Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
The Sinn Fein trolls came out in force when I branded them “exclusionary nationalists” on Twitter. We don’t exclude anyone, they said…except “colonialists.”
Colonialists, you may ask, who are they? This is, after all, 2020. Ireland has been independent since the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The last Governor-General hung up his hat in 1936, and Sinn Fein at least officially accept the terms of the 1998 Agreement that a United Ireland can only come about if a majority of the people living there want it to.
By Colonialists, they mean the British, and the Unionist population of Northern Ireland (here I’m reminded of a Dublin friend who threw a Sinn Fein member at an anti-racism demo into utter confusion by asking him if “Brits Out!” was a racist slogan).
It’s just one of several examples of the party’s dark record that it managed to persuade voters to ignore during an absurdly short three-week election campaign. At a party event celebrating his victory, newly elected David Cullinane praised the IRA hunger strikers, and for good measure ended his speech to supporters with the old chant of “Up the ’Ra!”. Another candidate arrived at her count singing ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’. Confronted on Irish TV on Monday night, Eoin O’Broin, a Sinn Fein TD, insisted that they were just emotional speeches and a “distraction” from the real issues of housing and healthcare on which the party had chosen to campaign.
It’s undoubtedly true that these social and economic matters are what drove the Sinn Fein surge. Though it’s now a century since what everyone in Ireland except Sinn Fein recognises as independence, Ireland is not a country in the grip of a nationalist commemorative fever. But what its voters have done is to elect the largest number of nationalists with questionable (to say the least) commitment to constitutional democracy, since 1932, if not 1919.
This history provides the alternate view of this election. Irish politics is in many ways the story of different factions of the IRA giving up violence and transforming themselves into a political parties. I need only to think of my own grandfather who, in contemporary terms, would have been a young man vulnerable to radicalisation, and having fought to secure an Irish Free State then joined its police force. The pro-Treaty side of the Irish Civil war turned into the party that is the ancestor to today’s Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil was formed by men who abandoned guerrilla warfare in 1932. The Workers’ Party is descended from the “Official” IRA. Could this not be Sinn Fein making the same journey?
It’s quite clear that they haven’t yet. Law enforcement says that the IRA Army Council still exists, and calls the shots in what was always a unified movement. And even if those intelligence conclusions were exaggerated, there is a further and vital political difference. Cumman na nGaedheal (which would become Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail never organised politically north of the border. Sinn Fein’s core base and real leadership is not only stained by violence, it also operates within another state, and their interest is not building more affordable housing in Dublin but the political reunification of the island.
Such reunification, however, can only happen with the support of the majority of the population of Northern Ireland. That much is required by the Belfast Agreement. It is impossible without persuading a significant proportion of the unionist community that their values and interests would be safeguarded in such a state. That’s not as far-fetched as it might have been a few years ago. Recent opinion polls have suggested Brexit shifted opinion among some Unionists towards government from Dublin rather than Westminster, and the Unionist former head of the Ulster Farmers’ Union has even been elected to the Irish Senate. But these took place with Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, whose Fine Gael would be less of a threat to the Unionist community and more of a coalition partner in an all-Ireland parliament. Sinn Fein is a rougher beast. The ’Ra which its candidates exalt murdered hundreds of Unionists.
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s leader, has said she would try to reach out to “our Unionist brothers and sisters” and convince them they would be a welcome part of the new Ireland they want to create. As long as their activists call them “colonialists” and candidates glorify the IRA, her words will be as convincing as a Hannukah greeting from Jeremy Corbyn.