Observations of an Expat: Ireland

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Ireland, we were told by Boris Johnson and his coterie of Leave campaigners, was not a problem. It was a non-issue dreamt up by the Remainers as part of their fear campaign. The Good Friday Agreement, they said, was secure along with the future of the union.

Then Boris drew the EU-UK border down the middle of the Irish Sea and threw Northern Ireland’s Protestants to the nationalist wolves. It was not the first time that a British Prime Minister was prepared to sacrifice Ulster for the benefit of England. During World War II, Winston Churchill, offered unification in return for Irish entry into the war on the side of the Allies. Eammon de Valera refused because he thought Churchill would be unable to deliver on the pledge.

This week Sinn Fein – the political wing of the IRA – emerged as one of the victors in a three-way tie in the Irish general election. A unified island was not a major part of their campaign. In fact, it was conspicuous by the virtual silence on the subject. Instead the nationalists focused on a left-wing agenda of increased spending on public services and housing in contrast to the long-established 100-year duopoly of the centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

But make no mistake it. A united Ireland free of British control remains the heart and soul of Sinn Fein. It is the reason that it was formed back in 1905. And pre-World War I support for the nationalist cause in the southern two-thirds of the Ireland was the reason that Sir Edward Carson was able to mobilise 100,000-plus members of the Ulster Volunteer Force to threaten a civil war unless the six Protestant-dominated counties of the north remained part of the United Kingdom.

Sinn Fein didn’t stay at the top of Eire’s political ladder for long. After the 1922-23 civil war, Eamon de Valera split the party and took most of its membership into the newly-formed Fianna Fail. For the next twenty years, Sinn Fein didn’t bother to contest any seats for the Dail. It gradually came back after the war by linking itself to the IRA as its political wing, but under Gerry Adams it shifted to concentrate more on the ballot box then the bomb and the gun. The end result was the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.

The Agreement left the issue of the future sovereignty ambiguously open-ended. For the time being, it was recognised that the majority in Northern Ireland wanted to remain part of the UK while it the same accepting that a majority on the island of Ireland wanted unification.  In a sort of constructive confusion, it was agreed that both views were legitimate and would—for the time being—represent the basis of a working arrangement. However, if a majority of the people in both Northern Ireland and Eire decided otherwise than the British and Irish governments are under a “binding obligation” to implement that choice.

Most people that the this “constructive ambiguity” had kicked the issue of unification into the long grass and, at best, the two halves of the island would gradually—over many, many years–  move closer, possibly under the over-arching umbrella of joint membership of the EU. Then came Brexit. Northern Ireland voted 56 percent to 44 percent to remain. But it was part of the United Kingdom which voted narrowly to leave. Sinn Fein immediately called for a referendum on unification. An opinion poll for the Irish Times showed a narrow majority in favour. More surprisingly, five percent of the unionists polled said they would support reunification; a small but significant number. The pollsters and Sinn Fein were ignored by Westminster.

But Boris Johnson’s government cannot ignore the views of the Irish government which is a co-signatory to the Good Friday Agreement. And Sinn Fein’s success in this week’s elections raises the real possibility that coalition talks could result in the nationalist party being part of the Eire government; if not this time, then quite possibly some time in the near future.

If that happens then Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald has made it clear that the price of her support is a referendum on a united Ireland “within five years.” Furthermore, that she will call for Brussels to support unification in the same way that the EU supported German reunification and is demanding the reunification of the island of Cyprus.

A vote on reunification appears to be bouncing back from the long grass, and in doing so raises a host of other questions. How can Westminster ignore the Scottish National Party’s demands for a second referendum if it allows a border poll in Northern Ireland? And, what will be the reaction of the Ulstermen of the north? They have proven themselves in the past to be just as capable of violence as the IRA. The consequences of Brexit just keep on coming.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jane Ann Liston 14th Feb '20 - 11:43am

    No responsible government would contemplate bringing about an irreversible constitutional change when almost half the country is opposed to it; that would not be a good start to a new country. Hint – I am not talking about Ireland.

  • “as capable of violence as the IRA” Once again a proponent of democracy raises the threat of violence and terror as a criticism of the process of democracy and it’s outcome.

  • Sinn Fein is no longer “the political wing of the IRA.” That was over 20 years ago, there were issues about de-commissioning of weapons in the early years of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) , but these were resolved under the auspices of General De Chastelain.

    Sinn Fein actually lost seats in local Councils and in the European Parliament last year, but has regrouped following an intensive ‘listening exercise’ among its members, and those who had voted for them in the past but didn’t vote for them in 2019. Northern Ireland was barely mentioned by Sinn Fein in the 2020 election. Their campaign was mainly abut housing, homelessness and the state of the health service. Sinn Fein, a bit like the SNP in Scotland, or Esquerra Republicana in Catalonia, has successfully blended a nationalist message with a critique of free market capitalism.

