Maybe we were far too rigid in our approach [to partition], too tenacious of our point of view, too proud to temporise or placate… whatever may have been the reason, we made no headway, so our successors must start from “square one”.
Sean MacEntee, 1970
The head-quote is from Stephen Kelly’s Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland 1926 – 1971. It could fit the situation nationalism faces now that Brexit looks set to alter intra-island relations more profoundly than any time since Belfast Agreement.
On the face of it, FF can barely afford the time for real attention on Northern Ireland. Pressure on independents in government aimed at regaining rapidly lost ground throughout middle Ireland has a higher priority than northern adventurism.
The next big adventure is an Irish general election. But yesterday Micheal Martin’s reinforced an earlier promise to come north, to substantiate some of the arguments he’s been making over the last three or four years in the form of a real political presence.
As Kelly noted in 2014, there’s something far less theoretical about these rumblings compared to those when the northern project began under Bertie Ahern…
He believes that there is a ‘lack of leadership’ among the mainstream parties of Northern Ireland and he feels that Fianna Fáil can fill this leadership gap.
Describing Fianna Fáil as the party of the ‘middle ground’, Martin envisages that his Soldiers of Destiney can march into Northern Ireland and champion social injustice and become the voice of ‘working class communities’.
That’s certainly where they need to go to get back into Dublin on scale. But any move north must also signal ambition, both in terms of the overall objective and in achieving practical change for those in the middle classes.
NI is hardly swamped with sharp competition in that regard. Chris Donnelly has long argued that such a move would be good for Sinn Fein – who’ve enjoyed an immunity to competition unrivalled on these islands – arousing them to a better game.
Sinn Fein at least has the advantage of incumbency, and recognition. Even though they are by far the weaker of the two, the SDLP also have a brand recognition in Northern Ireland that, thus far, Fianna Fail lack.
The Troubles generation was marked by an almost total collapse in the unionist sense of Irishness, which is usually explained as a reaction to republican violence. However, I do not believe this alone can account for the extent to which I do not feel Irish in the slightest. I think it is because I grew up in Co Finchley.
The role that television might have played in this is so underexplored that it sounds eccentric to mention it. But consider the circumstances, again unique, of my generation. We were born as television became the ubiquitous mass medium, only for it to enter a 30-year plateau.
The reverse can be said for many nationalists particularly in border areas, where the main news were RTE television and radio, and weekly copies of the Sunday Press or Sunday Independent (often taken mainly for the GAA reports).
Martin himself gives few clues as to what a Northern Ireland based Fianna Fail would stand for: rather he posits a bunch of questions which also highlight just how little the northern nationalist project has advanced since the Belfast Agreement:
“What are we talking about when we talk about a united Ireland? Is it two parliaments?
“The SDLP say they believe in that, so do Sinn Féin. So it’s not the only idea that Dublin rules Ireland. You’d have two assemblies,” Mr Martin said.
“It’s evolving work. I’ve no sense that Sinn Féin or anybody else have any sense of what the configuration would be.
“Economically, what does it mean? Subsidy-wise, what does it mean? Integration of two health services, what does it mean? There are two education systems, which are quite different in some respects.
A successful move north could be part of a broader brand regeneration, but to be successful they’d need to make progress on a broad front. That’s just one reason, a merge with the SDLP is unlikely. They need a solid purpose beyond brand enhancement…
Certainly, under Martin, the idea has risen from nice to do one day, to important, but not yet urgent. Much as that makes it fun to conjure with it still does not, in itself, signal any clear intent.
We’ve known since 2014 that the ‘plan’ is to come north for what would have been the next European elections. Brexit may have put the kibosh on that specifically, but it also heightens a sense that northern nationalism needs to get its game together.
For all the UK government reassurances around the maintenance of the Common Travel Area (CTA), there were critical north-south layers to the Belfast Agreement that will need defending and even developing in the upcoming period of negotiations.
Where there’s a political vacuum, there’s usually an opportunity to fill it. Martin’s pronouncements on northern affairs over the last four years have been consistent enough to suggest that he personally is serious about the idea.
However, electorally Fianna Fail never moves into any project without heavy spade work first. These days Niall Collins and Darragh O’Brien come north to speak at events. It’s no longer just the leader’s enthusiasm alone.
More broadly the new intake of TDs appear to be much more open to the idea of moving north than previous parliamentary parties.
The mere thought of their coming seems to excite a media unendingly bored with nothing happening. As the BelTel notes in its editorial:
Fianna Fail is one of the big beasts of Dublin’s politics, and many northern nationalists may feel it is better placed to deliver on Irish unity ultimately than either Sinn Fein or the SDLP, hitting their electoral heartlands.
Yet, what does Irish unity mean in the modern world? Is it the simple disappearance of the border, or is it more a unity of purpose rather than a single landmass?
Could it be two political institutions – the Dail and Stormont – working on areas of mutual interest?
But talk is cheap(ish), we can be pretty sure the party won’t move unless it’s convinced its voice will carry directly to northern voters. The taking of polls is a key pre-requisite to knowing whether or if all this good intent is to be followed by action.
As any engineer knows in order to build a bridge capable of holding an increased traffic in ideas and human or even financial capital, you need to build upon the most solid ground on either side of the river.
That requires foundations which are broader and more stable than the narrow ground available to the current players. This should go hand in hand with a view of the future that takes us beyond the next row over parades or the past.
The idea of unity in twenty years – rather than promising success every Tuesday week – allows for the kinds of long-term realignment that were apparent in the Republic’s great shifts of the 1950s and 60s.
If this was always the case before Brexit, it is likely to become more urgent afterwards. The need for the heavy engineering needed to set up such a broad base is not yet pressing. But, if it is going to happen at all, it will need to begin fairly soon.
Irish freedom will not be finally secured until it rests on firm and unshakeable economic foundations.