Gerry Adams is a majoritarian bully. He showed his true colours in a letter to the Irish Times last month when he wrote that the Good Friday Agreement “allows for Irish reunification in the context of a democratic vote: 50% + 1. I believe we can secure a greater margin, but ultimately that will be for the electorate. That’s what democracy is about.”
As Fintan O’Toole wrote in his column in the same paper a fortnight later, this is not what democracy should be about: “that kind of crude, tribal majoritarianism is precisely what the Belfast Agreement is meant to finish off.” He went on to quote the new Article 3 of the Constitution, with its emphasis on the desire of the Irish nation “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions…” Instead of bullying 900,000 unionists into a united Ireland most of them want no part of, those of us who believe in eventual unity based on friendship and harmony, can serve that cause best “by working to create a Republic of equals that might be worth joining”.
O’Toole also points out that the enthusiasm of people in the Republic for unity (such as it is) is not unconditional. “To put it bluntly (as no one ever does), Southerners have no interest in inheriting a political wreck, or becoming direct participants in a gory sequel: Troubles III, the Orange strikes back. They will not vote for a form of unity that merely creates an angry and alienated Protestant minority within a bitterly contested new state.”¹
The new young SDLP deputy leader, Nichola Mallon, put it equally bluntly last week. She warned that getting a 50% + 1 vote for unity in a premature border poll would be “an absolute recipe for disaster” and would “erupt in violence”.²
Adams and Sinn Fein do not care how violently born or bitterly contested a ‘united’ Irish state is so long as they get it. What they want essentially is to turn the tables on the unionists. Adams is clever enough rarely to let the bully behind his emollient mask slip: the most famous recent occasion he did was his November 2014 speech in Enniskillen when he talked about having to “break these bastards” through demanding equality with unionists, and that this was the “Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy.”
Once there is the thinnest of thin majorities for unity, the unionists – top majoritarian bully dogs for so long- will just have to suck it and suffer. You only have to read the nascent triumphalism of many republican-minded blogs in the North to see what is coming: ‘the boot’s going to be on the other foot soon’ and Tiocfaidh ár lá amárach. In the bitterly divided North, the zero-sum game of winner takes all is still what it’s all about politically. Interestingly, the late Martin McGuinness sometimes did not share this view, telling BBC journalist Mark Carruthers in his 2013 book Alternative Ulsters, that he was “not one of those people who works on the basis that whenever there’s one more of us than there are of them, we’re going to have a united Ireland.”
In the Republic I see the political class divided into two broad groups on this issue: what I call the ‘anti-colonialist bullies’, led by Sinn Fein with some old-fashioned Fianna Failers and one hard left party (People Before Profit), who believe that the Northern conflict is just the final phase of the age-old struggle against the British occupation of Ireland; and the ‘reconciliation persuaders’, who include Fine Gael, ‘new’ Fianna Fail, Labour, the Greens, and the other hard left party, Solidarity (since when did trotskyists agree on anything!), who believe the key is finding a way for people on this island to live in peace and harmony (or working class solidarity) together. As an old social democrat, it pains me to say that the British left, and notably the Corbynite wing now in charge of the British Labour Party, are firmly in the bullies camp.
At the British Irish Association conference earlier this month, Bob Collins, who as former RTE director general and chief executive of the NI Equality Authority is one of those very rare senior public figures who knows both Ireland and Northern Ireland intimately, spoke as follows: “For those nationalists in the Republic (and not everyone in the Republic is a 32 county nationalist) who desire a united Ireland, the first step on any road that may conceivably lead to the achievement of their goal is to get to know unionists, to come to understand their Britishness, to recognise and value their traditions and, gradually, to seek to persuade them, by their words and by their deeds, that they have in mind a future democracy that would respect and protect Britishness with the same fervour and commitment as they would respect and protect Irishness. That is not the work of a referendum campaign, nor of five years leading up to a referendum. It is the work of at least a generation. And that is only the beginning. Not to realise that is not to want a united Ireland that would be worth having.” That for me is a perfect description of what I would call ‘reconciliation persuasion.’
Coincidentally the Irish Times ran a story earlier this month about a bullying culture in Sinn Fein in the Republic, with 10 local councillors having resigned or being in dispute with the party amid claims of bullying, top-down diktats and whispering campaigns.³ Younger people joining Sinn Fein for idealistic reasons often find that this is no ordinary democratic party – it retains much of the ethos and behaviour of the old IRA Army Council-ruled party it was during the Northern ‘troubles’. This is one reason why so many politicians in the Republic – notably Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin – are so wary of talk of future coalition arrangements with the ‘Shinners’.
The Good Friday Agreement is barely beginning the huge task of bringing two fundamentally opposed political identities, unionism and nationalism, together – the excruciating business of inter-party talks to get the Northern institutions restored shows that only too clearly. However that was not the agreement’s immediate objective. Its primary aim was to remove violence from the equation. That to a large extent it has done, which is a huge achievement in itself.
Reconciliation between the historically divided communities (the agreement’s other aim) remains a utopian dream. A wise non-unionist friend who has closely observed the peace process puts it this way:
“The impulse to victory remains present on both sides. Republicans and nationalists asking unionism for a conversation around a united Ireland at this time is a reflection of that impulse. It is not about reconciliation. The most clear-cut way to promote reconciliation is to continue the task of making the Good Friday Agreement institutions work for the benefit of all, including the institutions within Northern Ireland. The truth is that both sides regard Northern Ireland as their home place. What has not yet been achieved is a true recognition by either side that Northern Ireland is a shared home place for all the communities there.”
- Irish Times, Gerry Adams Letter to the Editor, 3 August; ‘United Ireland will not be based on 50 per cent plus one’ (Fintan O’Toole column), 15 August
- Irish Times, ‘Sinn Fein faces another claim of a toxic, bullying culture’, 8 September