Active north-south cooperation would be the intelligent unionist response to Sinn Fein’s vision of unity out of Brexit

There has been a delayed reaction of critical comment on the Oireacthas report on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in the light of Brexit. The report called for special status for Northern Ireland within the EU but coupled it with a drive to work for unionist consent to a united Ireland. This would include a new New Ireland Forum of the type held in the early 1980s which recognised unionist Britishness but was repudiated by Fianna Fail and boycotted by the unionist parties.

It comes as no surprise that this coupling has been made and that it has been criticised by unionists and the Alliance party. So far, so predictable. But Leo Varadkar made a more interesting case at Queen’s last week. The Union would actually be strengthened by a solution involving the whole UK having a close relationship with the single market, a point highlighted by Henry McDonald in the Belfast Telegraph. While the repudiation of a border in the Irish Sea removed one obstacle to intelligent north-south debate it exposed the big one – unity – as well as the resulting vacuum in the Brexit debate.

In the QBOL website in a two part article, Professor John Barry has analysed the joint report as “Irish nationalism talking to itself” (and incidentally making some heroic neo-liberal assumptions of the affordability of unity).

Here perhaps the report reveals itself as an Irish Nationalist document. It assumes at various points in the report that it is only unionists who have to be persuaded as unionists are the ones maintaining support for the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK.

t used to be a classic Irish republican slogan-cum-bad arithmetic to state ‘26+6=1’, now this has been replaced in this report with ‘1998 Agreement + Brexit = Irish Unity’.  To the bad adding up of the former we now have a report which is effectively nationalist and republican Ireland talking to itself. The lack of alternative perspectives, a rigorous challenging of the ‘inevitable logic’ of a United Ireland as a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ reminds me of social media dialogue when one can ‘defriend’ and remove those that disagree with you.

Rather than this report being a serious argument for Irish Unity (though it has certainly prepared the ground for future and perhaps improved arguments and evidence), it is either aimed at achieving unity amongst those across the island wishing for the reunification of Ireland, and/or basically a pre-nuptial agreement between Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin in advance of a future coalition government.

Different indeed opposite views of the interaction between Brexit and Irish unity are second in line  in hampering the chances of effective north-south cooperation on planning the post -Brexit  relationship,  the first being the absence of a coherent British plan for the future.     We hope to get an inkling of that in a week or so.

But it can be perfectly well argued that a positive approach to north-south cooperation  in managing through  Brexit would give unionism the broader base and more confident appeal it needs for longer term survival. The DUP  are in an excellent position to influence the debate at Westminster on behalf of  Northern Ireland’s real interests. It would act as a  dramatic and powerful catalyst in cutting through Sinn Fein’s boycott tactics and restoring the Assembly. The trouble is, no one has the imagination or confidence  to adopt  this approach.

The higher profile of the unity debate can’t simply be brushed aside or merely complained about. It has emboldened Gerry Adams to demand a unity strategy from both the main parties in the Republic, looking ahead to the shape of a future government whether a minority or a majority coalition, with Sinn Fein as a potential partner. While this may be bravado on Adams’ part, it exploits a genuine problem for the two main government parties, of how to weigh the aspiration for unity through the complexities of Brexit, while at the same time competing to lead the next government. Sinn Fein seem to think a bolder position on unity is a winner as a response to Brexit. Are they right?

 

 

 

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  • murdockp

    Interesting.

    When I read the Michael Christopher Hayes interview about his part in the Birmingham Pub Bombings and I saw him Chavez / Castro style in his DPM military uniform talking about Socialist Ireland, I realised that the Sinn Fein and various incarnations of IRA Groups could not live in a United Ireland that was not a socialist state.

    So even if the country was united, with FF /DUP / FG in government, the country would not be at peace as SF and its supporters and various splinter groups would not tolerate a centrist / right of centre government.

  • Karl

    Unionists arent representative of the monolithic unionists state that dominated the political and socialist narratives of Northern Ireland.
    They are representatives of an insecure, inward looking minority which is out of touch with middle class protestants under 40 on social issues and has to reach out to loyalist paramilitaries to coax the last hurrah from their dwindling electorate.
    Whether an electoral majority for a UI ever comes to pass is irrelevant while unionists refuae to engage. However, a nationalist majority is a mere 5 years away and it is how unionism will deal with an ever more strident SF greening the arms of state in NI that will be interesting.
    I see a DUP split on the cards.

