How Not to Campaign for a United Ireland


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Gerry Adams outlined Sinn Féin’s new campaign for a united Ireland in the Guardian yesterday. The London launch of the campaign took place on Tuesday evening, following a similar event in New York. If I understand the strategy correctly, SF intends to build a broad campaign in Britain and the USA in order to change UK government policy on Irish reunification from unity by consent to advocacy for the Irish option. There is no mention of the Irish Republic’s government or people having a part to play, let alone those in the ‘six counties’.

Adams is correct that UK policy is the key to any kind of progress on a referendum, because the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must decide whether to hold a referendum only if it appears that the majority would be in favour of reunification. However, to place the focus so strongly on rallying those who do not live on the island of Ireland to lobby the UK government on ‘one of the great unresolved and contentious issues of Britain’s colonial past’ smacks in itself of neo-colonialism. The primary impetus for change must come from the Irish people, North and South, and I’m sure the UK government would be delighted to hand us over should there be evidence of that support.

And this brings me to a point which is consistently disregarded by Sinn Féin. Adams begins his Guardian piece by stating:

The single most important issue facing the people of Ireland and Britain is the achievement of Irish unity and the construction of a new relationship between Ireland and Britain based on equality.

Well actually, for most of us, no, it isn’t. Not even close. Adams adds insult to injury by continuing:

Economic crises, however severe, will come and go…but for more centuries than any of us care to contemplate, Britain’s involvement in Ireland has been the source of conflict…

So there you have it. You may have just lost your job, be facing mortgage or rent arrears, your son or daughter is fighting in Afghanistan, you were burgled last week, you’re waiting for an operation and you can’t afford repairs to your car. Somehow I don’t think you’ll be writing to Gordon Brown to ask him to reconsider his policy on Irish unity. For the President of an avowedly socialist party to disregard the global economic situation is arrogant in the extreme.

Despite this, it’s probably true that any test of British public opinion would be firmly in favour of removing NI from the Union. My experience of English attitudes is either that we should just get over ourselves and stop fighting, or that we’re all Irish anyway so what’s the problem. Add to that the expense of supporting the wee six and I think we’d be given a splendid send-off. However, the roots of these views lie far more in anti-Irish racism than in a burning desire to right historic wrongs – does Adams really want to stoke that up? Equally, it’s usually acknowledged that a referendum in the Irish Republic would be against a united Ireland, perhaps because it would be seen to bring both higher costs and political instability. The starting point for any reunification campaign must be a recognition of the utter insignificance of the issue for the vast majority of people of these islands.

So in the age of globalisation, and with both parts of Ireland members of the European Union, why does the Border still matter anyway? Because identity issues are fundamental to the Irish question in the 21st century. As a socialist I regard the contemporary Irish question as a choice between one capitalist state and another, with neither offering an automatic advantage for the working class. But I have to accept that for the majority in Northern Ireland it does matter whether their state is British or Irish. Adams comes closest to acknowledging this when he says:

We must be open to listening to unionism, to look at what they mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and be open to new concepts.

This is important and far more productive than trying to convince unsympathetic Brits and fourth generation Irish Americans to support change. But it’s also a great deal more difficult, and I don’t think SF has the track record to succeed. There’s, let’s say, a certain lack of trust in some quarters about all this. Adams recalls that twenty years ago ‘my voice could not be heard on the British media… for much of that time I was a banned person – unable to travel to London.’ Of course the measures taken by Thatcher were against civil liberties and fundamentally wrong, but Adams neglects to remind us why they were put in place, namely because the IRA were murdering people to try to intimidate the UK government into withdrawing from Ireland.

Now we’re being told that the same aim can be achieved by ‘initiating a conversation’, which raises the question whether a sustained, non-violent, non-partisan and internationally supported campaign for civil rights would have achieved more, and sooner, than the armed struggle. But that’s the position of another party. Although I’m no fan, the SDLP are actually the political party to lead this campaign.

If Ireland is ever to be reunified, it lies further in the future than Adams desires. And if it does happen, it’ll be through making UK devolution work, and building up the strength of the North South and East West institutions. Should the UK becomes a federated state, the NI Executive could become a federal partner with Dublin rather than Westminster, or perhaps even connect in some way with both states. The way to achieve a united Ireland is not by the UK government becoming a persuader for the cause, but by showing the people of Ireland, North and South, that change is no threat to their identity, their public services, or their wallets. That’s much harder than grandstanding in London or New York.

