Sinn Fein did quite a brave thing back in 2017. It invited Professor Peter Shirlow from Liverpool University, an Ulster Protestant from the Unionist tradition, to address its Ard Fheis, or annual conference.
Shirlow agreed on the basis that his speech was not pre-cleared and delivered what must have been at times some very uncomfortable home truths to the rank and file of Ireland’s republican purists. He asked them to contemplate heresy – whether a party that fetishizes equality was in fact, itself alone, bigoted. He told them straight: ‘to think Unionism is sectarian is inherently sectarian.‘
The antics of Sinn Fein’s national leader, Mary Lou McDonald, parading behind a banner declaring, ‘England, get out of Ireland’ in the New York St Patrick’s day parade called to mind Shirlow’s blunt warning to the faithful:
‘If your identity is non-negotiable and if it has no failings, then you will believe that you are stigma free…You will remain captured within the prison of your own superiority.’
It’s true, this obnoxious banner has survived various iterations down the years. If you’re looking for historical subtlety (or even grammatical sense) in the mawkish, easily fleeced mentality of ‘Oirish’ America, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Despite Ulster’s Protestants being in the north east of Ireland longer than white people have been in North America, despite the emigrant descendants of that people giving so much to the founding of the modern United States, they have been airbrushed out of the narrative replaced by ignorance and partiality. In the US on the feast day of a Briton who came to Ireland and is one of the few unifying symbols on our contested island, you can have any colour as long as it’s revolutionary green.
The ‘England get out of Ireland’ banner is emblematic of the shallowness of Sinn Fein’s commitment to the constitutional arrangements of the Belfast Agreement. What it actually translates to, as Mary Lou is all too aware, is ‘colonists get out of Ireland.’ You can measure the fury at being caught wrong footed by the scale of the dog-piling by the parties graceless legions of social media warriors otherwise known as ‘Shinnerbots.’ Sinn Fein’s tactical priorities are based on permanently undermining, caricaturing, wrong footing and antagonising a large minority of Irish citizens who don’t think like them. It’s what they do – helped, it must be said by the clod-hopping stupidity of Loyalist Ultras. They are usually cute enough to stay just the right side of credulity to out manoeuvre their Unionist neighbours . What the banner episode reveals is that when the balaclava slips, the party that justified and still celebrates 40 years of horrific IRA terrorism is still chained to its own bigoted past, unable and unwilling to see nearly one million Irish Protestants – those colonists – as fully rounded people with a valid British identity.
England isn’t in Ireland in any politically meaningful way. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and will remain so providing the freely given consent of its population. Britain is in part of Ireland because as uncomfortable as it is to Sinn Fein, they were forced to accept those democratic facts on the ground and give up violence in exchange for being allowed into devolved power. This was the historic constitutional settlement of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. There are however, plenty of English people in Ireland, north and south of the border. Over 300,000 live in Ireland, bring up children in Ireland, pay taxes in Ireland and contribute hugely to civic society. But all this is casually thrown under the bus when there’s a bit of republican tin rattling to be done stateside, where credulous donors don’t ask inconvenient questions.
None of this would be half as embarrassing for the Shinners if they openly flaunted this bigotry and employed the ‘river to the sea’ rhetoric that too many of their base either side of the Atlantic (to say nothing of the old guard shadow leadership) would still cleave to if push came to shove. But ‘one settler, one bullet’ politics, upgraded to ‘Armalite and ballot box’ is a bit too Bakelite for the snowflake age. So, as Gerry Adams memorably put it, when caught by a journalist in an unguarded moment, equality is now Sinn Fein’s weapon of choice.
‘The point is to actually break these bastards – that’s the point. And what’s going to break them is equality. That’s what’s going to break them – equality….that’s what we need to keep the focus on – that’s the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality.’
The ‘bastards’ to be broken, by the way, are Unionists in Northern Ireland who have been very successfully portrayed by republicans en masse as antediluvian dinosaurs, the Millwall FC of modern politics opposed to everything, composed of homophobic sectarian mouthbreathers. The DUPs fundamentalist fringe have been typecast as ‘any Unionist’ in an act of breathtaking hubris. Mind you, this is the party that with a straight face appointed convicted IRA bomber, Martina Anderson as their first ‘Director of unionist outreach.’
This prejudice isn’t quite naked but all too often now, Sinn Fein is being caught in the headlights of public opinion with its moral superiority round its ankles. You can’t credibly argue for Irish unity built on a prospectus of othering, belittling and excluding anyone who thinks differently. You can’t lecture Unionists on human rights being the political afterbirth of a terrorist organisation that murdered hundreds of its neighbours in cold blood for being the wrong sort of Irish. Or is inclusion just a delusion?
There are good people in Sinn Fein and there are brave people. Irish unity is an intriguing and honourable possibility. But one built on weaponised equality and ethno-national superiority isn’t going to fly anywhere hopeful whatever the plastic Paddies along the Hudson river think. It’s time for those in the party less chained to the past to assert control and accept that promoting an authentic Ireland of equals might require some serious internal housekeeping. Ironically, so long as Sinn Fein remains snared in what Shirlow called the ‘identity trap,’ unable and unwilling to confront its own institutionalised bigotry, they, rather than the DUP, will remain the guarantors of the Union.
In the meantime, Unionists are going nowhere. In every sense.