Can New Sinn Féin deliver Irish unity?

Paul Doyle, writing in the left Republican Forum Magazine offers a critique of Sinn Féin’s Green Paper for Irish Unity. Apart from its lack of specific economic data, he’s most critical of the strategic use of the Belfast Agreement to bring about political unity of the island as it militates against any viable way to unifying Catholic and Protestant opinion behind that particular option.By Paul Doyle

The provisional movement has consistently argued that Irish unification can come about within the context of the Belfast Agreement, despite the unionist veto. In its discussion document, A Green Paper on Irish Unity, the New Sinn Féin leadership sets out the various means through which unionist voters can supposedly be talked round into voting themselves out of the union.

One of the central arguments put forward by the New Sinn Féin leadership in its Green Paper is the idea that “a unified, all-Ireland economy holds out substantial potential for sustainable economic growth across the island through the development and coordination of economic planning on an all-Ireland basis”. It argues that the prospect of this economic growth will prompt unionists to look favourably on unification. There are two problems with this.

Firstly, the Green Paper provides no facts or figures. It assumes the dissolution of the border will make economic sense without any econometric or economic data to corroborate this assertion. It totally
ignores the fact that the North drains the British exchequer to the tune of four billion pound sterling per annum – and that’s without a security bill for containing the inevitable disgruntled rump that will emerge from within unionism in the event of unification.

Secondly, the economic argument assumes that unionists can be bought, but there is nothing to suggest that the prospect of economic prosperity will be enough to convince hundreds of thousands of unionists to vote themselves out of the union. Unionism’s attachment to Britain isn’t something that can be bought-off with healthy GNP figures.

The paper also makes the assumption that the ending of the conflict will bring about a softening of attitudes towards the idea of unification among the unionist people. So can this happen? Well, the paper goes on to sum-up the extent to which this has happened so far: “We are almost 12 years on from the public emergence of the Irish Peace Process in the first joint statement by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and the then SDLP leader, John Hume, in April 1993. However, the only strand of that process still existing at this time is the IRA cessation of military activities. There is no political process, no dialogue, no negotiation.”

Far from having a moderating effect on unionism, the peace process and the Belfast Agreement are causing unionist opinion to radicalise. The destruction of middle-ground parties such as the Alliance Party and the Women’s Coalition, the near-annihilation of moderate unionist parties, and most obviously the meteoric rise of the DUP, have made this fact painfully clear.

Next, the paper argues that unionism can be convinced that their political aspirations can be catered for in a united Ireland. But this too ignores a crucial fact – the national or political aspirations of the nationalist and unionist communities within Ireland are mutually exclusive in that there cannot be an independent united Ireland while the union with Britain is in place. It is a fundamental fallacy to suggest that there is the prospect of a political solution in which the views of both communities can happily
co-exist. The mutually exclusive nature of the political aspirations of unionists and nationalists means that only one can ever be satisfied at any one time.

The paper also ignores the practical difficulties inherent in the outworking of a political settlement which has an acceptance of the unionist veto as its central tenet. For example, the paper argues: “The Good Friday Agreement created the all-Ireland Ministerial Council and set out areas for all-Ireland development where ministers, North and South, would work in co-operation in education, health, environment, agriculture, transport and tourism”.

It also set up “implementation bodies” with executive functions to implement all-Ireland policies on aspects of Language, Inter-trade, Food Safety, Ireland’s Waterways and Tourism. In each of these areas, progress and programmes of work are being advanced through the implementation bodies.

The issue here is that the DUP with the backing of the unionist electorate are demanding that the North’s relationship with the South be subject to Assembly approval and this, in practice, means it will be subject to unionist and DUP approval. The DUP will then use this control over the North/South relationship to stifle the development of any emerging North/South dynamic.

Next, the paper argues that cross-border cooperation will persuade unionists that unification is in their interests. This is far from a self-evident fact. If cross-border cooperation proves advantageous, surely it is just as likely to convince people living in the North that partition is proving workable as it is to persuade people of the value of dissolving the border?

On a first reading the provisional movement’s A Green Paper on Irish Unity, with its preamble from Gerry Adams stating, “I hope that unionists will be prepared to take part in such a process and put forward their vision for the future and to consider, discuss and engage with the rest of the Irish people about the nature and form a new Ireland will take,” seems blindly optimistic and rather naive.

How could anyone with any knowledge or experience of unionism come to the conclusion that they would be willing to enter negotiations on a British withdrawal while they hold their veto? But a closer examination of the document reveals its true nature. A Green Paper on Irish Unity, much like New Sinn Féin’s latest strategy, is a capitulation dressed up in vagaries and ambiguities presented as a viable strategy. The Green Paper looks at how to achieve a united Ireland in the context of the Belfast Agreement and fundamentally, this is where it falls down.

Only when the Belfast Agreement is removed, along with the unionist veto it is built on, will republican ideals be realised. While unionism gets to decide, there will never, never, never be a united Ireland.

First published in Forum Magazine