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If the price of Irish unity was a new flag, would Sinn Féin agree to it?

Newton Emerson: Unity advocates are ‘putting everything on the table’ then ducking under it

Sinn Féin's position on a united Ireland is that issues such as a new flag, new anthem and Commonwealth membership "need to be looked at, need to be debated and need to be discussed", to quote Mary Lou McDonald.

In any such discussions, however, Sinn Féin's response on these issues will be "no, no, no", to quote Margaret Thatcher.

Commonwealth membership, for example, is “not a proposition I would be advancing”, as McDonald put it in 2018. “But I am me – this is not all about Sinn Féin. This is bigger than us. The debate has to have the capacity to put everything on the table and then the business of debate and discussion in a reflective way, not a divisive way.”

Yet McDonald reportedly views preservation of the tricolour as a red line. If the price of unity was a new flag, would Sinn Féin turn it down?


Leo Varadkar has arrived at a similar stance from a different angle. In March this year he said the anthem, flag and even the title of taoiseach "are the things we'd have to talk about changing and we have to have that conversation".

But he framed this as a warning, saying it showed talk of a border poll was premature. Better to agree all the details first, he explained, adding he would be arguing to keep the flag and anthem.

The question of whether unionists should participate in a unity debate is fairly interesting, although rather sterile, as most unionists agree it would inevitably become a trap.

Far more interesting is how nationalist parties are using the debate to trap each other.

Everyone is circling around, trying to lure someone else into suggesting a compromise that would be deeply unpopular with the southern public. To be fair, they are all trapped by the electoral logic of unification: the voters most interested in it are most strongly attached to the Republic’s symbols, while the voters least interested in it are also attached to those symbols and see no urgency to change them. There are no votes for anyone who can be branded the “ditch the tricolour” candidate.

Uncompromising position

Yet taking an uncompromising nationalist position on unity is widely unsettling and deeply unserious. A credible conversation requires other ideas.

Unionist attendance would be the obvious solution; it is also why most unionists consider it obvious they should stay away.

Fianna Fáil TD Jim Callaghan has proposed a serious approach to debate in unionism's absence. He advocates reserving a number of Cabinet seats for unionists in a united Ireland, guaranteeing them meaningful power to discuss totems such as flags and anthems in office. This neutralises the unsubtle republican threat that unionists should talk before it is too late.

Callaghan is an outlier, however. Most proclaimed advocates of unity are “putting everything on the table” then ducking under it.

For as long as no nationalist party dares say that, unionists have little to worry about

Sinn Féin’s repeated calls on Government to produce a Green Paper or set up a constitutional convention or Citizens’ Assembly are further ways to keep the conversation going without Sinn Féin itself having to say anything challenging.

This trick will no long work if or when McDonald’s party enters government in the Republic, certainly if it is the largest partner in a coalition. There is no good reason the trick should work now: as the largest Opposition party, Sinn Féin could easily be pressed to produce its own concrete plans. Instead, it is left to cook up claims of a painless transition, where the UK keeps paying the bills. If other parties fear debunking even that nonsense, there is zero chance of discussing new lyrics for Amhrán na bhFiann.

The trap for Sinn Féin in office is that it will discuss unity more and more as it fails to deliver its promises on everything else – a reasonable prediction, as the housing market is unfixable within one electoral cycle.


Sinn Féin is a true believer in a united Ireland, of course. It is also inclined to use it as a distraction and to blame all problems on partition’s alleged costs and consequences.

It seems likely this form of politics will crop up in the Republic and that a majority of voters will find it unpersuasive. While the existence of Northern Ireland can be plausibly faulted for conditions in Northern Ireland, few people will believe the Brits and the Protestants are denying them a medical card or a house costing €65,000.

The question for other parties is whether this is a scenario to spring the trap on Sinn Féin. Is it safe to wait until republicans are in government before exposing their rhetoric and demanding they produce realistic unification proposals? Or is Sinn Féin too canny and aggressive to be slowly cornered over its ultimate objective?

A new flag should be the harp on a blue background, by the way. For as long as no nationalist party dares say that, unionists have little to worry about.