Irish Unity Is Now a Realistic Goal, but There’s Still a Long Road to Travel

Sinn Féin has become the largest party on both sides of the Irish border. But the party’s effort to eliminate that border for good will have to overcome some powerful obstacles that stand in the way of a united Ireland.

The Sinn Féin leadership of Mary Lou McDonald (C), Michelle O'Neill (L) and Conor Murphy (R) talk to the media on May 24, 2022 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Does the long-term fallout from the Brexit crisis mean that a united Ireland, Sinn Féin’s overriding political objective, is now within reach? After last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, Sinn Féin is now the largest party on both sides of the Irish border — a scenario that seemed utterly far-fetched little more than a decade ago. Yet it is still easier to imagine a Sinn Féin first minister in Belfast greeting a Sinn Féin taoiseach in Dublin than it is to picture their respective jurisdictions becoming one.

Two books published recently map out the contours of Sinn Féin as a party and the wider political landscape on which it has to operate. Rebels in Government by Agnès Maillot is the first detailed study of Sinn Féin to have appeared since it won the largest vote share in the Republic of Ireland’s 2020 election (although the book preceded its more recent breakthrough in the North).

Northern Ireland a Generation After Good Friday is a collective work by four academics at British and Irish universities. It is narrower in geographical scope than Rebels in Government, which looks at Sinn Féin’s development in both Irish states, but more wide-ranging thematically, with chapters on, inter alia, the changing status of women since the peace process began and Northern Ireland’s unorthodox political economy.

Shadow of the Gunmen

Inevitably, Maillot has to address the question of Sinn Féin’s relationship with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which its opponents take every opportunity to revisit, especially in Dublin. She argues that it was never legitimate to conflate the two organizations:

While there is no doubt that in many instances there was a duality of membership and a convergence in discourse and objectives, Sinn Féin was not a mere political front for the IRA. It had its own strategies, agendas and personnel. It wholeheartedly supported the actions of its counterpart, but it also contributed to the political debate within the movement and at large. Ultimately, it was Sinn Féin’s vision that prevailed.

The last point is a crucial one. Sinn Féin politicians like Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, and Gerry Kelly used their relationship with the IRA to guide it toward a ceasefire and the acceptance of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy. There is a striking contrast here with the experience of their Basque political allies who tried to imitate that strategy from the late 1990s. The Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi and his associates never possessed the same authority in their dealings with ETA as Adams and McGuiness did when they addressed the IRA. Even those ETA leaders who were most sympathetic to what Otegi was trying to do had to watch their backs under pressure from the organization’s hard-line militarists.

As Maillot notes, Adams made a rod for his own back in this context by point-blank denying that he was ever a member of the IRA. This denial barely counts as a lie, since it is universally disbelieved by friend and foe alike. Adams could never have spoken freely about activities that are still subject to criminal prosecution, but there were still more ambiguous formulas he could have used that would have fallen short of an outright denial and done less damage to his credibility: “While his past would still have been questioned, his admission to having played a role within the IRA might have gained him a level of trust.”

Maillot suggests that his close ally McGuinness “played his cards differently” by telling the Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre that he had been second-in-command of the Derry IRA in 1972. However, McGuinness never had the option of denying his membership outright, since he had been interviewed by journalists in his capacity as an IRA leader during the early 1970s. Adams, on the other hand, managed to fly under the public radar at the time. McGuinness also claimed to have left the IRA in 1974, which was scarcely more believable than the idea that Adams never joined it in the first place.

Legacy Issues

Of course, Irish republicans are not the only ones who have been less than frank in their approach to the historical record. Northern Ireland a Generation After Good Friday includes a chapter on what have been known as “legacy issues” in the jargon of Northern Irish politics — in other words, who did what and why during the conflict. There has been no overarching mechanism for dealing with the past, and no decision made about whether the priority is to secure convictions for unsolved killings or find out as much as possible about what happened. Those who were responsible, directly or indirectly, are much more likely to tell us what they know if they don’t expect to receive a prison sentence afterward.

As a result, truth recovery has been a fragmentary process, involving reports by the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Police Ombudsman as well as ad hoc investigations of some high-profile cases, such as the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989. This has encouraged the perception, tirelessly promoted by senior British Conservative politicians, that killings by the state security forces have received much more attention than those of the IRA. In fact, the HET had completed investigations of 1,615 cold cases by 2017, nearly two-thirds of which were attributed to republicans, with just thirty-two involving the army.

