Irish reunification ‘on the table’, says Sinn Fein's new leader amid Brexit talks

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP | Mary Lou McDonald, the new president of Sinn Fein, speaks to the press on Thursday, January 22, 2018

Mary Lou McDonald, the new leader of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party, has raised the possibility of a referendum on Irish reunification partly in response to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union.


“Brexit and the GFA [the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal] are mutually incompatible. It’s as simple as that,” McDonald said last week after meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May for the first time since taking over leadership of Sinn Fein on February 10.

She added that a referendum on a united Ireland was “an obvious option to be on the table”, and would likely happen within the next 10 years.

Reunification is the ultimate goal for Sinn Fein – the only political party active in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Over the last several years, the left-wing, nationalist party has established itself as the second most influential party in the North and the third in the Republic of Ireland.

“It’s undeniably a growing power,” Christophe Gillissen, a professor of Irish Studies at the University of Caen in northern France, told FRANCE 24. ”In the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein has had remarkable results, with 23 out of 158 seats in the lower house of parliament. The party, however, has hit a ceiling because of Gerry Adams, its leader from 1983 until 2018.”

Mary Lou McDonald, a break from the past?

In many ways, Adams is the embodiment of Sinn Fein’s history and the controversies surrounding the party. While he has been held up as one of the architects of Northern Ireland’s peace deal, some still see him as the face of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which led a violent campaign against British rule from the late 1960s until 1998.

The rise of McDonald – who has no direct involvement in the conflict – to Sinn Fein’s leadership marks the beginning of a new era for the party, which is seeking to create a more conciliatory image.

“Choosing Mary Lou McDonald, who was born in the Republic of Ireland and only became a member of Sinn Fein after the peace process, is crucial to rallying new voters,” Gillissen said. “There’s a desire to shift the party line. Mary Lou McDonald is an advocate of issues like social justice and gender equality, which may be important during the next vote, especially in May’s referendum on abortion.”

Yet McDonald, who served as Adams’s vice-president for a decade, also guarantees a continuity of leadership.

“The transition was in the works for a long time,” Gillissen said. “Gerry Adams chose someone who will be loyal to Sinn Fein’s values.”

“It’s continuity, but it’s also a question of image,” Richard Deutsch, an emeritus professor at the University of Lyon and an expert of the Northern Ireland conflict, told FRANCE 24. “They want to present the image of a more feminine and intellectual party as embodied by Mary Lou McDonald. Basically, they want to become a more traditional democratic party”.

Ambitions to rule ‘north and south’

During her inauguration, McDonald made no secret of Sinn Fein’s goal to one day rule over both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

“Our purpose is to win, to win elections, to increase our political strength to realise our ambition of being in government north and south, to win progressive political victories every single day. And ultimately to win Irish unity,” she said.

“Sinn Fein’s strategy is to continue to be a member of government in Belfast and to eventually become a member of a coalition government in Dublin. To have the same party in power in both Irelands would be a symbolic reunification,” explained Gillissen.

From there, Sinn Fein wants to oversee the real-life reunification of the country, as set out by the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement). Under the terms of the deal, the secretary of state of Northern Ireland has the authority to hold a referendum on reunification if it appears the majority of those voting support a united Ireland.

But after her meeting with May last week, McDonald said the British prime minister made it clear that Northern Ireland’s political situation, including the possibility of a referendum on reunification, was not a priority. In other words: with Brexit negotiations under way, the British government has other fish to fry.

Brexit, the catalyst of a united Ireland?

It is largely because of Brexit, however, that the issue of reunification was revived in Northern Ireland.

“Before the referendum [on Britain leaving the European Union], Sinn Fein had resigned itself to the separation because the border between the two Irelands was made invisible by the common market,” explained Gillissen. “Brexit changed everything. There is now the threat of border controls, which would be a significant step backwards for the peace process.”

While 53 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union, 56 percent in Northern Ireland opposed the measure. In addition to Sinn Fein, supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is traditionally known for being Eurosceptic, also voted to remain.

“Reunification, which had always seemed like an abstract idea, suddenly became possible, if not probable after the referendum on Brexit,” Gillissen said.

In reality, the two Irelands already share the same electrical grid, the same healthcare system, even the same tourism office. Phone rates are the same in the two countries, not to mention that citizens of Northern Ireland have the right to hold both a British passport and one from the Republic of Ireland.

But the issue of the Irish border, which is the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union, has come to represent many of the concerns surrounding the future of Brexit.

On the economic front, a closed border would be disastrous. According to the Financial Times, in 2015 agricultural and forestry goods worth €750 million travelled from the south towards the north, and 565 million in the opposite direction. An estimated 35,000 people cross the border daily for work. Businesses based in one country sometimes have suppliers in the other.

On the political front, the politicians fear a possible return of violence in the event of a definitive separation of the two territories.

In order to protect Northern Ireland from the threat of Brexit, McDonald has demanded that the region be granted a special status in any future agreement on UK-EU ties. But the option has been rejected by the British government, as well as the DUP.

Northern Ireland at the heart of EU negotiations

Strengthened by their pro-Europe majority, Northern Ireland has launched a campaign to ensure that the EU doesn’t forget to address the border issue during Brexit talks. French politician and MEP Michel Barnier has included it on a list of three points that need to be resolved before any further talks, including the cost of the UK leaving the European Union and the fate of European citizens living in the United Kingdom.

In Ireland, support for reunification in order to escape Brexit has found supporters beyond Sinn Fein. “For some unionists, the idea of a united Ireland is starting to gain traction,” Gillissen said.

The long road to a united Ireland

Although support for a referendum on Irish reunification is growing, Deutsch believes that Sinn Fein is still far from reaching its goal.

“Before anything can happen, [Northern Ireland’s] political situation and Brexit need to be resolved. In the meantime, the only recourse Sinn Fein has to force London’s hand is to bluff,” he said. “It’s a smart political move, but it won’t get them very far.”

As the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches in April, McDonald will have to work hard to advance Sinn Fein’s agenda for reunification.

“It’s going to be a very, very long process, and if Mary Lou McDonald wants it to happen one day, she’s right to tackle it now,” Deutsch said.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning