Map of Ireland

Map of Ireland by Tourizm Maps © 2006

So far, 2007 has been a momentous year in terms of the political situation in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, (the Irish republican party and erstwhile political wing of the IRA), has agreed to join the policing board, announcing finally that the war is over. On the other side of the political fence, the DUP (the majority Unionist party lead by the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley) has greatly lessened it’s rhetoric and looks set to enter into a power-sharing administration with Sinn Féin some time later this year.

Compared to the situation 15 years ago, the current political situation is an incredible departure from what seemed at one stage like an endless war. Even in the last 5 years, the IRA have decommissioned, abandoned criminality, stopped punishment beatings, disbanded as a military organisation, finally agreed to the rule of law and for all this they must be wholeheartedly commended. The Sinn Féin organisation seems now to have fully committed itself to a democratic political path. The ballot box has, at last, won out over the armalite.

Sinn Féin sees itself as being in government, sometime within the next 10 years, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is not a pipe-dream by any degree of imagination. (Since the 1994 ceasefire it has managed to garner over 10% of the vote in the Republic, making it the 4th biggest political party here). Their stated vision is to finally unify the island, North and South, to end all British influence there.

My question at this stage is – how? Any attempt to transfer power from Britain to the Republic of Ireland will be robustly resisted by Unionists who have not changed their stance (that Northern Ireland remain British) in the last 100 years and, after the low-intensity war of the seventies, eighties and nineties (a.k.a “the Troubles”), are probably more entrenched in their views than ever. How does a party such as Sinn Féin succeed in convincing Unionists that joining an Irish Republic would be in their best interest? The party is avowedly anti-British, working class, socialist, with paramilitary roots and structures that have created a huge degree of distrust within Unionism – an obstacle I can’t see them easily overcoming in the coming decades.

In addition, Sinn Féin have abided by a system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland which gives proportional representation to minority parties based on their share of the vote. Majority rule is clearly a non-runner in Northern Ireland when the political views and loyalties are so far apart. Sinn Féin are a minority party – the second biggest after the DUP – but the percentage differences are relatively small and it is probable that some time in the next 30 or 40 years, they may become the biggest party in Northern Ireland. The problem for them however is that, having resisted majority rule for so long, they can’t just dump power-sharing when they become the majority themselves. Whether they like it or not, they will be joined at the hip to the Unionists in Northern Ireland for the forseeable future.

Neither is it likely that Sinn Féin will ever become the dominant political player in the Republic. Politics in Ireland is based around coalitions with centre-right parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael taking much of the vote. Apart from Sinn Féin, none of these parties have much stomach for a constitutional fight with Britain or with Unionists over how they should be governed. It’s a view which would resonate also among a large proportion of Southern Irish voters who are more interested in economic prosperity than they are in some sort of political reunification of North and South.

Sinn Féin, therefore, are left with an aspiration, in much the same way as the incumbent Irish political parties “aspire” to re-unification on the island. When it becomes likely, as I think it will, that Sinn Féin will not make much headway in achieving re-unification, what happens then? Is there a possibility that the old chestnut of Irish Unity will come back to haunt this island again some time in the future, and that, yet again, war or hostilities will break out as they have done so many times in the past?

Hopefully, the answer is no. In the end, the Troubles were not so much about political re-unification as they were about civil rights and achieving political influence and justice for the Nationalist community. A well-run political system in Northern Ireland with true representation and fairness may do a lot to head off any future problems as will a Northern Irish state that works hand-in-hand both with Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Only time will tell.