Page last updated at 16:41 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2010

No turns on the Sinn Fein devolution train

By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams says Sinn Fein are not for turning on the justice issue

The setting - the RDS in Dublin - was familiar, but the media were thinner on the ground and the atmosphere less dramatic than during some recent Sinn Fein conferences.

In the past, republicans have been called upon to deliberate on ceasefires, peace agreements, and support for the police.

The movement's position may already have been set in private, but until the votes were taken it could not be confirmed in public.

However this year, so far as the peace process is concerned, Sinn Fein's direction of travel is already well established. It negotiated the Hillsborough deal and wants to see its full implementation.

So instead the focus lay on whether or not republicans would shift ground in order to make it easier for others to fall into line.

If any Ulster Unionists watched the proceedings in the hope of getting an olive branch on academic selection or the operation of the Stormont Executive then they waited in vain.

Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Caitriona Ruane made it clear in interviews and speeches that they were not for turning.

As the Deputy First Minister put it: "Is Sir Reg Empey really saying that he is threatening the political institutions because Caitriona Ruane won't reintroduce the 11 plus. What is more dysfunctional than that?"

Martin McGuinness sought to use Sinn Fein's powerful position in the Stormont coalition as an argument for why they should be regarded as suitable for government in the south.

The party's critics, he contended, were "arrogant and partitionist".

"Wake up and look north," he argued. "We are in government, we are taking the hard decisions and we are doing a good job to boot."


But the very fact that the Deputy First Minister felt the need to make this case once again underlined the differing fortunes of the party north and south.

On one side of the border they are the dominant strand of nationalism, but on the other, despite the harsh economic times, they struggle for relevance, and have had to cope with a string of defections.

One of the liveliest debates took place on Friday night, when the leadership staved off attempts by some southern branches to rule out any future coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.

Sinn Fein may not get a chance to share power in Dublin until the next elections in 2012.

But given the steps they have already taken at Stormont sitting down with their old unionist foes, the last thing the pragmatic republican leadership want to do is to agree in advance to count themselves out of any role in forming a future government in the Dail.

The bigger question is whether the voters will put them in such a position in the future, or if the party has already reached its high water mark south of the border.

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