- Two cheers for Sinn Fein for at least having a go where others fear to tread, in exposing their ideas in progress to the deep uncertainties of Brexit. In this document, if responding to the confusion of Brexit were not enough, the party is delivering a mixed revisionist message that is caught between its roots and its avowed direction of travel.
To start with, the basic premise of the paper in the foreword is debatable. It is indeed hard to see a single advantage for Ireland north and south in Brexit. Unionists and nationalists basically agree on that, unionists more tacitly. So no, it isn’t a given that Brexit will undermine the GFA. Arguably the needs of the all-island economy and British-Irish trading and other relations will strengthen it.
The basic ambiguity of the GFA remains, that is, whether it is a temporary accommodation or a final settlement. But in this paper, Sinn Fein seems bent on superseding the structures of the Agreement to road test the viability of the unity scenario that Brexit has suddenly opened up – that unionists whose consent for unity is required, will come to accept that unity within the EU is preferable to sticking with Brexit Britain. All nationalists should start preparing for the day now. Should they really? If taken at face value, this demarche would risk the hard won stability in which they have invested a great deal.
The latest case for unity is presented only in headline terms. Crucially much of it can be achieved without constitutional unity in any case. It can be done through the unrealised potential of the GFA, which transforms unity from an article of blind faith into a popular decision, rather than the Irish equivalent of the Scottish “Claim of Right.” based on particular view of history. Dissident republicans have noticed the demotion.
The economic case is simply bolted on when arguably in the context of “Brexit changes everything” it should be central. While the document recognises diverse political identity, is still overwhelmingly front-loaded with the process of constitutional change. Despite giving an impression of innovation, the proposal of a federal state is not new and would be in any case the minimal concession to unionists implied in the GFA.
Rather than blocking powers for unionists SF would better employed spelling out the division of powers between Dublin and Belfast. For instance, could the North keep Catholic schools while the South continues to put the squeeze on church schools? The North has health funded directly from taxation while the South’s system is insurance-based . Should they be reconciled?. It isn’t good enough to stick the label of “harmonisation” over things and hope for the best.
The economic alternative to Brexit is unconvincing. A dispassionate reading of the section “Unaffordably myth” concludes that it chips at the figures, but fails to make its own case.
The claim that unity would increase growth may be argued under ideal circumstances. But the model quoted assumes that the Republic can afford most of the current British subvention however calculated, even though part of the British subsidy would continue. Such affordability is not generally accepted and SF know it. There is little in any of this to benefit the south. This version of unity is now a mainly northern dream, strangely divorced from Sinn Fein’s political concentration on the Republic.
The sally into history is dubious. Undeniably partition harmed the island economy but the inheritance of Griffith’s autarky and Dev’s “trade war” caused great self harm to the southern state.
The main problem is that while Brexit is creating political ferment in Ireland, everything depends (a) on the final terms and (b) the future of British-Irish and north-south cooperation whatever the final terms reached. There is every argument for enhancing the latter. Confusing cooperation with a unity agenda now will only hamper cooperation’s progress.
From the point of view of their own aspirations, The Time therefore is precisely not Now for the Republic’s parties to adopt this programme. Formal diplomacy and other contacts should surely now develop (a) the specific arguments for both parts of the island for close association with the single market and (b) the all-island and British-Irish mitigations for the final result.
SF may wish to steal a march again on their rivals but are unlikely to succeed with this approach, however emollient they think they are to unionists. No clear dynamic exists to justify the tone of urgency. “Peace” rapidly becomes a static state, not a platform for further change. Too much depends on events beyond their control.
To be fair, the document, although it is still too self- referential is the latest sign that Sinn Fein are learning to play to other scenarios. But they still have some way to go – particularly with economic and social arguments even though they are trying harder than some others. Although superficially an asset, their left populism is more of a long term handicap than an advantage.
Sinn Fein need to develop civic nationalism further– that is, the appeal of the economic and social case on the Scottish model, and give it priority over the over-familiar constitutional case. This may require a new generation of leadership. There are risks in that too, as the traditional USP of Sinn Fein will have lost its old edge.
Surprisingly perhaps the document has attracted little attention from the rest of the commentariat. It reads as if the Uncomfortable Conversations series has been uncomfortably pressed into service as an improvised strategy for dealing with Brexit and is mainly designed for internal consumption. I wonder how much the rank and file and supporters are impressed. Instead of wooing unionists towards unity, the demands for delivery in government are growing louder.
And the thought may be dawning that Brexit makes radical constitutional scenarios for Scotland as well as Ireland more complicated than attractive.
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