TIME for a bit of settling down, I think. When Gerry Adams greeted his 14 out of 166 TDs result with the words, “the project to unite Ireland is working”, I couldn’t help thinking that if Ireland hasn’t been free of British influence since the 12th century then it’s very unlikely that an independent, united Ireland will materialise any time soon.
It’s certainly not going to happen in my lifetime (and I’m giving myself another 25 years – unless the vodka and Ulster frys kick in too early); and it’s similarly unlikely to happen in the lifetimes of Megan (12 years old) or Lilah-Liberty (18 months).
Yet Sinn Fein is very good at burnishing the mythology and megaphoning its own propaganda. But it has been trapped in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance territory since at least the mid-1990s and operates to the PR dictum that ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’. Their legend is built around ‘our day will come’: but the facts are that Sinn Fein has replaced ‘a nation once again’ with an ourselves alone cohabitation with the DUP. Indeed, the very best they can offer republicans in Northern Ireland is Martin McGuinness as a co-equal first minister with Peter Robinson, and Sinn Fein hobbled by a permanent veto from the DUP. It’s no wonder they prefer the legend!
So, whatever Adams may want us to read into the results of the Irish election (and some of that hype is aimed at dissident republicans) the brutal fact of the matter is that it doesn’t bring the prospect of a united Ireland one millimetre closer (and nor will the activities of the dissidents). The vast majority of the electorate south of the border (indeed, 90 per cent of those who voted) chose parties which have absolutely no interest in unifying Ireland and adding to their problems further down the line.
Actually, like the UK’s Labour and Conservative parties (after massive defeats in 1983 and 1997), Fianna Fail is going to have to abandon old beliefs and adapt to new realities if it ever wants to come back to power. One of those beliefs is in a united Ireland and one of the realities is that most people don’t really care very much about it: which means that Sinn Fein has neither history nor relevance on its side. Again, it’s no wonder they prefer the legend!
And has Sinn Fein even bothered to think through the realities of unifying Ireland? The process would have to begin with a referendum in Northern Ireland, at which a majority would have to vote in favour of withdrawing from the United Kingdom. I just don’t see that happening. Even if there comes a moment when there are more Roman Catholics than Protestants I find it hard to believe that every one of those Catholics would vote for a united Ireland. For many it wouldn’t be in their socio/economic interests: and there would be others who just wouldn’t want to rock the cultural/political boat too much.
But even if I’m wrong and a local referendum did vote for reunification, there would have to be a corresponding referendum in the south. Again, I’m not convinced that a majority would want to take on the unpredictable political/electoral/community/and possibly violent consequences of bringing upwards of a million unionists into their fold. The logistics of trying to work out a who-picks-up-the-tab deal between the British and Irish governments; sorting out protections and safeguards for northern unionists; and ensuring that Northern Ireland didn’t, to all intents and purposes, remain ‘a place apart’ would prove hugely difficult. And let’s assume – which I think we should – that there would be a loyalist paramilitary force somewhere in the background.
In other words, it strikes me that the united Ireland of which Sinn Fein dream and for which the Provisional IRA waged a terror campaign, is very, very unlikely to come about. Republicanism – in the sense of a free, sovereign, independent, all-island Ireland – has remained an ongoing failure for centuries and there isn’t much evidence of things changing. Yes, relationships between London and Dublin and Belfast and Dublin have improved dramatically in the last two decades: ironically, though, that improvement owes much to the fact that most unionists are no longer spooked by the prospect of unity around the corner. They can accept Sinn Fein in government precisely because they don’t regard it as a threat to their unionism or the Union.
Sinn Fein’s greatest skill remains its ability to bluff with a poor hand. It always talks and acts as though Irish unity were an inevitability and that everything that happens – the ballot box/armalite tactic; the IRA ceasefire and decommissioning; becoming part of the government in Northern Ireland; and a handful of backbench seats in the Dail – is all part of an elaborate, joined-up strategy. It isn’t. Sinn Fein has been sucked in, screwed over and spat back out by the Brits. Sinn Fein has simply been shifted from ‘safe houses’ and prison cells to swanky offices and institutions funded by the UK Exchequer: with no united Ireland and no prospect of a united Ireland. But hey, none of these inconvenient facts will prevent An Phoblacht from continuing to print the legend instead!
Anyway, and in spite of the nonsense spouted by some panicked unionists last week, it’s about time that we stopped believing Sinn Fein’s own hype. Think, instead, of the Boggart in Harry Potter: the shape-shifting creature which takes on the form of the viewer’s worst fear. The Boggart-Banishing Spell (Riddikulus) causes the creature to assume a form that is funny to the spell caster, thereby counteracting the Boggart’s ability to terrorise. Boggarts are defeated by laughter, so forcing them to assume an amusing form is the first step to defeating them.
For all of their effort to present themselves as bogeymen, Sinn Fein is just arrogant, absurd, deluded and trapped. The balaclavas have been swapped for suits, P O’Neill replaced by a senior civil servant and anti-British rhetoric drowned out by talk of budgets and the need to implement Tory cuts. So yep, Gerry, your day has come: and Northern Ireland remains firmly anchored in the United Kingdom. Have fun with that tax axe on both sides of the border!