Mick Clifford: How far will Sinn Féin go in pursuit of unity?

A growing cohort now see the party as best equipped to tackle inequality in this state, but many are not so keen on their policies about a United Ireland
Mick Clifford: How far will Sinn Féin go in pursuit of unity?

Gerry Adams with Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald.

Over a couple of days last weekend we got a glimpse of the strange duality of Sinn Féin. There was excellent news in the opinion polls which shows that the party is really connecting with the voters on bread and butter issues. There was disappointing news in the opinion polls which suggests the voters aren’t terribly interested in the party’s overarching policy, that of uniting the island. And then was an example of how Sinn Féin is still experiencing separation anxiety in letting go of its great leader emeritus, Gerry Adams.

The opinion polls were, collectively, record-breaking. The Irish Times MRBI had Sinn Féin at 35%, a whopping 15% ahead of FF and FG. The Mail on Sunday Ireland Thinks poll had SF at 31%, six ahead of FG. And the Sunday Times Behaviour and Attitudes had Sinn Fein at 34%, with FF trailing next at 23%. Truly, we live in changed times.

There is good reason why the party is flying. A growing cohort now see the Shinners as best equipped to tackle inequality in this state, particularly in housing. People want change and the Shinners are promising large helpings of it. The party’s frontliners are busy, some are impressive and all are on message, which is a major asset in politics. One message they keep hammering away at is the term “workers and families”. This did the job in the last election (“give workers and families a break”) and nearly every public utterance by a party rep now includes at least one mention of that wonderfully inclusive constituency.

At this rate, the only real question is how much their appeal can grow ahead of the next election.

But what of the party’s primary reason for being — the unification of the country? Since its foundation in 1970, this iteration of Sinn Féin has been focused on a United Ireland. For the first half of its history, this was pursued through supporting the killing of human beings, but that stopped in the late 1990s. Now the objective remains but the party is committed to the democratic process exclusively. Every vision of the future is framed within a united Ireland. For members and activists of the party that remains the main focus.

Not so for workers and families. The MRBI poll asked about a United Ireland and found that a large majority were in favour, (62% with just 16% opposed), but then a large majority are also in favour of world peace. When the pollsters dug deeper, support was relatively shallow, with much lower percentages willing to pay more tax, forego services or give up the flag or anthem for unity.

The really surprising results were among Sinn Féin voters. Only 20% would agree to pay more taxes, and 14% to cut back on public services. 

Even more surprising, just a quarter of the party’s voters want a border poll now. Thirty years ago the average Sinn Féin voter supported the policy of killing to advance unity.  Today, the average Sinn Féin voter is reluctant to surrender a few bob in tax to achieve the same outcome and doesn’t even want to have to deal with the matter right now.

There is another constituency that is more excited at the prospect of unity. Last month in the USA, a group of millionaire golfers shelled out nearly two grand a head for a game of golf in aid of the party. That was followed by a feed that cost another grand each. These displaced Gaels pine for an oul sod that is united and Gaelic and free. As a result, they provide big financial support to the kind of leftish political entity they would describe as dodgy socialists in their adopted home.

So where once the Republican movement advanced with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other, now they do so with workers and families in one hand and a six-iron in the other.

Meanwhile, there is the little matter of wooing unionists into a united Ireland. Last week’s contribution in that respect involved Mr Adams taking part in a charity video which some interpreted as dancing on the graves of IRA victims. “Tiocfaidh an la, la la, la la,” Mr Adams sung. “They haven’t gone away, you know,” winked another chap in the same sketch. Following understandable outrage from some victims — including Anne Travers whose 24-year-old sister was murdered by the IRA — the video was withdrawn.

Interestingly, while it was live none of the party’s frontliners reposted the video on social media, an exercise in restraint that wouldn’t have been imaginable heretofore. Not just that, but the party’s housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin, said that Mr Adams should apologise for offence that might have been caused. This initially looked like a major departure.

His suggestion was subsequently shot down by a procession of other leading lights, including Michelle O’Neill, David Cullinane and Matt Carthy. Their response was that the great leader emeritus had nothing to apologise for.

Can you imagine the reaction from the same politicians had, for instance, a retired British army officer made some jokey reference about a shoot to kill policy or Bloody Sunday?

Mr Adams’ crassness was contrasted last week with the contribution of comedian Patrick Kielty who gave a speech to the shared island body set up by the Taoiseach. Kielty’s father was murdered by loyalists in 1988, yet he places great emphasis on the importance of people getting on rather than reducing the ancient divisions to United Ireland versus British rule. He also made a great play on everybody stepping outside their comfort zone, a move that certainly appears way beyond the reach of Mr Adams and those of a like mind.

If and when Sinn Féin enters government in the south exciting times may lay ahead. They will at least attempt to arrest the growing divides in society to an extent that has not been happening since the economic crash in 2008. What will be really interesting to observe is how much political capital the governing Sinn Féin is prepared to spend on unity with an electorate that appears largely indifferent to the issue. Will they, for instance, prioritise reclaiming the fourth green field over arresting climate change? And if so, how exactly will the workers and families react?

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