Current Affairs Guest Article Politics

Border Poll: The No-Deal Brexit Plan Fintan O’Toole’s Westminster Suggestion Ignores

Although this article is dismissive of Fintan O’Toole’s suggested plan for defeating a no-deal Brexit, outlined in last week’s Irish Times, he deserves credit, in my view, for at least offering a possible way forward. That’s besides the enormous credit due to him for his articulate and insightful opposition to Brexit since the UK referendum of June, 2016.

In one bold move

It was noticeable how uncharacteristically easy Fintan O’Toole was on Sinn Féin in his recently published strategy to block a no-deal Brexit. The continued absence from Westminster of Sinn Féin’s seven MPs, who could help avert the worst crisis that Ireland north and south has faced for decades, was excused on the basis that the party’s 2017 voters fully realised the dangers Brexit posed to this island, but supported the party’s abstentionist policy anyway. Really? That’s quite a claim to make on behalf of 238,915 people, more than two years down the line. I can only assume that Fintan was eager to get to the meat of his proposal but anxious not to rile Sinn Féin along the way, his plan depending as it does upon their co-operation, and this was the best he could come up with.

He needn’t have bothered. To put it kindly, this was not the best idea he has ever floated. Temporarily vacating its House of Commons’ seats in favour of seven would-be saviours, as Fintan suggests, would surely do Sinn Féin a lot more harm electorally than if the party was to declare some kind of “national emergency” and dispatch its own MPs to kill off a no-deal Brexit. Would Sinn Féin really be punished by its electorate for embarking on a temporary mission to Westminster to rescue Ireland from Brexit? If successful, might the party not in fact be electorally rewarded North and South? To borrow, and misplace, a line from Fintan: “Here, in one bold move, it [Sinn Féin] can have an electrifying effect on the course of Irish and British history and in the process definitively end the perception that it is a party of protest rather than power.”

Let’s not forget our manners, whatever we do

In the broader context, Fintan reckons that Sinn Féin voting down a no-deal Brexit “… would probably be counterproductive”. He predicts: “The Brexiteers and their media wing would generate hysteria about the Provos thwarting the will of the British people. Johnson would relish it. Wavering Tories would step back into line.” Yes, let’s all be careful not to annoy or antagonise those nice people in the European Research Group and the Democratic Unionist Party, or their friends at the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, while they’re busy doing their best to destroy all of our futures. Fintan may well be right about the reaction to a Sinn Féin intervention, but I for one don’t care a jot what Brexiteers and their media allies think. I’m sick to death of pundits and politicians citing the sensitivities of radical right-wingers as an excuse for inertia. Or cosying up to these reactionaries in the hope that this might encourage them to be nicer to the rest of us. Look how that’s worked out. Speaking as a unionist, if Sinn Féin MPs were to spike Brexit I would cheer them to the rafters, no matter who they had offended in the process.

Unionists and Brexit

Noticeable, too, in Fintan’s plan was the paucity of pro-union figures amongst his suggested temporary replacements for the seven Sinn Féin MPs. This, I suspect, is down to his sharing the widespread perception that virtually every unionist voted Leave in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum. This simply isn’t the case. Given that 56% of an overall turnout of 62.7% voted for Remain, it is barely mathematically possible for it to be the case. By far the lowest turnout was in Belfast West, an overwhelmingly republican constituency, where only 49% of the electorate went to the polls. A majority voted Remain in four unionist-held constituencies – North Down, East Londonderry, Belfast South, and Belfast North. All except the first of which, North Down, are seats actually held, then and now, by DUP MPs. In the recent European elections, a substantial pro-union vote helped elect Naomi Long of Alliance. This notion of unionist homogeneity on Brexit is not only wrong, it’s extremely unhelpful. It lends support to the DUP’s pretence that it speaks for all of unionism. Also, by suggesting to unionists that their natural position is pro-Brexit, it risks helping create the situation it wrongly describes.

