One of the most vocal critics of the Republic of Ireland joining what was still known in 1972 as the Common Market/EEC, were what was still known as Provisional Sinn Fein: ‘It would undermine Irish sovereignty... and the Common Market Empire would threaten Irish ownership of Irish land.’
And for most of the next 40 years or so Sinn Fein stuck to that line. Indeed, a few months before the EU referendum in June 2016 Liadh Ní Riada, SF MEP for the South constituency, claimed: “The economic and fiscal policies of the European Union have had catastrophic effects on the lives of many of its citizens.”
So why the sudden change of mind and the decision to campaign for the UK’s continued membership in 2016? There were, I think, four main reasons. Sinn Fein had already accepted that a victory for Leave was possible and they didn’t want to be on the same side as the DUP and Ukip; they reckoned that a victory for Leave would have a knock-on impact in Northern Ireland, allowing them to play the ‘England’s misfortune is Ireland’s opportunity’ card; if they wanted to make electoral progress in the south then they couldn’t continue to be opposed to a policy which was clearly so popular down there; and nor could they support anything which could unsettle nationalism in Northern Ireland and raise ‘difficulties’ about a new, physical border.
Meanwhile, the DUP, taking the view that Remain would, as one of their key figures told me at the time, ‘almost certainly’ win, decided they had nothing to lose by supporting the official Vote Leave campaign. Interestingly, they didn’t actually reach that formal position until after David Cameron’s botched efforts to persuade the EU to support his reformist package. The fact that an Assembly election was due in May 2016, a few weeks before the referendum, may have also been a factor in their calculation. The UUP, ‘on balance’, supported Remain, putting them on the same side as the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance; a decision which may have pushed some of their votes towards the DUP.
Where do both parties stand today? Well, for all of the occasional belligerence from Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley in particular (and from Nigel Dodds on Sunday Politics yesterday), my own suspicion is that the DUP would breathe a huge sigh of relief if there were a very soft landing to all of this. Whatever some elements within nationalism/republicanism may think, I really don’t believe that the DUP has ever wanted a ‘hard border’ or the potential dangers of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. What have they got to gain from such an outcome?
A politically unstable Northern Ireland, in which nationalism has shifted its focus away from a rebooted Assembly and reasonably cooperative internal settlement, doesn’t, in fact suit the DUP’s interests. They know the present leverage they have with the Conservatives will not last for much longer; and they also know, having seen the prime minister’s attempts (supported by two-thirds of her back-benchers) to force a backstop on them, that they can’t necessarily trust the government, even when they have a confidence and supply arrangement with them.
The DUP would never admit that it needs a ladder of some sort to remove itself from the hook upon which it presently hangs; but it still needs one. The entire UK in a continuing customs union/single market relationship with the EU is, in practical terms, better for the DUP’s political interests in Northern Ireland than the uncertainty of a ‘temporary’ backstop, let alone a no-deal outcome. The problem with a no-deal is that Northern Ireland becomes hugely dependent on Westminster and on a government which may have no particular interest in the DUP anymore. Deep down I think the DUP would be delighted if the mess (a mess made by a House of Commons which seems incapable of reaching any decision) would just go away.
Sinn Fein has a different problem. A very soft landing Brexit – or the Brexit problem disappearing altogether – doesn’t help them at all. The last thing they want is the Irish government and most of non-Sinn Fein nationalism heaving their own sigh of relief and settling down again. In those sort of circumstances they know they can kiss goodbye to any hope of a border poll anytime soon. Having seen the toxicity fuelled by the divisions over Brexit, no Irish or UK government (and it would require both to come on board) would be prepared to refuel and add to the toxicity by advocating a border poll. And it’s likely, too, that the softer ends of unionism and nationalism, would also be placated for another generation.
Again, Sinn Fein, like the DUP, albeit for entirely different reasons, can never say any of this. So they have to keep pushing the line that the DUP doesn’t care about the Good Friday Agreement and wants a hard border and a strengthening of partition. It helps, of course, that the DUP decided to respond to the collapse of the Executive, the loss of the overall majority in the Assembly and their king-maker role with the Conservatives, by playing the crazy, uber-unionist card, instead of a cannier, more measured hand.
At the time of writing – Sunday morning – I’ve no idea what’s happening. The government is in freefall; the House of Commons seems to think that adding to the list of indicative votes is more useful than making a decision; and opinion polls suggest the electorate is just as divided as it was in June 2016. And in Northern Ireland it’s still ‘dreary steeples’ territory: the DUP clinging to a deal they don’t really want; while Sinn Fein thunders against Brexit, all the time hoping that the chance of a border poll won’t be swept away by a second referendum, a revocation of Article 50, or a landing so soft the UK will end up in the EU’s constitutional equivalent of the granny-flat.