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