Sinn Féin’s partitionist approach to united Ireland referendum(s)…

… or an attempt to avoid ‘stupid’ questions about the party’s stated commitment to campaign against the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination.  Those are the options from a comparison between the commitments on Irish unity Sinn Féin presented to the people of Ireland in their manifesto for February’s General Election, and the ones presented in the slim-lined version to the people of Northern Ireland ahead of this month’s Assembly Election.  It’s the latter option, by the way.

When, in February, David compiled his list of what the Southern parties have planned for Northern Ireland, I commented that, on Sinn Féin’s commitment “to campaign to raise public support for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity”, we’d been here before.  During the 2011 Assembly Election, in fact.  When questioned about the party’s 2011 Assembly manifesto call for a ‘referendum on Irish unity’,  Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd explained on Radio Ulster

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd told BBC Radio Ulster that this vote would be on an all-island basis.

Asked if a referendum result for unity would be binding despite the Belfast’s Agreement’s requirement for consent in Northern Ireland, Mr O’Dowd said: “An all-island referendum would have precedence.

“The people of Ireland have a right to choose their own destiny. That is my view.”

He also stated: “Surely the people who live on the island of Ireland have a right to decide the destiny of what political future and make-up the island of Ireland has.”

As I noted at the time, it raised the question of whether Sinn Féin now wanted to tear up that 1998 Agreement?

That was soon followed by the party’s hasty retreat to “within the confines of the Good Friday Agreement”.

Here’s the Sinn Féin commitment in their Irish General Election manifesto

We will campaign to raise public support for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity, allowing the people to have their say.

Fast forward to last week, and the same, re-worded, Sinn Féin commitment to a different electorate, in a different country [pdf file].

Build support for island wide referendums on Irish unity; [added emphasis]

A superficial reading, which is all the party expected, of that Northern Ireland manifesto commitment might suggest compliance with the Good Friday Agreement’s principle of consent – and the requirement for a majority vote in referendums north and south.  But that would be wrong.  It is the same commitment as the previous one, but re-worded to allow for the question of a united Ireland to be asked more than once – hence the use of the plural, referendums.   Confirmation of this can be found on the Sinn Féin website, where the party policy is clearly stated

Continue to campaign for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity – allow the people to have their say.

As I pointed out in 2011, the right of self-determination of the people of Northern Ireland to decide the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is not an optional extra.  It is the fundamental building block on which the 1998 Agreement, and all subsequent agreements, is based.

CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUES

1. The participants endorse the commitment made by the British and Irish Governments that, in a new British-Irish Agreement replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they will:

(i) recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland;

(ii) recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish,accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland; [added emphasis throughout]

(iii) acknowledge that while a substantial section of the people in Northern Ireland share the legitimate wish of a majority of the people of the island of Ireland for a united Ireland, the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people;

(iv) affirm that if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish;

[What happened to “let no one interfere” with the “indigenous” deal? – Ed]  Well, it’s tactics, not strategy.  A combination of looking over their shoulders at groups like the 1916 Societies and their ‘One Ireland One Vote’ campaign, and a growing realisation that there is little chance of a united Ireland vote in a Northern Ireland referendum in the foreseeable future.

But there are consequences to the Sinn Féin policy commitment “to campaign for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity”.

Now when the party president, Gerry Adams, calls on “the British and Irish governments [to] fully implement the Good Friday and subsequent agreements”, he’s also saying, ‘apart from the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination – on which that agreement, and all subsequent agreements, is based, can we change that’?

And when someone from Sinn Féin, in this case Gerry Kelly, tells the still-violent republican groups that “There is a political strategy in place which the vast majority of Irish republicans and nationalists, along with the overwhelming majority of the people on this island, have endorsed”, what they are also saying is that ‘but we don’t believe that strategy is adequate and we want to change the frame of reference within which the constitutional question is asked to remove the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination – despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people on this island have endorsed it’.

The irony is that, having been endorsed by referendums in Ireland and in Northern Ireland in 1998, to remove that fundamental principle of consent – from the Irish Constitution, for example, as well as UK legislation – would require successful referendums in Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

And the prospect of a referendum in Northern Ireland repealing  the fundamental principle of consent – that it is for the people of Northern Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination – is even less likely than a united Ireland vote in a Northern Ireland referendum in the foreseeable future.

