Sinn Féin’s approach to the European Union has evolved significantly. Mary Lou McDonald’s recent Dáil speech, in response to the Oireachtas address by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, illustrated this very clearly. The note that McDonald struck on the EU was so positive that her script, subject to a few tweaks, could have been delivered by Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar. She spoke warmly about the positive achievements of the EU and about von der Leyen. In particular, she was markedly warm not only about the EU’s solidarity with Ireland since Brexit, but also about the EU’s strong response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine.
Although the transformation in Sinn Féin’s attitude to the EU has been developing over time, the tone of the Sinn Féin president’s remarks was striking. Had her party been successful in ultimately blocking the Nice or Lisbon Treaty, Ireland would have found itself, at best, weakened and sidelined in Europe. The damage to Ireland’s interests and influence would have been immense and lasting.
This is not about retrospective point-scoring but about noting how far the party appears to have come. There are many reasons for the evolution in Sinn Féin’s approach to the EU, beyond the basic application of intelligence to Ireland’s interests. That development in thinking is presumably, in part, about positioning the party for electoral success and for the reality of government. It also reflects the EU’s remarkable solidarity with Irish concerns since Brexit, as reflected in the Northern Ireland protocol.
Perhaps most importantly, the EU’s continued success and Ireland’s role at its heart constitute a crucial factor for Sinn Féin in advancing its primary ambition of achieving Irish unity. The EU’s agreement that Northern Ireland would automatically become part of the EU in the event of Irish unity is one of the strongest arguments that could eventually – notwithstanding recent opinion polls – swing support in the North, given that its electorate voted by a large majority to remain in the EU. That argument is set to become even more persuasive as Brexit, over time, continues to take its toll on the British economy.
If Sinn Féin forms part of the next government, the challenges it will face on Europe will extend far beyond sensible rhetorical positioning
McDonald mentioned in the Dáil that there are some issues on which her party in government would be working to change EU thinking. That general aim of seeking to shape EU policies is, of course, precisely what successive Irish governments have been doing, with significant success, day in, day out for many decades. The three particular issues of concern mentioned by the Sinn Féin president suggest a different emphasis to the priorities of the Irish Government.
First, McDonald mentioned her concern about deregulation. The UK actually left the EU, in part, because there is too much regulation, not too much deregulation. Sinn Féin no doubt welcomes detailed regulation in areas like the environment, consumer protection and workers’ rights. If it has specific concerns about other aspects of regulation it can, if it enters government, make its case around the Brussels table like every other member state.
It can also seek to build support for its second concern, namely privatisation – whatever exactly that means given that privatisation decisions are essentially taken at the national level.
The third concern mentioned by McDonald was what she called “growing militarism” in the EU, a concern that is surely significantly nuanced by her unequivocal support for the EU’s solidarity with Ukraine which has involved some military support.
McDonald’s insistence on Irish military neutrality was perhaps more upfront and cut-and-dried than that of the Government parties. However, the difference is not dramatic. No Irish political party is arguing to end military neutrality. Nor will our EU partners press us to abandon it. The questions, including for any government involving Sinn Féin, will remain essentially questions for Ireland itself. Do we, while maintaining our military neutrality, wish to make a constructive contribution, in an increasingly dangerous world, to addressing the real-world challenges of the 21st century? Do we feel any obligation to show EU partners, some under a stark threat due to their geography, the solidarity they have shown us?
If Sinn Féin forms part of the next government, the challenges it will face on Europe will extend far beyond sensible rhetorical positioning. It will need to learn first-hand, for example, that multilateral negotiations are not the same as the essentially two-sided negotiations in Northern Ireland; that EU negotiations generally involve shaping a proposal as it moves forward rather than threatening to block it; that advancing one’s national interests involves taking significant account of the interests of others and of the EU as a whole; that solidarity is necessarily a two-way street; that alliances are essential; that compromise is about strategy rather than surrender; and that there is a great deal of essential European expertise and experience in the Irish public service on which it should draw.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome