Sinn Féin may follow newly nationalist Leo

Posted By: January 27, 2018

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, January 27, 2018

While it is too early to assess the likely outcome of the current Stormont talks, it is clear that the changing political landscape in The South is likely to have a major impact on events in The North.

Although the DUP believes that politics here will be shaped by its deal with the Tories, the major influence will come from Dublin, particularly in relation to Stormont’s future, Brexit and the changing face of Irish nationalism.

So what has changed in southern politics and how will it affect us? Oddly, the changes come mainly from Leo Varadkar’s foreign policy. Faced with Brexit’s threat to the South’s economy, he has re-shaped Fine Gael as an Irish nationalist party.

While Enda Kenny fell out with the Vatican, Varadkar picked a more traditional enemy and fell out with London. It was a clever (and maybe even necessary) move, which proved hugely popular across Ireland (except in the DUP).

While criticizing Britain, he praised the EU. He told the European Parliament recently that although Ireland now pays more to the EU than it receives, it is prepared to increase its financial contribution (presumably on the basis that your enemy’s enemy is your friend).

Varadkar is now the most pre-EU taoiseach in Irish history, saying he wants all EU citizens to discuss the same issues in ‘cafes in Naples and restaurants in Galway.’ (Although, if you know Galway, you will realize that a lot will depend on the restaurant.)

He has ignored the EU’s role in damaging the Irish economy and how bigger states like Spain and Italy avoided the same economic abuse as smaller Ireland. He might also recognize that British withdrawal from the EU will leave Ireland without an important ally in Brussels.

Mr. Varadkar is also moving Ireland away from its traditional military neutrality. Committing Ireland to a new EU military pact recently, he claimed that ‘neutrality’ means ‘something different now’ (which presumably is ‘not neutrality’).

So this new Irish nationalism is not just anti-British, it is exceptionally pro-EU (a love affair which may well end in post-Brexit tears).

The taoiseach’s foreign policy shift has significantly impacted on domestic politics in the run-up to an expected general election. On current opinion polls, a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition looks most likely, but the result will be heavily influenced by the timing and nature of the abortion referendum.

Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin has already pushed past FG and SF with his radical stance on abortion. While his view is purely personal, the party is likely to increase its vote in Dublin.

So how will all this affect The North? As part of his all-Ireland anti-Brexit campaign, the Taoiseach sees a revived Stormont playing a role in keeping The North’s economic regulations aligned with those of the south.

He needs a northern ally on Brexit with some degree of political power. Arlene Foster’s attitude to future cross-border trade offers some hope. But how will SF react?

This column has argued that SF will stay away from Stormont and hope to influence northern events as a junior partner in the next Dublin government. But it now faces a new political temptation.

There is no mileage in returning to Stormont to take the flak on our ailing health and education services and the future of Bombardier. But will fail to do so jeopardize the chances of progressing from being a cross-border ally in Belfast to become a coalition partner in Dublin?

If Sinn Féin does return to Stormont before the next southern election, it would be an exaggeration to claim that it was at the behest of Fine Gael. However, the decision will have been made to keep Leo Varadkar onside – and to develop an all-Ireland approach to Brexit. It will be the first test for the party’s new leadership, which we might respectfully call the girls of the new brigade.

Northern nationalist support for the Taoiseach will be reinforced by his view that Ireland’s home is in the EU. It is similar to 1914 when nationalists joined with brave little Belgium to win Irish freedom from Britain. In the cyclical nature of Irish political fashions, nationalism has now come full circle to the years before 1916.

But will this new Irish nationalism overcome current opposition to Stormont? To anticipate what is likely to happen, listen for subtle changes to SF’s language on its equality agenda and watch as the Dáil exchanges between Gerry Adams and the Taoiseach become more civilized.

Alternatively, you may try to forecast the future using tea-leaves. To achieve the most accurate predictions, however, you should buy your tea in Dublin.