Not within touching distance
Sinn Féin might appear, to some, to be on the cusp of realising the long-held dream of Irish reunification. However, if it happens, there would be a huge price to pay, argues Anne McShane
Saturday February 3 2024 was indeed a historic day. Northern Ireland - legislated into being in December 1920 as a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’, thereby allowing British imperialism to dominate the whole island of Ireland - now has a republican first minister, Michelle O’Neill.
The initial breakthrough came in the May 2022 assembly elections. Sinn Féin was returned as the largest party, beating the Democratic Unionist Party into second place. For the DUP, having withdrawn from power-sharing in February 2022 in protest at the post-Brexit protocol on trading arrangements, this was a resounding slap in the face. Its stand-off had backfired and it now faced the horror of having to go into a power-sharing government as second in command to republicans. Belligerent as ever, the DUP continued to refuse, much to the frustration of the people of the province, who had to suffer chaos and severe shortages in the health and social welfare systems in the absence of appointed ministers.
Finally, in January 2024, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson caved in under pressure from Westminster and announced that a deal had been done, which would allow his party to return to power-sharing. A DUP deputy first minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, was put forward, who is from a staunchly loyalist background. Her father, Noel Little, was a leading member of the loyalist paramilitary group, Ulster Resistance, and was arrested for gunrunning in the 1980s. He was also a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment - a Protestant-dominated regiment in the British army (which unlike other British regiments was never used for crowd control or riots in cities). However, along the border and in the countryside the UDR earned a reputation for undisguised sectarian behaviour, including the killing of Catholics because they were Catholics. Many UDR members had links with illegal loyalist paramilitary groups.
Little-Pengelly has a long association with the DUP’s core leadership, having been special advisor to Ian Paisley and Arlene Foster. In the grand tradition of unionism, she obdurately holds the IRA responsible for all the “terror” of the past. In her inaugural speech she declared that, while she is committed to work with Michelle O’Neill to solve the internal problems in health and social provision, she will never compromise on the union with Britain. No doubt Donaldson hopes she has the right background and attitude to satisfy those within his party who are openly critical of the return to Stormont.
In contrast, O’Neill made a far more conciliatory speech, presenting herself as a first minister for both republicans and unionists, and making it clear that, as far as she was concerned, the institutionalised inequality on which the statelet was founded has been eclipsed. She declared: “Yesterday is gone. My appointment reflects that change.” As a Catholic and republican she would not discriminate against unionists: “To all of you who are British and unionist: your national identity, culture and traditions are important to me. I will be both inclusive and respectful to you”. She was “sorry for all lives lost during the conflict - without exception”. Her appointment represented a “new dawn” for politics in Ireland and unity across the political spectrum was vital - not least to deal with the crisis in the health service.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald welcomed O’Neill’s appointment with a pronouncement that the event signalled the advent of a new era for Irish politics, with the prospect of a united Ireland being “in historic terms … within touching distance”. As leader of the all-Ireland Sinn Féin, she has been pushing hard in recent years for a border poll under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. But the procedure to trigger a poll makes it clear that it is entirely down to the discretion of the Northern Ireland secretary. Only if he or she decides it is likely 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” do they need to consider making an order to allow one to take place.
And there is little or no clarity on what should inform the Northern Ireland secretary’s decision. Some constitutional lawyers have argued that it could be triggered by a nationalist majority in the assembly or a Catholic majority in the census. In 2021 the census reported for the first time that the “proportion of the resident population which is either Catholic or brought up Catholic is 45.7%, compared to 43.48% Protestant”.1 And, while Sinn Féin is the largest party in Stormont, nationalist assembly members are still in a minority. And that does not include the Alliance Party, which is effectively unionist. In any event, as its leader, Naomi Long, has made clear, her party is not interested in being part of a united Ireland.
