A united Ireland is back on the agenda

A united Ireland is back on the agenda

Thanks to Brexit, even Partition itself is now being called into question.

Kevin Rooney


They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, in the midst of this Brexit-dominated General Election, it most definitely is in Northern Ireland right now.

Let’s deal with the first big development. Little over a week ago, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald made the surprising announcement that her party would not contest three of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster constituencies, so as to maximise the chances of Remain supporters defeating Brexit-supporting candidates for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). McDonald urged support for Alliance Party leader Naomi Long in East Belfast, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) candidate Carmel Hanna in South Belfast, and, most surprisingly, Sylvia Hermon, the Remain-supporting Independent Unionist candidate for North Down.

For the first time since Partition and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921-22, Sinn Fein, the anti-partitionist and united-Ireland party is supporting, in Hermon, a partitionist, British-unionist candidate. ‘You can call it a pact; you can call it what you wish’, McDonald said. ‘The reality is that we are asking people to come out and vote for the pro-Remain candidates.’ When pressed by the media, she added: ‘I have no problem urging Sinn Fein supporters to vote for Westminster’s only pro-Remain Unionist.’

Fast forward 48 hours, and in a further dramatic development, Hermon announced she was standing down and retiring from politics. This now makes the North Down seat a shoe-in for the DUP candidate Alex Easton. Suddenly, pacts mooted either to Stop Brexit or Get Brexit Done look much more like good, old-fashioned pro-Irish Nationalist or pro-Unionist deals.

For example, the DUP has stood aside in Fermanagh South Tyrone in order to maximise the chances of Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) candidate Tom Elliot defeating the incumbent Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew. This constituency is always fiercely contested – so much so that it traditionally has one of the highest turnouts of the 650 Westminster seats, and is again on a knife edge. Brexit may motivate some of the voters of Fermanagh South Tyrone to turn out in their tens of thousands, but many more will be moved by the age-old constitutional question of whether Fermanagh South Tyrone is British or Irish. This, after all, is the seat won in 1981 by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, a victory that prompted Sinn Fein to start contesting elections in Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, the DUP holds three seats to Sinn Fein’s one. Yet in South Belfast, with Sinn Fein and the pro-Remain Greens pulling out to support the SDLP candidate, the DUP incumbent Emma Little-Pengelly is likely to lose the seat to the SDLP. As my dad would say, even the dogs in the street know that though this looks like an anti-Brexit pact, it is just as much a nationalist-versus-Unionist battle.

In return for the DUP stepping back to allow the UUP candidate to stand unopposed in Fermanagh South Tyrone, the new UUP leader Steve Aitken (elected only a fortnight ago on a pledge to oppose all DUP seats) has withdrawn the UUP candidate from North Belfast in order to give the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds a free run. In the past, North Belfast had a significant Unionist majority, but demographic changes mean that the Catholics have caught up, making it an exact 50-50, nationalist-Unionist split. The SDLP has withdrawn from the contest under the guise of maximising the Remain vote. But is that the real reason? Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader in Westminster, is loathed by nationalists who see him as a sectarian bigot. In my view, the SDLP has stood down because its leaders know they would never be forgiven for splitting the nationalist vote and letting Dodds go back to Westminster. For nationalists, the prize of unseating Dodds is well worth a bit of tactical voting.

While the UK media’s swingometer may not focus on North Belfast on election night, the people of Ireland will be gripped by this epic battle. The Sinn Fein candidate, John Finucane, is the son of Pat Finucane, a much admired and prominent solicitor brutally murdered by loyalists in 1989. John Finucane is currently the mayor of Belfast and a rising star in Sinn Fein. Meanwhile, even those who hate Nigel Dodds concede he is a formidable operator. If the DUP loses, it will be a major blow to Unionism.

Many in England see the DUP as the dominant party in Northern Ireland. It has been prominent in UK politics since the 2017 General Election, when Theresa May’s Tories were forced into an agreement with it in order to secure a working majority in parliament. Sinn Fein, of course, also holds seven seats (to the DUP’s 10), but is traditionally ‘abstentionist’, meaning its MPs refuse to take their seats on the grounds that they would be required to sign an oath of allegiance to the queen. The DUP’s goal is to emerge from this election bigger and stronger, holding its 10 seats, and perhaps even picking up an 11th. Its fear is that it could lose South Belfast and North Belfast and be pushed in East Belfast by Alliance leader Naomi Long.

