That is the headline I would like to have seen on the Irish Times front page lead story on 11th December about the paper’s latest opinion poll on unity and other issues. Its editors went instead for the much more predictable ‘Large majority of voters favour united Ireland in the long term’. The figures are revealing: 62% of people said they would vote “in favour of uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.” However 52% said unity is “not very important” to them, but they “would like to see it some day.” The latter sentiment is entirely in line with my experience of the views of citizens of this republic for the best part of 50 years.
The other compelling finding was how little the South’s voters were prepared to compromise on their comfortable existence and traditional nationalism in order to accommodate unionists in a ‘new’ Ireland. 79% would not accept higher taxes; 79% less money for public services; 77% a new flag; 72% a new anthem; and 71% re-joining the Commonwealth. Little wonder that the paper’s political editor, Pat Leahy, concluded: “This sounds less like a new shared country than assimilation into the existing one.”
Referring to the 52% who said unity was not very important to them, but they would like to see it some day, Leahy commented: “This sounds like the voice of middle Ireland. Sure, we want to see a united Ireland eventually, but what’s your hurry? Haven’t we enough to be doing?”1 The overwhelming numbers opposing any kind of serious political, financial and cultural change in order to bring about unity caused him to wonder about the need for a public debate about the consequences, costs, processes and timelines for unity. “It is certainly true that none of these questions – not to mind the answers to them – have been remotely understood to date. But there is little evidence today that there is any urgency among the public to do so.”
This has been one of my constant themes in these columns since I started them over eight years ago. The extremely difficult transition to a peaceful unity will only begin to happen when two processes are in train: the people of the Republic are seriously debating the consequences for their cosy, stable, prosperous, 100-year-old state; and a significant number of Northern unionists are at least prepared to acquiesce in what for them will be an existentially annihilating change. It is reassuring for this deviant Irishman – with his Presbyterian mother and Jewish father – to be part of the mainstream that wants unity eventually, but not at the breakneck speed demanded by Sinn Fein and other ‘advanced’ nationalists.
Ironically, the previous day the Irish Times poll had shown Sinn Fein (on 35% public support) now an extraordinary 15% ahead of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (on 20% each). With the government struggling to cope with the fourth surge of Covid-19 and the new Omicron variant seeping into the country, Sinn Fein just has to sit back and watch the growing uncertainty and confusion on the coalition’s watch and the consequent deepening public unease translate into votes for them at the next election. As things stand, people will be voting then for that party’s ‘left populist’ policies on building more houses and improving health services, with not a thought for its overriding core strategy: to push hard and soon for a Border Poll in order to begin an early countdown to unity.
That election is not due until 2025 if the Fianna Fail-Fine Gael-Green Party government lasts the course. Public confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic, at 57%, is still just about holding (although down from 74% in October, with a slightly different question). However if onerous new restrictions have to be imposed on a weary populace to deal with a serious outbreak of Omicron, this support could quickly evaporate. An inability to keep the schools open would be a potential tipping point here.
It is a fair assumption that Sinn Fein – who have been noticeably muted in their criticism of the government’s measures to deal with Covid-19 until recently – have been devoting a lot of thinking to their strategy in the next election. Two things are for sure: they won’t be making the mistake of not putting up enough candidates again; and they will once again play down their obsession with an early Border Poll to concentrate on the issues of housing, health and the cost of living which they know will be the real vote-winners. They know too that for the first time they are making inroads into the middle-class vote in the Republic.
They will also be making no concessions to unionists. They know that there are no votes in the Republic for such generosity (this is only confirmed by the Irish Times poll findings). It was a French friend, knowledgeable about Ireland, who pointed out to me that Sinn Fein will definitely not be making any gestures to unionists before an election in the Republic in which they have an excellent chance of gaining power.
A small part of me hopes that Mary Lou McDonald will feel able to be more flexible and generous to unionists if she becomes Taoiseach at the head of the largest party in a future coalition (either with the small left-wing parties or Fianna Fail). However a former republican prisoner friend stresses that Sinn Fein are “anything but generous.” He goes on: “Much will depend on the degree to which Mary Lou has been infected by the toxicity of [Gerry] Adams. She has to be aware that her meteoric rise in the South must be related to his departure from the scene. To some extent she gets the vote because of a perception of not being him. Therein lies the potential for generosity.”
