“We appeal urgently to you Taoiseach,” it concludes, “and to the Irish Government, to reassure us of your commitment to stand for equality and a human-rights based society and your determination to secure and protect the rights of all citizens in the North of Ireland. ”
Varadkar’s office responded promptly by saying the way to address these issues is to restore devolution. Given Northern nationalism’s growing ambivalence and even hostility towards Stormont, that may not have been quite the response desired.
The passion behind those who signed the letter is clear and unambiguous. They’re really not happy with the way things are panning out in Northern Ireland. You can see the same disgruntlement daily on social media channels.
Sinn Fein’s increasingly reflexive and ever expanding abstentionism and the unfortunate timing of the letter as a solution hoved into view, means that…
…now Brexit, the context behind Sinn Féin’s strategy, is starting to yield to political solutions in the party’s absence. This looks like losing – and the resulting unease and confusion naturally extends to the wider nationalist community, which gives Sinn Féin over 70 per cent of its vote.
Unionists are increasingly told they do not understand how angry nationalists are, how this has destroyed moderate acquiescence to the union and how it will trigger an imminent Border poll and Irish unification.
Yet for Sinn Féin, anger has reached its limit as a policy. Polls show the party’s support has peaked, while centrist Alliance and Green voters – the critical swing constituency– are dismayed by the suspension of Stormont.
Anger-as-suboptimal-agency is an element which commentators often miss in the heady tribal atmosphere of what passes for politics in Belfast these days. It is a direct result of that confusion Newton mentions above, which I’ll come back to at the end.
He also notes, “nationalist anger only makes it harder for Sinn Féin to restore devolution”. So, the Taoiseach’s direct and uncomplicated response to Monday’s letter was chillingly direct. Nor is it likely to be the end of the matter:
Dublin’s tough stance on Brexit is the first cheering news Northern nationalists feel they have heard in years and they have responded with a striking mood of allegiance to the Republic.
The risk in this for Sinn Féin is that its supporters will go over its moribund head and look directly to Dublin – a development that would amount, in all-Ireland political terms, to cutting out the republican middle-man.
In my view, Sinn Fein’s internal confusion arises from a flaw in its approach to the peace process and its historic mission within it: which is to effect an authentic transformation of the conflict into a popular momentum capable of unifying the island.
To do so while transitioning from conflict to peace needs an adequate translation of its own values with enough integrity and accuracy so the world they describe continues to make sense to them, their would-be followers and even their opponents.
Let’s just say that translation work has not been as accurate or as reliable as it could have been up to now.
As my friend John Kellden has noted, “no old beliefs, no old, increasingly obsolete paradigms, no old myths, no old ideas, no matter how well worn will stem the quest, the adventure, the movement, the drawing forth, the surfacing” of new challenges.
There’s a cold logic to Newton’s final paragraph. Much as unionism is inclined to continually check and punish the poor performance of it’s elected politicians…
History shows that once Northern nationalists spy a more promising vehicle for their aspirations they switch to it rapidly. The prospect written between the lines of this week’s letter is of Sinn Féin sidelining itself.
That vehicle has not yet arrived. But seeing an Irish government calmly effect even the prospect of change rather than blaming their opponents for ongoing failures has created an excitement and expectation that SF, on its current trajectory, will struggle to emulate or channel.