Seán Donlon, former diplomat and former Secretary-General, Dept of Foreign Affairs


There have been five interlinked relationships involved in the Northern Ireland situation since the Troubles began almost fifty years ago:

  • first, the relationship between the two sections of the Northern Ireland community;
  • second, the relationship between Dublin and London;
  • third, the relationship between Dublin and Belfast;
  • fourth, the involvement of the EU; and
  • fifth, the involvement of the US.

There has, from an Irish nationalist perspective, been huge progress in four of these areas. The exception relates to the most important, namely the relationship between the two sections of the Northern Ireland community. While external developments have been influential and hugely significant at times, there can be no lasting peace without progress within Northern Ireland itself.

Gerry Adams, in a speech at his party’s Agreed Future conference in June this year, acknowledged that “a deep political schism exists and that nationalists and republicans need to adopt a new approach in dealing with unionists”. If that is now Sinn Féin’s policy it would be helpful if they moved quickly to translate the words into action. Recent elections suggest that they have a strong mandate and can afford to be both brave and generous. There are no longer any fundamental, external obstacles to the achievement of Sinn Féin’s primary objective. The Irish and UK Governments are on board. The US is on board. The EU is on board. The only obstacle remaining, again to quote Gerry Adams, is “the unlocking of unionist opposition”.

There are a number of helpful steps which Sinn Féin might immediately take:

• take your seats at Westminster. Take a look at what Gerry Fitt achieved there in the 60s when he succeeded in breaking down the tradition that Northern Ireland matters were not discussed at Westminster. And look at what Seamus Mallon achieved in the fields of security and fair employment in the 80s. When the Great Repeal Bill, the key piece of legislation to extricate the UK from the EU, was recently introduced in Westminster, the Scottish and Welsh leaders quickly rejected it as a Westminster power grab. It was, they said, an attack on devolution and a threat to their economies. There wasn’t a word at Westminster about the Northern Ireland reaction. The DUP’s silence has been bought and the Sinn Féin seats were empty. Abstention is certainly not serving the interests of Northern Ireland and is doing nothing to unlock unionists;

• tone down the commemorations of the IRA dead and the accompanying rhetoric. Not all of us want to be reminded of your atrocities. We can only imagine how unionists and other victims of your campaign of violence must feel;

• it is not helpful, and almost certainly not true to say, as Mary Lou McDonald said on June 9, that “we are in the endgame as far as partition is concerned”. Does she ever stop to think about unionist consent? In 1998, in a referendum that Sinn Féin supported, 71% of voters in Northern Ireland and 94% of voters in this jurisdiction endorsed the need for that consent. Harping on about the end of partition as if consent was irrelevant will not help to unlock unionists;

• reunification by numbers is neither desirable nor achievable. I agree with Andy Pollak’s description in a recent letter to the Irish Times when he wrote about “the old ugly nationalism by numbers – outbreeding and undermining the unionists until a border poll creeps over the fateful 50% mark”. There is no attraction or prospect, Brexit or not, of unity by numbers and without consent;

• don’t weaponise the Irish language. Compulsion and legislation was not a total success in reviving Irish in this jurisdiction. I share Sinn Féin’s commitment to the language and would wish to see it have an appropriate place in Northern Ireland but believe that it can best be achieved not by dictat handed down but from the grassroots up.

I conclude with a statement of the obvious. All five interlocking relationships have to fall into place before the peace, stability and reconciliation to which we aspire can be achieved. Yes, it is important that we continue our focus on London, Washington and Brussels and in particular that we work post Brexit to keep the EU involved in the peace process. But in the Northern Ireland context nothing is more important or more urgent than the healing of divisions and that is something that cannot happen without Sinn Féin taking an imaginative jump and putting flesh on Gerry Adams’s fine words. The current Brexit negotiations require Sinn Féin to play a full part both at Westminster and in a devolved Government in Northern Ireland.

The time is now. The risk to the Northern Ireland economy and to the peace process is potentially catastrophic and much more severe than it is to other national and regional constituencies. The Irish Government have done a remarkable job in ensuring that the North is among the top priorities for the remaining 27 members of the EU. But there is no voice of the people of the North at a time when uniquely it could be amplified at the top of the European Union as never before. Sinn Féin supported ‘remain’. And now they are, for reasons which can only be described as impenetrably obscurantist and unintelligible, placing abstractions above the concerns of the people they purport to represent. They are losing a once in a lifetime opportunity to set the agenda.





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