So how’s the Irish reunification campaign coming along ?
According to Sinn Féin President, Mary Lou McDonald, there doesn’t need to be one, because it’s already been won. A few days ago, speaking to Owen Jones, McDonald said of a United Ireland : ‘We’ll do it in the next decade. We’ll do it in this decade, actually.’
This is an example of the nationalist equivalent of the ‘inevitability doctrine’ I wrote about a few months back. In my previous article, I noted how Unionist politicians assume middle-ground support for the union on the basis of several faulty assumptions, such as the idea that the middle classes really don’t want to have to pay for the fire brigade if their house burns down, or that they really badly want free access to a failing healthcare system. Their nationalist counterparts seem to think that brexit and the EU have killed the union, that the debate is over (apparently before it started) and the middle ground votes needed to secure reunification are in the bag.
It is not clear when exactly the interview with Jones was recorded, but it comes at the end of a difficult few weeks for the Sinn Féin surrounding controversial comments being made by certain TDs. I don’t wish to relitigate those here, but if the Sinn Féin President is trying to use headline-grabbing remarks about the prospect of unity to distract the press from internal issues in her party, it implies a certain flippancy towards what an outside observer might reasonably expect to be her party’s primary policy platform. It does not say much for their dedication to the cause if it is to be reduced to a handy way to distract members and the public from more difficult controversies.
Turning to the prediction that unity will happen within the decade, we should remember that assertions of this kind by republicans are nothing new; they began following the onset of the troubles in the early 1970s. The Provisional IRA used to tell its supporters that one last big heave would push the British out. Later, in 1998, Sinn Féin leaders said that the Good Friday Agreement was a stepping stone to a united Ireland. In 2000, Gerry Adams predicted that reunification would happen by 2016. Martin McGuinness reiterated this in 2003, practically echoing word for word the comments of McDonald nearly two decades later.
Like a far-out cult predicting the Rapture, it is clear that Irish republicans have an innate need to tell their support base that victory is imminent. McDonald’s commentary on the timing of unity must therefore be seen not as a credible or insightful prediction of likely events, but as a manifestation of the dogma that she is expected to pay lip service to in her role.
It is, of course, none of my business how Sinn Féin sells itself to its activists and supporters. But there are wider concerns associated with a political party telling people that the argument is over and has been won. It sends the message that activists don’t have to do any difficult work, make any compromises or sell out any principles in order to reach their objective. It also means that there is no need for Sinn Féin to modify any aspect of its own platform or behaviour – after all, if victory has already been secured, why entertain the possibility that your own strategy might be failing ?
There are other aspects in which the overall message of complacency manifests itself. While refusing to take action to tell its own base to prepare for unity, for example by explaining to supporters that there might be hard choices to face over healthcare or public spending, the party spends a great deal of effort insisting that others must start taking risks and doing the work. Assisted by various astroturf front groups (often characterised in the press as civic nationalists) they constantly lobby the Irish government, the Taoiseach, and others, via open letters and petitions, to prepare for unity. They are effectively demanding that the Irish government endorse the inevitability doctrine, while refusing to specify exactly what it is they think the government needs to do. In a moment of spectacular hubris, Upper Bann MLA John O’Dowd, welcoming the victory of President-elect Biden, suggested that perhaps the US President could become a ‘persuader for unity’. Not only is t is a strange day when a party historically dedicated to Irish self-determination and sovereignty publicly calls for foreign interference in Irish political affairs, but it is interesting how even senior Sinn Féin elected representatives seek to outsource the work of persuasion, apparently – and perhaps subconsciously – conceding they are incapable of doing it themselves.
Continuing the theme around inevitability and complacency, another trait I’ve noticed in this debate is the assumption that outside factors or events can be relied upon to deliver the unity outcome – the “Hail Mary pass”. For as long as I can remember, republicans have believed that the RC birth rate would eventually put an end to the union. This is telling, because it shows that those who advocate it believe that they will never be able to persuade Protestants to support reunification and they believe that Catholics will never be against it. I wonder what Wolfe Tone would have made of this idea.
