Working towards Irish Unity




If a Border Poll is to be won then the current Sinn Fein strategy will need to be radically re-calibrated

A guest post by writer and political strategist Jon Egan.

This may seem like a strange time to offer a note of scepticism for the prospects of a United Ireland, and an especially untimely moment to question the role of Sinn Fein as a party capable of delivering the ultimate goal of the Republican struggle. Basking in the success of their recent local election triumph and enjoying unprecedented levels of popular support, north and south of the border, the party’s advance seems unstoppable. It’s little wonder that Michelle O’Neill felt “confident enough in her own skin” to be able to make what for many Republicans would have viewed the supreme treachery of attending a Royal Coronation. 

History, demographics, Brexit and the chaotic ineptitude of political unionism are  converging towards the seeming inevitability of Irish unification. A Border Poll, once a forlorn and distant aspiration is surely beginning to look like a highly winnable proposition?

So why, as someone who would strongly support the cause of Irish unification, do I believe that it remains an uncertain or even unlikely reality in the short to medium term, and why do I think that  the explanation for that prognosis rests in part with the shortcomings of a political party whose electoral progress is perceived as the rocket fuel for unification? To answer that question we need to look deep into the history and anatomy of Irish Nationalism, to critically deconstruct the narrative of national liberation that is still at the core of Sinn Fein’s politics, its iconography and its mythology.

Sinn Fein is not by any means a conventional or normal political party. Its paradigm is that of a national liberation movement, often proclaiming affinity and solidarity with national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles from South Africa to Palestine. There is of course an historic context for the forging of Sinn Fein’s ideology, and the potency of its appeal to Northern nationalists in particular. As the 26 Counties began its slow transition from colonial subjugation to national self-realisation, the North’s nationalist minority found themselves subject to an utterly unprecedented and brutally uncompromising variant of British rule. Paradoxically, those who had most vehemently opposed Home Rule now grasped the opportunity to establish what Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, James Craig proclaimed as a “Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.” Northern Unionism, and its cultural concomitant Loyalism, espoused a brand of Britishness entirely different to the effete unionists of The Ascendancy, so brilliantly illuminated by former Irish Times journalist, Brian Inglis, in his insightful memoir West Briton.

Partition and the creation of Northern Ireland decisively transformed the nature and fault lines of the nationalist struggle. Hitherto, the oppressor was an external and geographically distant entity, albeit with its local agents and beneficiaries. Partition fashioned a new dispensation in Northern Ireland where Britishness was a more overt, tangible and physically embodied reality – a demographic majority asserting their identity, monopolising political power and denying, not only equality, but any semblance of cultural legitimacy, to the nationalist / Catholic minority. If the Northern Ireland state was intent on sending a message to its congenitally disloyal and seditious minority, it  was that you don’t belong here.

There is one incident from my childhood that serves as a perfect parable for what might be termed the dialectic of belonging. It is the legendary exchange between my father and a member of the B Specials, when on a family holiday, we travelled North to visit my mother’s family in Newry. (Ostensibly an auxiliary constabulary, the B Specials were in effect the quasi-military enforcers of partition.) Crossing the border was always a tense, and for my proudly patriotic father, a deeply traumatising experience. On this occasion the unpalatable confrontation with partition was compounded by the presence of armed B Specials at the crossing. (In the mid 1960’s this was less of a security precaution, than an aggressive assertion that this border is going nowhere.) Recognising my father’s unmistakable Southern accent, albeit in a UK registered car, the B Special enquired, somewhat provocatively,so what business have you got in Northern Ireland? My father’s response, I rather think that its me, who should be asking you, what youre doing in my country, may have been courageous, was  definitely foolhardy, but it also betrayed as aspect of the nationalist mind-set that now coloured its perception of the Northern Protestant and Unionist presence on the island – it’s you who dont belong here.

As the nationalist campaign for civil rights and fundamental equality in the late 1960’s morphed tragically into sectarian strife and communal violence, the dialectic of belonging became an even more visceral reality in the daily life of The Troubles. Residents violently evicted from once mixed neighbourhoods, barricades, no-go areas, “peace walls” and territories marked out by flags, murals and appropriately hued curbstones exposed a society seemingly divided by irreconcilable identities and aspirations – people who literally challenge each other’s right to occupy the same physical space. For the nationalist project, the struggle against British rule also became a struggle against the entire edifice of Britishness and those who defended it or even adhered to its cultural identity. 

And herein lies the dissonance between the rhetoric of a New Ireland and Sinn Fein’s unreconstructed narrative of national liberation. For Sinn Fein, PIRA’s military campaign was “necessary” – one more phase in an historical struggle against a foreign oppressor and the sectarian state they had enforced on Northern Nationalists. For Unionists, PIRA’s armed struggle was a murderous campaign of terrorism focused not against an unjust political settlement, but against them, their identity, their culture and their right to exist. 

If today Sinn Fein is offering a window into a New Ireland, then from the Unionist viewpoint it offers a depressingly familiar vista. The Republican movement may have decommissioned its weapons, but it is yet to  decommission the iconography ofthearmed struggle or its narrative of national liberation. At the core of Sinn Fein’s identity and ideology is an almost sacred bond of continuity with the icons and martyrs of the cause, what journalist Brian Feeney described as “the mystical phoenix flame of Irish Republicanism.”  This mythic dimension, a powerful emotional appeal to identity and belonging, has been invaluable in enabling Sinn Fein to secure a legitimacy and prestige for the nationalist identity in Northern Ireland, that neither the old Nationalist Party or the SDLP could possibly have achieved. But it is also the very factor that inhibits the Republican party’s capacity to engage beyond its base, and build a broader consensus for Irish unification.