The episodes where state agents either killed civilians themselves or colluded with those who did have been so controversial because there was such a long period of impunity for the perpetrators. Throughout the conflict, the British state deemed the IRA campaign to be a criminal conspiracy: membership of the organization could result in jail time, quite apart from any specific actions taken in pursuit of its goals, from possession of explosives to homicide.

It is entirely natural that people should want to remember IRA atrocities like Kingsmill, La Mon, or Enniskillen. What sets Bloody Sunday apart from those massacres was the fact that the British state itself was responsible and that its most eminent judge, Lord John Widgery, whitewashed the killings in an official report while the families of the victims were still mourning their deaths.

As Colin Coulter and his colleagues note, the recurrent cycles of controversy over legacy issues may explain a marked shift in popular opinion about an all-encompassing truth and reconciliation commission between 2017 and 2019. In 2017, 31.5 percent of those surveyed in Northern Ireland wanted such a body to be established; two years later, that figure had risen to 45.7 percent.

If we exclude those who didn’t express an opinion, almost three-quarters of respondents were in favor, including 90.4 percent of Sinn Féin voters and 73.4 percent of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) supporters. The last of these figures is especially notable, since there is a widespread impression that unionists are much less keen to explore the past than nationalists and would rather just move on.

While Sinn Féin leaders may express regret and remorse about particular IRA actions, they still defend its campaign in the round as having been legitimate, necessary, and productive. This is a source of great irritation to the party’s political opponents, who emphasize the gulf between what the IRA said it was fighting for in the 1970s and ’80s — a British commitment to withdraw from the North of Ireland by a fixed deadline — and the settlement that Sinn Féin eventually accepted.

Maillot quotes a 2010 statement from Adams that attempts to finesse the U-turn his leadership team performed: “When a democratic and peaceful alternative to armed struggle was created, the IRA left the stage.” The “democratic and peaceful alternative” Adams had in mind was Sinn Féin itself, which did not exist as a serious political party at the time of the abortive Sunningdale peace agreement in the early 1970s. Its emergence in the 1980s meant that the republican movement could contemplate a cease-fire without the danger of becoming irrelevant after the IRA laid down its weapons.

If Adams or his close associates were able to speak frankly, without diplomatic soft-soaping, they might well say that it was better to take a leap in the dark with the peace process than to continue banging their head against a brick wall with an IRA campaign that had no prospect of victory. It is precisely because the peace process required so many ideological compromises that the Adams leadership has been so determined to uphold the legitimacy of the IRA and its members, even as they consigned its active role to the history books. So far they have stuck rigidly to this line, even when it means taking intense political heat, as was the case with the Belfast funeral of IRA veteran Bobby Storey in 2020.

Prospects for Unity

Sinn Féin’s plan for Irish unity must pass through the narrow gate of winning a border poll in Northern Ireland. This was as much of a U-turn for republicans as declaring a cease-fire without a British commitment to withdraw. For many years, they had insisted that Northern Ireland was an illegitimate political entity and that the nationalist majority across the whole island should trump the region’s unionist majority.

An interview Maillot conducted with the Sinn Féin politician Caoimhe Archibald in 2020 shows how far the party has shifted toward accepting what it used to deride as the “unionist veto.” Archibald insisted that it was perfectly natural for Sinn Féin to work through the established power-sharing institutions while pressing in the long run for a united Ireland: “The institutions and the GFA are based on the principle of consent which was designed to accommodate opposing views around constitutional issues.”

She also suggested it might be necessary to reproduce some version of the Good Friday Agreement’s devolved political structures in the context of an all-Ireland state:

We have to be open to the type of arrangement that is going to be appealing to people, open to have the conversation about some sort of regional set-up as a transition. None of these things can be ruled out. People want to have their elected representatives, and it’s a big jump to go from what we have now to being represented in [Dublin’s] Leinster House.

A vote in favor of Irish unity now seems more likely than it did a decade ago, but that is coming from a low base. The possibility of constitutional change is still very far from being a certainty, even if we see further ructions over issues related to Brexit.

