By Steve Bell
The historic breakthrough
The Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (conference) was held in Dublin on November 5th. The conference slogan was “Time for Change”. The confidence underlying this call is based on the party’s extraordinary achievement – it is now the most popular party in Ireland, on both sides of the partition border.
In the last Dáil elections in February 2020, Sinn Féin won the largest percentage of first preference votes, 24.15%. This was larger than either of the two main bourgeois parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. These parties have alternated in the lead of every government since the establishment of the Irish state. Only by establishing the first ever coalition between them did they block Sinn Féin’s entry to government. Recent opinion polls have seen Sinn Féin on 35%, and generally scoring over 32%. 57% of those polled in November expect Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald to be the next Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
In the last Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May 2022, Sinn Féin won the largest percentage of first preference with 29% of the vote. This entitled MLAs to nominate Michelle O’Neill to the post of First Minister designate. Exactly a century ago, the partition of Ireland was used to create a state entity which would guarantee protestant/unionist domination, and a permanent connection to the British state. A hundred years later, a Republican woman heads that body. The November Lucid Talk poll places Sinn Féin on 32% for the next Assembly election. The same poll found that Michelle O’Neill is the most popular political leader, with a 46% approval rating.
These astonishing developments are easily underestimated, being the result of sustained, energetic and innovative campaigning by Sinn Féin members and leaders. It seems routine now for the party to be upending institutional balances, garnering ever wider support. Yet this party has been subjected to as great a level of repression and calumny as any other party in modern European history.
Context of the breakthrough
Sinn Féin’s growth has been part of, and helped shape, wider progressive processes in Irish society. In the south, rising living standards have been matched by a growing acceptance of social diversity, highlighted by successful referendums on marriage equality and abortion. This is a long way from the stereotype of the “priest-ridden” state.
In adapting to this , the bourgeois parties have had to embrace these social changes and the argument for Irish reunification. Under the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition, the Seanad (Senate) has established a Public Consultation Committee on the Constitutional Future of the Island of Ireland. Both Micheál Martin, for Fianna Fáil, and Leo Varadkar, for Fine Gael, have been cautious about both unification and a border poll for unification. Yet it is clear that public discourse about Irish unity is reaching new heights.
A similar process of growing social diversity has also taken place in the north of Ireland. Despite the hostility of last-trench unionism, the demand for marriage equality and abortion rights has won majority support, including among a substantial section of the younger unionist community. The DUP and allies have prevented the Assembly from carrying through these reforms. However the demands expressed by the majority of MLA’s inside the Assembly have pushed the British government to implement these provisions. Equally, the demand for an Irish Language Act has been blocked by the DUP – despite it signing up to such a position in post-Good Friday Agreements. A powerful mass movement in northern communities and through public demonstrations forced the British government to legislate for a language that in earlier times had been banned from school classrooms. It was one of the highlights of the Ard Fheis that activists who have been deeply involved in the mass campaign could celebrate the victory.
The question of Irish unity is more complex in the north. A whole section of unionism is determined to maintain the status quo. The problem for the DUP and allies is that they have no positive outline for the future union with Britain. The benefits of the “protestant ascendancy” are mostly long gone – destroyed by the combination of the civil rights/national struggle and the economic decline of British imperialism. The growing confidence of the nationalist community contrasts with the crisis of perspective for political unionism.
This crisis of perspective has been dramatically accelerated by Brexit. Political unionism shares, albeit from a very different experience, the Tory party’s nostalgia for lost empire. Essentially Brexit was seen to strengthen the link to Britain whilst weakening or removing EU and Irish government influence in the north. The main unionist parties supported Brexit in the referendum, even though the majority of the population in the six counties voted to remain part of the EU.
Business opinion was very divided – but generally wanted to retain access to the single market, including no hard border to the south. Nor was it just economics. A hard border in Ireland to maintain the EU single market would conflict with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The Protocol negotiated by the British government with the EU ensured that the north of Ireland would remain part of the single EU market, without a hard border in Ireland, whilst also retaining its constitutional position as part of the UK. The cost was the introduction of some border checks between the north and Britain to guarantee the integrity of the EU’s single market. This pragmatic solution was initially supported by political unionism, having been reassured, wrongly, by Boris Johnson there would be no border checks with Britain.
