Finn McRedmond: British politics is blind to the rise of Sinn Féin

Westminster just cannot accept what happens in Ireland matters over there

Boris Johnson insisted that Irish  Border arrangements would remain unchanged post-Brexit. Theresa May pointed out that the possibility of the Border going completely unmodified was ‘inconceivable’. Photograph:  PA Photo

Boris Johnson insisted that Irish Border arrangements would remain unchanged post-Brexit. Theresa May pointed out that the possibility of the Border going completely unmodified was ‘inconceivable’. Photograph: PA Photo

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Few things in life are inevitable. But British parliamentarians ignoring high-octane and intensely consequential political developments in Ireland is one of them. It seems the news that Sinn Féin is polling at 37 per cent in the Republic, leaving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in their dust, has failed to generate so much as a raised eyebrow in Westminster.

What you’re currently feeling is deja vu. In the lead up to the Brexit referendum Northern Ireland was conspicuous in its absence from the national conversation. Boris Johnson was asked about Brexit’s impacts on the peace process in a final debate in 2016. His answer masterfully managed to avoid mentioning Northern Ireland in its entirety, but instead demonstrated his keen interest in the history of the Balkans. It was as characteristically lofty as it was evasive.

Kevin Maguire, an editor at the Daily Mirror, recently complained that he struggled to convince his newspaper to pay heed to the central importance of the Border in the lead up to the vote. The technicalities and details of the Northern Irish question were simply squeezed out by the paper’s editorial focus on immigration and the economy.

The designation of the Border question to a second- or even third-tier issue by campaigners and politicians is less forgivable

In 2019 journalist Peter Oborne expressed his regret at voting Leave, acknowledging he did not understand the reverberations Brexit would have on the region.

Out of the few high-level political interventions before Brexit, few have been treated well by history. Least of all Johnson’s assertion that Border arrangements would remain unchanged. The then home secretary Theresa May pointed out that the possibility of the Border going completely unmodified was “inconceivable”. She experienced that reality at first hand a few years later when, as prime minster, she tried and repeatedly failed to get her Brexit deal – with the much maligned backstop – through parliament.

And what of the other correct but ultimately un-impactful interventions? John Major and Tony Blair emphasised the urgency of protecting Ireland’s fragile peace while on a visit to Derry. It made sense: Blair oversaw the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and Major was prime minister when the IRA called a ceasefire in 1994.

But these were exceptions that proved the rule. The Leave campaign didn’t engage with the question in the knowledge that it was hardly going to bolster its case – one that relied on emotive appeals to Britain’s future freed from the shackles of an oppressive European bureaucracy. And the Remain campaign was too busy making uninspiring economic arguments shorn of any feeling or moving sentiment.

It is the failure to recognise the emergence of yet another non-trivial development in Ireland’s political landscape that beggars belief. Were no lessons learned?

The wilful ignorance of Northern Ireland reflected a deeper dismissal of Ireland and its politics – a dismissal that finds its provenance not just in an ignorance of Anglo-Irish history but a failure to recognise the reverberations that domestic Irish politics can wreak on the machinery of Westminster.

None of the above is a particularly new or subtle observation. Northern Ireland was an afterthought and never a deciding issue for the English electorate. That is in many ways understandable – the depth of knowledge or interest required to understand the North’s unique political make-up was simply not there. The designation of the Border question to a second- or even third-tier issue by campaigners and politicians is less forgivable.

But it is the failure to recognise the emergence of yet another non-trivial development in Ireland’s political landscape that beggars belief. Were no lessons learned?

Sinn Féin’s non-frivolous growth in popularity (not just a recent phenomenon, of course) is just the latest reincarnation of this foolish Westminster sensibility

There is something anxiety-inducing here: a frequent refusal to acknowledge that what happens here matters there. And several years on from the referendum it seems this disposition has not been modified.

The protocol now (and the backstop shortly prior) has received protracted prominence in the press since it forced itself into the political topography of the UK. But “forced” is the operative word. It seems this is a parliament, media landscape, and Number 10 chronically indisposed to paying attention to what happens just a stone’s throw over the Irish Sea. Rather it creeps up slowly and then asserts itself as a major and often intractable problem once it’s too late.

And Sinn Féin’s non-frivolous growth in popularity (not just a recent phenomenon, of course) is just the latest reincarnation of this foolish Westminster sensibility. Projected to be the largest party in Stormont, the UK might see its first Sinn Féin First Minister. The party could potentially be in power on both sides of the Border within a couple of years. Not much of a whimper of interest has been expressed.

The seeming indifference to these developments is curious for two reasons. In the first instance it could be enormously existentially consequential for the UK, not least when we remember it is accompanied by shifting demographics in the North. But reading the runes on those developments is difficult and fraught with capacity for error.

The second is that even if Sinn Féin’s electoral horse does not come in as predicted, the factors that brought us here are inseparable from the political manoeuvres of Britain as it decided to leave and then navigated its departure from the European Union. Most consequential? Its decision to pursue a hard-as-nails Brexit. This very fact alone should be sufficient evidence to prove the symbiosis between Ireland and the UK’s politics.

But it seems it will take even more to make Ireland’s oldest and closest neighbour pay attention.

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