  • 1729torus

    People argue that a UI mighn’t happen but don’t consider what is likely to happen instead. It is useful to adapt an impersonal geopolitical perspective – there are three important considerations:

    First, Ireland is undeniably a more powerful state than NI, contrast the situation now with that back in 1921. It is reasonable to assume this differntial will grow in future along all dimensions of power: politcal, economic and military. Without the UK’s support, NI would be protectorate or client state of the south. Even with NI in the UK and no nationalist majority, Dublin is assuming a role in its foreign policy.

    Second, NI will increasingly lack the will to resist any push from Dublin as the demographics shift. NI will be neutral and indifferent on the union with Britain in the medium term barring any shocks

    Third, the Union is gradually weakening along with the UK’s geopolitical power. NI will find it increasingly hard to get outside support against RoI, were the population so inclined.

    It looks NI will be forced to engage with Dublin and participate in its politics anyway in the future, no matter what formally happens on paper.

  • tmitch57

    First of all when looking at a UI, one has to consider whether it is the raison d’etre of Sinn Fein–its all-consuming goal–or merely an electoral strategy as it was for Fianna Fail for so many decades. If it is the former, Sinn Fein should seriously look at the economics and sociology of union to see what approaches might attract real support in the republic and also among outlying sectors of the unionist and neutral population. This means coming up with a strategy where Ireland could afford to absorb the Six Counties without being crippled economically for a decade or more. But it seems like the republicans in the North have seized upon demography as the new deus ex machina that will deliver a majority vote in a future referendum without considering that many from a nationalist background have exhibited more trust in London than in Dublin when it comes to economics. Unless the Shinners can satisfy both the economic realists among the nationalist community and the “soft unionists” of Alliance and the Green party, it has no hope of unity for decades to come. But if a UI is merely an electoral strategy, all of this is unnecessary.

  • ChequerChesireCat

    Well they’ve been campaigning in elections down south for ages now so it seems a little far fetched that would suddenly take up the gun again and lose all their voters.

    I very much doubt most Sinn Fein members or even their voters are even socialist.

  • Zeno

    “or merely an electoral strategy”

    Same Sex Marriage is a red line.
    Irish Language is a red line.
    Arlene as 1st Minister is a red line.

    A Border has never been a red line in any negotiations they have been involved in.

  • Brian Walker

    The problem with a straight comparison between north and south is that it leaves out the British dimension in what is an evolving but not a chaotic situation. Rather than default to the familiar basics of unity or not unity, it would be more constructive to discuss terms of cooperating over Brexit. All the rest is speculative.

  • Karl

    There is v little to compare north and south these days, except how their respective positions have swapped around in the last 100 years.

    Unfortunately, unionism has never been interested in greater north south cooperation for fear it was a path to unity. Good walls make good neighbours and all that. Even now they espouse a hard Brexit to their detriment in the non sensical hope that Britains subvention will increase to mitigate the fallout or their non export oriented economy can benefit from new trade deals with US and India.

    Brexit will have a binary outcome, success or fail. The EU cannot let it succeed and the realpolitik of the situation is slowly dawning on Whitehall. They will be quick to relegate NI to its rightful position merited by 3% of the population and 1% of economic output regardless of the DUPs 10 votes.

    The plaster is going to be ripped off and the DUP position of advocating a hard Brexit (out of customs union) while saying cross border trade will not be affected, while also ruling out special status for NI is being exposed for the non sensical rubbish it is.

    Unionists in 1921 would have constituted 25% – 30% of the population of Ireland. Today, they’re closer to 12% – 15%. Their British govt sponsors arent too far away from telling them the game is up.

    Regardless of unity, unionism has yet to accept it is a minority and to a certain extent neither have the British and Irish governments. SF will be pushing this fact home in forthcoming negotiations and expect to have it reinforced in the coming series of elections in the run up to the centenary of NIs foundation.

  • Nevin

    “It would act as a dramatic and powerful catalyst in cutting through Sinn Fein’s boycott tactics and restoring the Assembly.”

    The DUP and SF have each got a negative veto so ‘cutting through’ isn’t a viable option.

    “a positive approach to north-south cooperation in managing through Brexit would give unionism the broader base”

    The Irish government has already played the green card and it will always put the state interest ahead of co-operation. It was a Fine Gael administration which lobbied a Conservative UK government on behalf of the Athboy conspiracy back in 1996 so the omens for unionist-nationalist co-operation don’t look good.

  • ted hagan

    It would be comforting to see some grown-up politics coming from the DUP side rather than the infantile and ll-informed rantings of members like Sammy Wilson. Arlene Foster really needs to take charge of her party, develop a Brexit line and start getting some sort of act together.

