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Sinn Féin success nothing for unionists to worry about – in theory

Unification is still why everyone in Mary Lou McDonald’s party gets up in the morning

In theory, there is no reason for unionist concern about Sinn Féin joining or even leading an Irish government. Mary Lou McDonald’s party could win every seat in the Dáil and still be no closer to a united Ireland under the mechanisms of the Belfast Agreement.

It is not quite correct that Dublin has “no say in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland”, as the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson told Radio Ulster on Monday.

Dublin has no say in the internal affairs of Stormont. However, it is still drafted in to co-chair talks when Stormont has one of its periodic crises. The Irish government does have a consultative role on non-devolved issues in Northern Ireland, plus seats on the agreement’s north-south and east-west institutions. It also has seats on the management committees that will implement Northern Ireland’s unique Brexit arrangements. Stormont has its own place in these structures, so there is a chance Sinn Féin ministers will crop up in them twice. But none of this in itself alters the unionist-nationalist balance anywhere.

Unification de-emphasised

Sinn Féin claims it will bring a new emphasis on unification, yet it rapidly de-emphasised the issue as power in Dublin beckoned.


Talk of demanding a Border poll from Dublin is nonsense

On January 31st, McDonald said a Border poll within five years would be “an absolute necessity” for her party in coalition talks. “This is not an exotic red line for Sinn Féin,” she added. “It should be a central point for anyone.”

That was while polls showed Fianna Fáil could form a government without her. On February 7th, with Sinn Féin topping the polls, McDonald said: “I have not posited the Border poll and the preparations for it as a red line.”

It is telling this dramatic U-turn went largely unremarked. Although 57 per cent of Irish voters say they want a Border poll, almost none told exit pollsters it was a deciding factor in how they voted. Housing and health were why people supported Sinn Féin. Such people might not welcome the prospect of a party distracting itself in office with a united Ireland, or planning to saddle the Republic with an enormous unification bill.

In any case, talk of demanding a Border poll from Dublin is nonsense. Only the northern secretary can call a poll and the Border Agreement requires this only if a nationalist win appears likely.

McDonald now says an Irish government must “plan for constitutional change”. Sinn Féin has previously demanded a Green Paper, an Oireachtas committee and a constitutional convention on unification. Those ideas will certainly resurface but republicans must be careful what they wish for. Any credible costings and proposals for a united Ireland are bound to be controversial, for no clear electoral gain, given that almost everyone in the Republic supports unification in principle already.

The swing demographic in a Border poll would be the 20 per cent bloc of Alliance and Green voters in Northern Ireland, who are as likely to come from a unionist as a nationalist background.

Does Sinn Féin want its time in office defined by arguing for hypothetical changes to the structure and symbols of the Irish state, in a jurisdiction whose voters will not decide the outcome?

Aiken would not be the only unionist thinking "see how they like it"

Having to propose an Alliance-friendly united Ireland looks like a guarantee of republican good behaviour at Stormont. Walking away from devolution to grandstand on unification is what caused Sinn Féin’s northern vote to fall by a quarter last year and Alliance’s vote to double.

Sinn Féin has long told supporters that getting into power on both sides of the border is a crucial step towards a united Ireland. This would appear to make Stormont more stable, or at least no more unstable, with republicans in government in Dublin.

‘Huge change’

So officially, unionists are not concerned. DUP leader Arlene Foster said Sinn Féin’s vote in the Republic, while representing “a huge change”, has not changed the dynamic on a united Ireland or the need for unionists to work with whatever Irish government emerges.

UUP leader Steven Aiken confined concerns to south of the Border.

“Our neighbours are living in interesting if worrying times,” he said, one eyebrow cheekily raised. He would not be the only unionist thinking “see how they like it”.

Despite all these reasons to believe northern politics will carry on much as before, it is naive to think a huge change can take place in the Republic without knock-on effects. Unification is still why everyone in Sinn Féin gets up in the morning and they enjoy keeping unionists awake at night. Every new strength will be exploited and opportunities for mischief are about to multiply.

One obvious temptation is the gains Sinn Féin could expect in an assembly election, from the momentum of its southern success. The party could reverse its decline in northern elections last year, crush the revival of the SDLP and aim to become Stormont’s largest party. These are powerful motivations to walk away from devolution again, if plausible excuses could be found.

Perhaps that is a guarantee of unionist good behaviour.