Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
The shocking thing is that no one was shocked. Sinn Fein, a movement linked to armed gangsters, has now won (at least in the sense of getting more votes than anyone else) on both sides of the Irish border.
The fact that its victory was predicted does not make it any the less disturbing – quite the reverse, if you think about it. Yet there is no international condemnation.
It’s curious. Victories by, say, Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán drive commentators into finger-wagging rages. When Hamas won the Palestinian election, the US cut off its money. The EU is fining Poland a million euros a day because it dislikes the ruling Law and Justice Party.
Yet the idea of a party with a private army winning office is seen, not least in Brussels, a sign of progress.
It won’t quite do to say that the violence is all in the past. The leaders of the two traditional Dublin parties understand well enough what they are dealing with, which is why they buried a century of differences with one another to keep Sinn Féin out of office when it topped the poll in 2020.
“Sinn Féin is not a normal party”, explained Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, pointing to its links with the IRA’s Army Council. Micheál Martin, his Fianna Fáil counterpart, agreed, refusing to treat with SF on grounds that “shadowy figures dictate what happens.”
Mention any of this and you get a revealing reaction from online Shinners. A few rage at the suggestion that theirs is anything other than a fully democratic party. But most undermine their comrades’ indignation by wishing that Margaret Thatcher had been blown up and posting images of IRA gunmen.
Occasionally, the prejudices that are meant to be confined to social media burst out, as when SF canvassers toured County Cavan at the last Irish election blasting “Ooh, ah, up the ’RA!” from their van.
True, the overall election result was not as dramatic as the headlines suggested. Sinn Féin ended up with 27 Assembly seats, the same as it went in with.
What we saw was not a Republican surge but a Unionist fragmentation. The overall Orange/Green balance barely budged. Parties that want to stay in the UK have 37 seats (down three); parties that favour integration with the Irish Republic have 35 (down four).
It is not even the first time that an anti-Union party has won. In 2010, SF attracted fractionally more votes than the DUP, though a quirk of the system gave it fewer seats. Indeed, at the first ever Stormont elections in 1998, the SDLP got more votes than the UUP – though, again, fewer MLAs.
Does SF’s victory bring forward the prospect of the 32-county socialist republic which that party favours? In the short term, at least, it will almost certainly have the opposite effect.
You might think it paradoxical that a win for the Shinners, whose whole shtick is Irish unity, might retard that cause.
But plenty of people in both traditions have qualms about being absorbed into a state run by a party with links to organised crime, a party that can’t quite overcome its dislike of the police, a party with Corbynite economic policies, a party that won’t apologise for murders committed by its supporters (including of Irish Catholic civilians), and a party that still struggles to accept the legitimacy of state institutions in either jurisdiction.
Michelle O’Neill, the SF leader at Stormont, can’t even bring herself to name the territory of which she aspires to be first minister. Nomenclature is sensitive in Northern Ireland. Nationalists don’t like to hear the place described as ‘Ulster’ or ‘the Province’, while Unionists bridle at ‘the north of Ireland’ and ‘the six counties’.’
‘Northern Ireland’, the official name, is broadly seen as neutral. But SF regards even the acknowledgment of legal reality as unacceptable.
Perhaps the party’s biggest problem, though, is its unwillingness to come to terms with the presence of a million Brits in Northern Ireland. Although some of its politicians now refer to “our Unionist brothers and sisters”, they still see them, fundamentally, as misguided Irish Protestants, and won’t countenance the idea of accommodating their Britishness.
This is nothing new. Listen to how Éamon de Valera described his vision of unification as late as 1962:
“If in the north there are people who spiritually want to be English rather than Irish, they can go, and we will see that they get the adequate compensation for their property”.
Republicanism of the SF variety (or the Dev variety) defines unionism as a kind of false consciousness, a bogus identity created in and manipulated from London.
The fact that successive British governments kept trying to push Ulstermen into an accommodation with Dublin – perhaps in the hope that they would serve as a ballast, keeping Ireland within Britain’s orbit, but in an all-Ireland polity none the less – did nothing to shake this belief.
Every time Irish Republicans had to choose between attracting Unionists and emphasising their distance from Britain, they opted for the latter: removing Ireland’s remaining symbolic links with the UK, declaring a republic, leaving the Commonwealth, staying neutral in the war against Hitler, rejecting the Atlantic alliance, and making the Irish language compulsory for certain state functions.
These were legitimate choices for an independent country. But they were hardly likely to appeal to the large minority on the island who saw – and see – themselves as British subjects. Whenever Republicans demanded “Brits out of Ireland”, Unionists felt they were being asked to leave.
Constitutional nationalism by and large accepts that, in a place where there is always going to be a large minority, there must be compromises.
Constitutional unionism recognises the same. Its leaders understand that the Union must rest on the consent of both communities, and that such consent requires a willingness to recognise Irish identity in practical ways, such as offering people Irish citizenship and passports.
But SF does not do compromise. Whereas Unionism recognises that you can be both British and Irish – indeed, unionism might be said to have originated as the idea that to be Irish was also to be British – there is no version of republicanism that is not based, at least on some level, on a rejection of Britishness.
Awareness of this asymmetry makes the idea of an annexation following a vote of 50 per cent plus one disquieting to people in both traditions. It may partly explain why overall support for the Union has remained buoyant despite the shift from a two-to-one ratio of Protestants to Catholics a century ago to roughly even numbers today.
Put bluntly, people who are culturally Irish might back the Union for all sorts of practical reasons – concerns about pension rights, say – but only for as long as they feel their identity is respected.
Now try to imagine a united Ireland that genuinely respected British identity. What might it look like? Perhaps a bit like the Ireland that Parnell and Redmond campaigned for – a self-governing island under the Crown, with close institutional links to Great Britain.
Had the Home Rulers got their way – had any of Gladstone or Asquith’s devolution schemes come to fruition – we might have been spared three monstrous wars: the war of independence, the Irish civil war, and the Troubles.
A united Ireland might have evolved peacefully towards greater sovereignty in the way that, say New Zealand did – albeit probably keeping closer links to Britain in economic and foreign affairs, reflecting its geography.
Now ask yourself this. Do you see any likelihood of Ireland moving in that direction? Can you imagine Sinn Fein taking such a road? That, in a nutshell, is why Northern Ireland isn’t going anywhere in a hurry