Brexit has put Irish unity back on agenda

Posted By: August 04, 2017

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, August 4, 2017

Fresh from her holidays, Arlene Foster announced that she had, “regretfully come to the conclusion that Sinn Féin isn’t interested in devolution.” Gerry Adams responded by saying that he would come back from his own holidays to kick start the talks process, adding, “Let no-one in any circumstances, in any way, underestimate Sinn Féin’s preparedness to make talks work. Even Arlene doesn’t believe what she’s saying.”

 But, does Foster have a point? In an Irish News column a few months ago I suggested that Sinn Féin could be thinking ‘beyond devolution’; reckoning that the changed circumstances after the EU referendum had made Irish unity an easier pitch, particularly if they could point to the continuing failure of devolution on the back of DUP ‘intolerance.’

 The Brexit vote those people are ‘in play.’ In other words, they have concluded – and I have written about this before – that those people are now genuinely persuadable: they might, just might, vote for unity in the right circumstances.

 Two things than backing the present constitutional status quo; and similarly clear evidence that the unity agenda embraced the Republic’s political establishment rather than just being a Sinn Féin project (because many of those potential voters detest Sinn Féin). My own view is that most of those potential voters were happy enough in the UK because EU membership and funding assuaged their latent fears about identity and heritage. A hard border, the absence of an assembly and the possibility of a ‘little Englander’ mentality dominating UK politics for decades scares them. Scares them enough to think seriously about constitutional alternatives.

 Comments and speeches by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders since the Brexit vote in June 2016 (the Republic, understandably, is very worried about what comes next) has put Irish unity on the agenda. No political leader from the Republic since 1921 has ever taken the prospect of reunification as a realistic option. They may have talked the talk for grassroots consumption, but that was all it was. And a sizeable chunk of voters – perhaps even a majority – wasn’t keen on absorbing Northern Ireland.

 On Wednesday an Oireachtas cross-party committee published Brexit And The Future Of Ireland: Uniting Ireland And Its People In Peace And Prosperity. Unionists dismissed it out of hand. They shouldn’t have. It’s an important document: important simply because it exists. It will become the focus of intense political/constitutional/media/party political/ social media debate. It will be taken up by Sinn Féin and the SDLP here. It will be studied very closely by the British and Irish governments; and by the EU’s team of negotiators.

 My advice to unionists is blunt. Read the document. Go through it with a fine tooth comb. Get your best people working on it. Take it apart paragraph by paragraph and be prepared to contest it with reasoned, coherent counter arguments and statistics. You can no longer take it for granted that you can ‘bank’ those non-unionist voters in the event of a border poll – something which I think is much closer than you think. Four years away from Northern Ireland’s centenary and unionism faces its biggest challenge since the Home Rule crises which dominated politics from 1885-1921.

 Which brings us has shifted to that territory. The Republic’s political establishment is shifting there, too.

 All of which suggests that Sinn Féin may not be serious about devolution. Fair enough, they’ll never say it out loud; but they may be whispering it across their grassroots. As I wrote a few months ago, Sinn Féin has calculated that they have little to lose if devolution isn’t restored. The DUP, on the other hand, could have huge problems; the sort of problems which won’t go away just because they have cut a deal with Theresa May. If Arlene Foster believes that Sinn Féin isn’t serious about devolution – and I agree with her – then she needs to put a strategic alternative in place, pretty damn quick.