Sunday 16 December 2018

Eilis O'Hanlon: Mary Lou's quick U-turn on a border poll shows who really runs Sinn Fein

The Sinn Fein chief will never truly be leader of her party until she faces down hardliners in the North, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

NOVICE LEADER: Mary Lou McDonald ‘was hauled quickly and unceremoniously back into line’ after announcing that it was not the right time for a border poll. Photo: Getty Images
NOVICE LEADER: Mary Lou McDonald ‘was hauled quickly and unceremoniously back into line’ after announcing that it was not the right time for a border poll. Photo: Getty Images

Eilis O'Hanlon

There can be no more striking demonstration of the difference between the Republic and Northern Ireland than the fact that Mary Lou McDonald's remarks early last week about this not being the right time for a border poll would have been seen by most voters in the Republic as eminently sensible and practical, but were regarded instead as high treason among republicans in the North.

There's also no stronger, or more disturbing, proof of who's really in charge of Sinn Fein than the fact that its new leader was hauled so quickly back into line once her heretical views became known.

All things considered, it's actually astonishing that Mary Lou said what she did in the first place. Since abandoning the fantasy that reunification could be achieved by force, securing a vote on Irish unity has been the pillar of Sinn Fein's identity as a party.

In her first speech to the special ard fheis after winning a North Korea-style one-candidate leadership contest in February, McDonald made sure to repeat that message loud and clear. Though no longer party president, Gerry Adams has gone on repeating it in his own public pronouncements ever since, as if to keep reminding his successor not to waver.

For Mary Lou McDonald to tell a reporter that getting rid of the border in order to solve the immediate problem of a hard Brexit coming down the tracks, while having "a certain logic to it", was a "simplistic" answer to a complex question, and that she had a "strong preference" to wait and see what happens before pressing ahead with one, was little short of seditious.

McDonald's assertion that she would prefer to see "sequencing that firstly delivers a level of economic and social certainty, in as much as we can be certain, and stability, and from that base we then continue the conversation about Irish unity", placed her firmly in the mainstream of political thought in the Republic. Her words could have been uttered without any alteration by Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, or Micheal Martin, all of whom have warned against the recklessness of holding a border poll any time soon. Softening the fallout from a hard Brexit remains the priority of every responsible party in the Dail.

OLD GUARD: Martin McGuinness always made it clear where he stood on Irish unity. Photo: Julien Behal
OLD GUARD: Martin McGuinness always made it clear where he stood on Irish unity. Photo: Julien Behal

Only in shadowy corners of South Armagh and West Belfast was it considered mutinous to admit that a border poll right now could only destabilise the situation. There, the attitude to the UK's impending exit from the EU can be summed up as: Bring it on. Republicans may publicly deplore the headlong rush to a "no-deal" Brexit, and shake their heads regretfully at the prospect of lost jobs and ruined businesses, but deep down, they relish the chaos and instability that a hard, disorderly Brexit might bring in its wake, because that's exactly the climate in which their equally simplistic solutions might become more appealing in response. It's the same way that the left loves a good recession, because prosperity simply doesn't create the right conditions for a socialist resurgence. Most people wouldn't wish such hardships on their worst enemies. Fanatics wish it on their friends. That's how dedicated they are to the glorious cause.

This is why the then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced immediately after the 2016 Brexit vote that Sinn Fein would be seeking a border poll. Republicans imagined that the decision by England and Wales to back a break-away from Europe would lead inevitably to the break-up of the UK, and probably pretty soon. They stepped up the agitprop accordingly.

Of course, it's not quite that straightforward. Instability of one kind does not automatically translate into an embrace of instability of a different kind. There has certainly been no upsurge in pro-independence sentiment in Scotland, and while opinion on both sides in Northern Ireland remains fearful of Brexit, it would be naive to assume that's any sort of predictor of an Irish unity vote. Unionist consent is still nowhere near to being achieved.

For the crime of acknowledging such nuances, rather than just parroting slogans, Sinn Fein's novice leader was hauled quickly and unceremoniously back into line somewhere between last Monday evening and Tuesday morning. Who knows what went on during those hours, but the climbdown when it came was spectacular. Mary Lou's original remarks had been thoughtful and measured. The statement with which she backtracked and declared that a border poll should be held "as soon as possible" had more of the quality of a scripted ransom demand read out by a hostage rather than a senior politician speaking her own independent mind.

What Mary Lou McDonald didn't do at any point was explain how the two statements could be reconciled, and that's surely because they can't. They represent two different ways of looking at the world. Two divergent and irreconcilable mindsets. She tried to pretend in the aftermath that there was no contradiction in her positions, but that sleight of hand wasn't fooling anyone.

Her problem is that she now has to find a way of satisfying both of those competing demands. The first imperative is to detoxify Sinn Fein in the Republic to a point where it becomes an acceptable coalition partner. Agreeing that a border poll should not be held in the context of a disorderly Brexit was designed to do just that, and would have represented an intriguing step in the right direction had it been allowed to stand.

The second is to keep more traditional republicans in the North on board, especially now that they've seen what she really thinks. Because that's the fascinating part of what happened last week. Mary Lou clearly believed her original remarks; that much was obvious from the tone; she uses words carefully, and rarely misspeaks. Hardline Provos aren't stupid. They recognised at once the significance of what she was saying, and it all sounded a bit too proto-SDLP for their liking.

It was no accident that her first port of call after that humiliating U-turn was BBC Radio Ulster's morning news studio to appeal directly to opinion in the North, because that's where her apparent cooling on a border poll had caused a funk. She didn't have to make any similar appeals in the Republic, because few people south of the border had a problem with what she'd said in the first place.

That unseen hardline voices in the party won the tussle and forced her to retract so comprehensively proves beyond doubt who's really in charge of the republican movement; but it doesn't solve the problem of how Sinn Fein can take on a grown-up role in Dublin while still acting like a disruptive teenager in Belfast. Mary Lou McDonald will have to face down the North eventually.

The day of reckoning was postponed last week, but the existential conflict which it exposed will come back to haunt the party repeatedly until that boil is lanced.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss