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Eilis O'Hanlon

How can Sinn Fein go into government in Dublin when they still refuse to call the country they'd be ruling 'Ireland'?

Eilis O'Hanlon

Republicans pretend they're rebelling against the system when they're really just hustling for the chance to adminster it, writes Eilis O'Hanlon


Ireland is famous for its welcome, but Sinn Fein‘s attitude towards the name of the country is far from warm

Ireland is famous for its welcome, but Sinn Fein‘s attitude towards the name of the country is far from warm

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Ireland is famous for its welcome, but Sinn Fein‘s attitude towards the name of the country is far from warm

The coronavirus is no laughing matter, but it's only natural for people, when faced with the unknown, to make a joke of it. In recent days, as more cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, there was a picture doing the rounds on social media of a smiling man pleased that he doesn't have to worry about the virus reaching Northern Ireland because he actually lives in the "north of Ireland".

Just for balance, there was also one for the unionists of a man saying he's not worried about Covid-19 coming to Derry because he lives in Londonderry.

The pictures neatly satirise the often ludicrous debate about what to call contested parts of these islands.

It's been reignited by Sinn Fein's success in the recent elections in Dublin, with commentators asking how republicans can go into government in the Dail when they still refuse to call the country they'd be ruling 'Ireland', its official name since 1937.

Instead, it's always the '26 counties', or the 'Southern state', or 'Free State', or 'Southern Ireland', or 'the south of Ireland', or some other equally convoluted verbal construction.

Names do matter. Personally, I don't think I've ever used the words 'province' and 'mainland', except ironically. You have to draw the line somewhere.

But if people want to use made-up names for places, that's their business. If nothing else, it's a quick and easy way of spotting the headcases.

The problem is when those whose job it is to represent Northern Ireland as a whole, or the Irish Republic as it may be, play the same semantic games.

It's as if Sinn Fein thinks uttering the words 'Northern Ireland' for up here and 'Ireland' for down there would be tantamount to acknowledging the legitimacy of the two states.

But at what point will they stop pretending that they're still rebelling against the system, rather than just hustling for their chance to administer it?

The question is given added urgency by the latest opinion polls, which show that Sinn Fein support in the Republic has risen 10 points (to 35%) since the election last month.

That's hardly surprising. Sinn Fein's appeal to voters is that they're challenging the cosy consensus in Dail Eireann, which has ruled the state since its creation. It's classic Trumpian 'drain the swamp' rhetoric.

The behaviour of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael since the election, in seeking to keep Sinn Fein out of power at any cost, despite they themselves both being as appealing to voters as a dose of coronavirus, only makes that argument stronger.

Anyone who didn't expect Sinn Fein to go up in the polls can't have been paying attention. It's happening everywhere. The latest opinion polls in Spain put Vox, a party described by its opponents as far-Right, at 18.8%, up from 6% at the European elections just nine months ago.

As Sinn Fein heads inexorably towards power on the same populist wave, they probably think it doesn't matter if they continue this long trench warfare against calling the two halves of the island by their proper names.

It's hardly an issue to their voters, but that misses the point entirely.

If republicans are serious about Irish unity, they have to start reaching out to people who remain unconvinced about the benefits. A belligerent attitude, even towards the names of both states, only convinces them they're right to hold out against reunification.

The aggressive behaviour of Sinn Fein supporters towards anyone who disagrees with them is part of the same problem.

Journalists talking about their experiences on Twitter can be tiresome, so apologies for the self-indulgence, but I recently went back on the social media site after a long absence and had forgotten, while away, what the so-called Shinnerbots are like. Once they find you, the onslaught is relentless.

It's easy to mute the worst offenders, who just want to shout bad words and then run away, like children knocking on doors, but it can be overwhelming when they come at you in waves.

Recently, it was all because I made a joke about Sinn Fein holding a rally in Newry to demand that they get into government in Dublin to sort out homelessness and the health service, even though Newry isn't on the Republic's electoral map.

I said that's like the DUP holding rallies in Galway to demand the government in Westminster accede to its demands.

Soon came a tide of largely anonymous accounts on Twitter, bearing pictures of Bobby Sands and Celtic badges, outraged that anyone would dare criticise their beloved Provos.

If they can't even cope with members of the broader nationalist community who won't sign up to the great crusade, then how welcome can unionists honestly expect to be in a united Ireland?

The row over whether Queen's University Belfast has become a cold house for unionists taps into the same fears.

This is how they behave now, when they're allegedly trying to build support. Just imagine what republicans would be like if they ever got their way on Irish unity and were ruling the roost, as these polls suggest they might one day.

Sinn Fein spokespersons always insist that they have no control over their more hysterical supporters, and, if they want to behave like a pack of feral hyenas, then that's their business.

But the silence from Sinn Fein about such behaviour only reinforces the argument that they're not particularly bothered if the party gets a reputation for encouraging hotheads to do their worst.

At some stage, they must have taken a strategic decision that giving a nod and a wink to the online and offline Thought Police serves a purpose.

And it does. Unfortunately for Sinn Fein, the purpose it serves best is to make even those who aren't particularly hostile to the idea of Irish unity have second thoughts and start to wonder what sort of nasty little authoritarian hellhole republicans are intent on creating.

You'd think Sinn Fein supporters would see the contradiction in their stance. They're always reminding voters that nationalists were lorded over in a unionist-dominated state, so why can't they understand when unionists fear being treated no better in a republican-dominated unitary Irish state?

Of course, that's not how human nature works. You'd think being on the receiving end of something would instil in one a determination not to act the same way, but it rarely does.

Unionists, after all, don't always show sufficient appreciation that nationalists were treated badly in the past.

Until Sinn Fein squares that circle, unionists can hardly be blamed for treating their protestations that everybody's rights and identity would be respected once they get into power with the scorn that it deserves.

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