Perhaps it marks the beginning of some kind of democratic revolution. The overwhelming victory of Sinn Fein, hard left and independent candidates in the Republic’s local and European elections “could mark the end of party politics as we know it”, said Stephen Collins, the Irish Times’ political editor. The class divide was striking, particularly in Dublin, with a massive swing to Sinn Fein and other left-wing parties in the poorer areas hit hardest by six years of austerity, while the Fine Gael vote held up reasonably well in the less-affected leafy suburbs.
Sinn Fein trebled its number of local council seats. Its major competitor for Irish working class votes, the Labour Party, with a tiny 7% first preference vote, was decimated to the extent that there must be real fears for its future. The ‘two and a half parties’ mould that has dominated Irish politics for more than 90 years looks like being replaced by a ‘three and a quarter parties’ version, with Sinn Fein as the new power-broker. The outspoken Fine Gael transport minister, Leo Varadkar, put it bluntly (if not completely accurately, given Fianna Fail’s surprising resilience) when he said the choice in the future would be between a Fine Gael or a Sinn Fein-led government.
What is true about Varadkar’s statement is that it shows the success of Sinn Fein’s longer-term strategy for the island of Ireland: to put the party into or close to power in both jurisdictions so that it can ratchet up its demands for Irish unity. That master strategist Gerry Adams would dearly love to be a position where he can claim that Sinn Fein’s ‘mandate’ – the party’s favourite word these days – as the biggest party in the North (with the largest share of the first preference vote in the European and local elections) and the second biggest in the South (which must be its aim in the next general election, now likely sooner rather than later) demands a Border Poll and other moves towards unity.
Whether electoral support for Sinn Fein means popular support for unity in the short term is another matter. It is clear from recent opinion polls in the North that there it does not. Last September’s Belfast Telegraph poll showed that less than 4% of Northerners said they wanted a united Ireland now and 22% wanted it in 20 years. Among Northern Protestants the figures were respectively 0% and 8%.
An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in November 2012 showed a typically more ambivalent picture in the Republic: 69% said they wanted a united Ireland and were prepared to pay more taxes for it. This is a classic example of the unrealistic, aspirational political thinking of so many Irish people. As long as unity doesn’t happen for a long time (35% said it would never happen; 15% said it would happen in 50 years and 22% said it would happen in 25 years), they are prepared to pay higher taxes for it. However in the real world of the here and now they are deeply unhappy at paying what citizens in almost every other European country pay: property taxes and water charges. Could one find a better example of a united Ireland as ‘pie in the sky’?
None of which prevents the Sinn Fein leadership – in their Leninist fashion (democratic when it suits them) – from driving on towards their impossible (in the short to medium term) and deeply destabilising primary goal of a united Ireland.
For those of us who believe that the only way towards any kind of unity is the lengthy and extremely difficult business of trying to bring the people of the island into some kind of mutual regard and understanding, this is delusional stuff which can only lead to a return of violence.
However maybe Sinn Fein’s onward march will serve to ignite some kind of debate about future Irish unity in the South (although I won’t be holding my breath). I could suggest some questions as part of that notional debate: Is there any alternative to Sinn Fein’s view of the future direction of the island – ‘steamrollering’ the unionists into a united Ireland by outbreeding them, outsmarting them and undermining their morale? Has the slow business of gaining the trust of Northern unionists and guaranteeing the position of Northern nationalists by mutually beneficial power-sharing and North-South cooperation – the policy followed for the past 30-40 years by successive Irish governments – run out of steam? Do people in the South have any fellow-feeling or identification with the people of the North as fellow Irishwomen and men? Do they believe, in particular, that those difficult people, the unionists, have any part to play in the future of the island? Where stands the relationship between North and South in the changing circumstances of moves towards an independent Scotland and British withdrawal from the EU? Is the dominant feeling among most Southerners that Northern Ireland should be allowed – with some friendly assistance where needed – to work out its own future (starting with ways to begin to overcome its interminable sectarianism)?
My personal opinion is that the view of the distinguished and sadly deceased political scientist, Peter Mair, still holds, despite Sinn Fein’s electoral surge as the main party of protest in the Republic. In 1987 he wrote: “Any real move to press for Irish unity, be it from within the Republic, from Northern Ireland, or from Britain, is unlikely to be welcomed by the average citizen in the Republic. Unity would be nice. But if it’s going to cost money, or result in violence, or disrupt the moral and social equilibrium, then it’s not worth it. Certainly, politics in the Republic is about nationalism, but for much of the post-war epoch the vision of that nationalism has extended only to the 26 counties.”