    Sinn Fein’s support was stronger amongst the under 35s most of whom were either not born when the GFA was signed, or were still at school. Don’t forget that the economic crash and austerity measures were far worse in Ireland than they were in the UK, or indeed most of northern Europe. The under 35s have born the brunt of this, and the appeal of a narrative which says that there has been a recovery for bankers and billionaires, but not for younger people who are on lower wages, paying higher rents, or still living with parents in their thirties is blindingly obvious.
    I watched and listened a lot of the election coverage and it was clear that our ALDE allies Fianna Fail had little new to offer, had been supporting the outgoing government with a confidence and supply deal for four years, and were still largely blamed for the overheating of the Irish economy before 2011.

    It wasn’t just Sinn Fein that made gains on February 8th, the Green Party also increased for 3 seats to 11, and are no longer seen as just a Dublin Party. The Social Democrats increased from 2 to 6 seats. They are a party formed in 2015 with a policy platform that many Liberal Democrats would agree with.

    All Liberal (and indeed Social Democratic) parties need to learn the lessons of recent history and start LISTENING to ordinary people instead of repeating the mantra that there is no alternative to a society where the top 1% keep getting richer and ordinary people see their standard of living stagnating or declining.

  • “The Ulstermen of the north have proved themselves just as capable of violence as the IRA”

    But there is no connection between the two main Unionist parties and the Loyalist killers. There was (and possibly still is) an umbilical connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Cuddly Mary Lou is an unapologetic apologist for the IRA. Anybody who votes Sinn Fein, in north or south, has blood on their hands.

    And the starting point for any discussion on Northern Ireland is that during the Troubles from 1966 onwards, Republicans were responsible for 60% of the deaths, Loyalists for 30% and the Security Forces for 10%.

  • It seems curious that the main parties in Ireland insist that Sinn Féin must be a participant in the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland but that it must be excluded from any part of government south of the border.

  • That’s a strange thing to say, Kit; the only people I’ve seen cheering on Vladimir Putin and his allies have been in the Labour, Conservative, and Brexit parties.

  • The fact is that we see a prosperous Ireland with large number of its citizens living in poverty. Just like our own United Kingdom. It was clear that a major issue was the price of housing in the country. Sinn Féin recognised the issues and campaigned on them. They did reasonably well. Because Ireland uses STV for elections around a quarter of the votes is seen as a success.
    I remember as a child trying to work out what “before the war” meant. I remember that often adults said things like “before the war you could just buy chocolate when you wanted to” or “don’t you know there’s a war on”. To me the activities of governments before the war where things I studied at school or watched on films at later dates.
    To analyse politics in Ireland in terms of the troubles is meaningful to us older people. Why should it mean anything to the young?
    In the 1950s the ideas of the welfare state appeared to be common ground between the parties. Now the fact that many children go to school hungry is becoming accepted.
    Ireland has in fact been a success story.
    Ireland is taking one route. At the moment the United Kingdom is taking another.

  • Gary J 14th Feb ’20 – 1:28pm………….But there is no connection between the two main Unionist parties and the Loyalist killers. There was (and possibly still is) an umbilical connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Cuddly Mary Lou is an unapologetic apologist for the IRA. Anybody who votes Sinn Fein, in north or south, has blood on their hands………..

    Really? Perhaps a look at the history of Sammy Wilson and Nigel Dodds and Emma Little-Pengelly’s family ties?

  • Gordon Lishman 15th Feb '20 - 10:09am

    Historical detail: “Protestant-dominated” counties in Ulster wasn’t and isn’t the same as Protestant-majority. Only Antrim (inc Belfast) and Down were Protestant majority. The other, Catholic majority counties in Ulster were grabbed by the Unionists.

  • Expats – Pretty cheap to blame Emma L-P for the sins of her father. The Guardian’s smear machine wasted a lot of space trying unsuccessfully to find a link between Dodds/Wilson and paramilitaries


    When I hear the name Nigel Dodds, I think of the time the IRA tried to kill him when he was visiting his sick child in hospital.

  • Peter Hirst 16th Feb '20 - 5:40pm

    Much depends on the views of the protestants in Northern Ireland; can they envisage living in a united Ireland and if not what are their options? Would Sinn Fein guarantee them rights that would make their lives tolerable? We cannot ignore a huge minority if that is what it becomes; perhaps they’ll migrate.

  • Paul Barker 16th Feb '20 - 8:41pm

    The problem for Ulster Protestants is that they have painted themselves into a corner with their Century-Old insistence that all that mattered was a Majority.
    There are a number of Non-Majoritarian avenues they could try but they need to start now.
    They could promote the idea of Regional Government in The South, Stormont could be retained but downgraded to a Region.
    Going the other way they could move The Border sharply North & East, leaving a noticeably smaller NI but that would need support from the remaining Catholic minority, The Protestants “Moved” to The South & The South itself.
    Whatever option they go for they need to start thinking about it now.

  • Matt (Bristol) 17th Feb '20 - 12:24pm

    Can i raise an important niggle about the language being used here?

