Just three by-elections away from united Ireland

Posted By: October 13, 2017

Newton Emerson.Irish Post. Belfast. Thursday. October 12, 2017

Sinn Féin is three Westminster by-elections away from delivering a united Ireland.

It might be a bit more complicated than that in practice but it is certainly less complicated than all the other unification scenarios being suggested.

The palpable sense among many Republicans that a united Ireland is imminent seems to be based on long chains of elaborate reasoning, beginning with Brexit and ending with a border poll.

Scottish independence, Stormont suspension, joint authority and Sinn Féin in a Dublin government have all featured as links in these chains, despite no evidence that anyone link necessarily follows another. The Catalan crisis is now being cited without further explanation as if the mere fact of Spain breaking up would change any facts in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the polls creep up for Jeremy Corbyn minus any republican excitement or even interest in what this means – namely, a democratic short-cut to unification, lying almost within grasp.

Sinn Féin’s Westminster abstentionism gives the Conservatives and the DUP a combined working majority of six seats.

If Sinn Féin turns up, that changes the mid-point arithmetic and reduces the Tory working majority to just two. If the Tories lose two by-elections, it falls to zero.

The Tories then need to lose a third by-election to be voted out of office, as the speaker supports the government when a no-confidence motion is tied.

Until recently, there would have been questions over whether every opposition and even  Labour MP would back a no-confidence motion but Corbyn seems to have put that behind him.

This straightforward scenario could unfold rapidly. By-elections have occurred at a fairly constant rate of four per year since the start of this century. If that average is maintained, evenly spread across all parties and tilted against the government, as usual, the Tories are in serious danger of losing their majority next year and are almost certain of losing it in the Brexit year of 2019.

But only if Sinn Féin stays away. Otherwise, the government can almost certainly stagger on for a full parliamentary term, presumably ending with a new Tory leader and a clearer picture on Brexit, making a Labour victory much less predictable.

There is no need to rehash the arguments for and against abstentionism here. It is sufficient to note that few Sinn Féin supporters would object to a one-off trip to London to dislodge the Conservatives, especially after the DUP-Tory deal. Any rarefied ideological concerns about Irish interference in Britain could be addressed by the promise of ending British interference in Ireland.

Corbyn has made no such promises since becoming Labour leader – he has been careful to support the Good Friday Agreement and make conventional peace process noises.

This must still be a very thin veneer on a lifetime of militant Irish republicanism – and placing that perspective at the heart of Labour no longer depends on Corbyn alone. His views and record on Ireland are shared by his closest shadow cabinet colleagues and by the wider movement behind them, which has taken over the party from top to bottom. If anything, Corbyn’s successors will feel less reticence to express Irish republican sympathies, as they will be less encumbered by past Sinn Féin associations.

Labour’s lurch green wards are, to all intents and purposes, permanent. It might not announce British withdrawal once in office, as Corbyn spent decades demanding but imagine what a Labour government could do within the terms of the agreement under present circumstances.

Consider how it would approach Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations, how it would interpret Brexit as a trigger for a border poll and how it would treat unionism throughout.

A previous Labour government promised an Irish language act, then dropped the ball while devolving culture powers to Stormont. Would a Corbyn government hesitate to pass an act at Westminster?

The bill of rights in the Good Friday Agreement was sunk by the Human Rights Commission but remains within Westminster’s remit. A Corbyn government could enact one without any constitutional issue.

In republican logic, the link between Scottish independence and Irish unity was Unionist demoralization. To the extent that this argument ever made sense, a British government that clearly wants a United Ireland on Sinn Féin’s terms would underscore it by an order of magnitude.

There are obvious reasons why Labour and Sinn Féin might keep such hopes to themselves but the disinterest from Republicans, in general, is harder to explain, given all the wishful thinking over far less probable scenarios.

Does it just all seem too good to be true?