  • ted hagan

    Simple. If Britain is willing to pay billions to exit Europe, it will pay as many billions to get shot of Northern Ireland, which it should never have created in the first place, and knows it.

  • notimetoshine

    This obsession with demography is a strange one alright. It would appear that republicans don’t know their own potential electorates. Those soft Nationalists could be one of the hardest groups to reach in any serious UI process. Not to get all classist about it but the Catholic middle classes in particular have potentially the most to lose in any UI process. They have done very well out of the post 98 settlement and are not going to be thrilled at the idea of the disruption, dislocation and uncertainty that a move towards UI would bring economically and socially. As you say SF need to seriously look at the economics and sociology of the thing.

  • Croiteir

    The economic realists know that if the south was still in the union it would be like Scotland is now – or worse – like the north. They also know that the realistic expectation I that the north would rise to meet the living standard and prosperity of the south in the event of unity

  • Croiteir

    That’s because the nationalists have kept their side of the GFA bargain unlike unionists

  • NotNowJohnny

    I can’t disagree with that. Sinn Fein are first and foremost republicans. Secondly they are socialists. Their third objective is to serve the interests of the party. A united Ireland is half aspiration, half electoral strategy and some way down the pecking order after their other three priorities.

  • NotNowJohnny

    How are they currently operating the institutions?

  • Zeno

    ” has to reach out to loyalist paramilitaries to coax the last hurrah from their dwindling electorate.”

    In the last 20 years the Unionist vote as a percentage of the Electorate declined by -0.017873867%
    Nationalist declined by -0.000431066%

  • Zeno

    I don’t think socialists would sign up to cut 20,000 local jobs and borrow money from the Tories to do it.
    I don’t think Socialists would sign up to cut Corporation Tax and line the pockets of rich businessmen by cutting public spending.
    Now… pretend socialists would definitely do that.

  • Zeno

    How do you mean? What did Unionists now do that they signed up to?

  • Zeno

    That all sounds like wishful thinking. The Nationalist vote has declined in the last 20 years albeit slightly less that the unionist vote. Nationalism is a minority and there is no sign it will ever be a majority.

  • the keep

    Still wanting handouts old boy you never change.

  • Croiteir

    ILA, police not reflecting society, there is two for a start

  • Zeno

    They said they didn’t agree an ILA and that was between the British Government and the Nationalist Parties. But having just looked at the figures you are correct on the imbalance in the PSNI. Only 31.5% are perceived as Catholic while 67% are perceived as Protestant.
    Did Unionists sign up for that in the GFA?

  • Zeno

    In what way? They still wind-up the unionists by lauding the IRA, they continue eye poking by “attacking” Parading, Flags and now Bonfires.
    That’s hardly in the spirit of peace and reconciliation.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I genuinely don’t have much trust in London since Brexit.

    “Fine Gael austerity” is looking better than “Tory austerity” particularly when it comes to investment in higher education and the safety net of social security.

    Hospitals are under threat and unless cross-border/cross-island healthcare is more utilized the provision of our rural hospitals and other understaffed facilities are completely undermined.

  • the keep

    Hospitals are under threat in Northern Ireland because SF refuses to let Stormont have a working government.

  • 1729torus

    You can’t cleanly separate cooperation over Brexit and and the question of Irish unity. To ensure the four freedoms are active on the island of Ireland, you need a sufficiently uniform regulatory and legal space. That in term implies some kind of political unity or coordination.

    Up to this point, the EU acted as an overarching political structure that managed these questions. What form would the new arrangements take out of all the possible permutations?

    For the sake of illustration, one scenario is that the UK becomes a pure rule taker, and NI needs Ireland to represent it in the EU. Gavin Robinsion actually suggested that Ireland could play this role with the consent of the Executive.

    But there is no obligation on Dublin to respect the convention of cross-community consensus. An SF foreign minister could just take whatever the majority of MLAs support as NI’s position on whatever question is at hand. How are the DUP going to convince Dublin make the effort on their behalf without eventually finding themselves making pilgrimages down south? Especially since FG are in a mood to make them do a walk of penance over their rude behaviour.

    Of course, the nationalists have SF in the Dáil to lobby for them as of now, and more all-Ireland parties will emerge over time.

    Such considerations partially explain why the DUP and TUV are so desperate for Irexit.

  • A Bit Left and a Bit Lost

    I strongly agree here. I think there will be a massive “greening” of Northern Ireland over the next 10 years but not necessarily re-unification movement…

  • A Bit Left and a Bit Lost

    Leo Varadkar is Jon Snow, Arlene Foster is (Daenyrs/Cersei as per your political leaning) and Brexit is the White Walker Army.