Once in operation, the DUP and allies went into opposition to the Protocol. This became the latest episode in a political crisis that has simmered and boiled since the referendum result in 2016. The DUP gambled that their opposition would reunite majority unionist support behind them, overcoming the loss of support they were experiencing to the left (Alliance) and the right (Traditional Ulster Voice TUV). The May 2022 Assembly elections sunk that hope. The crisis deepened, as Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party. On top of the unacceptable Protocol was the uncomfortable prospect of the DUP working with a Republican First Minister. To date the DUP has prevented the Assembly functioning rather than address its self-made impasse.
The British government is delaying the calling of a further Assembly election. It appears to have the legal option of waiting until mid-January before calling an election. All the signals from the EU, Irish government and the recent meeting between Biden and Sunak, are that a settlement on the Protocol is likely before the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April 2023. Time enough perhaps to ease the DUP into living with the Protocol, if softly practised, and the inevitability of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister?
A new differentiation in the unionist community
Political unionism’s lack of perspective has created a breach in part of the unionist community. Support has been transferred to the Alliance Party, which has a “neutral” position on Irish unity, has supported marriage equality and abortion rights, opposed Brexit and the anti-Protocol campaign. In the 2016 Assembly elections Alliance won 7.2% of first preferences compared to the DUP’s 29.2%. In the May 2022 election, Alliance stood on 13.5% and the DUP on 21.3%. The November Lucid Talk poll gives Alliance 15% compared to the DUP’s 27%. While the DUP has won back some support from the rightest TUV, Alliance has consolidated its support.
Undoubtedly this has been because the economic impact of Brexit and the Protocol is evident to those not fixated on nostalgia or dogma. Having priority access to both the EU’s single market, and the British market, has resulted in the six counties having better economic growth than any other region of the UK, with the exception of London. This looks set to continue. A recent report from Northern Ireland government services finds: “…over the period 2021-2025, Northern Ireland could attract on average 41 FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] projects per annum, which is a 20% increase over the previous five years. In turn just over 2000 FDI jobs could be created per annum (an 8% increase over the same period). Approximately, half of the FDI projects and three-fifths of the jobs are expected to come from the new investors with the remaining projects and jobs from existing foreign investors.” (1)
This dislocation between the stance of political unionism and sections of the unionist community is captured in the new book by Ben Collins, an Alliance member and himself from a unionist background. He writes: “The crucial fact is that moderate unionists or ‘post unionists’ are now giving serious contemplation to Irish unity, in part as a vehicle to regain full membership of the EU for the region. This is starting to happen through public debate – as we have seen in large set piece events such as those being held by Ireland’s Future – which has an important role in providing a platform for discussion, engaging with interested parties and energising those in favour of a New Ireland. I know that at the same time, from my own experience, there are lots of private chats within groups of people from unionist backgrounds about being open to Irish unity. These quiet conversations are key to engaging with unionism.” (2)
Most recent developments bear this out. On November 23rd, a thousand people attended a meeting called by Ireland’s Future in Ulster Hall, Belfast. This was the hall where Edward Carson had organised unionists to promote the Ulster Covenant, more than a century ago. A number of speakers at the Ireland’s Future meeting were from unionist backgrounds. Highlighting the profound shifts underway was the contribution from Glenn Bradley, a retired Shankill businessman. He was five years old when injured by an IRA car bomb. His classmates called him “Scarface”. He lost an uncle, killed by the IRA. He joined the British army, serving five tours of duty in the north. He told the meeting: “I had enough hate in me to kill and destroy the world.”
