Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney to the Oireachtas Good Friday Agreement Committee: "I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime. If possible, in my political lifetime.”
— Hugh O'Connell (@oconnellhugh) November 23, 2017
And so would I.
I have another post planned about what a united Ireland might look like, but in this post I want to talk about how we get there.
The Brexit vote in the UK has renewed talk of a united Ireland in a way few thought possible in recent years, and there’s polling to back it up.
When it comes to leaving the EU and staying in the UK, or leaving the UK (and joining the Republic) to stay in the EU, Northern Irish voters are split.
Leave EU, stay w/ UK: 45%
Join w/ Republic, stay in EU: 48%
— Britain Elects (@britainelects) December 7, 2017
But, opinion polls are one thing. Actually voting in a border poll is an entirely different matter.
To get to the magic 50%+1 required by the Good Friday Agreement, some people who have previously been content for the north to remain in the UK will have to vote for a united Ireland. Of course, we don’t just want that minimum standard; to make a good start on building the inclusive united Ireland we want, we’d obviously want as many former neutrals and unionists as possible to support it. The question is how we achieve this.
I am about to make myself very unpopular with a large segment of the nationalist community, so best to just say it straight out: I see no path whatsoever to achieving this with Sinn Féin as the main political force of nationalism.
The reason for that should be pretty clear, in part at least. Sinn Féin’s history and association with the IRA makes them politically toxic to unionists and neutrals. They may have agreed to share power in Stormont, but we’ve seen how the DUP effectively used the fear of a Sinn Féin First Minister to become the dominant unionist party. The recent Barry McElduff controversy has shown just how high emotions still run at memories of the conflict – and nationalist memories are just as long, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. Any move towards a united Ireland which could be seen primarily as a Sinn Féin victory, would be seen or framed by many, if not most, unionists as an IRA victory, and they will fight that tooth and nail.
But more than just that; the argument in favour of a united Ireland isn’t going to be won by appealing to nationalist emotion, which is Sinn Féin’s central message. One of the key drivers of nationalism in the north was the discrimination against nationalists by the Unionist government. That’s now long in the past, and post Good Friday Agreement, there’s plenty of potential nationalists who have become comfortable with the status quo – the degree of integration, ease of travel, invisibility of the border, GAA on the BBC – it was becoming easy to settle and just get on with life. Appeals to emotions and the memory of Pearse, Collins, and De Valera alone won’t persuade those – so what hope does it have to persuade others?
No, the arguments which will make this happen are those which affect people’s day to day lives, and that is economics. We have to persuade people that they will be better off in a united Ireland, if we want to see it happen in our lifetimes. Sinn Féin is not going to win that argument. Any case they make can be too easily painted as biased – regardless if it is or not.
Long story short: Sinn Féin is never going to persuade the people who need to be persuaded.
So, if not them, who? I see three potential options, two of which I don’t think will work.
Option one: the SDLP. I really can’t see this one happening. They’ve declined massively, mostly due to being seen as not nationalist enough, too willing to accept the status quo, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll have a resurgence any time soon. They could make the case to the middle ground and persuadable unionists, but Sinn Féin would still be leading in the nationalist community, and that doesn’t solve the problem.
Option two: a centrist party, making the case for a united Ireland on purely practical grounds. I suppose Alliance or the Greens could theoretically take this spot, but I can’t see either breaking their neutrality, so if this were to happen, it would have to be a new party. Such a new party would come without baggage, so they won’t have to same stigma that Sinn Féin has, and they could persuade others. But then we’d essentially have a Judean People’s Front problem.
I don’t really see a new party dislodging Sinn Féin amongst nationalists. So the same problems remain.
Option three: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael run candidates in the north. It’s not a new idea – Fianna Fáil passed an ardfheis motion to do so back in 2014, with Micheál Martin setting 2019 as a target, and Omagh Town councillor Sorcha McAnespy was recently elected to Fianna Fáil’s Ard Comhairle. I think this would work. Here’s why.
First, there’s no Judean People’s Front problem.
OK, technically, there is, but it’s 90 years old.
Yes, they would be running for the first time and splitting the nationalist vote, but they’re not new. They’re both bigger than Sinn Féin on the island of Ireland. It wouldn’t be a split, it would be the big fish coming in. They’ve also got the party structures to be able to make it happen.
Second, as a corollary to that, it’s plausible that they could take over from Sinn Féin as the voice of nationalism. A choice between Sinn Féin and the pale green SDLP (as many consider them), or a new party, would be one thing, but a choice between Sinn Féin and the Government of Ireland is completely different. They have nationalist credibility from their position.
Third, they don’t have the historical stigma that Sinn Féin has to live with. I’m under no illusions, I know the DUP will scream bloody murder if it happens (like they do over anything which even hints towards a United Ireland), but they can’t be painted with the same brush. So an economic and practical message coming from them would have a credibility that Sinn Féin won’t ever have, in my opinion. This would mean that moderates could conceivably vote for them – and it’s worth remembering that a former UUP councillor did defect to Fianna Fáil before.
Fourth, and very importantly, it would normalise northern politics with the rest of the country. There’s currently only three all-Ireland parties; Sinn Féin, the Green Party, and PBP. Add Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael into the mix and that makes five. Six, if the SDLP would merge with Labour, which I think would be on the cards, because they’d almost certainly lose members, votes, and seats to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and probably be too small to function as a separate unit. That would make the Assembly basically look the same as the Dáil, with just the unionists and Alliance as northern-only parties. Alliance might even see some departures too.
That normalisation would also have the effect of demonstrating to unionists that they have nothing to fear in a united Ireland.
One last question to answer: does it make sense for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to make the move, for themselves as parties? I think it does, even aside from nationalist ambition. Two reasons why.
Party politics is the first: no party has ever objected to new members, or turned down an opportunity for growth, and this would be a biggie. It would also let them get a jump on Sinn Féin. Obviously they’re not as worried as some British cabinet ministers would have us believe:
Iain Duncan Smith believes Ireland's position on the Irish border is down to the Presidential election and Sinn Fein. pic.twitter.com/tBl96ODH2A
— Ryan McAleer (@RyanMcAleerbiz) November 28, 2017
For anyone reading who isn’t particularly familiar with Irish presidential elections, the next one is next November, the incumbent – Michael D. Higgins – is phenomenally popular and pretty much guaranteed to win if he runs again, and the president has almost no power – it’s mostly a ceremonial role. So, not really something the main parties are too bothered about, to be honest.
But Sinn Féin do have 23 TDs, 7 Senators, and around 16% of the vote in the south. I’m sure Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would jump at the chance to get some of those back. Eating into Sinn Féin’s support in the north would be a major victory and PR coup, and it’s hard to see how Sinn Féin wouldn’t take at least some hit from it in the south .
The second reason is Brexit. We know what a severe impact can have on Ireland, and the complexity of the issues surrounding the north (I wrote about some in my post on the European Parliament). Imagine we had a party with a voice on both sides of the table – with the EU27 as the Irish Government, and on the other side as part of a Stormont parliament and maybe even an Executive?
So, why haven’t they done it already? I’m guessing the main reason is just the inertia of history – they haven’t done it yet. It would take effort, organisation, commitment, and would cost money. Elections are expensive. Building an organisation in the north from scratch, even for a large party, is quite an undertaking. There’s the risk of failure, too.
I think it’s a risk worth taking, though, and I hope that they agree.