Last year, Sinn Féin became the region’s largest party with 29 percent of the vote: it was the fragmentation of the unionist bloc that enabled it to overtake the DUP by a decisive margin. The combined vote share for parties that want to end the union with Britain has only increased by 1 percent since 1998, yet the total unionist electorate has declined by a full 10 percent.

If the unionist parties are unable to claw back the ground they have lost, that will mean there is a new configuration of Northern Irish politics. In place of a long-established divide between a unionist majority and a nationalist minority, we now have two large minorities, both with approximately 40 percent of the vote, and a nonaligned bloc accounting for the rest. The main political force representing the nonaligned electorate is the liberal Alliance Party, which defines itself as neither nationalist nor unionist, and came third in the 2021 election with 13.5 percent.

One of the chapters in Northern Ireland a Generation After Good Friday, written before the 2022 Assembly election, explores the social trends underpinning this political shift. Drawing on a wealth of survey evidence, the authors note that society in the region is now “more diverse in terms of communities and identities, and less easy to categorise in binary terms, than it has ever been before.”

This is partly because of immigration, although Northern Ireland’s non-white population is proportionately much smaller than that of its southern neighbor. The big change has been the increase in the number of those identifying as “no religion,” from 9 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2018. The vast majority of those people were brought up as either Protestants or Catholics.

A 2019 survey found greater support for Irish unity in the “no religion” category than among self-identified Protestants. However, this segment of opinion was still vastly outnumbered by those who supported the constitutional status quo, while many others said that they simply wouldn’t vote in the event of a border poll:

Those of no religion tend to be in favour of the Union but are also more likely to be keen to actively disassociate themselves from a political question that appears to be divisive.

Among Protestants, there is also a significant gap between support for the Union as such and support for unionism as an organized political force: in 2019, 87 percent of Protestant respondents said that they wanted to remain in the UK, yet just two-thirds described themselves as unionists.

There is plenty of other material in the chapter to mull over, such as the subtle gradations of political preference between Catholics and Protestants who identify as being “Northern Irish” rather than “Irish” or “British” respectively. One point should be clear to Sinn Féin and other advocates of Irish unity: the crisis of party-political unionism will not translate smoothly or inexorably into a crisis for the Union itself.

People in the “no religion” category or Alliance voters from a Protestant background may be more open to persuasion than staunch, religiously observant unionists. But the hard work of persuading them will have to be done, starting from a recognition that they don’t consider an all-Ireland state to be the natural terminus of Irish history.

Southern Strategies

In the meantime, Sinn Féin will have to confront a very different kind of challenge. The foundation of its electoral growth in the South has been a left-wing platform that became far more appealing to the state’s citizens after the crash of 2008. Its vote share rose from 7 percent in 2007 to nearly 14 percent in 2016 and 24.5 percent in 2020. In 2022, its average polling score was 34 percent.

Sinn Féin defines Irish unity as its primary goal, but its recently acquired southern electorate will want to see tangible progress on the socioeconomic front if and when the party forms a government in Dublin. They may not be looking for the world turned upside down, but they will certainly expect the party to address the housing crisis — a multifaceted social calamity that has been gestating for decades — in a meaningful way. Satisfying the desire for social change in the South may prove to be even harder than persuading a critical mass of people in the North that constitutional change is necessary.

Sinn Féin is essentially promising to implement social-democratic reforms within the established framework of southern Irish capitalism. While those reforms may seem modest in historical perspective, there is no example of a government in Western Europe carrying out such a program since the neoliberal era began in the 1980s. The nearest thing to a success story in recent history is the government of Portuguese Socialist leader António Costa, which confined itself to rolling back some of the destructive policies that the Troika imposed on Portugal after the 2008 crash.

Meanwhile, the conservative parties in Dublin and the social interests they represent will be doing everything they can to block the election of a reformist government, however moderate it may be. One alarming development since the end of last year has been a wave of street protests against the housing of refugees, with a violent, fascist core trying to give them political direction. Although the numbers involved are relatively small, this is by far the most traction that Ireland’s far right has gained in recent years.

If mainstream politicians and pundits believe that stoking up racism is an effective way to undermine support for Sinn Féin, they will have no hesitation in doing so. You can only defend an ugly status quo by using ugly methods. There could be a very rocky period ahead as prominent figures bestow their respectability upon xenophobic talking points that have had such a toxic impact in other European countries.