On the other hand I worry that Sinn Fein’s rise and rise in both the Republic and the North (plus the weakened state of the DUP in the latter) means they may feel they are now on a winning run and don’t have to make any concessions to unionism. I was very struck when addressing a group of Irish-American lawyers and activists last spring (via Zoom) how few questions they asked after my unionist-friendly presentation (arguing along the same lines as my 1st November blog that the people of the South are not ready for reunification). Did that largely pro-Sinn Fein audience believe that history is now speeding unstoppably towards unity, so they don’t even have to contemplate the difficult, non-nationalist compromises needed to bring some element of unionism on board?
It is also striking how Sinn Fein are discussed by journalists and academics these days as a purely Southern party of the left, with little or no mention of their violent Northern past (which suits them down to the ground). In a recent interview politics professors Gary Murphy of Dublin City University and Aidan Regan of UCD, pointed out that Irish voters are becoming more polarised in terms of left and right, which may leave Fianna Fáil with a declining electoral base in the middle – and maybe the Hobson’s choice of becoming Sinn Fein’s minority partner in government.2
“It’s quite clear from the data that the Irish electorate is becoming increasingly polarised along a very clear left-right axis, and economic inequality/economic conflict is the key dimension to Irish politics that’s shaping the vote. Sinn Féin have emerged and are emerging as the key anchor to the left and are probably going to mobilise and occupy that space for some time,” said Prof. Regan.
“That opens up the space for Fine Gael who are the clear anchor of the right. There’s no way Fine Gael are going to go into government with Sinn Féin. I would imagine Fine Gael are completely resigned to going into opposition already…so we probably will see Irish politics revolving around a very clear centre-left, centre-right divide, with Fine Gael becoming the leader of the liberal centre-right and Sinn Fein acting as the leader of the centre-left, and the party that’s likely to get squeezed in this is Fianna Fail.”
POSTSCRIPT The man who is most likely to lose out if Fianna Fail choose to ally themselves with Sinn Fein is the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, who insists on putting North-South cooperation and reconciliation ahead of Border Polls and that party’s drive towards political unity in the short-term.
Addressing a webinar organised by his department’s Shared Island unit on 10th December, Martin outlined an impressive list of projects being (or to be) funded under that scheme: new phases of the cross-border Ulster Canal; the resuscitation of the Narrow Water bridge across Carlingford Lough; a €40 million cross-border research programme with 350 applicants for its first phase (including in priority areas like climate change, cybersecurity and precision medicine); the first all-Ireland strategic rail review; an all-island electrical vehicle charging network; a cross-border pilot green hydrogen plan for buses and heavy goods vehicles; cross-border climate action partnerships; new cross-border greenways as part of an all-island greenway network; new funding for the three cross-border local authority networks; greatly increased artistic and cultural exchanges, including an all-island ‘Fighting Words’ network for young writers from disadvantaged backgrounds; closer cooperation between the University of Ulster and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, including a new innovation hub in the north-west; 12 teacher education research projects involving SCoTENS, the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (the outstandingly successful network administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies); and so on.
John Downing in the Irish Independent found “much to engage, encourage and stimulate” in this programme.3 But what will happen to all this sensible, practical coming together of North and South if its main proponent, Micheál Martin (sometimes I think he is its only real proponent in this government) is forced to depart the scene following his handover of the Taoiseach’s job to Leo Varadkar in 12 months? Because it is likely that there will then be a challenge to his leadership of Fianna Fail from a more traditionally republican figure such as Jim O’Callaghan, and that challenge will bring into the open the divisive debate within the party about whether to go into government with Sinn Fein.
1 ‘Yes, we want to see a united Ireland eventually – but what’s your hurry?’ Irish Times, 11 December
3 ‘Cross-border cooperation is good – but the new UK immigration law is reminder of complex challenge’, Irish Independent, 10 December