Irish Times view on Sinn Féin’s U-turn on a Border poll

Mary Lou McDonald’s abrupt change of tack raises disquieting questions about who decides party policy

Mary Lou McDonald’s initial comments came in response to Peter Robinson’s speech to the MacGill Summer School at which he said unionists needed to consider the possibility of a united Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Mary Lou McDonald’s initial comments came in response to Peter Robinson’s speech to the MacGill Summer School at which he said unionists needed to consider the possibility of a united Ireland. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

 

The rapid change of position by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald on the timing of a Border poll on the future of Northern Ireland raises some disquieting questions about the decision-making process in her party and who determines policy. On Monday McDonald said unequivocally that the question of a Border poll in the North should be put to one side while so much uncertainty about Brexit remained. A day later she said the referendum would have to take place if the UK crashes out of the EU next year. Why the sudden change of approach?

Maybe it reflects the fact that the new leader, hitherto sure-footed since assuming the role, is continuing to find her feet. Yet Sinn Féin’s internal dynamics and history mean it cannot avoid the suspicion – voiced loudly by political opponents on both sides of the Border yesterday – that an inner circle of the republican movement made it clear to McDonald her initial response was not acceptable.

If that is the case then the leopard, after all, has not changed its spots, underlining questions about Sinn Féin’s potential participation in the next coalition. There is also the question of whether Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil could even consider partnering with the party which would presumably demand a commitment to a Border poll as part of a programme for government.

McDonald’s initial comments came in response to Peter Robinson’s speech to the MacGill Summer School at which he said unionists needed to consider the possibility of a united Ireland. While Robinson was clear that he would like the North to remain part of the UK, addressing the possibility of a united Ireland at some stage in the future represents a dramatic shift in thinking by a leading unionist. Robinson was denounced by leading members of the Democratic Unionist Party for even raising the issue but he was facing up to the fact that Brexit, along with demographic change, raise the prospect of altering the status quo in the not too distant future.

An important motivation for unionist resistance to Home Rule a century ago was their belief that it would involve Rome Rule and the destruction of the North’s industrial economy. In hindsight, they had good grounds for their fears. However, the situation has changed utterly in recent decades. The power of the Catholic Church to influence the laws of the land has clearly gone, as evidenced by the recent abortion referendum, while on the economic front the Republic is now in a far healthier state than the North.

If Brexit leads to a serious economic slump in the UK and the Republic continues to prosper as a member of the EU, it may encourage both communities in the North to re-examine their attitudes to the Border. But that process needs to evolve of its own accord. A sectarian headcount at this stage would be pointless and dangerous.

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