Will Ireland Be United?

Political earthquakes are rare, but the result of the parliamentary election in the Republic of Ireland on February 8, 2020 stunned the political establishment by the surprising performance of Sinn Féin (We Ourselves), the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA.  Though it had run only 42 candidates, Sinn Féin, S.F., gained 14 seats, 24.5% of the vote, and won 37 of the 160 seats, while Fine Gael (Tribe of the Irish), the party of prime minister Leo Varadkar, got 35 seats and 20.9% of the vote and Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) got 38 seats and 22.2% of the vote.

S.F. had run a good electoral campaign with proposals for positive programs for mass housing, rent freeze, better health system, increases in public spending, and climate change.  Yet whatever the sincerity of these promises, the real objective of S.F. is Irish unity and a referendum as the means to secure it.  S.F. is now important in the parliament of the Republic, and it is the second largest party in Northern Ireland.  It therefore puts the unification of Ireland on the political agenda.

The election result was disappointing for the 41-year-old Leo Varadkar, prime minister, Taoiseach,, openly gay, of mixed race (Indian-Irish), brought up as Catholic, trained as a doctor.  Under his tenure, Ireland had rapid growth and is close to full employment, after some years of austerity and lack of affordable housing.  His opponent in the S.F. was the party president, Mary Lou McDonald, 50 years old, a charming personality and good speaker who had replaced Gerry Adams, who had been president since 1983 and was long the face of S.F.  Gerry Adams had also stepped down as leader of S.F. in Northern Ireland in 2018.  S.F. did particularly well among younger voters, who presumably had no personal memory of the Troubles of the past.  The party got a third of the vote of the young but only 12% of those over 65. 

How does one restore stability after an earthquake?  There are three possibilities. One, though unrealistic, is for S.F. to form a minority government.  A second is to call another election to get a clearer picture.  A third, more realistic but unlikely option is for S.F. to be part of a coalition government with one of the other major parties.  But this has been rejected by the other parties for political reasons and in light of historic memories.  At the core is the fundamental difference: the S.F. in the Republic is the only party resolutely committed to the unity of the whole island of Ireland.  It is also the party historically linked to the IRA, some of whose members, calling themselves "Continuity IRA," planned to carry out a terrorist bomb attack using a truck on January 31, 2020, the day of Brexit. 

The political outcome has been different in the two political entities in Ireland.  On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement ended twenty years of the Troubles, the civil war that cost 3,600 lives in the six counties in the area now Northern Ireland, if not completely the more than two hundred years of hostility between Ireland, now the Republic of Ireland, and Britain.  The long hostility stems from opposition to the violent repression of the Irish people that began in the 16th century and continued especially under the conquest by Oliver Cromwell beginning in 1649.  Cromwell is still a hated figure because of his brutality and massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, and the consequences of famine, which led to the spread of diseases, the plague, decimation of the population, and destruction of the economic infrastructure.

The starting point to resolve the sea of Troubles is to assess the present and future actions of S.F., the radical nationalist party, founded in 1905, which declared that it had reshaped its form in 1970, a party active in both the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Northern Ireland.  Two factors are important: S.F. has been the most radical of the existing political parties, and it has embodied or linked to the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, which has had different names.  Unlike other parties, S.F. from its beginning has gone beyond the cry for home rule, has opposed the existence of a separate political entity and any British rule, and has called for a republic of the whole of Ireland. 

However, in the 1980s, the S.F. mainstream began to take a more moderate position, becoming part of the working system, taking seats in parliament, agreeing to a ceasefire in 1994, and then to Good Friday, power sharing in Northern Ireland, and entering a government coalition.  It still favors a referendum on Ireland.  The S.F. feeling is strong that Northern Ireland should be part of the Irish Republic, not part of the U.K. 

Yet in spite of the impact of the Good Friday Agreement and the generally peaceful atmosphere since 1988, the two communities, Protestant and Catholic, remain separate if not totally divided, in schools and housing.  Two facts are pertinent in consideration of unification of the two Irelands.  One is that the Republic has 4.8 million residents and is mostly Catholic, while Northern Ireland has 1.9 million and a population in which, for the first time, Catholics probably outnumber Protestants.  The other factor is the unpredictable effect of Brexit: Northern Ireland voted against it, while the Unionist party voted for it. 

Differences are apparent, on issues like abortion, contraception, gay rights, constitutional changes, a flag and national anthem, and economic disparity.  Sinn Féin may no longer be a political pariah, and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, is a formidable, attractive, warm personality personifying a peaceful approach, not a prisoner of the past, as was her predecessor, Gerry Adams.  She has broken the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and has staked a claim to political office and strongly criticized as "arrogant" her political rivals for denying her a place in the Irish government.  All the same, considering the differences, it is unlikely that a united Ireland will emerge in the near future.  Someday the unity will come, and how thrilling that moment will be, but at the moment, it doesn't stand a ghost of a chance.

