End of Unity 2016, beginning of Unionist consolidation?

Alex Kane argued in last week’s column for the Newsletter that since the wheels have fallen off Sinn Fein’s 2016 prediction of Irish Unification. He asks: What is Sinn Fein without the IRA? What is Sinn Fein without the catalogue of grievances to be addressed? What is Sinn Fein without a growing mandate from the Southern electorate? Indeed, how republican is a party which governs part of Her Majesty’s territory? He then argues there is no time or place for Unionists to engage with Republican outreach. Instead, they need to expend their energies in outreaching to non-voting unionists.
By Alex Kane

When Sinn Fein/IRA embraced the Armalite/ballot paper strategy in 1981, it was their first little footsy with democracy, the first little indication that they recognised that semtex and snipers alone were not going to deliver a Brit-free united Ireland. And, over the next twenty-five years, while Sinn Fein increased its vote in election after election, the IRA played around with back-channel communications with successive governments, ceasefires, a drawn out process of decommissioning and finally, in 2005, total decommissioning.

It all seemed to be going so well, too, with Sinn Fein (having gained a useful toe-hold in the Dail in 2002) eclipsing the SDLP at Assembly, Westminster, European and local council levels in Northern Ireland. They have hammered down a deal with the DUP and carved-up almost 70% of government between themselves. The icing on the cake, and the sure sign that the unity project was close to completion, was to have been a doubling of their seats in the Dail and a place in the next Irish government. This victory would then have been followed by the launching of their Charter for Unionist Engagement and the battle to win over that 10-15% of unionists who were considered soft enough to consider the merits of unification. This whole strategy could be summed up as the softly-softly-catchee-monkey approach.

Well, despite the fact that a wheel has fallen off their electoral bandwagon, Sinn Fein, as they always do on these occasions, ignored the reality and continued with the rhetoric. The Charter was launched in Stormont’s Long Gallery a few weeks ago, with Martin McGuinness declaring that he wants “to build a new Ireland that is based on a new relationship between Orange and Green…” Fine sounding words, but the reality is that democracy just isn’t going to work for Sinn Fein. They are now trapped and hobbled in an internal settlement, with unification further away than it has ever been.

It may have taken them almost a century to realise that violence wouldn’t deliver their goals, but I suspect that it won’t be all that long until they realise that demographics won’t deliver it, either. There is nothing they have to offer small-u unionists. More important, though, there isn’t much they can offer that significant minority of small-n nationalists who are reasonably content to remain within the United Kingdom; especially now that Northern Ireland has power-sharing stability.

As Northern Ireland develops into a “normal” country, it will become very much harder for local republicans to sustain the argument that it is a “failed entity.” And, as memories of the one-party state fade and republican concerns and grievances have been mostly addressed and resolved, it will also be hard for Sinn Fein to convince their own grassroots that unification is the answer. Put bluntly, it will be difficult to be in government, supporting the legal and security institutions, while continuing with a campaign that claims that the “North is an artificial and offensive creation.”

Oh yes, Sinn Fein will continue with the pretence that the march to unification is as vibrant as ever, but the reality is that they have reached the end of the road and lost the only battle that ever really mattered to them. However they may try and spin it otherwise, Sinn Fein has been forced into an accommodation with unionism in a Northern Ireland that is more firmly entrenched within the United Kingdom than it has ever been before.

What is Sinn Fein without the IRA? What is Sinn Fein without the catalogue of grievances to be addressed? What is Sinn Fein without a growing mandate from the Southern electorate? Indeed, how republican is a party which governs part of Her Majesty’s territory?

In the mid-1990s Gerry Adams calculated that unionists could be broken apart and the Union ended. His main aim was to make Sinn Fein look serious about an internal deal, while unionists, whingeing as they walked away from negotiations, would look like political dinosaurs. The problem, of course, is that the UUP refused to be bluffed out of the peace process, forcing Sinn Fein, in turn, to stay in and negotiate the very internal settlement they didn’t actually want.

Worse was to come: while the UUP was hugely damaged by events, the DUP, probably to Sinn Fein’s surprise, simply picked up the pieces and finished the job. Adams was forced to make the best of an increasingly bad hand, all the while praying that he would get a breakthrough down South and install a Sinn Fein bogeyman in the next Irish cabinet. The electorate didn’t oblige, however, which leaves Adams in the uncomfortable and absurd position of having to persuade Sinn Fein supporters up here that the party’s presence in an unwanted partitionist Assembly should be regarded as a mere transitional step towards the ultimate goal!

In other words, Adams miscalculated utterly. A strategy which was supposed to enrage, isolate and demonise unionists, paving the way to a greening of Anglo-Irish relationships and copper-fastening the inevitability of unification, has ended up with Sinn Fein trapped into government with those same unionists and with little sign of an exit route for republicans.

The IRA has been stood down and their weapons put beyond use. Sinn Fein has shredded the sheet music of “A Nation Once Again” while their Ministers and MLAs get on with the business of governing this part of the United Kingdom. The Armalite didn’t do it for them. The ballot box won’t do it for them. The rhetoric can’t do it for them. Their day isn’t coming.

That being the case, there is no need for unionists to engage with Sinn Fein as part of the Unionist Outreach project. Unionists don’t want unification and the Irish electorate don’t want it, either. This is not a time to be offering political or publicity lifelines to Sinn Fein. For those unionists who believe in outreach, could I suggest that they concentrate, instead, on reaching out to that huge bloc of non-voters within their own pro-Union community?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty