Thursday 22 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Brexit and a United Ireland are both the product of dangerously wishful thinking'

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: PA
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Of all the political losers to have been thrown up by the bad ship Brexit, Sinn Féin is perhaps the most unlikely.

After all, at a time when chaos abounds and there is more talk of border polls and uniting the island than ever before, this should have been Sinn Féin's moment in the sun.

Yet, as we saw with the recent local and European elections, and the party's disastrous presidential campaign with a disastrous candidate, Sinn Féin seemed strangely incapable of making any electoral hay.

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Not only has it failed to exploit the opportunities which have arisen, but any progress it has made in the last few years has now been shifted firmly into reverse gear.

Losing half your council seats (from 2014's record 159 down to 81) and both MEPs, while being humiliated in the presidential campaign was more than mere misfortune, it was a catastrophe for a party which now seems to be without any identity.

It's not as left as the far left; not as green as the Greens, and with no space to move to a more middle ground, the expected middle-class surge which would greet the post-Adams Sinn Féin has turned out to be little more than a chimera.

So it's no surprise to see Mary Lou McDonald going back to playing the classics.

On a walkabout with some media over the weekend, the increasingly embattled leader told one reporter: "Sinn Féin is a party that is about social justice, it's about all the bread and butter issues. It's about human rights issues.

"We're about Irish unity, we're about that big picture project, which is so important at this time in particular, and maybe we've mixed our metaphors or the clarity of our messaging hasn't been what it should be."

It says a lot about the party's current malaise and absence of identity that her explanation was as muddled and lacking in direction as its recent campaigns.

After all, one would be hard pressed to find any politician in this, or any other Western country, who proclaims they are against social justice and thinks human rights are overrated.

They are two ubiquitous calling cards for any politician who wants to establish even most basic right-on credentials, but ultimately they are just sound bites.

More interesting was her call for an all-island forum on Irish unity to be held as soon as Brexit kicks in and she urged Leo Varadkar to start setting one up.

The Taoiseach made one of his now regular trips to the North last week and discussed this issue on the Falls Road.

While addressing the crowd, he dismissed that idea and the idea of a border poll, arguing it was "divisive" and, anyway, would probably fail to pass.

Of course, McDonald politely disagrees and if there is one area where her party should be able to make some much-needed progress, then surely it's in the idea of a united Ireland. That concept was, after all, the only thing that ever separated Sinn Féin from the other mosquito parties who like buzzing around the head of the Government without ever actually contributing anything.

The calls for border polls, all-island forums and an eventual vote on unification - if not actual unity - have become increasingly common in recent weeks.

Interestingly, these calls tend to be made by the kind of people who loathe the Brexiteers yet have failed to realise that aspirations for Brexit and a united Ireland both come from the same place - dangerously wishful thinking.

Brexit was a disastrous political gambit by David Cameron to stop Ukip stealing the Tory thunder, but it appealed to the emotions of many voters.

As we have seen with the carnage of the last three years, it's all very well to support something in principle - and there are many principles of Brexit which are perfectly reasonable and legitimate - without examining the reality of that process.

Equally, when it comes to an all-island Ireland, plenty of commentators and the usual bien pensants of the chattering classes have been talking up the joys of regaining the fourth green field and how it would all be much easier than the doomsayers suggest - another example of how wishful thinking allows the lure of a principle to blind people to the reality of the process.

Such aspirations for a united island are invariably presented as a universal goal which everyone - with the exception of those pesky unionists - wants to see established.

That's simply not the case. But regardless of the views of us in the south, it's those pesky unionists who will ultimately block any such move.

After all, as the DUP's Gregory Campbell pointed out the other day: "There are people in Northern Ireland with an Irish identity and people with a British identity. We can have a shared future here, but there is no space for my Britishness in a united Ireland."

Good luck in trying to square that circle; it'll make Brexit look like the world's easiest sudoku by comparison.

But now, at this time, all such talk is a pointless distraction, a return to Ireland's favourite parlour game of "what if" when we need to be looking at things in a more pragmatic way.

In this era of confusion, we are only certain of a very few things.

One of those certainties is that Brexit is kicking in on October 31. That's not going to go away, there will be no last-minute rabbits pulled out of the hat; no magical, Nobel Prize-winning solution, just a period of confusion and rancour that, at this stage, could take up to a decade to completely resolve.

In other words, this is a time for business before pleasure.

Meanwhile, as we bicker and exchange platitudes about uniting the island, the main Brexiteers continue to become ever more unhinged.

It would certainly take a heart of stone not to have burst into laughter when reading Theresa May's former adviser, Nick Timothy, yesterday.

According to poor, persecuted Nick -who presumably wore a WWI Tommy's helmet when he was writing - declared "the backstop is a monstrosity that would make us a European colony", and he warned about "subjugation" at the hands of the Hun.

At this stage, the Brexiteers have managed to so infuriate the EU negotiators that it's almost beginning to look as if antagonism is their main tactic.

Frankly, the way things are going, they won't be making a dignified exit with Brexit - it will be more akin to the diplomatic equivalent of being thrown out a Wild West saloon window.

Within the context of the unprecedented madness we are witnessing, now is precisely the last time to be expending energy on border polls, forums and 32-country fever dreams.

As I said, business before pleasure...

Irish Independent

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