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Sinn Féin’s US politicking underlines issues with its approach to Irish unity

McDonald and co are presenting a united Ireland as imminent despite the evidence

It would be overstating things to say Mary Lou McDonald was the toast of Washington on St Patrick's Day, but unlike poor Micheál Martin at least the Sinn Féin leader was there in person at the White House and on Capitol Hill, where she backslapped and begorrahed with the best of them.

She had "cut a clear road for herself" to be the next taoiseach, congressman Richard Neal, one of the major figures in Irish-American politics, said this week.

There is a lot of interest in Sinn Féin and in McDonald in the US capital – she was on her second trip in a few months – and not just in the great political machine of Irish America, but among the professional foreign-policy types who populate the dense ecosystem of politics there, moving between think tanks, universities and government. The business of the town is politics and the politics of Ireland has been a part of that since the days of John Hume.

It's hard to present yourselves as the anti-establishment underdog and voice of the excluded if you're measuring the taoiseach's office for new curtains

McDonald headed a sizeable Sinn Féin delegation that came to Washington with two messages: firstly, that the party is on course for government in Dublin, and secondly that the drive towards Irish unity is accelerating.

Sinn Féin is clearly in the driving seat to lead the State's next administration. But the time lag between now and the next election and the party's uncertain route to government – most likely a coalition of the left or a partnership with Fianna Fáil – means that achieving this outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion. Sinn Féin politicians – including finance spokesman Pearse Doherty on a recent Irish Times podcast – increasingly acknowledge this, conscious of the dangers of complacency but also keen to preserve the party's outsider status. It's hard to present yourselves as the anti-establishment underdog and voice of the excluded if you're measuring the taoiseach's office for new curtains.

But on the second question, the inevitability in the short to medium term of Irish unity, McDonald and co admit no doubts. This week, the party told EU ambassadors that we were “living in the final days of partition”, exhorting them to prepare for “a united Ireland in the coming years”.

Last week, party deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said an Irish unity referendum was “closer than we have ever been previously”. Of course, this could be said of any future event, but you know what she means.

Increasingly, the party seeks to present the passage of referendums on Irish unity as an inevitability. The only question is: how soon? But that assertion is at least questionable. Indeed, I heard some questioning of it in Washington from senior figures, which suggests that for all the effectiveness of Sinn Féin’s transatlantic politicking, other Irish voices are listened to as well.

Two referendums

There are two referendums to be held on Irish unity if and when we get to that point – one in each jurisdiction on the island. The Belfast Agreement makes clear that the referendum in the North would be called by the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – it is solely a matter for the British government – only when he or she believes that it is likely to pass.

The agreement lays down no criteria for how that decision might be made. But it is hard to see it happening any time soon. It is certainly true that the unionist majority is dripping away down the drainpipe of history. But it is not being replaced by a nationalist majority. Rather, the North’s bifurcated politics is being trifurcated, and the fastest-growing group is not nationalists but “others” – those who do not identify as either nationalist or unionist.

They seem unlikely to be bound by the sectarian voting patterns that have always gone with the traditional binary designations. This is the Rory McIlroy generation, perhaps not universally ambivalent about the constitutional question, but certainly not consumed by it, either. The rise of the others has its political expression in the growth of the Alliance Party, but it is not limited to there – it is also to be found in the Greens, in People Before Profit and even in parts of the pragmatic, liberal unionism that Doug Beattie is trying to sketch out.

If Sinn Féin really believes that we are living in the dying days of partition, as McDonald says, it's a bit odd to be leaving it up to the Government to work it all out

Polling is both notoriously difficult and – on this subject – ubiquitous in the North. But despite a range of results there is simply no sustained evidence that there is an emerging majority for unity. Nor is there evidence that people in the North are chomping at the bit for a referendum.

That lack of urgency is mirrored in the South. An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll last December showed a large majority of the Republic's voters were in favour of a united Ireland, but also that it just isn't that important to them. Support is broad, but not very deep, and there is no telling how it might react to a campaign.

Preparing for unity

The constant refrain from Sinn Féin is that the Government must “prepare for unity”. But the exhortation could equally be directed at the party itself. While it has published a plethora of documents on the subject, most of them amount to no more than assertions in favour of unity – the economy will be better, the health service will be better, education will be better, etc – without actually spelling out what it wants a united Ireland to look like. It’s forever calling for a “conversation”, but strangely shy of advertising what it would say once the conversation got going.

For one rather basic example, what should the constitutional structure be? Federal? A devolved northern Ireland within a united Ireland? Or just a unitary state? And there’s a million other questions.

If Sinn Féin really believes that we are living in the dying days of partition, as McDonald says, it’s a bit odd to be leaving it up to the Government to work it all out. If a united Ireland is such a good idea, surely Sinn Féin has nothing to fear?