An Irish Times opinion poll on 8th October showed support for Fine Gael at 35% and Sinn Fein at 29%, with Fianna Fail a distant third at 17% and the Greens an even more distant fourth at 4%. Public anxiety and weariness at the rising Covid-19 numbers and the sometimes incoherent coalition government response to the pandemic is clearly at the heart of this, so if the government’s policies start to work and the numbers go down again, that will probably be reflected in future opinion polls. This week’s ultra-generous budget should help.
However, this is also an indication that the seismic shift in Irish politics represented by the Sinn Fein surge in the February election, building on the general move to ‘left populism’ (in the telling phrase of SF’s Eoin Ó Broin) in elections since the 2008 economic crash, is continuing apace. Is popular support in the Republic moving to coalesce around Fine Gael on the right and Sinn Fein on the left, with Fianna Fail reduced to playing a bit part in the future as coalition partner to the new republican power in the land? Two senior civil servants told Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy earlier this month that they found it hard to see any circumstances in which Sinn Fein would not be the largest party after the next election. If that happens, and Mary Lou McDonald becomes Taoiseach in 2025 (and possibly sooner), she has made it clear that her first and most urgent priority will be driving on to unity.
In the February election, Sinn Fein shrewdly played down its core policy of Irish unity brought about by a Border Poll (or rather a series of Border Polls at seven-year intervals) in the near future. Its election manifesto was entitled ‘ Giving workers and families a break: a Manifesto for Change,’ a classic left-wing message. For most Southerners a united Ireland over the next 5-10 years simply does not form part of their ‘frontal brain’ thinking. In the election they were thinking about the state’s glaring inadequacies in housing and health above all. Now, as Covid surges again, they are understandably focussed on the latter.
But how developed is Sinn Fein’s own thinking about the difficult transition to unity they envisage in that very near future, and the practical steps needed to ensure that it happens with a minimum of violence and other political, social and economic dislocation? In particular, how developed is their thinking about how to cope with the 900,000 unionists who remain stubbornly opposed to that unity?
I have been looking through three recent Sinn Fein documents to try to get a clue to this: their 2020 election manifesto, and two 2016 policy documents (the most recent of their kind): ‘Towards a United Ireland’ and ‘Towards an Agreed and Reconciled Future.’ The former is a ‘discussion document’ and the latter an outline of policy ‘on reconciliation and healing.’
As a measure of how developed the party’s thinking is on this transition and the practical steps it will entail, I am using the questions posed by the late Seamus Mallon in his 2019 book, A Shared Home Place (which I co-authored).1
Is some kind of temporary joint authority between the British and Irish governments feasible to ensure that the government and administration of the North do not break down during a transitional period before unity? There is nothing in any of these documents about this.
Will there be some kind of alternative staged process? There is nothing about this either.
What kind of parliamentary and community consultation, public finance and public service structures will be put in place both during and after that transitional phase? There is no mention of any of these vital elements in bringing about drastic constitutional and jurisdictional change in a deeply divided society in any of the three documents.
How will justice, law and order be guaranteed during the inevitable breakdown of law and order that too precipitate a transition will cause, with the danger that revived loyalist paramilitaries would violently resist it and revived republican paramilitaries seek to enforce it? There is absolutely nothing about this vital security question in any of these documents.
What guarantees will be put in place so that the proud British identity of the unionists will be protected, cherished and incorporated into the institutions, ethos and symbols of the new state? At least there is something about this in the ‘Towards a United Ireland’ document, but it is extremely vague and non-specific. In a section entitled ‘Relationships in a New Ireland’, there is a line of pure wishful thinking: “Irish reunification will mean new and better relationships within Ireland, between Ireland and Britain…” Similarly it says: “The Orange tradition is an Irish tradition and the British identity of many people in the North must be accommodated in an agreed, united Ireland.”
What will be those unifying institutions and symbols? Again, vagueness and lack of specifics are the order of the day. A new constitution and an all-Ireland charter of fundamental rights are promised, as is the right of people who hold British citizenship to continue to hold that citizenship. There follow three slightly less vague promises: “Constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the North of Ireland; expression being given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy; recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation.”