    In discussing Ireland, I’ve always felt it’s important to differentiate between religion and politics, even when the politicians themselves are making the assumption that the two are the same thing. This can be difficult to linguistically express, but we need to hold open the concept of (say) the Catholic Unionist, (or the atheist Republican) or we are playing into the artificial dualism of the extremist parties.

    I feel fairly sure our sister-party, The Alliance, would have strong words on this point.

    The article itself only makes this mistake when talking about Boris Johnson throwing the ‘Protestants’ to the wolves — when what is meant seems to be Unionists (unless we’re going with the 19th century hatespeech that ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ and moving the border somehow implies a loss of religious freedom?).

    Peter Hirst and Paul Barker, in particular, seem to have picked up on this language in comments further down the page, and again speak as if Protestantism and Unionism and Catholicism and Nationalism or Republicanism are the same thing. (Even if they are talking about ‘cultural’ Protestantism and Catholicism it’s unwise).

    In other places, people seem to be making a clearer distinction.

    We’ve spent the last hundred years with British people talking about Irish and Northern Irish politics in very unnuanced ways. It behoves everyone with half an interest in politics to practice paying attention to details here, before we watch the situation get away from us, and in lazy ignorance, do and say things that make it worse, not better.

    For me the issues is the same as confounding ‘Jewish people’ with ‘the state of Israel’ or ‘zionism’, or using ‘Muslim’ to mean ‘terrroist’ or vice versa.

  • Thanks, Matt; presumably there are some republican separatists and protestant unionists in whom religion and politics are separate. Irish politics is challenging and for amateurs to have some input, there will need to be tolerance on all sides. Whatever happens, freedom of religion and political ideology must be sacrosanct.

  • Could NI become an independent country (and thereafter a member of the EU)? With safeguards for whichever side ends up as a minority.

    Before any referendum, exit details should be agreed with the UK so that voters know exactly what they are voting for in terms of trade, debt, currency, FOM, etc. NI citizens would probably end up with choice of British, Irish and NI passports!

    I don’t think many people in the UK are too worried about a NI exit.

  • Frank West “I don’t think many people in the UK are too worried about a NI exit.”

    Would I be wrong to think that you live in the South East of England, Frank ?

  • David, not sure of the relevance but the south west coast is where I live, the LibDems do win here occasionally. I have lived in areas with lots of Irish expats (if that is the correct term) but most people I know when there was a lot of violence would not have worried if NI became part of Eire. I have expressed this opinion to some of “Irish” extraction and they were pretty annoyed at the indifference, which I think is widely held. Opinion polls seem to support me, BTW.

  • Matt (Bristol) 17th Feb '20 - 2:52pm

    Thanks, Peter for being tolerant of me in your comment, although I suspect many in Ireland and NI have some frustration with English or British amateurs having input (and I am myself an amateur here).

    Frank West: If it were just (hah!) about settling the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, there are a number of theoretical possibilities:
    – Full Union with the UK (tried, not currently operating)
    – devolution within the UK (the current status)
    – Full Union with the Republic
    – devolved status within the Republic
    – joint sovereignty between UK and the Republic
    – joint sovereignty between the UK, the Republic and an independent Scotland (don’t laugh, in view of history it might make some sense)
    – full independence

    I say nothing here about trade partnerships, which is another kettle of fish, and arguably more important.

    I can’t see full independence working out, to be fair, for several reasons, not least of which is the difficulty of the NI economy generating enough tax return to maintain its own infrastructure.

  • @ Frank West. A little south western Englander ? Thought that just might be ..not that I’m prejudiced you understand.

    Not sure if you know this, Frank, but people from Northern Ireland are actually full citizens of the United Kingdom in the same way you are…. and they’re certainly not Irish Expats. No doubt you would be offended if they, and other UK citizens from Wales and Scotland talked about “I don’t think many people in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales would be too too worried about an English exit.”

    It’s disappointing you express such opinions when I, for one, am very sad about the death of the heroic, Harry Gregg today (look him up if you haven’t heard of him). I’m also thinking about a close former friend of mine from Ulster who died two years ago who more than did his bit for the UK as a decorated paratrooper in Normandy in 1944.

    It’s worth reflecting an opinion poll majority (if it is such) is no guarantee of the
    morality of a decision.

  • People seem to be unaware that Ireland was an English colony and the Northern Irish Protestants are the descendants of the people sent by the English Government to take the lands of the native Irish and rule Ireland on behalf of the English. A similar situation applies to Wales though Scotland became part of the United Kingdom because its King inherited the throne from the last Tudor monarch.
    We have obligations to the Northern Irish Protestants which might include helping them to resettle in Britain if they wish, which could help with our labour shortages now we have left the EU but we also have a duty to consider the interests of the descendants of those Irish people who were dispossessed. It seems a bit sad that we could give back our mighty empire to its inhabitants, except for Ireland.

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