The best people to lead us towards unity are the moderate nationalists of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil…

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I say that I am glad to see the Sinn Féin vote cratering in the local and European elections in the Republic. Under 12% in those elections is some dive downwards from the mid-30s high of opinion polls in recent years. I do not see this development through the eyes of the Dublin resident that I am, but from the viewpoint of a non-republican Northerner.

I have never believed that the militarists and ultra-nationalists of Sinn Féin were the people to lead us towards a relatively consensual and harmonious Irish unity. With their absolute lack of contrition for the hundreds of people killed by the Provisional IRA – indeed their glorification of that sanguinary organisation – they are the last people to persuade any element of unionism, the main continuing obstacle to that hoped-for outcome, to come on board. The idea that Sinn Féin can lead Ireland to unity is simply magical thinking.

To give one illustrative example: a Northern Protestant friend, who is that incredibly rare thing, an Irish republican from Belfast’s loyalist Shankill Road, says: “When casting my PR votes, I always place the DUP last, not least because they have never disowned the bitter sectarian hatred of ‘that man of sin’, Ian Paisley. Why should I make an exception for Sinn Féin, who have never criticized the ‘armed struggle’ that led to the deaths of so many innocents? I’ll tell you this, as one with a close ear to
unionist opinion, the prospect of Sinn Féin in government in the South will set back my longing for unity by generations.”

The best people to lead us towards unity are the moderate nationalists of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Tánaiste Micheál Martin has showed us the way with his Shared Island project. With a bit of luck, the coalition of those parties with the Greens will be returned to power in an election later this year (or early next at the latest), and that important initiative, based on practical projects for the mutual social and economic benefit of the people of both jurisdictions, will continue, expand and slowly make more converts in the unionist community.

In contrast Mary Lou McDonald’s judgement is deeply flawed, and this is before we even consider Northern Ireland. She and her senior Sinn Féin colleagues have made a lot of mistakes in recent months and years: her support for the criminal (and briefly Dublin Sinn Féin councillor) Jonathan Dowdall; the decision to run too few candidates in the 2020 general election and too many in some constituencies this time; the rash of lawsuits by her and other senior party figures against the media and political opponents; the pointless motion of no confidence in Justice Minister Helen McEntee after the Dublin riots last November; her proposal to bring down house prices in Dublin to an average of €300,000 (now abandoned); the party’s support for the government’s disastrous family and care referendums in March and promise to hold them again if defeated (now reversed). It is little wonder that for the first time in this fiercely hierarchical party there are open grass roots rumblings about her leadership.

Returning to the North, I am reminded of the wise words of Brian Barrington, the Dublin lawyer who was Seamus Mallon’s legal advisor when he was Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister. Barrington said in 2018: “Just as it was important in 1998 [when negotiating the Good Friday Agreement] to ensure institutions in Northern Ireland in which nationalists participated as equals, so it is vital to design institutions of government in which unionists participate as equals in a future united Ireland. Everything that nationalists sought to reflect their identity and ethos in the North as part of the United Kingdom, they must equally afford to unionists in a united Ireland. That makes sense because whether we are in a United Kingdom or a united Ireland, we will have hundreds of thousands of people who are British and unionist and – as of moral and legal right – will continue to be so. These people are entitled to the reassurance of knowing – now – what a united Ireland will mean for them.” He urged that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement should continue in a united Ireland unless and until nationalists and unionists by cross-community consent agreed to change them. This would mean the British government continuing to have a say in matters that are not devolved to a future Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in the way the Irish government does now.

Barrington went on: “This is not just about planning for a united Ireland that may never happen, but also about sending a message to both main communities now: whether in a united Ireland or a United Kingdom, the need for nationalists and unionists to live and govern together as neighbours and partners will remain.”

“It is also urgent that this message comes from constitutional nationalists, and especially the main Southern parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and that it comes now. Because uncertainly breeds fear and suspicion, and given the violent history of this island, unionists have reason to be afraid. Moreover promises from Sinn Fein hold no value for unionists…Sinn Féin may see this as unfair, but it is the toxic legacy of the armed struggle that they supported for so long. This commitment will only have value if it is given by the constitutional parties. It is they, not Sinn Féin, who must write the policy for the protection of British people on this island. And they should start doing it now.”1

Of course none of this is of any interest to the vast majority of Southern electors. Most people here now see Sinn Féin as just another left-of-centre nationalist party, not unlike Fianna Fail in the 1920s and 1930s. They see the former party of the IRA moving towards the centre on issues like the economy, the EU and immigration, and leaving the space at the radical end of the political spectrum to conservative independents and small far-left and far-right parties.

The significance of the appearance for the first time of the far-right in the Republic – while obviously not as terrifyingly evident as on the continent – is a matter for debate. That debate was summed up by two contributions on the same page of the Irish Times on 11th June. Fintan O’Toole pointed out that anti-immigrant candidates took around 15% of the vote between them in Dublin, and that Dublin City Council will now have three councillors elected on anti-immigrant platforms. He said the main reason Ireland did not have a significant far-right party was “not because we are a peculiarly lovely people. It was (mostly) because Sinn Féin was occupying the space where a far-right party would be.”

He called this “the doubleness of Sinn Féin. On the one hand it drew on the same kind of ethno-nationalist identity politics that now fuel the far-right across Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Yet on the other, it thought of itself as a progressive, socialist party, committed to equality and inclusion.” He gave credit to the party for not exploiting the growing resentment against immigrants in recent years. However he warned that sectarian fanaticism and violent tribalism have always been present in Ireland, and “there’s as much of a market for the zero-sum politics of scapegoating and tribal resentment in Ireland as there is in Britain, the US or continental Europe.”

Underneath his column, the former Irish ambassador to Britain, Bobby McDonagh, was more sanguine. He wrote about the “exaggerated attention” to and “marginal support” of the far-right, and “conservative nationalist candidates who have foregrounded the immigration issue [and] have performed somewhat better, but not spectacularly.” He concluded that “the growth here in support for what might reasonably be called the ‘trenchant right’ is nothing like as significant as support for the far-right in countries like France, Italy and Austria. It seems to be, at most, a temporarily disruptive force.”2 I hope and pray he is right.

I will finish with a slightly wacky but insightful comment from my former Irish Times colleague Seamus Martin on Facebook. He reports that he has been lurking on X (formerly Twitter) to see what the far-right are up to. “They have spent even more of their time targeting Sinn Féin than they have targeting immigrants. The word most used by when referring to Sinn Féin is ‘traitors’.

“Now this sort of thing will have no effect on SF’s core supporters. The attacks are, in my view, aimed at voters belonging to a group I have previously described as CAE (Citizens against Everything). These are people who are permanently disgruntled. They switch their support depending on how disgruntled they are at any given time. This is likely to manifest itself in transfers, with some far-left People before Profit voters transferring to the far-right and vice versa.

“All opposition parties have their share of CAE voters in addition to their core supporters, but obviously the professional backers of the far-right, mainly in the American ‘alt right’ and QAnon groups, have identified Sinn Fein’s CAE voters as their prime target.”

Obviously such people exist everywhere: in France many Le Pen supporters once voted for the Communist Party. But are they becoming an electorally significant force in Europe, and dangerously so, for the first time?

1 A Shared Home Place, Seamus Mallon (with Andy Pollak), pp.183-84

2 Fintan O’Toole, ‘Sinn Féin provided buffer zone but that has now gone’, and Bobby McDonagh, ‘Deep divisions in Europe between far-right parties’.

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