As reported in the Irish Times: “So, how does a man like Bradley now come to favour a united Ireland? Through discovering “my denied history”, he said, especially the Protestants involvement in the 1798 rebellion and learning that his Ulster Volunteer Force and Covenant-signing great grandfather was a fluent Irish speaker. Such discoveries, “that type of myth-busting, that type of rising above propaganda”, caused him to question his thinking “[But] the big game-changer was Brexit”, he added. Proud of his “British culture and Protestant tradition”, Bradley told the Ulster Hall crowd that that identity “does not make me any less Irish than anyone else.” (3)
The issue of national identity is perhaps the most interesting detail of the 2021 census results published so far. Northern Ireland has a population of just over 1.9 million, with 96.55% being white, a much higher percentage than in Britain. However the complexity of responses to the question of “national identity” is revealing. 32% define themselves as “British only”; 29% as “Irish only”; 20% as “Northern Irish only”; 8% as “British & Northern Irish only”; 2% as “Irish & Northern Irish only”; 2% as “British, Irish & Northern Irish only” and 1% as “British & Irish only”. The remaining 7% are EU nationals and other nationalities.
Identities which include “British” amount to 42% of the population. Identities which express “Irish” nationality and exclude “British” amount to 51% of the population. Now it would be simplistic, in an obviously intricate complex of self-identification, to suggest a simple transfer between national identity and support for Irish unity. For example, Glen Bradley above would fall into the “British” identity. But it is evident that the idea of a permanent, clear pro-British state majority no longer has any foundation in the self-expression of the population of Northern Ireland.
Of course, both the immediate crisis over the Protocol, and the long term differentiation inside unionism, are prompting other, less progressive responses.
The Loyalist Communities Council is an umbrella group representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando paramilitary groups. It has issued statements raising its alarm that a long-term collapse of power sharing at Stormont could result in joint-authority by the British and Irish governments. The implication being that if this were to happen then the 1994 loyalist ceasefire could not be guaranteed. An earlier expression of this concern was a UVF hoax bomb which forced Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, to abandon a speaking engagement in North Belfast in March.
There is little likelihood of an ending of the loyalist ceasefire. But the instability of the DUP’s leadership, and its negotiating position, is likely unnerving the base of loyalism. On Friday 25th November, the Financial Times revealed that in July 2021, the then Northern Ireland Agricultural Minister, and ex DUP leader, Edwin Poots, wrote to the British government seeking to retain an arrangement under the Protocol which mantained £382 million in farm subsidies. The practical benefits of the Protocol have an attraction for even the most right-wing leaders of the DUP.
More ambitious, and less credible, initiatives are being undertaken by unionist leaders against the “threat” of Irish unity. On November 8th, Ian Paisley,DUP MP, introduced his “Referendum (Supermajority) Bill” into the House of Commons. The Bill is unlikely to be sufficiently supported to be debated, let alone passed. However, it is an assault upon the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement that allow for a simple majority vote in a future border poll to reunite Ireland. The Bill would also impact upon the vote in any referendum on Scottish independence. The whole aim is to poison any future debate with the idea that 50% plus 1 does not constitute a majority.
Equally desperate is the initiative from former DUP leader, Dame Arlene Foster, in launching a campaign to promote the benefits of the Union. Called “Together UK”, the initial claim was that a hundred influential people were lined up to promote the initiative. The London launch saw Dame Foster joined by just Tory MP, Steve Baker. Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Tories in Scotland, issued a denial that she had agreed to tour with Foster. A meeting is planned for Belfast on January 23rd, with Foster as the only speaker, so far. The campaign’s website has sparse news, and even more sparse indications of support. Dame Foster was forced out of the DUP leadership whilst under a cloud from the corruption scandal, “Cash for Ash”, which wasted £490 million of taxpayers money. Her credibility as an authoritative leader in defence of the union is less than she presumably believes.
Preparing for unity – The Citizens Assembly
In the face of the foregoing developments, the mood at the Ard Fheis was very upbeat. At the heart of the party is the commitment to Irish reunification. The key issue being how to further encourage and channel the debate around unity. The party’s discussion document “Our Future”, distributed at conference, reads: “Next year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, an agreement that provides for referenda on Irish Unity, which we believe will happen this decade.” (4)
Given that it is a British secretary of state who will decide whether the conditions for a referendum have been met, it may seem optimistic to suggest this will happen before 2030. However, since 2016 the impact of Brexit upon Ireland has transformed the political situation. It is hard to argue the benefits of the union when the British government’s actions have convulsed the community most favourable to the union.
