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From Brexit to a United Ireland

The crisis surrounding Britain’s break with the EU has revitalized support for Irish unity. Yet with Brexit still hanging in the balance, Sinn Féin’s path to its historic goal is anything but clear.

Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O'Neill addresses party members and the media as she attends the launch of the party's European Parliament election manifesto and their candidate Martina Anderson at the Waterfront Hall on May 13, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

The European elections are the only time when both parts of Ireland vote for a parliament that exercises authority — however limited — over the whole island. Sinn Féin is the only party with real political heft on both sides of the border: it currently has MEPs representing all four Irish constituencies, north and south (four seats out of fourteen in total).

If Brexit does go ahead, this will be the last all-Ireland vote for the European parliament. But Sinn Féin is hoping to use Britain’s departure from the EU as a way to secure a united Ireland, the party’s overriding political goal.

The success of its candidates in this week’s elections (held in the North on Thursday, and the rest of Ireland on Friday) will give us some idea of how Sinn Féin’s project is faring. However, the real test of its strategy is still to come.

Afterthought Made Flesh

When the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was negotiated in 1998, Sinn Féin and the IRA had already lowered their sights dramatically. After years of demanding a firm British commitment to pull out of Northern Ireland, the republican movement entered into a peace process that was bound to preserve British rule over the region, at least for the time being.

The Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams hoped the peace talks would create strong cross-border institutions that had the potential to expand: with luck, those institutions might form the nucleus of a future all-Ireland government.

As the ink dried on the text of the GFA, it was clear that Adams and his comrades hadn’t got what they were looking for.

Their unionist negotiating partner, David Trimble, was a legal scholar with a keen eye for detail. He made sure that the all-Ireland structures created by the agreement were tightly ring-fenced, with little room to expand unless Northern Ireland’s unionist majority agreed to it.

Two decades on, bodies like the North/South Ministerial Council, which bring together cabinet ministers from the two Irish polities, are so obscure that most people have only the sketchiest idea of what they do.

As a consolation prize for Irish nationalists, the GFA included a clause that mandated Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary to call a referendum on Irish unity, ‘if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’

The vagueness of the clause suggested it was little more than an afterthought: it was left to a British government minister to determine whether people were likely to vote for Irish unity. There was a circular logic to the whole idea, since the only sure way of finding out would be to call a referendum.

In any case, it seemed unlikely that the border-poll clause would be put to the test. Sinn Féin often referred to demographic surveys that showed a gradual increase in the size of Northern Ireland’s Catholic population. But there was no guarantee that such trends would result in greater support for a united Ireland.

On the eve of the June 2016 Brexit referendum, in many ways the prospect of Irish unity appeared more remote than ever.

Yet the crisis following the Leave vote has proven to be an unexpected windfall for Sinn Féin, raising big questions about the constitutional status quo.

Sounding the Alarm

The clearest proof of that comes not from the optimistic proclamations of Sinn Féin leaders, but from the warnings issued recently by the unionist politician Peter Robinson.

In a series of interventions over the course of 2018, former First Minister Robinson sounded the alarm about a referendum on Irish unity and warned his fellow unionists against complacency.

Robinson has played an ambiguous role in unionist politics since the GFA was signed. As the deputy leader of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), for many years he was seen as a pragmatic balm for Paisley’s uncompromising zeal.

He was a central player in the negotiations that resulted in a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP in 2007, after the two parties had overtaken their communal rivals.

But many DUP supporters were unhappy about the deal, and its accompanying mood music — especially the public bonhomie between Paisley and the former IRA chief Martin McGuinness.

Robinson eased Paisley into retirement by outflanking him on the Right, promising to take a more combative line towards Sinn Féin.

Crocodile Jeers

That approach was continued by Robinson’s successor as Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster.

As a result, power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties turned into a grinding war of attrition. Sinn Féin became increasingly frustrated with the DUP’s refusal to accept fairly modest reforms, such as the passing of an act to promote the Irish language.

There was also a bitter standoff over the public-spending cuts imposed by the Conservative government from London. Sinn Féin eventually gave way, agreeing to cut public sector employment under the terms of the Stormont House Agreement in 2014, and passing responsibility for implementing welfare cuts to Westminster the following year.

In the 2016 regional elections, Sinn Féin lost two seats in its urban heartlands to the left-wing People Before Profit Alliance. The nationalist vote dropped by 5 percent, suggesting a general mood of disillusionment with the power-sharing experiment.

The British Question

Brexit added salt to the wound for Irish nationalists: the vast majority of them voted for Remain, along with an overall majority of 56 percent in Northern Ireland as a whole, but the unionist DUP gave its enthusiastic support to the Leave campaign, which won out thanks to England’s demographic weight across the UK.

