Gerry Adams launched the British leg of Sinn Feins United Ireland campaign at Westminster last night. I went along in a quandary. Having read the write up of the New York launch, I wondered if he had anything new to say. More to the point, had I? No use sniping or sneering, theres enough of that elsewhere. In the event, I think I detected a new openmindedness, a much softer sell involving an adjustment to reality, certainly light years away from the old dogma of bombing the Brits out of Ireland or even the Sinn Fein hard line doctrine of inevitability. Adams is on a search for new allies for a revived project. Last night’s attendance ws largely limited to the usual suspects of the old hard-ish left wing and the sympathetic diaspora, elements not notably influential in post-Thatcher Britain. He admits it’s a daunting task. And yet he sounded like a Sinn Fein leader in comfortable command with all the time in the world, rather than Gerry Adams under pressure north and south. True, the old mantra were incanted (although absent form the Guardians shortened version of the speech): .. the underlying cause of the conflict persists that is the British governments claim to jurisdiction over a part of Ireland. Yet this jarred with his basic thrust.
In the middle of questions and comments, Adams suddenly defined his problem: All of us involved in the Good Friday Agreement are to some extent victims of our own success. And that surely is the nub of it. What now is the onward strategy? In contrast to the old certainties, Adams was really open to anything, formal like the Smash the H block campaign or a looser “more informal, process based on a statement of principles that produced the economic pressures that came from the McBride principles. Is it possible to put in place a formal structured broad front approach to campaign for a united Ireland? Or would it be better to opt for an informal, organic and popular movement based on core principles? It was strange to hear Gerry Adams talking like this.
There are “three interlinked challenges” in the campaign: getting the British government to change from upholding the Union to becoming a persuader for Irish unity (How?) Getting the Irish government to prepare for Irish unity.( No sign yet of that Green Paper) And engaging with Ulster Unionism on the type of Ireland we want to create.( Unionists are 2% in the Union, 20% in a United Ireland etc). The north-south institutions are a start. The aspiration fundamentally remains rooted in the rational enough belief that “Irish Unity makes sense.
What might the process look like? Adams quoted Professor Brendan OLeary approvingly , speaking at the New York event.
Professor Brendan O’Leary, in his contribution to this very debate, suggested that republicans and nationalists and unionists should examine the possibilities of some form of federal arrangement. Others may have different ideas and suggestions. This is one part of the debate we must have.
But OLeary warned it would all take a long time. There would not be a nationalist majority by 2023 and he was of the view that the gains by nationalists in the overall population of the North had likely flattened out.
There was, he said, “no quick victory” for Irish nationalism “through the cradle.”
As such, a “substantial portion of unionists and Protestants” needed to be converted to the idea of a united Ireland. There were, he said “practical and principled” reasons to advocate a federal Ireland. O’Leary argued that the “population explosion” in the South stood to give the North much less clout in a united Ireland than once would have been the case. A federal Ireland, he said, would dilute this effect. Such a federation would not necessarily be based on the historical four provinces but a two unit federation between the existing six county North and the South which, he said, could break into smaller units if it so desired. There would be a need to persuade others such as immigrant groups in the North in order to establish a required backdrop for unity of peace and pluralism, said O’Leary. The arrival of those groups made a federal Ireland more possible.
O’Leary focused on the difficulties of winning over public opinion in the South to the idea of unity. “There had been “estrangement” over the 90 years of partition and a fear in the South over potential violence from northern Protestants. Consent for unity on the southern side, he said, would minimally require the cooperation of the SDLP in the North, Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens in the South.
By the way, it’s worth noting that Sinn Fein appear not to be formally committed to continuing the existing six county devolved institutions in a united Ireland although the governments and parliaments are. However, this is the sort of unbuttoned thinking that Sinn Fein supporters will have to address before their next conference in February. It will take place against an Irish background of a reappraisal of the partys reduced role in the south and possible challenge to its republican dominance in the north. In Britain David Cameron flirts with a new departure for unionism which, while by no means abandoning the British-Irish partnership, is far from adopting the language of persuader for Irish unity. So it’s far from clear who Sinn Fein’s effective new allies might be.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London