So what are we to make of Monday’s Associated Press interview with the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, where the Dublin Central TD seemed to put the post-1998 republican demand for a referendum on the question of Irish reunification on the long finger? Judging by the gleeful reaction of the usual suspects in the regional and national news media, unionist and alt-unionist alike, the SF president’s words certainly seemed to represent a significant change in her party’s core belief that a majority of the country’s endemic political and socio-economic ills can be traced back to British-imposed – and maintained – partition; and that to start the process of ameliorating the former you must begin with eradicating the latter.
However a less partisan interpretation of the AP discussion indicates that Sinn Féin is contemplating – or at least floating the idea – of a more pragmatic approach to the issue of ending partition, arguing that any future plebiscite must be placed in the context of post-Brexit relations on the island, and between the island-states of Ireland and Britain. Which no one can predict with any great degree of confidence or certainty given the chaos surrounding the United Kingdom’s messy withdrawal from the European Union. It could be that McDonald was suggesting to her party’s activists and supporters that they need to recognise the evolving situation in London, and the UK legacy colony in the north-east, acknowledging the need to lay the groundwork for a winnable “border poll” in both the Six and Twenty-Six counties – if Brexit delivers the right environment for it.
That certainly seems to have been the implicit message of the clarifying statement issued by Sinn Féin on Tuesday, pushing the need for a plebiscite after Brexit more explicitly to the fore while still calling for a debate on the type of reunification we want or can be achieved on the island. The SF leader’s words might also have been directed at potential coalition partners in Dublin (Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil), indicating that she and her colleagues would be more flexible in government if a graduated or more aspirational approach was taken to achieving Irish unity (or even a deniable “salami-slice” one, to echo Israel’s unofficial if strategically efficient thinking on such matters).
In terms of realpolitik and stall-setting, much of this makes sense. A genuine discussion is now required on the nature of a reunited Ireland, the concrete steps and proposals needed to make it a reality over the next several years. And Sinn Féin – long practiced in the tactics of revolutionary entrysim – clearly believes that it must be in government to give legitimacy and urgency to such a discussion. However, any perceived slippage on the primary goal of mainstream republicanism – the ending of partition, sooner rather than later – carries serious political and electoral risks for SF. And not just among disenchanted northern nationalist voters.
Arguably, then, Mary Lou McDonald’s words on Monday did not indicate a dramatic shift in Sinn Féin’s basic tenets, in its core aims and aspirations. At worse, it was a bit of soft-soaping on the united Ireland message for external consumption, targeted at rivals and would-be government partners among many others. However it was certainly not the most elegantly crafted wording for such a delicate discussion or subject. And SF’s follow-up clarification doesn’t entirely dispel the worry (or suspicion) that the party, under its more Dublin-orientated leadership, is going soft on the cause of Irish freedom and reunification when the circumstances for the full realisation of both have never looked so propitious.