In this opinion piece, former MEP John Cushnahan argues that an inclusive project is needed to highlight the interests of Northern Ireland as negotiations on the triggering of Article 50 loom.
Twelve months ago, the then British Prime Minister David Cameron held a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU. The poll was unnecessary and the decision to proceed with it had more to do with serving the interests of his own political party rather than the national interest. However, the result was not as he expected. The decision to leave the EU sent shock waves throughout the EU. However, the chain of events that had been set in motion and the threats that they posed were most acutely felt in both parts of Ireland. There was universal concern that not only would there be serious negative economic consequences but the continued implementation of the peace process could be derailed.
Thankfully, the response of all major political parties throughout Ireland had been to work together to minimise the dangers and considerable progress was being made.
Unfortunately, the current Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May was to repeat the mistake of her predecessor. She called an unnecessary general election. The motivation, once again, was for narrow party-political interests and once again the outcome was unexpected. New political uncertainties have been added to the mix just as the Brexit negotiations were about to commence between Britain and the EU.
Concerns were further exacerbated by the outcome of the election of Northern Ireland’s 18 MP’s. The pro-Brexit DUP won 10 seats, an Independent Unionist (who is pro EU) took a seat and Sinn Fein won seven. Because Sinn Fein have affirmed that they are continuing with their policy of abstentionism, this means that there will not be a single non-unionist Northern Ireland MP present during any of the Westminster discussions on the Brexit negotiations. Furthermore, the prospect of an agreed alliance between the DUP and Theresa May to support a pro Brexit minority Conservative government adds a new twist to the situation.
It therefore came as no surprise that Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin and others called on Sinn Fein to end their policy of abstentionism and take their seats in the Westminster Parliament because “Brexit is the single greatest issue facing our generation.” Ending a policy of abstentionism was not something that was new to Sinn Fein. Its decision to end abstentionism for the Dail was made in 1986. Similarly, its abstentionist policy towards participation in Stormont (which after all is a British political institution) ended in the 1990’s. Micheal Martin’s request to Sinn Fen to accept its responsibilities and act in the national interest was therefore sensible and reasonable.
In contrast, the reaction of Sinn Fein Deputy Leader Mary Lou Mc Donald was both alarming and revealing. In her rejection of Martin’s proposal, she said “we are entering the endgame of partition which is spurred on by the logic of Irish unity in the wake of Brexit.” This was in keeping with the reaction of her Leader Gerry Adams whose reaction to the Northern Ireland Election results was that “a referendum on Irish unity is now inevitable because of a dramatic shift among Northern Ireland voters.”
Such statements are deliberately mischievous and provocative and are not confirmed by any objective analysis of the outcome of this general election. They merely confirm that Sinn Fein is in the process of abandoning devolution in favour of exclusively pursuing Irish unity as its primary objective. However, there are many reasons why there is little prospect of a border poll/ referendum taking place in the foreseeable future.
Firstly, since the 2017 March Assembly election there has been no dramatic shift in support for nationalist parties. In fact, the gap between the two unionist parties and the two nationalist parties has widened in favour of unionism. In March 2017 that gap was 1.2%. In June 2017, it was 5.2% and if you were to add the vote for North Down MP, Lady Hermon, the gap would be 7.2%. Furthermore, Unionists won 11 seats, Nationalists only won 7 seats.
It is clear that in the wake of the recent British General Election, Brexit will not lead to Irish unity. What is not so clear is what impact the current political uncertainty that now exists at Westminster will have on Irish interests north and south.
The priority therefore is to ensure that putting Northern Ireland’s case is not simply left in the hands of the DUP alone who are pro Brexit. It must be an inclusive project involving all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland and because of Sinn Fein abstentionism that can only be achieved by the restoration of a Power Sharing Executive working together to make the case for Northern Ireland as the Brexit negotiations get under way.
John Cushnahan is a former MEP in Munster & former Leader of APNI.
A longer version of this piece was originally published in the Irish Times.