Four quotes on the European Union:
“Outside the EEC we would still be able to have a close trading relationship with the member states…. We would also regain control over our own economic development and policies.”
“We want a negotiated withdrawal from the EC.”
“Democracy was being undermined by the EC system… we should restore to the people that vital power.”
“The EU is deeply harmful, it is an anti-democratic monster … We are simply allowing our right to self-determination to be stolen from us.”
All of the above reflect the core of the critique of the European Union over the past half century and more. However, they emanate from quite diverse sources. The first is from a leaflet issued by Sinn Féin during the 1984 European elections. The second summarises the Sinn Féin position in its manifesto for the 1989 European elections. The third is a quote from former Tory Lord Mayor of London and early advocate of Brexit, Boris Johnson. The last one is from Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National.
The Sinn Féin position on European union has altered radically over the years. In the aftermath of Brexit it now finds itself in the curious position of having become an enthusiastic supporter of the EU. At its 2016 Ard Fheis which ratified the leadership’s decision to campaign in support of EU membership for the United Kingdom, Martin McGuinness declared: “The future of Ireland, north and south, is in the EU.”
That closed a circle that began in 1961, when Sinn Féin became the first significant political force to oppose the application made by Ireland to join the then European Economic Community. In his Presidential address to the first post ‘border campaign’ Ard Fheis held by a still unified Sinn Féin, Tomás Mac Giolla declared that membership would entail a further loss of sovereignty as well as representing a threat to what there was of an Irish industrial base, and to traditional family farming.
In the event, the Irish application which had been made in conjunction with the British bid fell into abeyance when the British were rejected by Charles de Gaulle in 1963. The application was revived in the late 1960s and its acceptance was ratified by a referendum in the 26 counties in 1972. Both Provisional and Official Sinn Féin were vehemently opposed to membership and were the most vigorous campaigners for a No vote.
Interestingly, a referendum in Norway in 1972 saw a rejection of their application which was overwhelmingly supported by the political elite across the left/right spectrum. One of the reasons for rejection was the perception that Norway would be surrendering control over its successful fishing sector. Irish civil servants and politicians had negotiated a disastrous deal regarding the Irish fishery which some claim has cost the economy billions since accession.
The demand to leave the EU, and eventually the enthusiastic embrace of rule from Brussels, came as Sinn Féin fully embraced constitutionalism in the 1990s. Alongside its effective acceptance of Partition under the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin subtly altered its position on the EU. In 1994 it was praising the potential for “progressive change” in Ireland initiated by European “social charter,” and was calling for increased structural funding. By the time of the next European elections in 1999, one of those channelling Antonio Gramsci had devised the slogan of “critical engagement” with the EU.
So now, not only does Sinn Féin critically engage with Whitehall, the DUP, and even British royalty, it has become as much a devoted advocate of the EU as any of the other main Irish parties with the exception of the DUP.
Britain leaving the EU will of course have serious implications for the whole of Ireland. Sinn Féin now hopes that that will influence sufficient of unionist opinion to support a proposal for a united Ireland in a future “border poll.” The results of the June 2016 referendum in the north, however, showed a significant correlation between the decision to leave or remain, and political representation in individual Westminster constituencies.
Of the eleven constituencies to vote to remain, just four have a unionist MP. Of the seven which voted to leave, all are represented by the DUP. The majority in the north to remain was secured by much larger remain votes in nationalist constituencies and smaller majorities in favour of Brexit in those which voted to leave. Turnout in constituencies that elected Sinn Féin MPs to Westminster was 60.5% compared to average turnout of 64.5% in unionist constituencies.
It is not clear what if any significance that had on the overall result although it might be assumed that a certain proportion of Sinn Féin voters did not vote in the referendum because they disagreed with the decision to support remaining in the EU. Likewise, more affluent unionist voters in constituencies such as North Down and South Belfast were probably more likely than most unionists to vote to remain.
It is unlikely in any event that the vote on Brexit will bring a sea change in attitudes towards a united Ireland of such a scale to ensure a nationalist victory in any border poll. Nor is it likely that such a poll will be held any time in the near future.
The consequences of one part of Ireland remaining in the EU and the other not will indeed present a challenge. That reflects the contradictions of Partition to a great extent. Sinn Féin’s intellectual and political compromises on both Partition and the EU are reflective of those contradictions.
They may claim that they are doing what is required in order to address those contradictions and to exploit them in order to win support for a united Ireland. Part of that compromise, however, has been to significantly concede on the traditional republican position on Irish sovereignty, whether through the country’s relationship with London, or with Brussels.
Matt Treacy’s book A Tunnel to the Moon: The End of the Irish Republican Army will be launched in Dublin in September, and is currently available through the following sites: