Sean Donlon: five steps towards Irish unity

Posted By: August 02, 2017


By Jude Collins on August 2, 2017

Sean Donlon former Irish Ambassador to Washington (1978-1981]


Speak to any Irish-American, especially any Irish-American republican (no, not the Trump sort, Virginia – the Shinner sort) and they’ll tell you former ambassador Sean Donlon is one of their favorite people.[ Joking]The very mention of his name brings a smile to their faces and a song to their lips. So you may be sure it was with leaping hearts they opened their Irish Times yesterday and read a column by Sean titled ‘Sinn Féin missing a life-time opportunity to set the agenda.

Sean tells republicans that while the Irish and British governments, the EU and the US are all motivated by the same central concern as Sinn Féin, the party must realize that the problem lies with persuading unionists of the desirability of a united Ireland. This will not come easy, so Sean has helpfully laid out five steps the Shinners should take immediately to help unlock unionist opposition. (No, Virginia, he doesn’t list meeting the queen – that’s been done already.)


The five steps are


  • Shinners must take their seats in Westminster. Look what Gerry Fitt and Seamus Mallon achieved by taking their seats, Sean points out. (Quiet at the back, please.)
  • Shinners must “tone down the commemoration of the IRA dead and the attendant rhetoric. Not all of us want to be reminded of your atrocities”.
  • Shinners must stop talking about being in the endgame of Irish unity. He raps Mary Lou McDonald’s knuckles particularly in this matter: “Does she ever stop to think about unionist consent?” In support of his argument, Sean points out that 71% of voters in the north and 94% of voters in the south “endorsed the need for that consent.” (Any more shouting and I will have to place some people on report.)
  • Shinners must stop thinking about achieving a majority in favour of unification. “There is no attraction or prospect, Brexit or not, of unity by numbers and without consent.”.
  • The Shinners must stop “weaponizing “ the Irish Language. Sean says the language’s development should be left to grass-roots development.

I could comment at some length on Sean’s imaginative, not to say fictional take on several matters, but I’ll confine myself to two.

Sean a chara, the Good Friday Agreement did not declare that unionists in The North must agree to a united Ireland before such a state can be formed. It said that when a majority of people in The North desire a united Ireland, steps should be taken to set one up.

Sean a chara, “unity by numbers” is an odd phrase, but I’m guessing you mean “a majority in favor of unity.” That’s actually democracy in action. Republicans made a massive stretch in 1998 and agreed that steps to establishing a united Ireland should be taken when a majority of people in The North, not a majority of unionists, gave their assent.

Sean a chara, it’s really not a good idea to sign up to an international agreement and then urge that its terms be ignored. Nor is it a good idea to say that a majority of unionists must be in favor of Irish unity before it gets the nod. I remember a few years ago making this point to the late Martin McGuinness: that even when there was a majority in The North favoring reunification, a hold should be put on it until the unionist population here felt positive towards it. He gave me one of those blue-eyed looks, shook his head and said firmly “I wouldn’t be in favor of that at all.”

But here: I don’t want to sound ungrateful, Sean. It’s always helpful when a long-time friend of Irish republicanism offers his/her thoughts, regardless of how daft they are.