A border poll, before it’s too late

Though Fintan doesn’t mention it in his plan, I suspect he like many others, including the Irish government, is of the opinion that a border poll should not be considered for the foreseeable future. Their reasoning? Well, there are divisions and tensions enough in Northern Ireland without throwing a border poll into the mix. I would ordinarily have a lot of sympathy for this position. But these are not ordinary times. As I explained in my previous article, I don’t believe we can afford to wait until after Brexit for a border poll. How can we trust that an extreme right-wing, post-Brexit British government, in hock to the DUP, would allow such a poll? Can we trust that they would even allow for the possibility of a poll to remain on the statute book? Again, we have no time for niceties or for playing to the sensitivities of those who created this mess in the first place. If Brexit is going to happen, then a border poll needs to be held in Northern Ireland beforehand. If Arlene Foster and the DUP truly believe they are acting for a majority of the people here, what have they got to fear from putting it to the test?

The Irish government and the EU might even consider removing the backstop in exchange for Boris Johnson allowing the people of Northern Ireland to self-determine their future, in line with the Good Friday Agreement that Johnson claims to be so “committed to”. It might just sort out the issue of the backstop, once and for all.

A guest article by Elizabeth Cady Stanton

20 comments on “Border Poll: The No-Deal Brexit Plan Fintan O’Toole’s Westminster Suggestion Ignores

  1. The claim to be a Unionist had me puzzled until I saw this was a guest post (lol!) But it leaves me wondering what the writer’s ideal outcome would be — the status quo for NI plus no Brexit??? Ideally the next tentative step towards Irish unification would be for the North to be technically part of the Republic, but with anyone wanting to be ‘British’ having the right to so identify, a mirror-image of the current position in fact? But this would hardly work unless Brexit were cancelled.

    As for Fintan’s Plan, it is at least imaginative. It allows the SF seats to gain the traction they deserve, especially as the DUP tail seems to be wagging the Tory dog at WM, but by using proxy candidates avoids the problem of the SF members themselves being unwilling and unable to swear alliegence to EIIR, (and I can hardly blame them!)

    • The “Reverse GFA” seems the easiest sell north and south, and hopefully in the UK. Dublin and London swap roles but essentially everything remains the same bar some constitutional and legal finessing on both sides (more so Ireland than the UK, by far). Plus the EU and the US would find that easier to support and fund.

    • I think this, from an earlier article by the writer, makes clear her first preference:
      “As a “small u” unionist, from a Protestant background, I was more than content with the situation in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement. We had peace, we were full-blown citizens of the European Union, and we were able to choose how British or Irish (or neither of those things) we wanted to be. What was there not to like about that?”
      And this, from the same article, hints strongly at her second preference:
      “Yet they are on course to drag Northern Ireland out of an expansive, multi-cultural, liberal-democratic European Union, and lock us forever into an inward-looking, narrow-minded, Trumpian-style United Kingdom.”

  2. Wouldn’t Nuala O’Loan have to renounce her peerage in order to run for parliament? Remember when all the Unionist MP’s resigned from Westminster in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement turning the by-elections into a referendum on the Agreement. They lost a seat and the Two Governments ignored the result anyway.

    • Good point! I’m not sure if she would have to resign.

      But most of the O’Toole suggestions are fairly SDLP-ish in nature, putting the SDLP in a good position to “hold” those seats come election time. I notice that he didn’t suggest the SF MPs resigning, the non-party ones replacing them, then the SDLP, Alliance, Greens etc. agreeing to not contest the seats to allow the SF MPs to retake them at the following general election.

      To me there is a more than a bit of political long-gaming in O’Toole’s suggestion, as well as the outright fantasy elements of it.

      • Would Constitutional finessing on Ireland’s part mean more referendums?

      • Better that SF MP sitting on their arses doing nothing while Ireland will go through another economic crisis that they could help to stop or weaken No wonder support for SF sunk as proven by recent elections

        • Have you heard of the concept of “principles”. SF has made it very clear that they are Irish and do not want British rule in Ireland and conversely think it is wrong for the Irish to rule in Britain. Principle.

          It’s a principle they’ve put in their manifesto at election time for 40 years and at the last election in 2017 (which was well after the Brexit referendum in 2016) the people selected 7 abstentionist SF MPs knowing full well the Brexit result and the car crash red lines the UK had adopted.

          From the reports it appears only SF’s detractors are up in arms and distraught that SF won’t adopt their critics suggestions, it seems SF supporters are fine with not taking their seats. When SF keep their seats at the next GE we will know their critics were wrong and the electorate was right.

  3. Or even, short of a border poll, a poll on whether people in the North and South of Ireland would mind the North staying in the EU customs union, single market and free movement zone, while the island of Britain went it’s own merry Brexshitty way.

