Fintan O’Toole: Sinn Féin joins the Great Disruption

Three political groups waiting for a no-deal Brexit, each with an odd vision of aftermath

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill at a Brexit protest in Belfast last week. Beneath their opposition to Brexit lies the belief that the worse Brexit is, the quicker we will have a Border poll. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Welcome to the Rapture. Like religious cults waiting for the end of the world and the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven, political Utopians are waiting for the Great Disruption of a no-deal Brexit. But it is a sign of our weird times that there are three groups anticipating the Apocalypse, and each of them has a very different vision of the Utopia that lies beyond it. Those groups are the hard-right revolutionaries around Boris Johnson; the far-left revolutionaries around Jeremy Corbyn and, we can now say with some certainty, Sinn Féin. They do not want the same things, but if a no-deal Brexit happens it will be because their actions and inaction have coincided to bring it about.

The first – and at the moment by far the most decisive – group of Great Disruptors consists of the disaster capitalists fronted by Johnson. Their Utopia is Singapore. They believe, as Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and other Tory young Turks wrote in Britannia Unchained in 2012, that the British have grown lazy and useless, their buccaneering spirit sapped by a culture of dependency. They see no-deal as the Big Bang that will blow the welfare state, environmental standards and labour protections to smithereens. Out of this chaos will come a new Global Britain of very low taxes for the rich, unregulated hyper-capitalism and boundless "free" markets.

Alongside the disaster capitalism of Johnson's faction and the disaster socialism of Corbyn's, there is this disaster nationalism

The second group is the high command of the Labour Party around Jeremy Corbyn. Their Utopia is Socialism in One Country. They believe that a no-deal Brexit will free Britain from the wishy-washy social market capitalism of the EU and thus ultimately from capitalism itself. They have their roots in the socialist distaste for the European project that was, it is easy to forget, once the mainstream of British Euroscepticism. In that mentality, the EU was seen as a last, desperate attempt to shore up a dying capitalist system. Thus, on the far side of a no-deal Brexit, lies the workers’ paradise that is the inevitable outcome of history.

Green lifeboat

The third group of Great Disruptors is Sinn Féin. Their Utopia is, of course, a United Ireland. They ostensibly oppose a no-deal Brexit, and indeed Brexit itself. But beneath this opposition lies the belief that the worse Brexit is, the quicker we will have a Border poll and the more likely it is that Protestants in Northern Ireland will swim for the green lifeboat to avoid going down with the British ship. Alongside the disaster capitalism of Johnson’s faction and the disaster socialism of Corbyn’s, there is this disaster nationalism. It does not deny that no-deal would be awful – it welcomes this awfulness as the Great Disruption that completes the Irish national revolution.


This is why Sinn Féin reacted with such extreme and immediate hostility to my suggestion that it could stop a no-deal Brexit by destroying Boris Johnson's majority in the House of Commons. I wrote very respectfully of the party's mandate for abstentionism and tried to find a way to honour it while activating the power of the seven seats it holds at Westminster. I suggested that, in the national emergency we now face, it could trigger seven byelections. In co-operation with the North's other anti-Brexit parties, it would support non-party anti-Brexit candidates who would agree to stand down whenever Sinn Féin asked them to and not to contest another election.

Only one of these three visions of the Great Disruption has power – the hard right version

I thought Sinn Féin might, even for the optics, wait for 24 hours and pretend to give this some consideration. Instead, the party rejected it as “mindbogglingly ridiculous” within two hours of the article going online. The hyped-up language sent a message to its members and supporters: do not dare even to think about this. The injunction doing the rounds in party circles is Napoleon’s “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake”. It is an elegant way of saying a startling thing – we must do nothing to stop no-deal.

Absurd and grotesque

This is fair enough, though it would be much fairer if Sinn Féin told its supporters – and in particular Border communities – that this is the plan. But it has two problems: power and people. Only one of these three visions of the Great Disruption has power – the hard right version. It may be absurd and grotesque, but its proponents are doing what revolutionaries are supposed to do: seize power and wield it ruthlessly. Both the group around Corbyn and Sinn Féin imagine that you can shape history by just letting things fall apart and then moving in to build something new with the rubble. History generally has other ideas – those who take power shape events; those who refuse it are shaped by them.

And what all Great Disruptors have in common is that they regard immediate damage to real people as “regrettable but necessary”. People, families, businesses and communities are the collateral damage of the Big Bang, their suffering justified in the long run by the Utopia that will emerge on the far side of pain. Sinn Féin, of course, has plenty of practice with this way of thinking. But are the 90,000 Irish people whose jobs are at risk happy to be sacrificed on the altar of the Great Disruption? I doubt it.