In keeping with the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland looks set for the most unpredictable vote in its 98-year history, with competitive races in 10 of the 18 constituencies.

In recent years, support for Sinn Fein and the DUP has begun to decline, with the Alliance Party and Greens making gains in council and European elections. The DUP has been outmanoeuvred by Tory prime minister Boris Johnson, which has left it open to ridicule in the election campaign as the party unable to stop the imposition of a border down the Irish Sea.

At the same time, McDonald is under serious pressure as Sinn Fein haemorrhages support in the southern counties. The economic recovery there has been a disaster for Sinn Fein, as its appeal to the young middle classes fades fast, and its ‘radical’ mantle is stolen by the Greens. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s leader in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has none of the fiery appeal or rebellious past of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. She comes over as a pedestrian career politician. Also, Sinn Fein’s attempt to appear woke, and champion every socially liberal cause, looks like a slightly desperate attempt to break away from its past. Its move to adopt a strong pro-choice stance means it could even lose its Derry seat to the new Republican and pro-life party, Aontu (meaning, Unity).

Sinn Fein’s abstentionist stance now also looks anachronistic. When it was an Irish republican party, which supported the armed struggle to force Britain out of Ireland, abstentionism made perfect sense. But it is hard now to justify refusing to take its seats on the grounds that it rejects parliament’s right to make laws for Northern Ireland when it is looking to its friends in the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats to propose the laws it wants on abortion and gay marriage. Similarly, Sinn Fein’s strong backing for Remain candidates raises the question as to why it does not just take its seats, and join the pro-Remain coalition in Westminster. Surely it is only a matter of time before abstentionism, this last vestige of traditional republicanism, is quietly ditched.

Mick Fealty, editor of the Slugger O’Toole website, notes how ‘tired, siege-weary and devoid of practical ideas’ Northern Ireland’s political class now appears. Yet it feels as if Brexit and the reawakened constitutional question have stirred things up in a way that could potentially offer the opportunity for new leadership and fresh ideas. Working-class loyalists, especially in Belfast, are mobilising in large numbers independent of the DUP in order to ‘save the Union’. Their leaders are explicit that if the choice is a border down the Irish Sea, as suggested by Johnson’s deal, then they would rather stay in the EU. This is a view also being expressed by growing numbers of DUP rank-and-file members.

Meanwhile Brexit has reignited the debate about the possibility of a united Ireland. Recently, a letter calling for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to prepare the ground for Irish unification was signed by representatives of the civic nationalist group, Ireland’s Future, and sent to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. It was signed by over 1,000 figures from the arts, academia, labour, law, sport, business and community groups; it galvanised huge numbers of people. Many are now talking in terms of ‘when’, not ‘if’, a united Ireland will happen.

Paradoxically, there is a surge in support for a united Ireland at the same time as support for Sinn Fein appears to have flatlined or dipped. Moreover, Sinn Fein is not the prime mover in the growing civil-society campaign for a united Ireland. The irony is Sinn Fein, despite appearing jaded, could yet benefit come election time from this renewed interest in Irish nationalism. It is also possible that a fear of a nationalist resurgence could send the loyalist working class back into the arms of the DUP.

In important ways, then, the election is a referendum on Brexit and on the border. It is therefore one of the most interesting and important elections in Irish history. I personally support Brexit and Irish reunification. Please tell me who on earth I should vote for?

Kevin Rooney is co-author of The Blood-Stained Poppy.

Picture by: Getty.

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Simon mccullagh

11th December 2019 at 5:27 pm

I laugh at the luck of Irish tag. Most of it has been bad and probably will be even if there is a united Ireland, but the term acutally comes from Irish miners striking gold in California in the 19th century, well as per this, https://www.newryjournal.co.uk/culture/folklore/irish-good-luck-charm-why-and-how/

Philip Humphrey

21st November 2019 at 7:46 am

Taking over Ulster would be one almighty headache for Leo Varadkar and his successors, a problem they could well do without. Somehow I can’t quite see it happening.