    It’s coming either way so best be prepared and have some common goals…

  • Pang

    They are socialists in the populist way – more free stuff, complain about the rich etc. I don’t think they are intelectually socialist in the 1970s pipe & arran jumper way they used to be.

  • Stephen Kelly

    (The Irish government has already played the green card and it will always put the state interest ahead of co-operation.)
    And quite right to in my opinion just like the British would and always have done maybe you can dig up the very odd occasion the British didn’t because it didn’t really matter.

  • murdockp

    But sinn Fein are also a minority in ireland. Stats not dissimilar to DUP.

    If DUP engaged on Irish unification with FG and FF then SF could be made an irrelevance.

  • murdockp

    But sinn Fein are also a minority in ireland. Stats not dissimilar to DUP.

    If DUP engaged on Irish unification with FG and FF then SF could be made an irrelevance.

  • murdockp

    Well they are never going to be in government DUP stand a better chance of being a junior coalition partner in a United Ireland.

  • murdockp

    Well they are never going to be in government DUP stand a better chance of being a junior coalition partner in a United Ireland.

  • ChequerChesireCat

    I do agree, DUP would have significant numbers to be un-ignorable and a better match for FG.

  • tmitch57

    The Catholic middle class(es) is the natural constituency of the SDLP. Sinn Fein seems quite content to let the SDLP gradually attrite over time, as long as it continues to gain targeted seats on a regular basis or even schedule. But its members might be what prevents Sinn Fein from winning a future referendum on the border.

  • tmitch57

    According to the leavers they voted for Brexit because of a feeling that Britain had lost its sovereignty. I don’t see how retention of NI in the UK is a challenge to that sovereignty. And those who object to immigrants probably don’t find the Irish in NI nearly as objectionable and off-putting as they do the Eastern and Southern Europeans.

  • tmitch57

    Or it could be argued–and has been repeatedly by chroniclers of the peace process–that the IRA gave up the long war because they realized that it wouldn’t deliver their objective and would prevent them from the consolation prize of power through mandatory power sharing. So the border is off the table–except for agitation purposes–until they are likely to appear to be victorious. In the meantime those other red lines can be useful for building up support among its various constituencies.

  • file

    Just back from the mainland, and France was a quare reminder of how backward we are in terms of aesthetics in our villages and towns. But anyway, the Bretons I spoke to were definitely Breton but happy about living in the political entity of France; they had no desire for independence or for violence against the state, but were equally secure in their own identity as Breton. Just like I am about being Irish while living in the political entity of the UK. Now to flip it around – and without introducing new political machinations – if we reverse partition and have Ireland as a single country again, can those citizens in the north west who are wedded to their identity as British not just have that identity (a la bretonne) without needing a political expression of it in terms of commonwealth membership, british isles confederation, etc, etc.? I have siad before that were China to invade the UK tomorrow, that would not suddenly make me Chinese. Is the British identity of unionists so fragile that it could not withstand Irish re-unification?

  • eamoncorbett

    Could you explain your last sentence a little better, you appear to have stated that the Irish in NI are immigrants, if so when did they arrive , where did they emigrate from and how would they go back .
    As far as I know the last substantial immigration to North East Ireland was in the 1600s and again in around 2005 . There are no records available showing large numbers arriving between these dates.

  • Zeno

    So all those calls for a Border Poll in what seems like every 6 weeks or so are just meaningless? And all those claims that Unionists are afraid of a border poll and that’s why they won’t allow one just meaningless? Gerry Adams saying we will have a UI soon is just meaningless? We know the last one is certainly nonsense.

  • tmitch57

    I can how you might infer that, but that was not my intention. I merely note that for those in Britain who provided the votes for Brexit it was the issues of sovereignty and the presence of large numbers of foreigners for whom English is a second language that made the difference. This does not apply to either of the communities in Northern Ireland.

  • Patrick Jones

    Interesting point. If SF are partners in the future Irish Government, how can that Government then act as a guarantor on GFA

    The Agreement must then fail

  • eamoncorbett

    Agree.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Ok, so maybe they aren’t socialists. What do you think they are then if they aren’t socialists? Communists? Conservatives? What do you think?

  • Zeno

    Populist opportunists.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I don’t think the two examples you gave to prove they weren’t socialists could be deemed populist opportunism. You’re obviously not attempting to make a serious point.

  • Zeno

    Why not? Both measures are popular with their own supporters .

  • Karl

    We can only hope