The Irish Times view on Sinn Féin and Irish unity: A short-term political gambit

Deep debate on alternative constitutional futures needed between all traditions on this island

Sinn Féin is publicising the party's demand for Irish unity to the diplomatic community in Dublin. Its leader Mary Lou McDonald says in a European newsletter that unification is now being talked about in every Irish town and city as a realistic rather than an aspirational goal and she wants the EU to support and prepare for "the likelihood of a united Ireland in the coming years". The move comes as the party continues its long policy journey from Euroscepticism to much more engaged positions on the EU, and ahead of the May 7th Assembly elections in Northern Ireland.

Irish unity is a defining feature of Sinn Féin’s political identity, but it did not play a prominent role in the party’s 2020 general election breakthrough, when bread-and-butter issues predominated. The UK’s departure from the EU in 2016 and the subsequent intense politics on Brexit boosted support for unity North and South, as is clear from polling and other research, but public opinion sees that possibility in a longer and more tentative perspective than Sinn Féin’s rhetoric implies. More debate and preparation for unity is supported, but accompanied by a desire for greater clarity on its implications and timescales, and for the shared reconciliation the Government argues must come first.

Policy dilemma

Sinn Féin has had a policy dilemma on Brexit, since the harder it became, the more unity might be hastened. Against that came its political need to protect Northern Ireland from a rebordered Ireland and to support the Irish Government’s strong diplomatic campaign against that. It has been a pragmatic shift towards a more Europhile position, leaving it with a need to differentiate itself from other parties North and South which also oppose Brexit and support the Northern Ireland protocol. Making an immediate case for unity and emphasising its European dimensions fulfils that requirement before the Northern Ireland elections and looking ahead to the next general election here, as Sinn Féin leads in polling North and South.

Other EU member-states are prudent to explore what Sinn Féin success would mean politically for the whole island of Ireland in the medium and long term, just as to explore the constitutional stability of the UK under pressure from Scottish, Welsh and English nationalism.


Although the EU is committed to EU membership for a united Ireland, that is not to say all would support it or welcome the precedents it would set. Diplomatically its members are likely to remain neutral and silent on these questions, despite Sinn Féin’s entreaties.

A wide and deep debate on, and preparation for, alternative constitutional futures is needed between all the traditions on this island. That process of change is ill-served by linking it to short-term political advantage.