    This solves the backstop problem for the Tories, respects the GFA and reflects the wishes of the majority of the north better. And Scottish independence from England would occur sooner rather than later.

    • I suspect that a “backstop poll” might be floated at some stage though I can’t see the UK giving it any time.

      • Not until the state of the parties at WM changes, but with Tories+DUP having only a majority of ONE, that surely can’t be long coming … but it could of course still be too long …

    • civic-critic

      I think your faith in British parliamentarism is misplaced. What we are dealing with here is a major geostrategic reconfiguration of the British state, that will be decided by the British ruling class, there is zero democracy in that decision. That class have zero commitment to democracy, just ask the Iraqis.

      The issue of Brexit for the British ruling class in relation to Ireland is NATO, access to the north Atlantic, resupply from N. America, the GIUK Gap, the future political direction of Ireland and the future defence posture of Ireland as an EU state with access, for the first time in 4 centuries, to European firepower – also located on the island of Ireland. If Britain leaves the EU these concerns become critical again for the British.

      But you and everyone else is told only about chlorinated chickens and borders, not a syllable has been allowed to be heard by the public of the things that have moved Irish politics for centuries, British geostrategic imperatives, while the upper middle classes arrange amongst themselves the future agreements and configuration behind closed doors.

      The deeper structural issue for the north is not the border, that is just a part of the change. The deeper issue is that the two parts of Ireland were converging and now they’re moving in different directions. This deeper structural issue is potentially if not inevitably explosive.

      The British always pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last moment to thwart Irish hopes and destroy decades of naive constitutionalism, this is the history of Ireland. They always somehow find a ‘good’ excuse to suddenly tell us why what we thought was going to happen and had invested in happening is not now happening and in fact something much more dangerous (for us) is now going to happen. This cannot be a coincidence, it always happens. It is policy.

      Similarly the elevation of the DUP to hold the balance of power of a major world economy, at the only time the DUP was relevant – negotiations over Ireland – cannot be a coincidence, it must be a fix.

      Have none of you learnt from Irish history, that you peddle the theatrics about parliamentary arithmetic as if its real? Those 600 odd British parliamentarians are intelligence assets, members of secret societies and think tanks. The few remaining who are not those things are mostly bought by commercial interests or isolated. The decision by the British ruling class will be made far away from those theatrics which are for public consumption and perhaps for pressurising Brussels.

      Chlorinated chickens and all the blather about customs arrangements across a border are the least of our worries, that stuff is for public consumption.

      • Chlorinated chickens may be for public consumption. As far as I know the EU entirely bans the practice.

        There are some theoretical concerns about the risks of organochlorine. However some parts of the world simply have a “tougher” ecology than Europe in terms of the climate, the flora, the soil, and the sorts of bacteria that tend to thrive. Some places simply need tougher measures than many Europeans find appealing to maintain a certain level of sanitation.

  4. O’Toole is a bum.

  5. Was Fintan O’Toole being as naive with his suggestion as everyone thought? Or did he walk Sinn Féin into a trap?

  6. O’Toole probably has too wild an imagination for his own good. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be manipulative about such things…..his ideas are way too out there for that!!!

  7. God loves a trier but in reality it’s all a waste of time I.e the charade Boris and co are involved is merely but a smokescreen to cover for the fake brexit they intend to sell to the Brit public as a genuine brexit. Btw, many folk I know(nationalists/republican) ignored the nationalists parties’ stance and voted for brexit. A good healthy sign in my opinion and its Bernard quite amusing ever since!

  8. David Mac

    So tell us what SF is actually doing to ameliorate the jobs losses that will happen in Ireland as a result of a hard Brexit? they are great for telling us what they will not do.

    • In the context of the disaster capitalism that will follow hard Brexit and direct rule from London that will be difficult.

      There should be jobs for professionals in tax dodging for the rich in the ‘free port’ of Belfast, however. I’m sure the well DUP-connected will get some of that.

  9. Pat Murphy

    O Toole or A Toole may have a point. Shame Féin have abandoned all our other ideals so no doubt taking their seats wouldn’t be a problem for them. The pro abortion party are showing every day what they have become. The disaster capitalism that will follow a hard brexit will also benefit the well connected shinners. Civic critic’s reply is worth a read. Btw chlorinated chicken may be banned but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen !!!.

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