Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Would Sinn Fein agreeing to restored devolution scupper its united Ireland plans?

Republicans believe a no-deal Brexit would lead to a border poll and possible Irish unity. But that leaves the party in a dilemma over the current talks on a return to Stormont, argues Alex Kane

Gerry Adams has just been appointed Sinn Fein’s lead spokesman on unity
Gerry Adams has just been appointed Sinn Fein’s lead spokesman on unity
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

Sinn Fein has a dilemma. It took a significant hit at the recent council and Euro elections in the south and there is a belief in some sections of its leadership/electoral analysis circles that the continuing lack of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland (which was apparently interpreted by some Southern voters as an indication of Sinn Fein's inability to 'do' coalition) had cost votes.

The logic of that analysis is that the priority should be the restoration of the Executive, even if that means difficult concessions on a key issue like an Irish Language Act.

But key players in Sinn Fein also believe that the prospect of a united Ireland outside the United Kingdom is closer now than it has been for almost a century.

There is a lot of evidence to support that view. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a recent speech "Boris and Brexit could leave the Union hanging by a thread".

He was speaking primarily about Scotland, but mentioned the potential impact on Northern Ireland.

An internal poll during the Conservative leadership contest suggested that a considerable majority of party members believed that "letting Northern Ireland go" was a price worth paying for Brexit. Nigel Farage, while saying he didn't think it would come to it, also said that Northern Ireland's removal from the Union would be a price his party would be prepared to pay.

Simon Hoare, the new chairman of the NI Affairs Committee and a fierce opponent of a no-deal exit, said in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago: "We will play with fire if a policy is pursued which adds an accelerant to a demand for a border poll because I have to say, and it saddens me to say it, I am not convinced that we as unionists would win that poll."

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After expressing similar concerns about Scotland, he added: "I do not want to wake up and find myself a subject of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Wales."

And over the weekend Leo Varadkar expressed the opinion that a no-deal Brexit would pave the way to Irish unity.

And there's the dilemma for Sinn Fein: the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland may have cost them votes in the Southern elections, yet the restoration of that Executive might be seen by some of the leadership as creating the kind of political/institutional "normalcy" in which it would make it more difficult to fully capitalise on the present "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" moment.

In other words, why bother to reboot the Executive and Assembly if rebooting would actually undermine the ultimate objective of Irish unity?

In the past couple of weeks Martina Anderson, Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald have all talked about the need for a border poll as soon as possible to give the people of Northern Ireland a chance to decide "which Union they want to belong to".

The party would never say it, of course, but the unity project now depends on either a hard Brexit or a no-deal. A soft Brexit or no Brexit at all would push the project back to the fringes of debate; while the soft solution, plus a rebooted Executive, would mean that the chances of a border poll and a maximised nationalist vote would disappear for at least a generation.

A functioning, consensual, genuinely co-operative devolution process in Northern Ireland does not suit Sinn Fein's interests.

I don't, by the way, say that as a criticism. I state it as an electoral/political/strategic fact of life.

Irish unity has never just depended on a shift in the demographics. It also requires a significant mind-shift in how a section of both small-u Unionism and small-n Nationalism view the Union and the broader United Kingdom.

There has been clear evidence of that mind-shift since June 2016 and Sinn Fein has prioritised that shift as the central plank of the most concentrated, co-ordinated push for unity since Gerry Adams emerged as its undisputed leader over 30 years ago.

It is no coincidence that Adams has just been appointed as Sinn Fein's lead spokesman on unity.

In normal circumstances (and, for the sake of argument, I'm defining that as a circumstance in which Sinn Fein didn't regard the prospect of unity as being, potentially, just around the corner) I don't think Sinn Fein would have had a particular problem with either continuing in or rebooting the Executive.

But nothing has been normal since the referendum in June 2016 with the RHI crisis; the "feeding the crocodiles" comment; the loss of the unionist majority in the Assembly, and the DUP's kingmaker role since June 2017 all adding to the air of political abnormality.

And all of those circumstances have also fuelled Sinn Fein's contention that Northern Ireland (thanks, it would argue, to the actions of the DUP) is a dysfunctional entity, a dysfunctionality which bolsters its unity project and the supposed benefits of a "new Ireland".

The other problem for Sinn Fein is that a very broad swathe of civic nationalism - which includes increasing numbers of small-n Nationalists - and its own traditional republican base seem to have moved beyond a rebooted Executive/Assembly. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that many of them don't actually want it returned under any circumstances.

If that is the case then it would not be unreasonable for Sinn Fein to conclude that concessions to secure a deal wouldn't necessarily deliver votes, either north or south.

Just under two years away from Northern Ireland's centenary it is probably worth asking if Sinn Fein has any interest in the return of institutions which would permit a unionist First Minister to spend months trumpeting the merits, stability and longevity of the very place they want rolled into a united Ireland?

Surely dysfunction and instability suit their interests more? Sinn Fein responded to Julian Smith's appointment as Secretary of State with the "hope" that he would be the last one.

Maybe they have the same view of Arlene Foster, so why revitalise her role when a new general election might see the DUP lose its pivotal role in Westminster?

Arguably this is the most difficult moment in Sinn Fein's post-1970 history, even more difficult than agreeing to share power with the DUP in 2007.

Going back to the Assembly may win it brownie points in some quarters. But why risk going back if nationalism in the north and increasing numbers of people in the south (including elements in both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael) are now looking at unity as a serious, sooner-the-better option?

It's a difficult call for Sinn Fein, with potentially huge political/electoral/historical repercussions whichever way it jumps.

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