The last straw for Sinn Féin came when Arlene Foster refused to step aside temporarily for an inquiry that would address her role in the mismanagement of a renewable-heating scheme.

At the beginning of 2017, a meeting of republican activists in Belfast’s Felons Club gave the party leadership a clear message: it was time to pull the plug.

In his resignation statement, a terminally ill Martin McGuinness gave vent to his feelings of frustration with the DUP’s record in government. Soon afterwards, a snap regional election boosted Sinn Féin’s vote on the back of a sharp increase in turnout from nationalists.

The party came within a hair’s breadth of overtaking the DUP, and unionist parties no longer had a majority of seats, for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1920.

Saving May

One might have expected this to be a chastening experience for the DUP, but the party’s self-confidence received a major boost in June 2017 when the UK general election deprived Theresa May of her majority in parliament. The DUP’s ten Westminster seats suddenly became a precious asset as May struggled to keep her vision of Brexit on the road.

The mood induced by its newfound role as kingmaker discouraged Arlene Foster’s party from adopting a more conciliatory line towards Sinn Féin.

At the beginning of 2018, negotiations between the parties came close to reaching agreement for the restoration of power-sharing, on terms that should have been easily digestible for the DUP.

But when details of the package leaked out to the press, there was an outcry from DUP supporters and Foster quickly backed off.

The party is unlikely to get a better offer from Sinn Féin than was on the table at the start of last year.

Anxieties of Influence

Historians will probably look back on the period since 2017 as a time when the DUP traded short-term influence for long-term disadvantage. Its current position at Westminster relies upon an unusual alignment of forces that may never be repeated and is certainly beyond the DUP’s power to shape.

The party’s relationship with Theresa May has already soured over the terms of her Brexit deal with the EU, which its MPs have voted against.

Many British journalists assumed that the DUP would line up with the Tory Party’s hard-right Brexiteer ERG faction when it came to the crunch. But there’s a basic divergence of interests between them.

DUP politicians like Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Jr can rail against Brussels in terms that will delight any Brexiteer. However, their number one priority is to maintain the link between Northern Ireland and Britain.

They will oppose anything that weakens that link, even if it means giving up on Brexit.

Red, White, and Blue All Over

Peter Robinson’s warning about the prospect of a vote on Irish unity was intended to puncture any feelings of overconfidence the DUP’s cameo appearance at the heart of British politics may have induced.

Robinson complained that “too many unionists take the longevity of the Union for granted.” While there was little danger of a border poll as long as the Tories needed DUP votes at Westminster, he suggested, a Conservative government with an overall majority might call such a poll, “and a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Government certainly would.”

The main concern for Robinson and his co-thinkers is that Brexit will unsettle two vital constituencies: “soft nationalists” and “soft unionists.”

Both groups have a more pragmatic, transactional view of the Union than ideologues on either side of the constitutional fence. If British rule looks set to bring instability and economic disruption in its train, that may push them into the camp of its opponents.

Sinn Féin certainly hopes so.

Ironically, in view of his own record in government, Robinson urged the DUP not to get too hung-up over the question of an Irish language act: “I couldn’t care less about the Irish language. Let them speak it until they are green, white, and orange in the face, as long as it doesn’t encroach on me.”

Sensible advice for those who want to preserve the Union, although that does not mean Robinson’s party will take it to heart.

South of the Border

There is no straight path from Brexit — whatever form that assumes — to Irish unity. But it has at the very least introduced an element of flux that was hard to imagine just a few years ago.

It has also helped Sinn Féin to recover a sense of dynamism and forward movement, which has always been crucial for the party’s internal cohesion.

This opening came just as Sinn Féin had to face a more cramped political environment in the Republic of Ireland.

The appeal of militant Irish nationalism to southern voters has always been fairly limited. In theory, Sinn Féin’s rivals share its commitment to Irish unity; in practice, however, the major parties in Dublin are indifferent to the idea of a united Ireland, if not actively hostile.

The party’s electoral success in the South has relied heavily upon its image as a left-wing, anti-austerity force.

That message brought Sinn Féin to unprecedented heights after 2008, as part of a wider leftwards shift.

The high point of that growth came in the last European election in 2014, when Sinn Féin won almost 20 percent of the vote. The combined vote share for Sinn Féin, two radical-left parties, and independent candidates reached 42.6 percent.

In the general election two years later, support for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dipped below 50 percent. These two center-right parties won 69 percent of the vote in the last pre-crisis election and have led every government since the 1920s.

But Sinn Féin’s own score, just shy of 14 percent, was well below its polling figures over the previous year.

The only way to form a government lay through some kind of “grand coalition” deal between the conservative parties. Fianna Fáil agreed to help its traditional rival back into power. However, the party decided not to take any cabinet positions, preserving the fiction that it was still an opposition force.

