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Diarmaid Ferriter: Superficiality cloaks desire for united Ireland

Despite SF claim to speak of little else, call for unity weakens before tax and symbols

The historian John A Murphy, who died last month, was typically insightful and acerbic in 2016 about the misuse of sections of the 1916 Proclamation. He expressed a desire that it be left as a historical document, rather than being viewed as a “living holy writ” and that there be much greater awareness that its most quoted phrase – “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” – was not a reference to children as understood today, but the idea of equal recognition of unionists and nationalists in a new republic.

The Proclamation claimed, far too conveniently, that the newly declared Republic would be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”. Whatever about republicans, unionists, of course, were not oblivious to the differences, and the casual dismissal of them in 1916 suggested little appetite to engage with their fears.

Sinn Féin may be oblivious to the lack of depth to the desire for Irish unity

Today, Sinn Féin's website contains a section devoted to "Historical Republican Documents". Pride of place, inevitably, is given to the Proclamation and next comes a series of articles by James Connolly. This marrying of the republican and socialist traditions has long been central to Sinn Féin's historical framing of its mission. The combination of the two, however, has reaped few electoral dividends in the past and Sinn Féin is careful now not to describe itself as a socialist party but simply a republican party: "Sinn Féin is the United Ireland party. This is our core political objective." Yet much of its support in the Republic is built on pressing social and economic problems, and its breaking of the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the 2020 general election was largely driven by concern about health and housing, as confirmed by the Ipsos MRBI exit poll during that election. That poll also included a question as to whether voters believed referendums on Irish unity, North and South, should be held by 2025: 57 per cent said yes; 40 per cent said no.

Fears of unionists

Modern Sinn Féin does not claim to be oblivious to the fears of unionists and promises to listen to them and address them through an all-island citizens’ assembly “to discuss and plan for Irish unity”, but unionist participation in such a venture is highly unlikely. The contention of Mary Lou McDonald that a border poll “is a conversation that is headed in only one direction and in the coming years there will be referenda on Irish unity” is hardly going to entice them. The atmosphere, accusations and provocative sloganeering in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks as it heads towards its May 5th election will inevitably exacerbate tensions; already there are reports of intimidation of candidates and ominous threats from loyalist paramilitaries.


Support for a united Ireland dissipated when the question of linking it to higher taxes was asked in a poll

Sinn Féin is rightly scathing of the DUP’s refusal to commit to participation in a new powersharing assembly which would suggest a contemptuous capacity to be oblivious to democracy in Northern Ireland. But Sinn Féin may also be oblivious to the lack of depth to the desire for Irish unity. It is a wild exaggeration to suggest, as McDonald did in March last year, that conversations about unity “are happening in every corner of our island. In every town. In every village. In every city. North and South.” She offered another version of this in a letter to EU diplomats last month: “It is being talked about in every town and city in Ireland, not in aspirational tones but as a realistic, achievable and necessary future.”

Flag and anthem

This well-practised mantra is voiced as the party faces the tantalising prospect of being the largest political party north and south, but is it over-egging the border poll pudding? A Red C Poll for the Business Post newspaper last November found that 75 per cent of Sinn Féin voters would vote for a united Ireland if a referendum was held today, suggesting a quarter of Sinn Féin voters would either vote no or are undecided. Also striking was the extent to which support for a united Ireland dissipated when the question of linking it to higher taxes was asked; in that case, only 54 per cent of Sinn Féin voters in the Republic said they would vote in favour of unity.

Support for compromises on national symbols (flag and anthem) and ensuring guaranteed unionist roles in government was also lukewarm according to that and similar polls, suggesting much superficiality envelops the expressed desires for a united Ireland. As Richard Colwell of Red C put it last year, “the juxtaposition between desire and reality is most heavily found among Sinn Féin voters, who are most likely to be in favour of the concept of a united Ireland, but also the least likely to support compromise in terms of symbols, representation and membership”. Unionists, it seems, are not the only ones who need persuasion about the implications of transformed political landscapes.