Lately, I have heard them say that brexit will deliver unity, or that Scottish independence will make unity more likely. Faced with difficult questions around the cost of implementing unity, they say that perhaps the British, the EU, the UN or the USA might chip in to help. The overall theme is the same – unity is inevitable; other people are expected to help make it happen; and those who are being asked to vote for it will not be expected to face any hardship.
It’s not only Sinn Féin who suffer from this problem. Several weeks ago, Colum Eastwood stood up in the House of Commons and asked the Secretary of State to outline the criteria for calling a border poll. Eastwood must have known that the UK government would not, and will never, answer this question. He asked not to get an answer, but to play to the gallery who think that making demands of others without actually doing anything amounts to an active campaign. So far, no nationalist appears to have publicly admitted that nationalists must do what the Scots did – they must demonstrate a degree of political support, either in an election or in the assembly, that the Secretary of State cannot ignore. That nationalism is unwilling to propose this suggests a lack of confidence, which is indicative of the deeper problem I am highlighting here.
All of this goes a long way to explaining why, four years after brexit, Irish nationalism has singularly failed to either launch a coherent Irish unity campaign, or to politically capitalise on brexit. In Wales, support for Plaid Cymru has maintained roughly steady – of course, still very far from an endorsement of independence, but a noticeable shift. In Scotland, the SNP are below their historic peak vote share from 2015, but are set to sweep the board at the next Scottish parliamentary election and are widely expected to push for a second Independence referendum, with almost every poll predicting that they will win it. Yet, in Northern Ireland, Irish nationalism is sitting at 41%, its vote share gradually and consistently falling to that point ever since the 45.4% peak result it scored in the 1999 European Parliament election. In the 2019 Westminster election, Sinn Féin not only handed back all the gains from their 2017 surge, but a further 2 percentage points, finding themselves at a 20-year low in terms of vote share.
Psychologically, nationalists seem to be trying to construct a political framework whereby campaigning for the thing they desire – unity – is somehow not their job. They just have to wait around for the Irish government to act, or for Scottish independence to happen, or for the demographics to be right, or for the UK to mess up Brexit, or for Joe Biden to sweep in and fix it for them. In the meantime they seem to content themselves with group therapy sessions where they congratulate themselves on all the “work” they are doing, talk about how great unity will be when it happens, how nice they’re going to be to to the British-identifying minority (a few compliant examples are typically invited along to underpin the mutual back-slapping sessions), and how they’re going to correct all the problems that we have – with, of course, the generous assistance of the Irish taxpayer whose fulsome support is taken as read. There are no serious discussions of compromises, costs, sacrifices or difficult decisions, because they tell themselves that there do not need to be any.
All of this creates danger for the long term future of the island of Ireland. We can’t afford a brexit style, vote-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to unity. Yet in lobbying for a quick border poll without it being underpinned first either by a plan or a political mandate, this is exactly what Sinn Féin seem to be trying to do. An Irish unity process which is decoupled from the parties which advocate unity within Northern Ireland is built on a foundation of sand, in the same way that the UK’s departure from the European Union is.
I can’t speak for everyone in the centre ground, but I can share my own perspective. I have no problem with Irish unity, and I believe it can be made to work and work well. But I’m not going to be bounced either into a border poll or a Yes vote by people who have no interest in going out on a limb for their values and who think they can take my support for granted and I will certainly not support any unity plan that is built on handouts. But most importantly of all, I want to understand what the strategy nationalists will have to addressing community divisions post-reunification. I want to see real proof that nationalism won’t allow the same mistakes that were made in 1920 to be repeated. Writing British citizens into the constitution isn’t enough; nationalism needs to go out of its way to demonstrate how the concerns of the Unionist minority will be facilitated; how we will handle sensitive commemorations of the RUC, RIC, British Army and others, and how the British government will be have real, enforceable power to act as a guarantor for the rights and fair treatment of those who assert British citizenship.
All of this must form part of a blueprint which nationalist political parties within Northern Ireland must endorse before any referendum occurs. It’s not sufficient to hold the border poll first, brexit style, and see where the cards fall – this will destabilise the entire island of Ireland. Rather than continuing to push for a border poll for a fantasy unity project, Northern nationalists must publish their detailed manifesto for a future Ireland.
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centre-leftish waffler working in IT and living in Belfast
Alliance, but writing in a strictly personal capacity.