That said, Sinn Féin’s tactics have to be comprehensible not just to activists, but above all to millions of people on the island of Ireland. The Ard Chomhairle (elected leadership) got conference to support a campaign for an all-island Citizens Assembly on Irish Unity. This is to be called by the Irish government, but the campaign for it is to be pursued across both jurisdictions. The proposal is for a representative body of citizens, plus some politicians, to take submissions and prepare recommendations.
There are plenty of precedents – such Assemblies were used to prepare recommendations for the Irish government in 2016-18 on abortion law reform (and other issues), and in 2019 on gender equality. The caution of the ruling coalition of Fianna Fáil /Fine Gael means they are unlikely to be easily persuaded. But the campaign Ireland’s Future is already providing a sounding board. Further, initiatives by republicans in local government are already gaining support. For example, at the start of November, Belfast City Council agreed to write to Taoiseach Micheál Martin to urge the creation of a New Ireland Forum, and citizens’ assemblies on the constitutional question.
A full agenda for change
Delegates debated the many social and economic problems on the island of Ireland. Separate sessions were held on climate, biodiversity and energy security; tackling the cost of living crisis; supporting rural communities; safer, diverse and inclusive communities; delivering the homes that are needed; and building a better health service. These debates were generally well researched, concrete and with precise policies. Such work demonstrates how the party has entered a new stage where it is setting the agenda in many areas as well as on national unity. One response to the party’s growing influence has been a “phenomenal” growth in the last year, with 60 new party structures having been set up (branches and organising bodies).
Nor is its growing influence softening the party’s radical edge. Pearse Doherty, party Spokesperson for Finance in the Dáil, told conference that the aim was “to ensure that workers and their families are at the centre in the coming decade… Innovation and high wages must be at the heart of the economy. We want to increase workers’ power and build an economy that works for them”. Similarly, Conor Murphy, Minister for Finance in the last Assembly, explained that the party’s economic policy for a reconvened Assembly would focus on increasing jobs and raising wages; raising productivity; addressing regional imbalances and decentralising the economy.
The session on foreign affairs and international solidarity saw the most contentious debate, concerning the war in Ukraine. The Ard Chomhairle put forward a motion which appears to have been adapted to place the party parallel to EU and US government policy. The most notable distinction being the additional motion by the leadership on NATO, which reaffirms support for Irish neutrality and to having this enshrined in the Irish constitution.
The motion on Ukraine, “condemns all forms of imperialism and colonial aggression”, and “opposes the denial of self-determination and all violations of national sovereignty throughout the globe, and without exception”. It ends by calling for an end to the war, a full restoration of Ukrainian national sovereignty, an immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces and maintenance of sanctions “until these outcomes are achieved”.
In a debate restricted by time, only three delegates spoke from the floor, all against the motion. All three identified sanctions as an instrument of coercion against civilian populations. The issue of “sovereignty” was highlighted – if this really was “without exception” then not only were the people of Donetsk and Lugansk denied national rights, but also the Basques, Catalonians, etc. The delegates vote was too close to call. The chair ordered a roll-call vote, after which it was announced the vote was “passed by a narrow margin”.
In her Presidential Address, closing conference, Mary Lou McDonald stated that Sinn Féin was ready to lead in government, north and south. She warned the British government that whatever happens with attempts to restore the Assembly, “direct rule from London is not an option”. She explained that three key themes in the coming years would be reunification, energy independence and harnessing the power of Ireland’s youth for change. In this, there was a seat at the table for everyone, including travellers, ethnic minorities, the LGBT community and the disabled. She promised a national health service for the whole of Ireland. And if the Irish government refused to establish a Citizens Assembly on Irish unity, Sinn Féin in government definitely will.
She stated that we are in “the end days of partition”. Given the enthusiasm of the Ard Fheis, and the major political developments in Irish society, it is hard to disagree.
(1) “Attracting foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland in the context of our post EU exit trading relationships”, firstname.lastname@example.org
(2) “Irish Unity: Time To Prepare”, Ben Collins, Luath Press Limited, 2022
(3) Irish Times, 26/11/22, “Once the home of Edward Carson, the Ulster Hall never saw a night like this”, Gerry Moriarty
(4) “Our Future”, Sinn Féin Discussion Document, November 2022, page 2