Are you a Referendum Denier (in capital letters)? If you believe that we are not yet ready for unity, but want to make Northern Ireland a more reconciled and harmonious society first, you are a Referendum Denier. If you believe that the Republic has not yet devoted enough time to seriously considering the implications of an early move towards unity following the narrowest of narrow victories in a Border Poll, you are a Referendum Denier. If you are a supporter of Micheál Martin’s Shared Island initiative, with its emphasis on practical and mutually beneficial North-South cooperation as the priority in the short term, you are a Referendum Denier. If you believe that we need to win over a significant section of unionism to acquiesce in, if not to support, that unity, you are a Referendum Denier.
That’s the kind of thinking Sinn Fein’s strategists are trying to encourage. Those masters of propaganda have seized on the concept of ‘referendum denial’ as a key component of their single-minded drive towards gaining power at the next Irish election and then pressuring the British Government into holding a Border Poll as soon as possible. They know that planting the weasel word ‘denier’ in people’s minds will immediately put their opponents on the defensive. People who are Holocaust deniers or Covid deniers or racism deniers are, if not downright wicked, clearly utterly wrong-headed.
I first heard Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald use this term on Claire Byrne’s RTE discussion programme on a united Ireland on 22nd March. I then went looking for its source. I found it in an article earlier last month by Ciaran Quinn, one of the party’s smartest strategic thinkers, and currently its representative in North America.
In the article on the Northern commentator Eamonn Mallie’s website1, Quinn said there were two kinds of Referendum Denier: 1) unionists who just hope the unity debate will go away; 2) Referendum Deniers who are “harder to spot. Camouflaged in the language of the peace process, they are about maintaining the status quo.”
He identified some ‘give away’ signs for this latter group. They claim to speak of the ‘spirit’ of the Good Friday Agreement, rather than the strict letter as negotiated by Sinn Fein and other parties and governments in 1998 (“We deal in text”, says Quinn). They view a referendum “through the prism of an impact on unionism” and ignore the North’s nationalists. They argue that “now is not the time” to hold a Border Poll (“This is a dishonest denial of the democratic process,” says Quinn). They claim that such a poll would be divisive. They hint at the danger of violence “without any identifiable threat” (perhaps from the “thousands of signed up members of paramilitary organisations”- most of them loyalist – identified by the 2020 report of the Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitarism?). They suggest some kind of weighted super-majority in order to win over a significant section of unionists.
These are all arguments constitutional nationalist and other politicians have made at various times (as have I). Only last week, at a meeting of the Shared Island dialogue for civil society groups, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, emphasised the need “to create a space of trust and tolerance” in any conversations about the future of Ireland, and warned that there could be “no predetermined outcome” to an exercise like convening the Citizens Assembly to discuss unification – a key Sinn Fein demand – because “if that’s the starting point it would be very difficult to have everyone in the conversation.”
Quinn is brutally clear about the narrowest of narrow votes for unity in a Border Poll being sufficient for existential constitutional change: “The threshold for change is agreed upon and clear. It is a simple majority of those voting. Anything else would be undemocratic and unworkable. For example, the divorce referendum in the South was won by less than 1% of the vote, 50.28% in favour and 49.72% against.”
So now we know the threshold for unity that Sinn Fein would be happy with in a Border Poll: 50.28% would do, even 50.1%. Is this a recipe for stability and harmony and happiness in a so-called ‘united’ Ireland? 49.9% of people in the North being opposed – many of them bitterly – to the new constitutional shape of the nation? Will this not, in the late Seamus Mallon’s words, just “consign the next century in Northern Ireland to a rerun of the last: with the two sides simply changing positions – nationalists in a majority in a ‘united’ Ireland and unionists the sullen, alienated and potentially violent minority?”
In my more pessimistic moments – and knowing how ruthlessly Sinn Fein (and the Provisional IRA before them) pursue their goals – I don’t believe that party has any intention of engaging in the extremely difficult business of trying to win over any significant section of unionism to the united Ireland cause. Maybe they think it’s a hopeless quest anyway (and maybe they could be forgiven for thinking that, given the current immovability of political unionism).
But don’t be taken in by Mary-Lou McDonald’s honeyed words, when she talked about “our unionist brothers and sisters” on the Claire Byrne programme (I could almost hear unionist stomachs turning – it is only 25 years, after all, since those “brothers and sisters”, in and out of uniform, were being murdered by the IRA). Sinn Feiners believe unionists have stood in the way of Irish freedom and unity for over 200 years and now – with demographic change moving against them – it is time for Irish history to move on, whether they like it or not. This tougher nationalism is also apparent among some middle-class Dubliners I know, a hardening of attitudes which would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, but which is perfectly attuned to welcoming Sinn Fein as the lead party of government after the next election. For some people in this republic – I’m not sure how many – it’s clearly “feck the unionists” time.
As Quinn concludes: “Unionism has no veto over the process, but has a seat as an equal at the table in defining a new and united Ireland”. For Sinn Fein Irish unity remains the holy grail, and the holy grail, by definition, is non-negotiable.
So expect more salvoes against the ‘Referendum Deniers’ in the near future. You can see the themes emerging in the writings of a commentator like Una Mullally, who often reflects Sinn Fein’s thinking on these issues. In an angry broadside against the Taoiseach and his Shared Island initiative this week2, she accused him of being stuck in the past, kicking the unity issue into touch, “coasting in an era of profound change”, and not being able to see beyond the status quo. “The patronising discourse that is emerging around a Border Poll ending up like the Brexit referendum places little faith in the remarkable culture of societal discourse, active citizenship, grass-roots organising and respectful conversations new generations have achieved in recent years on complex issues…That the leader of the country would arrive to a studio [for the Claire Byrne programme] to discuss such an important issue and dither through is simply not good enough. Deflating, demoralising, uninspiring, disconnected, and putting forward arguments for paralysis as opposed to action, is not where new generations in this country are at.”
So there’s a preview of Sinn Fein’s campaign in the months and years ahead: attacks on ‘Referendum Deniers’ for being dishonest and undemocratic, for ignoring northern nationalists, for kicking unity into touch, for being stuck in the past, for being satisfied with the status quo, and for refusing to face into an exciting Irish future driven by young people. That last element will be key: portraying the drive for unity as something which enthuses the youth of Ireland, when in fact it is a 100 year old cause dating back to the foundation of the state and beyond. It’s as old as the discredited nationalist belief that you can achieve unity by ignoring the unionists.
PS A reader has asked me to produce evidence for my assertion about Northern Sinn Feiners’ new “brazenness” in my January blog. Here are four examples:
- In 2019 Sinn Fein members objected to (and appear to have blocked) a proposal to Belfast City Council from one of its committees to erect a statue to that great old West Belfast socialist and SDLP politician Paddy Devlin.
- In January Sinn Fein led the charge on the council to allow Belfast residents to have their street names changed bilingually to include Irish – also Ulster-Scots, Chinese or other languages, in the highly unlikely event this is requested – if there is 15% support in their street (15%! What kind of democratic benchmark is that?).
- Sinn Fein last month vetoed a proposal (supported by all the other parties) to erect a harmless monument at Stormont, made up of a block of stone in six sections representing the six Northern counties, to commemorate the foundation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. Assembly member Pat Sheehan said Sinn Fein had not been consulted and the stone only represented one political perspective. “The days of unionism jumping up and down and stamping their feet and getting what they want are done,” he said.
- The Bobby Storey funeral.