One of the most thought-provoking (and to an Irish audience, most relevant) articles on the Scottish independence referendum appeared on an inside page of the Irish Times two days before the vote (i). It was an interview by Northern editor Gerry Moriarty with John Brewer, Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, a distinguished sociologist who has written widely on peacemaking, conflict and religion in Northern Ireland.
Professor Brewer was of the opinion that contrary to the received wisdom – that Sinn Fein would have liked to see a ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish referendum for all the usual reasons of undermining unionists and reinforcing demands for a Border poll – the republican leadership would be happier with the relatively narrow ‘No’ vote that was the eventual outcome.
His argument is a compelling one. Firstly, “a marginal No vote is going to cause the London-centric, Westminster bubble politicians to devolve greater powers.” Secondly, Sinn Fein’s electoral ‘long game’ involves the party attracting a middle class vote in both parts of Ireland so that eventually it will either be in power or in a position to determine who will be in power in both jurisdictions.
Brewer pointed out that with four out of five jobs in Northern Ireland either in or dependent on the public sector, Catholic civil servants, teachers, lawyers, police officers, social workers and the like – in common with their Protestant counterparts – know who ultimately pays their salaries: the British exchequer. And those salaries go to support a very attractive lifestyle: he points to the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the Belfast middle class, with its plethora of theatres and concert halls, riverside apartments and up-market cafes and restaurants. He calls these people the “Catholic economic unionists”.
Brewer noted that Sinn Fein has already mopped up most of the working class nationalist vote in the North and in the May local and European elections made major inroads into working class constituencies in the Republic. Sinn Fein has to keep convincing the Catholic middle class to vote for it in the North, and this means no return to violence and playing down the rhetoric about a united Ireland, with all the risks that might bring to their comfortable livelihoods. “Being so politically astute, Sinn Fein have to realise that a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum will require them to up the stakes on a united Ireland. That runs the risk of alienating middle class Catholics.”
The key task for the party now, he believes, is to persuade the Southern middle class also to vote Sinn Fein, a much harder task. If Sinn Fein can demonstrate it can be a credible party of government in the North, more people in the Republic will start believing it can do the same in Dublin. One of its problems is that middle class Southerners don’t want a united Ireland, whatever they might tell the occasional pollster: they don’t want to take on a dysfunctional economy almost totally dependent on a subsidies from London and they don’t want to inherit the sectarian and often violent mess of loyalist flags, parades and worse.
Noting that the rise in the Catholic population means that one day Sinn Fein will become the North’s largest party, Brewer went on: “Being in government, perhaps even having a First Minister, will demonstrate to voters in the South that it can be a responsible government, and I think that will have huge implications for the way people in the South view Sinn Fein.”
Meanwhile we have a crisis in Belfast which may bring down the institutions (although you wouldn’t know it from the scant coverage in the Dublin media). Peter Robinson says deadlocked decision making at Stormont is no longer fit for purpose and wants the British (although not the Irish) government to step in again. Sinn Fein seem to agree that power-sharing is no longer working, having refused point blank to accept any English-style welfare cuts despite the likelihood that this will lead to reductions (£87 million this year and rising) in Stormont’s block grant from London, making the North increasingly hard to govern. The two governments have announced new all-party talks.
The smart thinking is that Sinn Fein and the DUP will stagger on until the Westminster elections next May. If John Brewer’s thesis is correct, it is very much in Sinn Fein’s interest to do so. He argues that the prospect of more devolved powers – for example, the power to reduce corporation tax to the level in the Republic – could be the incentive that persuades the parties to return to a properly functioning Executive. However he concedes that nobody in London is going to give greater powers to dysfunctional politicians who clearly can’t manage the ones they have already.
Sinn Fein, of course, are always thinking long term. They won’t mind too much if the latest imbroglio leads to London becoming even more ‘sickened’ with Northern Ireland, which will certainly be the case if the institutions collapse and with a heavy heart the British Government has to impose Direct Rule on a temporary basis once again. The Unionists, as usual, have more to lose. Will that be enough to persuade them to risk the wrath of their hard-line Orange followers and compromise on their age-old shibboleths of flags and parades? I doubt it.
i. Would a tight No vote in Scotland best suit Sinn Fein? The Irish Times, 16 September