The comments of the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, after the Northern election, and about the prospects of a united Ireland, should first be noted:
“Mr Adams said that despite the result, ‘unionists still have a majority among the population in Northern Ireland. There is still a big onus on us to persuade them that this is how their future would best be developed. I don’t want to see the unionists in the place that nationalists used to be in. We need an entirely new Ireland, we need an Ireland which unionism is comfortable with, that they have an ownership of and that they agree to.’
“’It’s not exactly tangible, it’s a sense of expectation, a sense of hope, a sense of ‘doabilty’,” said Mr Adams. “Ten years ago Scottish independence was a minority occupation for men in kilts. Most people in Scotland hadn’t really bought into it, but now they have. The same thing is going to happen, in my opinion, for those of us who want Irish unity.”
“When asked if he now envisaged seeing a united Ireland within his lifetime, the 68-year-old said: ‘It depends how long I live, but my hope is – yes.” (BBC website 10.3.17)
Adams was calming the sense of triumphalism being expressed among some nationalists and injecting a sense of realism into what the election actually represented.
It was true that the election result was a significant symbolic victory for the Catholic community, and Sinn Fein in particular, in chastening the DUP and Unionism in general. But it had not altered the fundamentals of the situation in the North.
What the election did was halt, and likely, turn back a Unionist roll-back of the Good Friday Agreement that had been gathering momentum since 2012.
The Good Friday Agreement established a position of formal equality between the two communities in ‘Northern Ireland’ after 80 years of unionist domination/nationalist subordination. However, it was not a static equality. Although the Agreement severely restricted the amount of communal victory possible through its various safeguard devices, the DUP, once Paisley had gone, seem to have seen the new constitution as an invitation to struggle and utilised the small room for manoeuvre to advance their old war of attrition against the Catholics.
Paisley had taken care not to do such a thing. He had recognised that he was wrong in the 1960s and had learned his lesson. If Civil Rights had been conceded what happened would not have happened. So he determined this time, when he had formal power, to implicate Sinn Fein in the Government of ‘Northern Ireland’ to sap its vigour and take momentum out of any nationalist advance.
Arlene Foster, the best Ulster Unionist First Minister for Republicans since the last Ulster Unionist First Minister, David Trimble, coming from the UUP and outside of Paisley’s sphere, seems to have failed to understand the subtleties of things. And she had many willing DUP backbenchers that think in terms of fundamentals, and who were dissatisfied with not getting the Croppies to Lie Down anymore, to not disabuse her of mistakes.
Sinn Fein were placed in a difficult situation by the revival in the DUP’s willingness to vigorously assert Protestant communal interests and to quash any small concessions the Fenians might want to maintain their self respect. Sinn Fein received a series of slaps in the face (like the pulling down of the Long Kesh Peace Centre proposal and withdrawal of funds for the Irish Language/more money for Orange Halls). And all the time the Catholics, even though they were increasing in number, were going to the polls in lesser number.
Then came the instability of the Opposition. Sinn Fein, against their better judgement, had agreed to this in the Fresh Start agreement of 2016. It was a reckless suggestion promoted by academic know nothings and media ignoramuses who imagine that ‘Northern Ireland’ can be a better thing in the world.
These stupid people imagined that the government/opposition of a real state and the party games played at Westminster could be imported into the pseudo state of ‘Northern Ireland’ for the betterment of the system and without consequence.
The Opposition, trying to justify its job description, and being criticised for not justifying itself, by the same academic know nothings and media ignoramuses who had advocated it, began pressurising Nesbitt and Eastwood to perform. And perform they did with Arlene’s gift of intransigence over the RHI scandal.
It was at this point that Sinn Fein reasserted the Good Friday Agreement, which nationalist Ireland had ratified through overwhelming majority in 1998, against those who had departed from it – namely the SDLP, who always claimed to be its creators.
They did this by using its most fundamental mechanism for showing that 1998 meant equality – the joint first ministry established at the head of the Executive, to call a halt to the undermining of the Agreement. The office of the First and Deputy First Minister is a joint one with equal power for each component. Although the Prod First Minister has a superior title to the Fenian Deputy First Minister – to protect Prod sensibilities about not being seen as superior these days – they are actually Siamese twins who cannot act, unless acting together.
Sinn Fein, which had put forward a moderate proposal for the First Minister to briefly stand aside while a preliminary review was conducted of the RHI scandal, to save herself from the slings and arrows of the Opposition, found itself slapped down again by the self-righteous First Minister, backed by her self-righteous minions.
The DUP, which had been taking liberties with the joint nature of the office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister, got an election that it had not bargained for, on ground that it did not wish to fight.
Sinn Fein got an election that it had never wanted, had tried to avoid fighting, and had never intended to fight, on ground that it was very advantageous to fight.
