Unionist jitters after Sinn Féin success

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By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

No wonder unionists kept quiet in the immediate aftermath of the election results in the south.

Arlene Foster, her expertise in the Republic’s election system previously a well-kept secret, tried to calm the troops by shrugging off Sinn Féin winning the popular vote as ‘a protest vote’. It’s anything but, as senior Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians quickly acknowledged.

Regardless of when or whether Sinn Féin ends up in government, as Tony Blair’s former adviser Jonathan Powell says, the outcome of the election will make demands for movement on Irish unity stronger. It’s true that the north wasn’t an issue in the election, but it certainly is an issue for Sinn Féin, which is, lest you forget, a national party. Topping the poll in thirty out of thirty-nine constituencies and beating the taoiseach, the tánaiste and leader of Fianna Fáil in their own constituencies, to say the least strengthens Sinn Féin’s hand as a national party north and south.

Until now what were formerly known as the two big parties were able to keep Sinn Féin at arm’s length, even attempting to treat them as political pariahs in the Dáil and in public discourse. The media in the south, particularly RTÉ and major newspapers, willingly played their part in this ploy, routinely rubbishing the proposals of Sinn Féin spokespersons. That’s no longer possible.

A side effect of that behaviour was that it enabled the political establishment in the south to ignore any attempts by Sinn Féin to speak on behalf of northern nationalists despite the party being their representatives. Since 2007 the majority of nationalists here have repeatedly voted Sinn Féin in all elections, British, European, assembly and council.

In the last assembly elections 70 per cent of nationalists voted SF, while last December over 60 per cent voted SF despite the party withdrawing from strategic constituencies and getting stuffed in Derry. As a result of the continual exclusion of Sinn Féin from the democratic norms in the south the case of northern nationalists often went by default. Complaints by Sinn Féin leaders in the north about the absence of engagement by a string of ministers of foreign affairs that Fine Gael appointed from 2011 until Coveney’s appointment were ignored, just as were representations by SF TDs.

Due to the hostility of Varadkar’s government, aided and gratefully abetted by Micheál Martin, towards any manifestation of SF, north or south, their legitimate representations on behalf of northern nationalists were disregarded during years when British governments were openly biased in favour of unionists. That Irish government behaviour is no longer possible because of the sea change in Irish politics over the last weekend.

No wonder unionists have the jitters because they know the truth of what has happened. Sinn Féin’s representations on behalf of northerners will become more insistent and powerful and will have to be listened to and acted upon. Contrary to FF and FG’s deliberate misrepresentations, SF will not be immediately demanding a border poll, but a citizens assembly to plan for Irish unity before any poll. As Gerry Adams wrote in his Leargas blog last year, a poll without a plan is stupid.

Of course if SF goes into government, the hands-off approach which has bedevilled north-south and east-west relations since 2011 will end. Ideally a SF minister from the south will be sitting across the table from a SF minister from the north in some North-South Ministerial Council meetings. Sinn Féin in the north will become aware of Irish government business and have an input into it accordingly at the highest level which should cheer up Jim Allister enormously. If he wants, he’ll be able to accuse Arlene Foster of administering Irish government policy with Sinn Féin.

Joking aside, Sinn Féin’s huge dramatic advance in the south paradoxically correspondingly enhances the position of northern nationalists. Until SF’s success in this election Irish governments disgracefully were able to ignore northerners because they voted Sinn Féin.

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