My view on our mainstream political parties discussing the reunification of Ireland has always been: put up or shut up. It is all well and good discussing the end of British-imposed partition, or the deleterious effects it has had on all parts of the country, but unless you are willing to step into the electoral cauldron of the UK-administered Six Counties, soundbites and good intentions can only carry you so far. Fianna Fáil has been holding out the promise of becoming a genuinely national – rather than a southern – party for the last two decades, the repeated “go north” motions of ard fheiseana accepted by the ard chomhairle and promptly put on the long finger. Despite the establishment of a handful of cumainn in Belfast and elsewhere, FF continues to waiver about standing in the north-east, be it for local councils or the glorified county council at Stormont (RIP). The latest northern jump date is 2019, though given past inactivity we should probably expect it to pass by without too much fuss.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party is talking up its own all-Ireland credentials, from expressions of solidarity with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), its regional “sister” grouping in the Six Counties, to its leader’s thoughts on reunification (we’ll gloss over the nomination and “election” of a certain senator from Belfast. Good enough to temporarily represent Labour in Seanad Éireann but not good enough to represent Labour in Belfast City Hall or the Northern Assembly). In recent months Brendan Howlin, the simultaneously new-but-old Labour leader, has been discussing the United Kingdom’s Brexit debacle and the possible effects on Ireland and he took the opportunity of last weekend’s party conference in Wexford to further air these views:
Brexit has undermined devolved government, in Northern Ireland, in particular.
Good intentions seem to abound on every side.
Yet the path to a borderless Ireland after Brexit is far from clear.
Made worse by the Tory desire for parliamentary domination;
A desire that our Government is naive enough to see as hopeful.
As if a large Tory majority was ever good for Ireland.
Historically, partition has been bad for both north and south.
Instead of living together, we created two narrow, sectarian states.
Neither has worked as it should.
I’d love to see a united Ireland that is an agreed Ireland.
One that unites hearts and minds, as much as territory.
One that accommodates and celebrates diversity;
Rather than representing the triumph of either side.
After Brexit, there is a space for a dialogue about this island.
We who aspire to a United Ireland need to map out what it might look like.
Our task is to prepare an inclusive vision for all of the people on this island;
A European Ireland that can signal a brighter future for all, whatever our traditions.
If we’re serious about this,
If it’s about more than sloganeering,
Then we need to sit down and talk about it.
To think deeply, with an open mind.
And to do so together.
Before we rush to border polls, or headcounts.
Because, as long as we act generously;
And in each other’s best interests;
Then our future – a shared future for all on this island;
Can be whatever we imagine it to be.
I’m always struck by the irony of establishment politicians in this country, and their mouthpeices in the press, objecting to ending partition on the basis of a “headcount” given that partition began and is maintained through a “headcount”. We are told that we cannot have a reunited Ireland, and an end to Britain’s legacy colony on this island, until a majority in the Six Counties agree to it by referendum. But we cannot hold that plebiscite because it might draw a negative or violent reaction from any losing minority in the north-east who voted again a British withdrawal. Therefore we must maintain partition, though we may aspire to end it by a majority vote in the contested territory as long as that vote is never held. This, we are repeatedly told, is respecting the supremacy of the ballot box.
Talking of desperate or unrealistic politics, here is Howlin again, talking to the tabloid trash that is the “Oirish” Sun newspaper:
LABOUR wants to woo Sinn Fein members and activists into its ranks, Brendan Howlin has revealed.
The leader of the oldest party in the State this weekend addressed the rank and file at their annual conference in Wexford, 14 months after they lost a huge 30 Dail seats.
Part of their rebuilding strategy, he confided to us, was attracting those in Sinn Fein and other parties, including Solidarity/PBP, to switch political sides.
In an interview with the Irish Sun on Sunday, Howlin, 60, said: “There are lots of good people in Sinn Fein, people who should be in the Labour Party. There are thinking people who joined Sinn Fein out of a sense of idealism. And I hope we can attract them back.
“There are Sinn Fein people, working people, community activists, across the Republic who would normally, in a normal European democracy, be in the Labour Party. And we need to get them in.
“There are certain people who vote for an ultra-left party, who vote for Sinn Fein, and who are social democrats who would be very welcome into the party.”
Translation: the Labour Party has been supplanted as the representative party of the Left in Ireland by Sinn Féin but if SF voters were to throw us their third and fourth preference votes at elections it might get a few of our candidates over the line in Dublin city and county (well, “counties”).
By the by, I had a discussion recently with a Labour Party member who dismissed Sinn Féin as a “local party from Ulster”. I felt it only fair to point out to him that Labour is now a “local party from Leinster”. He didn’t find it funny. Even though it is largely true. And the same can be said, even more so, for Solidarity-People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and the Green Party.