Sinn Féin’s Border poll behaviour does not add up
Mary Lou McDonald’s party is not acting as if historic goal of Irish unification is in sight
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald called for a Border poll as part of the Government’s no-deal Brexit planning. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
Does Sinn Féin really believe Irish unification could be months away? If so, its behaviour does not add up.
In the Dáil this Tuesday, party president Mary Lou McDonald called for a Border poll as part of the Government’s no-deal Brexit planning, which Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had just announced would be ramped up in January.
McDonald said a poll should be held “immediately” if the UK left the EU without a deal on March 29th, adding that she had repeatedly told the British government the same – as she did again in a phone call with UK prime minister Theresa May on Tuesday night. So what is envisaged is a full Belfast Agreement Border poll, with separate referendums North and South.
Strictly speaking, if planning for this began in January, a vote could be held in the Republic as early as the middle of next year.
Sinn Féin is likely to say it wants more preparation than that – but not much more. When Varadkar said the timing of McDonald’s poll would be destructive and disruptive, and teased her about wanting to stir up trouble, she hit back in forceful terms, accusing the Taoiseach of recklessness in not preparing for events that could move “very, very quickly”.
So the Sinn Féin leader appears to be serious, yet there is no sign of her party acting as might be expected with its historic goal in sight.
Unionists can complain about any number of continued republican offences and the DUP believes Sinn Féin is retrenching on contentious issues, such as dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
What can be said more objectively is that there is no sign from Sinn Féin of change – no new outreach, generosity, symbolic gestures. The party simply appears to be shoring up its base, as if its supporters would ever vote No in a Border poll.
Without evidence to the contrary, Sinn Féin’s Border poll demand must be taken for what it looks like: a back-to-basics campaigning and recruiting tool
The ultimate test of a united Ireland cannot be Sinn Féin outreach to unionists. For all the party’s talk of wishing to do so, that feels like an unfair hurdle. In calling on the Government to prepare for a poll, McDonald is taking the correct step of widening responsibility out to society in general. But seeking to win an imminent, Brexit-based Border poll in Northern Ireland, where unionists are probably still a narrow voting majority, would require such outreach.
A Brexit-timed poll is openly predicated on winning some unionists over with economic arguments. There is no better and perhaps no other way to do so than by neutralising their antipathy towards Sinn Féin. This would not necessarily be a major task – with the entire nationalist population galvanised by DUP arrogance, only a small proportion of unionists would have to be persuaded and this could take little more than a few well-chosen words.
Sinn Féin would no doubt point to its “rights-based” campaigning on liberal social issues. But to the extent that this is outreach, it is to centrist Alliance and Green voters, who might swing a Border poll in 10 years. They cannot swing one next year.
McDonald’s statements on a Border poll are coloured by a notorious episode in July, when she said her preference was not even to debate unity in the event of a “crash or very hard Brexit” and only to hold a poll in a climate of “certainty and stability”.
Less than 24 hours later she clarified these remarks to say a poll should be held “as soon as possible”.
McDonald has since insisted her comments were not contradictory, and claimed it was sexist to imply she was having her strings pulled by hard men in Belfast. However, people cannot be blamed for thinking otherwise while strings are not being pulled to soften the message in Belfast.
Without evidence to the contrary, Sinn Féin’s Border poll demand must be taken for what it looks like: a back-to-basics campaigning and recruiting tool, a chance to regroup after the disappointing presidential election, a return to the “permanent crisis” mode of republican agitation and at best a slightly desperate roll of the dice.
McDonald is hardly a sainted victim in this, even if her strings are being pulled. After comments emerged last week from Priti Patel, a former UK minister, on using Brexit chaos – including interrupted food supplies – as leverage against Ireland, most politicians in Dublin expressed their outrage responsibly, pointing out that Patel is not in the British government and was condemned by other MPs for her remarks.
McDonald said: “Brexiteer Tory threats to ‘starve’ Ireland reflect contempt for us, our freedom and our lives. They should know that we will not be bullied. That their day is over and ours is coming. That the sun has set on the British Empire. Good riddance.”
Were those the words of a leader who thinks Ireland is about to acquire 900,000 unhappy British citizens?
We may all hope not.