Northern Ireland is still a deeply traumatised society. The shadow and memory of The Troubles is a lived reality, that continues to impact on the lives of its people, even those born after the Good Friday Agreement. Simply ceasing military operations and laying down weapons was not enough to legitimise or normalise Sinn Fein as a democratic party in the eyes of Northern Ireland’s unionist community, or indeed some within the nationalist and non-aligned communities whose votes would be required to carry a Border Poll mandate for unification.

Integral to Sinn Fein’s identity, and  its sense of its historic mission, is a cult of commemoration – part of the weirdly mimetic relationship that both divides and connects Northern Ireland’s Republican and Loyalist traditions. Marches, memorials and murals are the visible means by which these polar ideologies delineate their respective territories and assert their competing claims of legitimacy and belonging. But are gable-end hagiographies of Republican martyrs, and Volunteer Commemoration Days days with “refreshments and kids entertainment” genuine signposts to a New Ireland?

Despite the best efforts of the UK Arts Council’s Re-imaging Communities initiative, murals’ tour guide Peter Hughes  sees the artworks as freeze-frame images of historic mistrust and division,“If you were told for your whole lifetime, ‘Don’t go there, it’s very dangerous,’ then today, ‘The gates are open, you can come across,’ it’s very difficult for a whole generation of people to become convinced of that.” So, at what point in the distant future will Northern Ireland’s public realm be free of images that commemorate and celebrate conflict and division? Shouldn’t those advocating a new dispensation be leading by example?

When Sinn Fein MLA, Declan Kearney, tells unionists that their “British identity, Unionist traditions and Orange culture will have more guarantees within a new Irish national democracy, than under current arrangements with English politicians of any stripe,” his reassurances still sound like they are framed within the dialectic of belonging. At best, he is offering a respect or tolerance for a culture, that from the perspective of traditional nationalism, and Sinn Fein’s brand of republicanism, is still viewed as alien – historically and dialectically opposed to Irishness.

Advocates of a New Ireland have to open new windows and begin to describe a politics, a culture, and a life that is qualitatively different from the dismal stalemate of a seemingly ungovernable Northern Ireland.   A New Ireland needs a new and expansive sense of Irishness that views the British identity in Ireland, not as an historic relic to be excised over time, (or preserved as a cultural anomaly in discrete Northern reservations), but as a constituent and intrinsic part of Irishness, deeply imprinted in its language, culture and institutions. If Doug Beattie’s Britishness is commodious enough to admit his Irishness, then Irishness must reciprocate with equal flexibility and generosity.

If a Border Poll is to be won, then the current Sinn Fein strategy will need to be radically re-calibrated. Even if one accepts the 50% plus 1 mandate for constitutional change, voting, polling and demographic evidence all suggest that this is far from an achievable objective in the short term. Leo Varadkar is right to warn that a poll at the present time could actually set back the cause and timeline for unification. A New Ireland cannot be envisaged or delivered simply as the consummation of the age old nationalist struggle, but perhaps as something that already has a potentially larger and more inclusive political constituency – the yearning for normality.

For Alliance, the local elections were a disappointment, while disgruntled Ulster Unionist and SDLP members are already beginning to express frustration that the intelligent and progressive leadership of Doug Beattie and Colum Eastwood hasn’t stemmed their party’s electoral declines. But collectively, the three parties polled more (32.9%) than either Sinn Fein (30,9%) or the DUP (22.3%) and represent a significant demographic that wants the kind of consensual democratic governance that Northern Ireland seems unable to deliver.

As an historic solution to communal division, partition has proved to be a largely catastrophic and self-defeating prescription. In India, Israel-Palestine and Northern Ireland it has simply legitimised and hardwired racial or religious antagonisms and reified the dialectic of belonging. A New Ireland will become an attractive and winnable proposition not when nationalists outnumber unionists, but when enough people in  Northern Ireland see it as a better, more stable, more prosperous and more inclusive option to the gross abnormality of a dysfunctional and divided status quo.  In the course of a Twitter exchange I posed the question to an agnostic unionist, if the vote share between Sinn Fein and the SDLP in the local elections had been reversed, would the prospect of a New Ireland seem more credible and attractive?  I think we can all guess the response. 

So let me conclude with some unsolicited advice to Sinn Fein, as someone who supports a New Ireland as the most viable means of ending division and enmity on the island. On the one hand, the party could simply try harder. Sinn Fein could follow through the logic of decommissioning and shed the iconography of narrow nationalism and its cult of commemoration. It could open up new vistas into what a New Ireland would look and feel like; a society without demarcated territories and omnipresent symbols of allegiance and division.

Or alternatively, and more radically, it could try something completely different. It could complete its transition from a national liberation movement to a modern centre-left democratic party by becoming the agency for a transformative realignment of Irish politics. Would a unified left, bringing together Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Irish Labour Party and the Social Democrats, be the logical and normal aspiration for politics in a New Ireland? Has the party now fulfilled its historic purpose, and become as obsolete as its disbanded military wing? Does what Sinn Fein describes as “the next phase of the peace process” need more than “new skins,” leaders untarnished by association with PIRA’s military campaign, but entirely new political configurations and agendas? I doubt that either of these options appear attractive to a party that believes it is riding the crest of an historic wave, destined for power in both parts of a divided island. But I also doubt that Sinn Fein has the the breadth of appeal beyond its base, to achieve a mandate for unification in a Border Poll. In fact, paradoxical as it may seem, it might be the single biggest obstacle to the realisation of its long cherished political goal.

Jon Egan is a writer and political strategist. He formerly worked for the UK Labour Party and as a researcher, media adviser and speech writer for Labour politicians.