Sinn Fein taking tentative steps towards new visions of Irish unity

The latest Sinn Fein document seeking to promote the cause of Irish unity, Towards A United Ireland, was the subject of this piece from David earlier in the week.

It is the product of the party’s decision to task senior party elected representative, Matt Carthy, with the task of developing a strategy to promote unity. From a republican perspective, the Brexit vote has sparked renewed interest in the nature of all-island and Europe-wide relations.

As the document’s introduction headline states: ‘Brexit’ changes everything.

Whilst I believe this to be somewhat overly optimistic, and indicative of the Hail Mary mentality I’ve written about in the past, nevertheless it is correct for Sinn Fein and Irish unity advocates to use the occasion of Brexit to initiate a conversation about the pathway to unity.

David has explored a number of themes emerging from the document, looking at the different sections in turn, offering thoughts that have been further teased out in the comments section.

The main conclusion to be drawn from the section entitled New Ireland- New Politics is that Sinn Fein are not wedded to any specific vision of a united Ireland.

That is perhaps fitting in a political age in which dogma has diminishing currency.

Disappointingly, Sinn Fein do not commit to supporting concrete measures, which would have made the document all the more significant as it would have compelled the party to begin building and promoting a vision of a practical form of unity beyond the abstract.

Thus, in the aforementioned New Ireland- New Politics section, the party only commits to being “open to considering transitional arrangements” before outlining how “this could mean” a range of options, ranging from unitary state to federal/ confederal arrangement or continued devolution.

Similarly, where the document discusses constitutional safeguards to protect the identity of unionists, once again the options are prefaced with “this could involve” which fails to commit the party to any specific policy platform of proposals.

Incidentally, the three options mentioned in this section include providing a minimum number of Seanad seats for unionists and a reference to “other arrangements.”

Most interestingly, the party also floats the idea of “weighted parliamentary majorities in relation to legislation on fundamental issues, where such fundamental issues are identified and agreed in advance of reunification.”

In the New Relationships in a New Ireland section, the prospect of a new constitution and Bill of Rights is floated, alongside “new symbols and emblems to reflect an inclusive, agreed Ireland.”

Most significantly, the party floats the idea of “constitutionally recognizing the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the north of Ireland”, as well as specifying how there could be an “expression ….given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy.”

Personally, I believe that Sinn Fein are moving cautiously in the right direction towards a transition in their approach to promoting unity.

But, just like their leadership transition, the pace of change needs to be quickened- and sharpened- in order to enhance the appeal of the party and its core message.

Within the document, there clearly exists the makings of a new Unity vision which pro-actively seeks to promote and begin building the new Ireland.

The overriding logic of Sinn Fein’s participation in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is that making Northern Ireland work is now a part of the unity agenda. That is something I explored in an article in An Phoblacht as part of the Uncomfortable Conversations series earlier this year.

The party is clearly exploring means by which it can prove to unionists- and to a southern audience- that unity can accommodate Britishness and not involve the type of upheaval nationwide that would put off potential supporters.

Consequently, the inevitable conclusion is that a viable unity project will involve retaining the current Good Friday Agreement institutions in the north as those very institutions allow for Irish nationalists to prove our capacity and willingness to embrace and respect the British and unionist identity of the neighbouring tradition in the state.

One of the realities that must be accepted and inform a viable Unity project is that, as we approach the centenary of partition, the southern Irish state is not a contested entity, and therefore proposing changes which seek to unnecessarily disrupt the accepted political norms within the state is not a wise course of action, nor one likely to build support for the unity cause.

For that reason, the reference to weighted parliamentary majorities is unlikely to prove popular with a southern Irish audience, as it seemingly involves handing a veto to unionists over as yet undefined matters. No such veto would be provided for Irish nationalist MPs in Westminster, and that is the parallel context which should focus minds of unity advocates. However, if the reference merely indicates an openness to retaining the current power-sharing legislative arrangements at Stormont, then that is something more likely to gain acceptance.

The numerous references to protecting the British and unionist identity are to be welcomed, but a more radical and sharper step would involve seeking to deliver these in the short term future in a manner that could powerfully demonstrate the desire of Irish republicans to build the pluralist Ireland oft spoken of.

Imagine were Sinn Fein, in the short term, to adopt the policies of seeking to add constitutional amendments now to the Irish Constitution, essentially front-loading the issue of providing constitutional protection to the British and unionist identity of the northern citizens, including through special measures to acknowledge the place of the British monarchy in the unionist tradition?

Promoting such a policy alongside the wholly justified call for Presidential voting rights for northern citizens would provide tangible evidence that the party was serious about advancing important steps towards Irish unity in a manner recognizing the all-Ireland rights and aspirations of northern nationalists in the here and now whilst also demonstrating a desire to begin shaping the constitutional framework of that future agreed and united Ireland.

It remains the case that Sinn Fein stand apart as the only Irish political party placing the objective of Irish unity at the core of its mission, and the publication of this document underlines that reality. Yet, in a week in which other nominally Irish nationalist/republican parties once again failed the north, it is apparent that new thinking is required to shape the discussion and drive forward a unity agenda.