Diarmaid Ferriter: Topping the poll was the easy bit for Sinn Féin
Building consensus around its core project of reunification will be more difficult
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald at a party rally at Liberty Hall, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan
Critics of Sinn Féin (SF) are quite likely nurturing similar views to those expressed by John Dillon, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) in 1918. After the IPP had been crushed by SF in the December 1918 general election, Dillon suggested there could be a positive side to the election loss, as “the more the responsibility is fixed on the other side to deliver the goods and carry out the promises they have made, the better and more speedy will be their discomfiture and break up”.
There was certainly discomfiture and indeed break up exactly three years later after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty ruptured the SF party and fatally compromised its republican mission. Today’s SF will also inevitably find it difficult to retain the purity of its promise and its relentless mantra of “seismic” change, despite self-crowned Banríon na hEireann, Mary Lou McDonald, taking to the road and rallying her loyal subjects.
Where is the party’s centre of gravity now and what can it realistically achieve in relation to its stated core mission: the reunification of Ireland?
When things calm down, SF will perhaps also face another issue raised after the 1918 general election, by the most high-profile clerical champion of SF, Fr Michael O’Flanagan, who asserted, “The People have voted Sinn Féin. Now we have to explain to them what Sinn Féin is.”
SF faces a 21st century version of that question in light of its recent success. Where is the party’s centre of gravity now and what can it realistically achieve in relation to its stated core mission: the reunification of Ireland? It has pledged to secure a Border poll within five years, which in itself is problematic given that it is not in SF’s gift to make that happen, but rather under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, the call of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Another complication is that polling on this issue in recent years holds out little prospect of achieving reunification in the foreseeable future. This month’s opinion poll organised by Liverpool University and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council suggested 29 per cent of voters in the North would vote for a united Ireland, with 52 per cent against and 19 per cent indicating they did not know or would not vote.
It is true that polls on this subject have produced strikingly different results in recent years; some based on face-to-face interviews, some online, others focusing on attitudes in principle or on practical attitudes. The annual Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, conducted by Queen’s University, are highly regarded; its last two polls measured support for reunification at 22 per cent and 19 per cent.
As to attitudes in the Republic, some polls have indicated in the region of two-thirds of its voters are in favour of unity, but it is debatable how deep that commitment goes given that it might be seen by many respondents as still quite abstract.
Therein lies the challenge for SF. Given that much of its current support comes on the back of dissatisfaction in relation to housing, health and social questions, how does it generate an enthusiasm about its supposed main political mission? Would rallies around unity create unbridled fervour in the near future, or would such gatherings be regarded as off the political point of SF now?
SF has frequently maintained, as former SF MEP Martina Anderson did last year, “the economic argument for unification was won a long time ago. Farmers have for some time been operating on an all-Ireland basis. There is £1.2 billion of trade every week across this island. There are 200,000 jobs dependent on it”.
What that analysis omits, however, is the thorny issue of who would pay for the current British subvention of Northern Ireland. Economists have come up with different perspectives on this, but a seamless transition without significant economic upheaval would seem a fantasy.
Numerous historians have identified a profound ignorance about the North and a mindset about partition 'founded upon evasion, equivocation and ambivalence'
There is also the issue of deep-rooted cultural and political divides between the North and South; not just the obvious challenge of dealing with the status and place of unionists in a united Ireland, but the historic gulf between the Southern and Northern nationalist perspectives.
Resentment towards what some Sinn Féiner’s still decry as the “Free State” continues to exist, while the late Martin McGuinness used to reference “the gap of understanding” between the North and South regarding what it was like to inhabit Northern Ireland as an oppressed minority and a failure to appreciate “the republican project”.
More broadly, numerous historians, including Clare O’Halloran, have identified a profound ignorance about the North and a mindset about partition “founded upon evasion, equivocation and ambivalence”, or what Donnacha Ó Beacháin has described as the endurance in the Republic of a “melancholic fatalism” about the North.
Some of this may have dissipated, but it is still relevant. Capturing the public mood and rallying the grassroots on the back of discontent with the political establishment will seem remarkably easy, I suspect, compared to trying to build engagement with and solid consensus around reunification.