The contrast with the new SDLP’s leader Colm Eastwood’s comments on Irish unity and making Northern Ireland work is stark.

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  • KitizenCane

    Very strong damning conclusions drawn from some of the most pathetic examples of “research” on this topic I have ever read. But of course it would contrast clearly with the SDLP leader’s comments…. Poorly worded, attention grabbing and unintelligent propagandist muck. Actually going to screenshot this article as a little AE16 momentum of the very best the SDLP could do 🙂

  • Well, I’ve clarified the point about the principle of consent in the original post if that helps.

    As for “some of the most pathetic examples of “research” on this topic”, you’ll have to be more specific.

    I take it you’re not contesting the need for further referendums, north and south, to overturn the results of the referendums in 1998 and repeal the current principle of consent in, for example, Article 3 of the Irish Constitution?

    Article 3

    1. It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament established by this Constitution shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted by the Parliament[2] that existed immediately before the coming into operation of this Constitution. [added emphasis]

    2. Institutions with executive powers and functions that are shared between those jurisdictions may be established by their respective responsible authorities for stated purposes and may exercise powers and functions in respect of all or any part of the island.

  • JohnTheOptimist

    Its all academic. If there was an All-Ireland referendum tomorrow on a ‘United Ireland’, it would be lost by a very large margin. This is the B & A Exit poll for the recent election in the Republic which contained a question on attitudes to a United Ireland (page 86).

    https://static.rasset.ie/documents/news/rte-exit-poll-report.pdf

    Only 32% of the Republic’s electorate favour a United Ireland, while 47% favour N. Ireland remaining within the UK. Add on the likely results from N. Ireland, where polls indicate an overwhelming majority for remaining within the UK. The likely outcome of an All-Ireland referendum would be the humiliation of N. Ireland nationalists, forced to face the reality that a majority of the electorate on the island reject them.

    The Provisional Sinn Fein project from its inception in Dec 1968 is mainly responsible for this sorry state of affairs. The entire project has been a disaster for nationalism. The contrast with the SNP’s approach in Scotland is stark. In 1922 very few unionists would have believed partition would make it to its 100th anniversary. In 1968 there was growing support even among unionists for greater economic integration of the 2 parts of Ireland, and certainly back then the overwhelming majority of the Republic’s electorate would have favoured a United Ireland. An All-Ireland referendum in 1968 would certainly have been won. But, despite the Republic’s economy surging ahead of N. Ireland’s since then, and despite the Catholic share of the N. Ireland population increasing from around 35% to around 45% since then, in 2016 partition looks more secure than ever. Arlene Foster was quite right on that point.

    The change in attitudes is due to (a) the polarisation that has resulted from the PIRA terror campaign (b) the damage to the N. Ireland economy resulting from the PIRA campaign has made N. Ireland heavily dependent on funding from outside, of such magnitude that taxes in the Republic would have to increase dramatically in a United Ireland (this was not the case in 1968) © PIRA activities have made nationalism in the eyes of many in the Republic synonymous with bank robbing, knee capping and all sorts of unsavoury activities, to the extent that they want nothing to do with it. As a nationalist I am saddened by all this, but its a fact.

    SF are deceiving their not-very-bright supporters by telling them they’ve brought a United Ireland closer. Bunkum. Its further away than ever, and miles further away than in 1968. Nationalism needs to recognise this and rebuild. The first step should be the disbandment of both SF and the SDLP and their replacement by a new SNP-type nationalist party, one which rejects violence and sectarianism, but which is capable of articulating in a positive way the increasingly strong case for economic integration within Ireland and eventually (long-term) a United Ireland. The growing economic gap between N. Ireland and the Republic (in the Republic’s favour) provides a favourable background for that. But, it will take time. There is absolutely no change of it happening while SF is the main face of nationalism in N. Ireland.

  • murdockp

    I wonder would this hold post a brexit?

    I would say people who were indifferent before would become very for post a brexit.

  • Skibo

    “(iv) affirm that if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self-determination on the basis set out in sections (i) and (ii) above to bring about a united Ireland, it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish;”
    Directly out of the GFA.
    The GFA can only legislate for NI and as such only refers to a border poll in NI.