So the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, is unlikely to be under real pressure any time soon. And it is clear that he and his government would be deeply resistant to any bid to reunite Ireland. The British establishment is not only committed to holding onto Northern Ireland because it is constitutionally an integral part of the United Kingdom. There are strategic considerations too. The military top brass consider Ireland vital to defending the western approaches to the British Isles and are therefore committed to beefing up the naval and air presence in Northern Ireland.2 That will not change. Only if the working class in Britain breaks with the consensus over Northern Ireland and commits itself to fighting for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales and a united Ireland should we expect worthwhile change.
While Sinn Féin is still ahead of the governing parties in the Republic of Ireland, it has recently dropped significantly in the polls. Its leadership clearly hopes that success in Stormont will inspire an improvement in its standing down south in the months leading up to a general election later this year or in early 2025.
Its aim to be in government north and south is not an unrealistic one, but it will be in coalition in the south too. There is an ongoing debate over who its likely partner or partners will be. The Socialist Workers Network-led People before Profit has called for Sinn Féin to form a “left government” with various minor parties, including PBP. I think that this is an unlikely outcome, but if it happens, and it could, Sinn Féin would surely drag the left to the right, rather than the left dragging it to the left. Up to now neither of the main governing parties has needed or been willing to countenance government with it. But, with Sinn Féin becoming ever more mainstream, and having an all-Ireland profile, that view may well change.
What is certain, however, is Sinn Féin’s search for acceptability and therefore respectability, not least in the eyes of US Democrats. This was demonstrated recently in a controversy over Irish politicians going to the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States.
Every year government leaders travel to present a bowl of shamrock to the US president and smile for the cameras. This year is no exception. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will travel to meet Joe Biden, despite calls for a boycott in protest over US arming of and support for the Israeli genocidal attack on Gaza.
Yet Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald have also announced they are going to Washington. This is despite opposition from a number of Sinn Féin members, and numerous petitions presented by members of the public. McDonald wants to be taoiseach and is determined to present herself to the leader of US imperialism as a loyal friend and ally. She reassures her critics that she will take the opportunity to have a word in Joe’s ear. As if that will make any difference when it comes to Israel and Palestine. However, Joe might also have a word or two to say in Mary Lou’s ear: how about America agreeing to Irish reunification if Sinn Féin commits to Nato membership and spending enough to make a meaningful military contribution in the north Atlantic. Since 2000, Ireland has been allocating no more than 0.5% of its GDP to defence: to reach the Nato target would mean a four-fold increase. Westminster might then conceivably be won to accept a border poll (though it would surely campaign for a ‘yes’ vote for the status quo).
Kowtowing to the Americans has shocked many, who have seen Sinn Féin consistently identify with the Palestinian cause. While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael prevaricated over whether to back South Africa before the International Court of Justice, Sinn Féin urged it on. But now this all seems like shadow boxing. TD Paul Murphy and others from PBP have called for Sinn Féin to reverse its decision to go to Washington. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign too. Perhaps Sinn Féin will relent at the last minute, but for now it does not look like it.
There has also been a shift in its stance over immigration. Sinn Féin’s recent drop in the polls is said to have been at least partly due to a belief that it is soft on immigration. According to a Business Post/Red C poll conducted in 2023, Sinn Féin had the highest proportion, out of all the main parties, of supporters (83%) who believed Ireland had taken in “too many” refugees. It was behind only the independents (87%), many of whom have been notably more vocal on immigration.3 In response to the fact that the rise in antagonism towards migrants was finding reflection among its voters, McDonald has now pledged that a Sinn Féin government would reduce the number of refugees by making the immigration process “more efficient”. A “system that is fair, that is efficient, and that’s enforced” was needed, she claimed.4
So, before it is even in government, Sinn Féin is giving a glimpse of what is in store, and it does not look good. Fianna Fáil, the traditional party of constitutional nationalism, has presided over and oppressed working class people down the generations, and has always been completely beholden to US imperialism.
There is every chance that a Sinn Féin government will be no different. And it could even be worse.