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.
Latest posts by Jenny Muir (see all)
- An interview with Claire Hanna - October 13, 2010
- Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century - August 17, 2010
- The 2010 General Election – A Turning Point for Northern Ireland? - May 8, 2010
- An interview with John Barry - March 1, 2010
- Are We There Yet? - February 5, 2010