As one right-wing commentator observed, the point of this arrangement was to keep the center-right in power “without putting Sinn Féin and the hard left in the position of being the only alternative government.”

Celtic Myths

So far, the grand coalition that dares not speak its name has held together. The Fine Gael premier Leo Varadkar has been lucky to preside over a period of economic stabilization after years of turmoil.

Supporters of the grinding austerity imposed at the Troika’s behest have presented the growth rates of recent times as a vindication of their policies.

Some of that “growth” is purely fictitious — the result of tax-avoidance strategies by Irish-based multinationals — but there has been an authentic decline in unemployment from its post-crisis peak.

In reality, the Troika programs ensured that Ireland’s recession was longer and deeper than it would otherwise have been. Real economic growth has been driven by high-tech, high-wage sectors — the very opposite of the Troika’s prescription for increasing competitiveness by reducing labor costs.

The eurozone settled down after a long period of turbulence because ECB chief Mario Draghi promised to do “whatever it takes” to defend the single currency, not because the programs imposed on countries like Ireland, Portugal, and Greece had been successful.

EU budgetary rules severely limit the scope for repairing the damage inflicted on public services by draconian cuts.

But the absence of economic shocks has made it easier for Varadkar’s administration to govern without a conventional majority in parliament.

The Brexit crisis has also been a boon of sorts for Varadkar, allowing him to cut a statesman-like figure at EU summits, associating his leadership with the “national interest.” Varadkar’s supporters like to contrast the maelstrom of British politics with the reassuring lack of political drama in Dublin.

The big EU member-states have generally supported the Irish government’s position in Brexit talks — not out of any concern for the rights of small nations, but because it suits them to do so. That has also been good news for the conservative parties, helping to defuse some of the animosity towards European institutions that built up after 2008

60:40

The upshot of these developments has been a stabilization of the political field, after five years that saw bigger electoral shifts than the previous five decades. Any hope of Sinn Féin vaulting past Fianna Fáil to become the second-largest party appears to have gone for now.

The average vote share for the two center-right parties in polls this year has been 55 percent, with Fine Gael usually well ahead of its rival. They’ve clawed back some lost ground, without reaching a point where the old pattern of alternation can be restored.

One alternative to the “grand coalition” would be to bring Sinn Féin into government as a junior partner. The party has already changed its policy to allow for that option.

At present, however, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ruled out any arrangement with Sinn Féin.

Their expressions of moral distaste for a would-be partner should be taken with a pinch of salt. More to the point is a concern reported by Fiach Kelly of the Irish Times: “Some Fianna Fáilers wonder if a party whose base is built on such a disenfranchised vote will be able to withstand the pressures and compromises of government.”

Kelly suggests that politics in the South now follows a “60:40” pattern, with 60 percent of the electorate broadly happy with the status quo and ready to support the center-right, while the remaining 40 percent of discontented, lower-income voters are still up for grabs.

That may prove to be highly contingent in the event of an economic downturn. But for now, Sinn Féin’s best hope of increasing its vote share lies through appealing to the large minority who reject the bromides of Dublin’s political establishment.

Votes won on that basis won’t be retained for long if the party can’t deliver anything substantial for its working-class constituents in government. Sinn Féin has the example of the Irish Labour Party, which lurched from all-time high to all-time low after putting the boot into its own supporters, to warn it against any hasty move.

The Next Round

The party doesn’t have a monopoly on the “angry vote,” as journalists rather patronizingly call it. The Irish parliament also hosts a medley of left-leaning independents, along with two radical-left parties, Solidarity and People Before Profit, which put forward a more uncompromising socialist agenda and rule out any pact with the center-right.

Solidarity’s predecessor, the Socialist Party, won a seat for Dublin’s European constituency at Sinn Féin’s expense in 2009. This time around, the forces on Sinn Féin’s left flank are fragmented and will struggle to put much of a dent in its vote.

The most likely outcome is that Sinn Féin will hold onto its existing seats, albeit with a lower vote share than in 2014. Combined with another poll-topping performance in Northern Ireland, that would leave the party leadership fairly content.

The big question now is whether the Conservative government can push some kind of Brexit deal through Westminster, after repeatedly failing to do so. One deadline has been missed already and every option from “no deal exit” to a second referendum is still being canvassed. It may, then, turn out to be a loss of patience from Britain’s negotiating partners that cuts this Gordian knot.

Sinn Féin’s strategy to bring about a united Ireland, which has followed a long and meandering path since the IRA called a ceasefire twenty-five years ago, no longer seems like an exercise in self-delusion. But what happens next will owe more to political developments in London and Brussels than in Belfast or Dublin.