Jim Lawrie

21st November 2019 at 9:11 am

He would give free rein to the Dublin drug dealers to sort it out. Armed by their Colombian sponsors, all under the banner of Irish freedom fighters.

T Zazoo

21st November 2019 at 1:32 am

I’m puzzled as to why some people talk about ‘reunification’, including some of the posts here.

Ireland has never been a single nation state therefore there shouldn’t be an ‘re’. Should there?

brent mckeon

21st November 2019 at 12:10 pm

Ireland was always a united country/island under English rule and before that even. It was split up into two in 1922 by the English who out negotiated the irish delegates.

Jim Lawrie

21st November 2019 at 12:23 am

“I personally support Brexit and Irish reunification. Please tell me who on earth I should vote for?”- I thought you had lived and worked in London these last thirty years.

H McLean

20th November 2019 at 9:06 pm

If you support and wish for a full-on hard Brexit then the end result will most likely be the reunification of Ireland, Scottish independence and English freedom to do what they like. It seems like a reasonable solution all round and everyone gets what they want, except the unionists in Northern Ireland, of course.

An acceptable outcome would be for the Leo V and the Republic of Ireland to pay very expensive reparations to every unionist in NI to offset their having to leave their homes and move to England to stay part of the RumpUK (or not, if they wish).

The cost should be about £60b. They could get a grant from the EU to cover that, surely.

Apocalyptic Reindeer

20th November 2019 at 9:05 pm

It constantly amazes me that commentators in Britain, the Island of Ireland, the US and far beyond manage to completely ignore the very existence of a group of people in the Six Counties who adhere very strongly to the British Union, a significant minority of whom have proved themselves capable of frankly astounding levels of violence.

In the words of a fellow whom they abhor: “They haven’t gone away you you know.”

Do you see the paltry resources of the hokey-cokey-wokey multi-culti Irish state putting down a serious bout of trouble from this well-armed bunch?

Neil Mcalester

20th November 2019 at 7:59 pm

How is Irish nationalism remotely compatible with support for the EU? More rank hypocrisy from Sinn Fein.

Neil King

21st November 2019 at 1:08 pm

@Neil McAlester: not even remotely compatible. Official Ireland’s Anglophobic cadre along with Sinn Féin/IRA prefer to be cannon fodder for the unaccountable, malign EU empire.

Winston Stanley

20th November 2019 at 4:59 pm

Like nearly all British voters, Leavers and Remainers alike, I am more concerned about what happens in our own country than about the UK. The best of luck to the Irish if they choose to unite. Nearly everyone in Britain would accept that it is a matter for all of the Irish people to democratically decide for themselves with the GFA and a border poll.

The TP etc. used NI to scupper a proper Brexit and that is not on. The “loyalists” are now against Brexit and British democracy, for their own look out. So much for that. My vote would be for Irish unity and Scottish independence, which amounts to English (and Welsh) independence. Then we can have what we vote for and they can have what they vote for. What is not to like about that?

Democracy is the way forward for everyone, not some “union” that is used as a nuisance to hinder democracy, and certainly not sectarian violence.

> Poll says GB would ditch Northern Ireland over Brexit

YouGov said: “New YouGov polling today exposes the weaknesses in the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“YouGov asked mainland Britons how much they care about Northern Ireland, how they’d feel if it left the Union and whether getting their own way on Brexit was more important than keeping the UK together.”

The polling organisation said its results showed that 41% said they “would not be bothered” if Northern Ireland left the UK.

A further 41% said they would be “upset” if Northern Ireland broke away, while only a minority of 9% would be “actively pleased to see them go”.

The referendum divide did not make a difference, with 58% of Remain voters and 64% of Leave voters saying they’d rather have their own way on Brexit than see the Union preserved.

YouGov added: “As with so much, however, Brexit takes precedent. Given the choice between having their preferred outcome on Brexit and Northern Ireland staying in the Union, a majority of 58% chose the former and only 18% the latter.” – Belfast Telegraph, Nov 12

j p

20th November 2019 at 4:56 pm

By using the threat of violence to leverage a sovereignty grab, Varadkar has killed the prospect of a united Ireland, as Loyalists will and are threatening to reciprocate and the decent, sane unaligned citizens will stick with the devil they know, and vote to maintain the Union, if indeed a Border poll is ever called.