Here, for the first time, is some small evidence of re-thinking among republicans. However, once again, lack of specifics are the first thing any intelligent unionist will notice. How does Sinn Fein foresee the constitution being changed to recognise unionists’ British identity? How will their loyalty to the British monarchy be expressed and recognised? How will the Orange Order be recognised? A Dublin resident, Northern Protestant friend of mine (a supporter of unity) recently suggested, only half-jokingly, that a new Irish flag could consist of the present green and white bands with the third, orange band incorporating a small Union flag (in the way Australia does). How would Sinn Fein react to that? Indeed how would the people of the 70-year-old Republic of Ireland react to that? Because that is the kind of radical symbolic change we will be looking at if we are serious about an ‘agreed, united Ireland’ (one of Sinn Fein’s favourite oxymorons).
Would these new institutions work best on an all-island basis or in a new northern regional context? In ‘Towards a United Ireland’ there is one passing mention of what Sinn Fein calls “transitional arrangements”: i.e. “continued devolution to Stormont and a power-sharing Executive in the North within an all-Ireland structure”, or “a federal or confederal arrangement”. There is also an unspelled out mention of “other arrangements.” But remember that for Sinn Fein these will all be “transitional” on the way to a united Irish state.
Will the constitutional arrangements involve some sort of federalism or confederalism? There is nothing more than the scant mention above.
Reading these documents, the overwhelming impression is that they contain few new ideas and few departures from the traditional Irish nationalist and republican thinking of the past hundred years: Irish unity is the only solution on offer, with a few vague, unspecified concessions to unionists’ British identity.
It seems that Sinn Fein wants other people to do the hard thinking about how we might move towards a united Ireland and what it would look like. In their February election manifesto the party says that in government it will establish a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity (i.e. get the parliamentarians to do the thinking); establish an all-island Citizens’ Assembly or other forum to discuss unity (i.e. get a random sample of Irish people to do the thinking – minus the unionist parties, who will boycott such an assembly); publish a White Paper on Irish unity (Why can’t they publish a proper policy paper now to give us some idea of their thinking about what should go into such a White Paper?); and hold a referendum, north and south, on unity (under the Good Friday Agreement, this decision is one for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – i.e. the British government, so London would have to do the initial thinking).
In their election manifesto, the extremely difficult process of moving towards unity is summarised in a paragraph which is pure, unthinking waffle. “The future is not about a single step-change in which we go to bed one night in a partitioned Ireland and the next morning wake up in a united Ireland. It’s all about process. A process of discussion. A process of persuasion. A process of change. A process of transition. A process of transformation. A process of reconciliation. It’s about agreeing how we will organise our society. It’s about how we share our future. It’s about all of us having our say and playing our part in this.” ‘Process’ is mentioned seven times in this paragraph, but there is not a word about how Sinn Fein sees this devilishly difficult transition (faced with the unrelenting opposition of close to half the population of Northern Ireland) working itself out peacefully and harmoniously. Given the party believes that once there is the barest voting majority in the North in favour of unity, we must have unity, how do they plan for the ‘processes’ of discussion, persuasion, transition, transformation and reconciliation listed in this empty-headed paragraph?
One of the problems is that too many republicans believe unity and reconciliation are interchangeable terms: in Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney’s words, that “a new, agreed Ireland built upon unity of all its people should put reconciliation and healing at the heart of its civil and political institutions.” Like many others who have been involved in peacemaking and cooperation in the North, I believe Kearney has it the wrong way round. The people of Northern Ireland have to work first and foremost for the reconciliation of their deeply divided little society, using the ingenious (if flawed) mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement – only then can we start talking meaningfully about Irish unity. Unity without some significant prior element of reconciliation between the communities in the North is only going to store up future trouble in that province, this time with the unionists as the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority.
Republicans insist on believing that what they call ‘political unionism’ is at the heart of the problem of the North. People like me think nationalism is also part of the problem. As that wise and brilliant Irishman George Bernard Shaw (who called himself an internationalist) wrote over a hundred years ago: “Nobody in Ireland of any intelligence likes Nationalism any more than a man with a broken arm likes having it set. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.”2
1 A Shared Home Place, p.153
2 Preface to ‘John Bull’s Other Island‘