    “(ii) recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland;”
    So it is up to the people of the island of Ireland. There must be a majority in NI also.
    I have no issue with what SF have requested on a border poll.
    Without agreement from the majority in NI (and I don’t mean Unionists only) the project is impossible.

  • “I have no issue with what SF have requested on a border poll.”

    Then you’re not paying attention.

    “Without agreement from the majority in NI (and I don’t mean Unionists only) the project is impossible.”

    What Sinn Féin have committed to campaigning for is the removal of the principle of consent of the people of Northern Ireland in that process – despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people on this island endorsed it in referendums, north and south, in 1998.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You do make an excellent point, the Repeal of the Principle of Consent could always be put to the people of Northern Ireland rather than Irish Unity, but that will have many consequences.

  • robertianwilliams

    The Ulster Unionists deserted their kith and kin in Monaghan,Cavan and Donegal, creating a state with a built in Unionist majority in six counties. That endures and the Catholic birthrate, ( with contraception kicking in….Gerry adams was one of twelve ) will never challenge that built in majority. The partition of Ulster is a key to their success.

  • pablito

    Sinn Fein spent 30 years trying to achieve a United Ireland by bombing and shooting. It then joined the political process believing that cross border institutions and demographics would deliver a UI quite rapidly. Now almost two decades later it sees that the prospect of a UI is further away than ever, and it’s running out of ideas. John shows that only 32% of the electorate in the Republic backs a UI. If the question was asked if they support a UI against the wishes of the voters in NI, you can be sure that it would be far less. Given that in NI you would be hard pushed to get 15% in favour of a UI, there is simply no call from the Irish electorate for constitutional change. This is the problem Sinn Fein has. How to impose its undemocratic ideology on a people at best apathetic to it. Apart from parochial Unionist extremists, there are no politicians in Ireland or the UK who would deny the Irish their unity if it could be delivered within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. This isn’t going to happen any time soon.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    Sinn Fein made a fundamental mistake when they engaged the Northern Ireland state. Essentially they have endorsed an artificially created Unionist ” homeland” The founders of Northern Ireland made sure that Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were left out and 70,000 Protestants who had signed the Covenant were dumped , in fear of the overwhelming Catholic population in these counties They partitioned Ulster, to ensure their supremacy and the tough facts of history say it worked..
    No doubt the idea was that Catholics would out populate Unionists. That is an impossible reality as the new Sinn Fein liberal Catholics do not provide the high birthrate, Gerry Adams was one of 12. The Gildernew new type of Sinn Fein woman produces non or few. Conservative Evangelical Protestants ( thirty percent of the unionist population) even have a higher birt hrate. An interesting parallel is the Quebecois…they once had the highest birth rate in Canada…but have become secular and now have one of the lowest. A secular leftwing nationalism, combined with immigration and a low birth rate has destroyed the hopes of nationhood forever… French Canada is declining. Numbers are everything.
    One last point Sinn Fein are always going on about the decline of Protestant population, but the Catholic statistics for Northern Ireland are massaged by the eastern European influx.

  • Robert ian Wiliams

    A spot on analysis…liberal tribal Catholics ( not of devout faith) like Sinn Fein do not produce the babies. The statistics for Catholics in NI have been massaged by the Eastern European influx.

  • pablito

    We make a mistake if we regard Sinn Fein as a democratic party in the normal understanding of that term. They have their ideological belief in a 32 county Marxist Ireland irrespective of what the electorate may want. They embrace democracy only when they believe it can help their cause. When they thought that cause was best served by violence, they resorted to it. It would come as no surprise to see them bend or change the terms of the GFA if it’s the only way to further their political ends. Fortunately the Irish electorate is both mature and informed. The GFA was overwhelmingly endorsed both sides of the border, and none of the more genuinely democratic parties on either side of the border is going to agree with a vote which doesn’t honour the Agreement. However much SF bangs its head against the wall, their version of Ireland’s future is not what the people want. A UI would be far from the Marxist Utopia which SF wants, and achieving a UI in the present by constitutional and democratic means is next to impossible. I wonder what SF will resort to next.