Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Monday, 6 February 2006

Bruised Sinn Fein on full spin

As efforts continue to kick-start the stalled Northern Ireland political process, BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy assesses the key issues concerning Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein's spin machine has been working overtime lately following the debacle over "on-the-run" fugitives, the "Stormontgate" spy affair, and the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) report which accused republicans of illegally gathering intelligence, among other things.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness
Sinn Fein may opt to play a long game over policing
The party was undoubtedly bruised over the OTR legislation, and forced into a U-turn before Christmas.

This was after having apparently taken criticism from republican victims' groups still demanding justice over collusion, as well as those "on-the-runs" who did not take kindly when it was reported the legislation would be toughened.

Faced with a backlash from supporters, and a well-organised attack from the SDLP on the issue, Sinn Fein dropped the bill like the political hot potato it was.

The party was still, after all, nursing burns over "Stormontgate".

The movement was rocked by revelations that Denis Donaldson - friend of republican icon Bobby Sands and a respected member of the party - was a British agent for 20 years.

The affair without doubt, had a profound impact on the party's morale, and has sown mistrust within Sinn Fein.

But as ever, the party quickly found a silver lining in the Donaldson cloud, using the affair to back up its claim that the Stormont spy ring was a (police) special branch fantasy manufactured by its agents.

Denis Donaldson (centre) with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams
Sinn Fein was rocked by Denis Donaldson's revelations
Sinn Fein continued the theme when it deflected claims in the latest IMC report that the republican leadership was failing to end all illegal activity.

The party simply argued that, once again, its traditional enemies in the police and British intelligence - which briefed the IMC - were manipulating events.

While the party is challenging the IMC in the courts as neither independent nor impartial, Martin McGuinness famously dismissed the IMC allegations as "bullshit".

Before the Donaldson affair, there was reason to believe Sinn Fein might have signed up this April, once the government produced legislation on the devolution of policing and justice.

While that is imminent, Sinn Fein has returned, with increasing emphasis, to its earlier demand that the DUP must also be signed up to power-sharing.

Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuinness was furious at allegations in the latest IMC report
Given the DUP's attitude to this, there is little reason to believe Sinn Fein will leap onto the Policing Board. Perhaps, the party had no intention of signing up this spring anyway.

Policing was always going to be divisive: for example, what does one do about republicans who insist on carrying on with smuggling?

It may also be that the Donaldson affair has shifted the mood and made it more difficult for Adams to sell the concept.

Sinn Fein may opt to play a long game, just as it did on the arms issue.

As for power-sharing, Sinn Fein will almost certainly try to draw advantage from whatever emerges.

If power-sharing returns, the party will be in government.

And if it doesn't, it will continue to play the thwarted peace-maker, hoping that resentment over this issue will encourage voters in their direction - and push London and Dublin towards joint authority.





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