Political earthquakes are rare, but the result of the parliamentary election in the Republic of Ireland on February 8, 2020 stunned the political establishment by the surprising performance of Sinn Féin (We Ourselves), the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA.  Though it had run only 42 candidates, Sinn Féin, S.F., gained 14 seats, 24.5% of the vote, and won 37 of the 160 seats, while Fine Gael (Tribe of the Irish), the party of prime minister Leo Varadkar, got 35 seats and 20.9% of the vote and Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) got 38 seats and 22.2% of the vote.

S.F. had run a good electoral campaign with proposals for positive programs for mass housing, rent freeze, better health system, increases in public spending, and climate change.  Yet whatever the sincerity of these promises, the real objective of S.F. is Irish unity and a referendum as the means to secure it.  S.F. is now important in the parliament of the Republic, and it is the second largest party in Northern Ireland.  It therefore puts the unification of Ireland on the political agenda.

The election result was disappointing for the 41-year-old Leo Varadkar, prime minister, Taoiseach,, openly gay, of mixed race (Indian-Irish), brought up as Catholic, trained as a doctor.  Under his tenure, Ireland had rapid growth and is close to full employment, after some years of austerity and lack of affordable housing.  His opponent in the S.F. was the party president, Mary Lou McDonald, 50 years old, a charming personality and good speaker who had replaced Gerry Adams, who had been president since 1983 and was long the face of S.F.  Gerry Adams had also stepped down as leader of S.F. in Northern Ireland in 2018.  S.F. did particularly well among younger voters, who presumably had no personal memory of the Troubles of the past.  The party got a third of the vote of the young but only 12% of those over 65. 

How does one restore stability after an earthquake?  There are three possibilities. One, though unrealistic, is for S.F. to form a minority government.  A second is to call another election to get a clearer picture.  A third, more realistic but unlikely option is for S.F. to be part of a coalition government with one of the other major parties.  But this has been rejected by the other parties for political reasons and in light of historic memories.  At the core is the fundamental difference: the S.F. in the Republic is the only party resolutely committed to the unity of the whole island of Ireland.  It is also the party historically linked to the IRA, some of whose members, calling themselves "Continuity IRA," planned to carry out a terrorist bomb attack using a truck on January 31, 2020, the day of Brexit. 

The political outcome has been different in the two political entities in Ireland.  On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement ended twenty years of the Troubles, the civil war that cost 3,600 lives in the six counties in the area now Northern Ireland, if not completely the more than two hundred years of hostility between Ireland, now the Republic of Ireland, and Britain.  The long hostility stems from opposition to the violent repression of the Irish people that began in the 16th century and continued especially under the conquest by Oliver Cromwell beginning in 1649.  Cromwell is still a hated figure because of his brutality and massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, and the consequences of famine, which led to the spread of diseases, the plague, decimation of the population, and destruction of the economic infrastructure.

The starting point to resolve the sea of Troubles is to assess the present and future actions of S.F., the radical nationalist party, founded in 1905, which declared that it had reshaped its form in 1970, a party active in both the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Northern Ireland.  Two factors are important: S.F. has been the most radical of the existing political parties, and it has embodied or linked to the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, which has had different names.  Unlike other parties, S.F. from its beginning has gone beyond the cry for home rule, has opposed the existence of a separate political entity and any British rule, and has called for a republic of the whole of Ireland. 

However, in the 1980s, the S.F. mainstream began to take a more moderate position, becoming part of the working system, taking seats in parliament, agreeing to a ceasefire in 1994, and then to Good Friday, power sharing in Northern Ireland, and entering a government coalition.  It still favors a referendum on Ireland.  The S.F. feeling is strong that Northern Ireland should be part of the Irish Republic, not part of the U.K. 

Yet in spite of the impact of the Good Friday Agreement and the generally peaceful atmosphere since 1988, the two communities, Protestant and Catholic, remain separate if not totally divided, in schools and housing.  Two facts are pertinent in consideration of unification of the two Irelands.  One is that the Republic has 4.8 million residents and is mostly Catholic, while Northern Ireland has 1.9 million and a population in which, for the first time, Catholics probably outnumber Protestants.  The other factor is the unpredictable effect of Brexit: Northern Ireland voted against it, while the Unionist party voted for it. 

Differences are apparent, on issues like abortion, contraception, gay rights, constitutional changes, a flag and national anthem, and economic disparity.  Sinn Féin may no longer be a political pariah, and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, is a formidable, attractive, warm personality personifying a peaceful approach, not a prisoner of the past, as was her predecessor, Gerry Adams.  She has broken the duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and has staked a claim to political office and strongly criticized as "arrogant" her political rivals for denying her a place in the Irish government.  All the same, considering the differences, it is unlikely that a united Ireland will emerge in the near future.  Someday the unity will come, and how thrilling that moment will be, but at the moment, it doesn't stand a ghost of a chance.