A perfect situation for an Ambush!
An Ambush is defined as “a long-established military tactic in which combatants take advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack unsuspecting enemy combatants from concealed positions.”
Sinn Fein, which was not thought to be fit for an election after the failure to advance in 2016, the Centenary of the Easter Rising, marshalled its forces quietly and calmly. It mustered the people of the new plantation of globalisation, whose futures had been thrown into doubt by Brexit, and who had suffered at the hands of Racists in Unionism, in extraordinary numbers. It took up positions and wiped out the Unionist majority, the DUP’s Petition of Concern and the delusions of an advance toward a new Jerusalem/old Stormont in a swift and devastating attack.
Sinn Fein was undoubtedly helped by three other events. The delusional Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt – no coincidence a media man – had issued a statement saying he would transfer votes to his fellow Opposition party (Fenian part) rather than within the Unionist Family. That helped do for a couple of DUP seats or so. The less delusional, other (Fenian) part of the Opposition, the SDLP leader, Colm Eastwood, decided to refrain from such an innovation and said thank you very much, you fool! Which only emphasised that the UUP/SDLP would be incapable of meaningful joint government, as was proved in the past.
A second event that helped Sinn Fein was the First Minister’s “You don’t feed a Crocodile” remark.
Foster has lately said that she had in mind Sinn Fein when she mentioned not feeding the insatiable green beast of the swamp, rather than the ordinary decent toothless Fenian – or Fenian she would like to have toothless. But the ordinary decent Fenian knows that his teeth are Sinn Fein and it would be starving without the ability to bite, since the bastards on the bank are not inclined to feed the crocodiles and never have been.
Paisley had a strategy of feeding the crocodiles enough to keep them happy in the swamp. He knew that left unfed they would be away with your leg, and taking you along to pastures new.
I presume that if Sinn Fein manage to save the Good Friday Agreement and resurrect the Executive they will be keen to keep the current First Minister. She has been very good for Republicanism and there will be divisions, however suppressed, within the DUP around her.
Perhaps she can be nominated by Sinn Fein as First Minister, to show their confidence in her leadership, and then voluntarily step aside for a period while the RHI is dealt with.
The other context of the Northern election result, already referred to, is Brexit. The truth of the matter is that nobody really knows how Brexit will pan out in relation to the prospects of a vote in the Six Counties for a united Ireland.
Sinn Fein benefitted by the Remain vote in the Six Counties and the Brexit vote in the UK. It established political difference between the two territories, which is also being exploited by the Scottish nationalists with regard to their territory coveted for some form of independence. A Scottish vote to dismantle the Union would undoubtedly be a grievous blow to the Union.
On the other hand “the Union” is not the basis of Ulster Unionism anymore and hasn’t really been since 1920. The supreme sacrifice of Ulster Unionism in 1920 conceded that Westminster could undermine the Union all it wanted as long as it did not force them into an all-Ireland majority government of Fenians. Ulster Unionists took up the governing of the Fenian minority for Westminster in its territory to ensure they would not become a majority. And gradually the Unionist position has been whittled down to the simple: “We are not Irish and will not be governed by an Irish Government”.
It is not at all certain that Scotland will vote for a leaving of the Union. In fact, it is doubtful if the Scots have it in them to take such a step. They are a different people to the Irish. It will require Englishmen, who may wish to get shot of them, to taunt and goad them about their unwillingness, to make them willing.
If Irish nationalism rides the horse of Scottish nationalism it may find itself thrown when the Scottish horse refuses the fence. So it would be advisable not to hitch the two horses together but to simply observe the race from a distance maintaining that the outcome was an independent event (even though it probably won’t be).
Actually, Theresa May might choose to hitch the two together, since a Scottish referendum and ‘Northern Ireland’ Border Poll would best suit the Westminster Government in 2020 or 2021, after the Brexit dealings are concluded. Just in time for the Centenary of ‘Northern Ireland’ itself, when a strong Unionist vote might be expected!
But things may go the other way: Britain may become a shambles in dealing with Brexit; the Europeans might consolidate themselves after Trump and Putin minimise the effects of the Syrian disaster of the Obama Presidency; the UK might be faced without a trade deal and the WTO default; jobs may drain away from the Six Counties; agriculture may go into collapse with the cross-border market disrupted by hard Brexit and New Zealand imports devastating the agri-food sector, the biggest employer; travel restrictions may begin to aggravate the middle classes.
The choice between a crumbling insular UK and a resurgent forward-looking Europe may give Sinn Fein the 50 plus 1 majority it needs for Irish unity, under the Good Friday Agreement. And then what? 1912 all over again?
There is all to play for. The momentum that 1998 took out of ‘Northern Ireland’ has been overcome by a world that is fluid and has become like 1919.
Published in The Irish Political Review April 2017