that might risk a slip.
“I’ve never seen Sinn Féin be so cautious here, they’re really determined to not frighten the horses,” said Jon Tonge, a University of Liverpool politics professor and authority on Northern Ireland. “Their last big controversy was two years ago. They used to have one every two months. They’re taking it to new levels to not upset anyone.”
The party that once acted as a mouthpiece for the IRA has played down its push for a united Ireland and focused on the cost of living, a health care crisis and other bread-and-butter issues. During Easter republican commemorations leaders paid tribute to the movement’s sacrifices and martyrs without naming the IRA.
The tactic is one reason the overall election campaign has so far been a sedate affair, with few sparks or memorable moments. Pundits have branded it “dull” and “boring”. The low-key atmosphere has undermined attempts by some unionists to depict this as an existential battle over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
In a televised debate on Sunday night Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, stuck to familiar lines seemingly designed to soothe any concerns around her becoming first minister. “There was nothing awful about Michelle O’Neill’s performance, but there was nothing memorable about it either,” said the Belfast Telegraph.
For Sinn Féin that would be a good result given O’Neill was put under pressure over a disclosure her party had sought political engagement with Saoradh, a republican party allegedly linked to the New IRA. “No gang who is involved in criminality, armed action, should exist today,” she said.
O’Neill’s debate performance was another example of Sinn Féin’s softly-softly approach, said Deirdre Heenan, a social policy professor at the University of Ulster. “They feel the first minister post is within their grasp. For them what’s important is not to make a gaffe, not to get embroiled in controversy.”
That was why the party had given John Finucane, a high-profile lawyer and its MP for Belfast North, a prominent role in the campaign, said Heenan. “I think that’s a clever strategy. He’s a middle-class, articulate professional with a cross-community background. He has been put out to attract non-aligned voters.” Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s Dublin-based leader and another able media performer, has also been prominent.
Opinion polls suggest Sinn Féin will be the biggest party but fall far short of a majority in the 90-seat Stormont assembly, which will be elected by proportional representation in 18 five-member constituencies. The most recent poll put Sinn Fein on 26%, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) on 20%, the centrist Alliance on 14% and smaller nationalist and unionist parties accounting for most of the rest.
Sinn Féin hopes the prospect of O’Neill becoming first minister will animate its base and that disdain for the DUP will encourage Alliance and Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) voters to give transfers to Sinn Féin candidates. By avoiding traditional Irish republican tropes the party also hopes to encourage some unionists to abstain or at least not transfer votes to the DUP, which has been convulsed over Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol.
If overall support levels are replicated in seats, power-sharing rules would make O’Neill eligible to be first minister and the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, deputy first minister, posts of equal power at the head of an executive drawn from all major parties.
Sinn Féin has been in the executive since the 1998 Good Friday agreement and held the deputy first minister post since 2007. In practical terms nudging ahead of the DUP and nabbing the first minister post would not change the balance of power. Nor would it signal a surge in support for a united Ireland. Most voters favour remaining in the UK.
But the symbolism would matter, said Tonge. “It would be huge. The stakes are genuinely high.” Sinn Féin would not push for an immediate border poll – not least because it would almost certainly lose – but use its victory to foster momentum for a referendum further bolstered by the party’s growing clout in the south, said Tonge.
Donaldson has refused to say whether he would serve in an executive with O’Neill as first minister, fuelling expectations of weeks or months of post-election wrangling before a new executive is formed.
In addition to the Northern Ireland protocol, which unionist parties want removed or diluted, there will be arguments over rules on mandatory power-sharing. The requirement helped clinch the Good Friday agreement but is blamed for locking parties into dysfunctional executives that squabble, collapse and neglect services, notably healthcare. Critics contend Stormont is no Ming vase, more a cracked pot.