Should Brexit happen Loyalists will undoubtedly flex their muscle. One course of peaceful action would be huge convoys of vehicles coming to standstill on the border line on the south north side of the motorway as a way of registering Loyalist outrage, and which will also show a stooge organization like Border Communities Against a Hard Border that they aren’t the only community with the power of action. The promise of Loyalist mass civil disobedience with regards to the Euro, which NI will have to join in the event of a United Ireland, an act which is defensible on democratic grounds (no taxation without democratic legitimacy) invites an argument Dublin and the EU dare not provoke.

What reaction this will draw from Republicans still dedicated to murder and terror, is easy enough to foresee and will in turn cause SF is strain if not split and the past two years from GE17 will be seen by future Republicans as one of disastrous strategic miscalculation.

To answer the authors closing remark as to what he should do as a United irelander and a Brexiter, if you have the sense of purpose and commitment of a Farage, in your case to the cause both of a united Ireland and to live in a country that upholds democratic legitimacy for the Irish people, you need to lend your support ( or establish) a party that seeks to meet the Unionist community on democratic grounds, Irexit meets Brexit.

Given the position of Dublin politically, which given a choice is Brussels facing not Belfast facing, the economic and diplomatic repercussions of leaving the Euro (that it can’t safely or sustainably be democratically accountable should be a given) then you’ve got your work cut out to say the least.

Then of course there’s ‘the boys’ coming round for a quiet word, for your argument, if its brave and honest, would have to hold them to account for the huge strategic blunder of allowing Little Leo to coercively threaten violence, and by “quiet word” I of course mean threatening and intimidating you and your supporters for years on end.

You would have to be in equal parts brave to the point of recklessness and heroic to the point of being messianic. Whether you are or not, Ireland’s sick psychological co-dependence to the British means the Brexit madness is soon going to pass fully onto them.

Neil King

20th November 2019 at 2:42 pm

That letter isn’t signed by a single Unionist and is entirely unrepresentative of a million plus Irish people who, on balance, prefer to remain British. Just more wishful thinking from the Republic’s bobos – Fintan O’Toole and Tim Pat Coogan, God give me strength – whose vision for Ireland’s future has a nasty, green tinge.

Jim Lawrie

20th November 2019 at 3:30 pm

The support of a thousand luvvies and lawyers equals a million votes according to Mr Rooney. He is still stuck in the mindset of interpreting everything through The Irish Question, and desperately calling his conclusions support.
He overlooks that in giving credence to such a cabal, he is obliged to do likewise to the many such repositories of signatures compiled by Remain supporters. And to think Republicans used to shout “one man, one vote”.

When he says “In important ways, then, the election is a referendum on Brexit and on the border” he is acknowledging that his side cannot win a Referendum in Northern Ireland to leave The UK or to leave Europe. They have nothing to offer to the steady stream who vote with their feet and leave Ireland.
There are many Catholics in Northern Ireland who do not want to unite with the South. But for the secret ballot, those people would be toast.

The whole article is psephological wish thinking, and moves blocks of voters around like cardboard cutouts in a board game. All to avoid the problem. Sinn Fein is not calling for a Referendum on a United Ireland, because they will lose. The DUP does not want because because they fear it will raise the question of an Independent Northern Ireland, and that is a threat to their vested interests.

It is the second article this week telling us what we are really thinking, saying, voting for. A worrying and patronising development on this publication, and no different from those who tell us we did not know what we were voting for in June 2016.

This election is exposing the democratic deficit in many people’s thinking.

Dominic Straiton

20th November 2019 at 12:35 pm

In 50 years Ireland will be fighting to “free” Kashmir.

Jim Lawrie

20th November 2019 at 3:31 pm

In 50 years Ireland will look like Kashmir.

Fred Forsythe

20th November 2019 at 12:13 pm

Then an un-united UK.
Jerusalem for our national anthem, stop building millions of homes for a dwindling native population and close the £100 billion trade gap that exists between England and the continent.

Ven Oods

20th November 2019 at 2:11 pm

I’d be interested to know which party you think would enact your wishlist?
I might even vote for them…

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