“Sinn Féin will have our view and we have our proposals,” says the party’s president Mary Lou McDonald. “But Irish unity is everyone’s business. It’s not a Sinn Féin thing.”
McDonald may be right. Polls show that support for a Border poll cuts across party loyalty. But the cause of Irish unity is inextricably bound up with Sinn Féin’s political identity. In its successful general election campaign this year the party emphasised change – economic change and constitutional change. The two-pronged message of economic rebalancing and nationalism is a potent one. It shows no sign of receding in popularity.
Sinn Féin wants a Border poll within five years. And though the party never relents in expressing its desire for such a referendum, it knows that a referendum in that timeframe looks a pretty remote prospect. The Belfast Agreement stipulates the mechanism for calling a Border poll – the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must decide that it is "likely" a majority for a united Ireland would result. Even if polls or votes of the Assembly suggested that such a majority might be "likely" – and at present they don't – persuading the Conservative government in London to facilitate a referendum, and thus put the UK in danger of breaking up, would be another matter entirely.
So what Sinn Féin is campaigning for in the Republic is that the Irish Government should be preparing for unity for when the inevitable – as it sees things – referendum occurs.
“Our immediate task is preparation for constitutional change,” McDonald says. “That needs to commence. In my view it would be reckless not to begin planning now.
“We want a referendum on unity and we want to carry the day and we want to win it well. We want it to be orderly and peaceful and successful.”
McDonald sees the rapid changes being wrought by Brexit, combined with the slower demographic changes in the North, as adding weight to the momentum – irresistible, historic, as she sees it – for a united Ireland.
"Politics has changed," she says. "The demographics in Northern Ireland have changed. Starting to prepare for change is the orderly, leaderly thing to happen. The process of planning needs to commence now."
She points out, correctly, that the British government has not set out the threshold for calling a Border referendum, a point repeatedly made by Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly. Is it consistent polling evidence over a period of time which indicates a referendum could be successful? Is it a vote of the Assembly in favour of a referendum?
“The British system has not made clear how it will judge it,” she says. But it must take into account the changes in the North. “Bear in mind, the unionist electoral majority that was hardwired into the design of the northern state – that’s gone . . . Part of what is happening is generational change.”
“The demographic trends are clear,” she adds. However, it is not at all clear that the undeniable demographic trends in the North, where the unionist/Protestant majority is disappearing, will result in support for a united Ireland. The fastest-growing segment is the unaligned middle. Polling also suggests that the link between being a Catholic and being in favour of a united Ireland is no longer – if it ever was – automatic. In other words, declining numbers of Protestants won’t in themselves deliver a united Ireland.
“Whatever your view of how a vote would go,” McDonald insists, “preparation for it needs to start now.”
But under the Belfast Agreement, there can only be a vote if it’s likely to succeed in delivering unity? McDonald concedes there is a “chicken and egg” element to this. To have a likely win, you have to prepare for a vote. But you can only prepare if you know there is going to be a vote. And you only have a vote if there’s a likely win.
McDonald is undeterred. She insists that the unity campaign can be won. “That is the great wonder and beauty of campaigns and democracy,” she says.
Pressed on what she thinks the trigger for a vote should be, she answers: “When we have our homework done, and when we are clear what proposition we want to put to the people.”
The British, she adds optimistically, should be persuaders for peaceful, orderly change in this regard.
“Partition,” she insists, “has brought nothing but trouble.”
Should Stormont continue in the event of a united Ireland? Or should it be abolished and subsumed into an all-Ireland parliament in Dublin?
McDonald is cautious now. “Those are things that are worthy of conversations and debate.”
And what would she say in such a debate?
"Stormont could remain, or remain as a transition – that's a conversation to have . . . But you would have to have northern representation in the Oireachtas. The idea that you could say there would be no space for six of our northern eastern counties in Dublin, that wouldn't work . . . There are interesting conversations to be had.
“We’re not exactly starting from scratch. Lots of things we need are hardwired into the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement – equality, citizenship . . . But others aren’t, for example, policing. Would it be feasible to have two police forces on a small island? I don’t think so. You couldn’t have two courts systems.”
She stresses the practical advantages to unity, in relation to the health service above all. “Emblems, flags and all that – that’s what people ask me about and that’s important. But when you talk to people outside the political bubble, the first thing they raise is the health service.” The establishment of an Irish National Health Service is a constant refrain.
McDonald briskly rejects the idea of the late Seamus Mallon that a "50 per cent plus one" model for a unity referendum would repeat the mistakes of the past and threaten to draw hundreds of thousands of unwilling unionists and loyalists against their will into a state from which they would feel alienated, some perhaps violently so. But she stresses that those pressing for a united Ireland need to reach out to "those for whom Irish unity would not be their first option".
We have the opportunity and the political context. We can change Ireland. How exciting is that?
Unionists “won’t argue for unity”, McDonald says. “But they can be part of a conversation that lines up their options – on what happens next.”
She has had, she says, “many conversations with convinced unionists about what needs to happen next”.
McDonaldand her party make the case for the economic and social benefits of a united Ireland. But isn’t she saying it’s a desirable end in itself, irrespective of any benefits? In other words, would Sinn Féin be prepared to pay a price in economic terms for a united Ireland if, as many economists believe (though some don’t) there were significant upfront costs, at least?
“It is a desirable objective in itself that would bring economic and social benefits,” she says.
But are you willing to bear the costs of unification? “We shouldn’t be willing to bear the costs of partition . . . Go to the Border counties and see the devastating costs of partition.”
Pressed on bearing the potential costs of unity, McDonald is emphatic: “The answer to that is yes . . . You have to take the plunge and reap the reward later . . .
“Would we have to invest to unite our island? Yes we would. It’s the wisest money we would ever spend.”
“We are in times when we have the opportunity and the political context,” she says. “We can change Ireland. How exciting is that?”