Sinn Fein rhetoric ignores fact that Irish unity would kill off unionism

In last week's column I wrote about Sinn Fein's approach to reconciliation (they had just launched a document on the issue), arguing that their definition was confined to the unionist/republican relationship in a united Ireland.
Alex KaneAlex Kane
Alex Kane

During the week they launched another document – Towards A United Ireland – setting out their vision of what it would look like and how unionists would be accommodated. Here are some of the suggestions:

People who hold British citizenship continuing to hold such citizenship and having the right to pass this on to their children without prejudice to Irish citizenship.

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• Constitutional recognition of the unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity of a significant number of people in the North of Ireland.

• Expression being given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy.

• Recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation.

• A constitutional guarantee of a pluralist education system that reflects the two main traditions on the island.

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• The possibility of power devolved to Stormont within an all-Ireland state, guaranteed seats in an upper house in a united Ireland and weighted majorities on some ‘fundamental issues’.

What they don’t acknowledge is that Irish unity kills off unionism as both a political and electoral force, because their country (Northern Ireland) and the constitutional identity and basis of their citizenship (the Union) would disappear. And when it disappears the whole process – which would be lengthy, unpleasant and muddied – of building an entirely new state begins. Sinn Fein hate partition, but it didn’t kill off republicanism. They don’t, if truth be known, like the present political/constitutional arrangements at Stormont, but those arrangements didn’t kill off republicanism. They have the guarantee of a border poll to help them get rid of Northern Ireland; and that guarantee underpins their republican ideology and electoral purpose.

But a united Ireland means the death of unionism: and no amount of pretending that their ‘unique identity’ and ‘British citizenship’ would be recognised and guaranteed amounts to a hill of beans. Unionism cannot exist within a united Ireland. Unionists believe in the United Kingdom and once removed from that United Kingdom their unionism has gone. And since I’m pretty sure that what was Northern Ireland wouldn’t be ring-fenced and offered border polls every decade or so, then it follows that Irish unity and unionism cannot co-exist.

So, with that in mind, I’d love to see Sinn Fein host a meeting with what their document describes as ‘those within unionism, particularly among the younger generation and among liberal and less conservative unionists, who are willing to explore these opportunities to create a better, shared society. The appeal of being part of a new, reimagined and outward-looking Ireland is proving ever more attractive to some unionists in the North.’ Hmm.

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While it may be true that there are people – presently neutral or non-nationalist on the issue of Irish unity – who buy into that, I don’t understand how anyone presently defining themselves as a unionist or pro-Union could do so. Because at the very moment they buy into it they cease, by definition, to be unionist.

Sinn Fein, indeed most nationalists, cannot even bring themselves to say the words ‘Northern Ireland’. It’s as if uttering the words would give the place a constitutional legitimacy they have always denied it. Gerry Adams has described some unionists as ‘bastards’. Martin McGuinness has spoken of our ‘psychological’ problems. So you’ll understand if I take a lot of Towards A United Ireland with a very large pinch of salt. As I tweeted when I first read the document, “there’s nothing in it for unionists”; and I stand by that assessment.

Most of the rest of the document is taken up with a Pollyanna overview of what unity could mean in terms of economy, tourism, agriculture, education, health, trade, transport, culture, sport and so on. The problem is that most of it is speculative. Sinn Fein cannot know (in fairness to them, they admit as much in the document) what a new united Ireland will look like; particularly a united Ireland that would be in the EU while the rest of Great Britain (a key trading partner for them) would be outside. Sinn Fein don’t even know what their own electoral/political status would be in a new state; but the likelihood is that they wouldn’t even be the lead negotiators if unity talks were ever to get under way (something I think is unlikely anytime – and I really do mean anytime – soon).

The other thing they’ve done is hang much of this document on a ‘Brexit changes everything’ approach. But it’s a crucial mistake to assume that just because someone voted Remain it means that they would now vote for Irish unity. EU membership and Irish unity are two entirely different things. And if, as seems likely, we get a soft – EU approved – landing between the UK and RoI; and people in NI have the comfort blanket of an Irish passport (which guarantees many EU rights anyway) then the unity ideal will seem less attractive.

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It would be unfair to say that Sinn Fein isn’t making a real effort to promote Irish unity; or to suggest that their arguments be dismissed out of hand. That said, they are still overly reliant on rhetoric, and the compilation of wish lists; and completely blind to the damage unity would do to unionism.