Photo of Gerry Adams at the Westminister launch courtesy of the BBC.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

4 Responses

  1. peter

    July 16, 2009 10:39 pm

    Of course this ‘public debate’ is part of a more coherent and wider strategy aimed at the reunification of Ireland. The British government and American sympathizers (in contrasting ways) played a key role in fuelling the armed struggled, as well as the peace negotiations, so why shouldn’t a debate on reunification involve them? Of course it was not indicated that they shouldn’t be involved but the post states that ‘there is no mention of the Irish Republic’s government or people having a role to play, let alone those in the six counties’ By virtue of SF’s political representation in the NI Executive, the Irish government and on North-South Ministerial bodies, their mandate has the opportunity to engage in political discourse, vote on policies, etc etc and i’m sure are well aware of SF’s political strategy. Gerry Adams also listed ‘getting the Irish government to begin preparations for Irish unity’ as one of three interlinked challenges, so to say there is no mention of the Republic’s government having a role to play, I feel, is slightly unfair.
    When it comes to engaging with Unionism that is of course a different matter – grassroots unionism that is, after all SF are in a power sharing government. Just this week SF extended an invitation to meet with the Orange Order which was refused. Therefore, I don’t think there is any lack of appetite of SF’s behalf to meet with members of the public (north or south) from different political persuasions to pursue their ultimate goal.
    The British government has enforced (many insidious) policies in NI for years, so I don’t think it is unreasonable that SF try to ‘lobby’ the British public through a ‘conversation’ (who after all vote the government into power) . The key surely is democratic consensus (leading to a referendum here)
    Digressing onto the point “The single most important issue facing the people of Ireland and Britain is the achievement of Irish unity and the construction of a new relationship between Ireland and Britain based on equality” Ok, the single most important issue may not be the achievement of Irish unity (although for a sizeable proportion it will be), but in my opinion peace is the single most important issue – as peace underpins everything from social and economic well-being, to community cohesion etc. Peace through the eyes of SF and their political mandate leads to one road – the reunification of Ireland. Therefore, I think the analogy used to highlight the other issues on job losses; rent arrears etc are taken out of context. And to say Adams’ flagrant disregard for the global economic crisis is arrogant is overly strong in my opinion. After all if we don’t have political stability and peace, there will invariably be adverse ramifications for the economy. The current economic situation is the most prevailing issue, but peace and stability is the most important.
    The premise of Gerry’s point on media censorship, dating back 20 years, from my reading, is to illustrate the political inroads that have been made in recent years, and to quote adidas ‘nothing is impossible’, in terms of thinking about the reunification of Ireland. Of course he never mentioned the role that the IRA played in the war, but as a republican I think Gerry would have had to counter balance this side of the argument about the murders of innocent Catholics by the British armed forces and so on and so forth. (In which case his article would have became a book)
    If truth be told, I think Gerry and colleagues have been inspired by the Tenant Services Authority’s national conversation. Watch out for SF driving through England in a ‘green’ camper van haha
    Once again Jenny, I really enjoy reading your posts – well done. I didn’t have enough space to reply on Facebook

  2. Mick

    July 17, 2009 3:59 pm

    I really hope that the last comment was not made by an ‘Irish Republican’. I am almost convinced it was written solely for provocation…

    Deary, deary me.

    Wonderful post, by the way.

  3. donagh

    July 17, 2009 5:58 pm

    Just to say that the comment Mick is talking about has been deleted. It was for provocation. Sorry I didn’t get to it sooner.

  4. Jenny Muir

    July 17, 2009 7:00 pm

    Peter – thanks for such a well consiered comment, it’s greatly appreciated. My point wasn’t so much that people outside Ireland shouldn’t be involved in the reunification debate (as you acknowledge) but more than the road to a united Ireland is IMO about a long and quiet slog to build on what we already have, and the more important aspect of that is to persuade the voters, North and South, that it’s in their best interests.

    SF’s priority now should be to strengthen their position as a political party with a wide range of policies in order to show the electorate how they would tackle everyday life as well as constitutional issues, and as part of that if they want to argue that it’s best done through all-Ireland governance then fine. I will take some convincing.

    Of course everyone in NI should be talking to everyone else at this stage, the Orange Order are wrong not to, especially as SF have made it clearer then ever before that they don’t support the rioters in Ardoyne. Long-term political stability does include a constitutional settlement that is acceptable to all and which allows an accomodation with history, but not everyone is going to get their first choice here. It seems to me that Adams accepts that when he talks about exploring other options with unionists.

    I’m also very taken with the idea of the Tenant Services’ Authority roadshow having a new logo ‘as endorsed by Sinn Fein’ 🙂

    And thanks to Mick for the kind words too.