A photo of Ciaran Quinn (right) with NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice (left).
Ciaran Quinn (right) with NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice (left).

Belfast-born, Ciaran Quinn sits on the Sinn Féin National Officer Board and is the party’s Director for North America. In October, he visited Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto as part of a cross-Canada roadshow to promote Irish unity. He was interviewed by Kevin Callahan, a member of the executive of Friends of Sinn Féin Canada.

Q: Sinn Féin has gone from being a marginalised political party that suffered censorship and repression, to being the largest party on the island of Ireland and likely the next Irish government. What factors have led to this remarkable progress for your party?

A: Well, Sinn Féin is fortunate to have very experienced and clear-sighted leadership. Moreover, rank-and-file activists are just that – active. They are inspired by the party’s vision and social project and work hard to spread that message. However, it does not all rest with Sinn Féin. There is nothing more potent than a political message that is in sync with the times and where people are at. The big question is not how Sinn Féin has managed to grow. It is what will Sinn Féin do with this massive growth of support. Looking at the South, you have a situation where the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties have run the country both in government and in opposition for 100 years. Now, there is a massive housing crisis, homelessness, emigration, and a generation of young people who are earning less than their parents and working more. People are looking for change.  In the North, there have also been demographic changes so Unionism is a minority opinion. People are now open to Irish unity and looking to Sinn Féin to deliver change. Ireland, North and South, is now a more progressive country. For example, Ireland was the first country to approve marriage equality through popular referendum. I think the rise of Sinn Féin goes hand-in-hand with societal changes all across Ireland and the expectation is that Sinn Féin is the voice of a generation that wants change, and it will deliver that change.

Q: What are the consequences for Ireland of the UK deciding to leave the European Union after the so-called Brexit referendum?

A: I think that Brexit is one of the key issues making the status quo untenable. A majority in the North voted to remain, but the UK went ahead and imposed Brexit on the North. The North, and Ireland as a whole, did not feature at all in the debates leading up to the vote to leave the EU. It has left a generation who see that the British government ignored their votes, views, and hopes and imposed something on them. So, there is a big issue of democracy here. There is also another fundamental piece. What Brexit means is that there is now an EU frontier on the island of Ireland. Before there were two sovereign states on the island within the EU, but now you have one in and one out. So that has created all sorts of problems in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, North-South operations, the economy, and how you manage that frontier, so that is why there are issues with the Protocol and borders checks. The fundamental issue is that Brexit was imposed undemocratically, and now there is a European border on the island of Ireland.  This creates a real challenge as partition is no longer just an Irish/British issue. It is also a European issue.

Q: At the beginning of October, 5000 people gathered in Dublin for the Ireland’s Future conference to discuss Irish unity. What are the factors leading to this increasing support for unity?

A: The Ireland’s Future event was politically and culturally significant. You had academics, trade unionists, business people, and artists all gathered to discuss Irish unity.  You also had 10 political parties from across Ireland all on the platform. They are political opponents, often with very little in common except all are looking towards Irish unity and how it can be attained and what it would look like. There might be different time frames, but they are all on the same page in terms of Irish unity being in the interests of all the Irish people. 5000 people came together to talk about just one issue. There were also people from a Unionist background engaged in the discussion. Their views were very welcome, very instructive, and sometimes challenging. The conference was very significant and is part of what I mentioned before – the process and spirit of change across all Ireland. People in the South who see the status quo as not working are looking for something different and looking at a new united Ireland as a way to define a new nation and deal with the long-term structural problems. People in the North are looking at the same issues and want a progressive Ireland. They want to go back to the EU and see that their future and their best interests are not represented in Westminster, whether with the Tories or Labour. They can see a place for themselves in a united Ireland. It is a very simple fact that  the population of the North is only 3% of the whole “United Kingdom” while it would make up almost 25% of a united Ireland and so have a greater say over its own destiny.

Q: How does Sinn Féin propose to win the support for or at least acceptance of a united Ireland among the Unionist community in the North of Ireland?

A: That is one of the changes and why things like Ireland’s Future are happening, People see unity is possible that there is a clear democratic path to unity through referendums. Unity is no longer aspirational. It is actionable and can be delivered. In terms of the role of unionism, I think people can sometimes be patronizing about the unionist position. I don’t expect a hardcore unionist to vote for a united Ireland because that runs contrary to the very definition of unionism. In the same way, no one can convince me of the merits of partition. However, there is an onus on everybody to talk about what a new united Ireland will look like. Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald summed it up well when she said a new Ireland has to be a home for all. So, we have to talk about what that looks like. In a referendum, a section of unionism will not vote for a united Ireland, but what we can expect is that they will abide by the democratic outcome and live up to their commitment to peace. This is by the way very clearly the position of the vast majority of unionists. There will be an onus on us to listen to their concerns and be open to the role unionists will play in a united Ireland. In the run up to the referendum, it will be about the promises, but after it will be about deeds, and we have to build an Ireland that is a home to all. It is also important to remember that identities change with time. When partition was imposed a century ago, there was no such thing as a Northern Ireland identity. There was an Ulster identity, there was an Irish identity, there was a British identity, and they were all mixed. So, when Ireland is united, we will go through that period of cultural transformation where new identities develop.

It needs to be said that there are a number of commitments in the Good Friday Agreement that would continue over into a united Ireland, and these include equality measures, parity of esteem, and that the government act with rigorous impartiality. That onus would fall on the government of a united Ireland. In addition, there could be citizenship arrangements that remain in place so you could be Irish, British, or both.

Q: What role do you see for Canada and Canadians in supporting Irish unity? 

A: There is a very clear role for people here and for the Canadian government and that is about protecting and implementing the various agreements. There are some very immediate issues we face. We have a British government that is acting unilaterally and often in violation of international agreements. In terms of the Brexit protocol, Britain could provoke a trade war with the EU and undo all the work that has been done over the last 5 years since Brexit was passed. So, there is a role for Canada to pressure the British government to end its unilateral actions and return to honouring its agreements on Brexit. It is the same on legacy issues. The British government has brought forth legislation that will prevent the families of victims of the conflict from having access to judicial investigations, police investigations, inquests, and even access to the courts. All this is contrary to what had been previously agreed and runs contrary to the European Convention of Human Rights. This is a unilateral action by the British government in opposition to the Irish government, all the political parties in the North, and the families involved. The British government is simply trying to cover up the actions of its security forces during the conflict. What I would hope is that Canada, which has helped the peace process all along, will stand up for the legacy agreements and for the Good Friday Agreement and challenge the British government on its unilateral approach. The British government has to see there is a cost for breaking its word. If the British government is violating international agreements and international law, if it is standing outside the international order of things like a rogue state, there has to be a cost The British government needs to hear this from all its partners. 

Again, on the unity piece it comes back to Irish unity being provided for in the GFA. It is a fundamental pillar of the Agreement.  The idea of a unity referendum is integral to the Good Friday Agreement. It is not something that should be avoided or hidden away. It is amusing in that the North of Ireland is the only place you are not supposed to talk about the future. If I asked people here where Canada will be in five years, there would be a lot of discussion and a variety of opinions. In the North, people are not supposed to discuss where Ireland will be in five or 10 years. Sinn Féin is trying to create a forum and space where these issues can be discussed in an inclusive and non-threatening way so we can imagine a future together. Canada and Canadians can help in this by supporting the existing agreements and the call for a unity referendum as well as demanding that the UK live up to its responsibilities.

Kevin Callahan

Kevin Callahan, a progressive activist and retired McGill University faculty lecturer, founded the Quebec-Ireland Committee in 1979 and has worked to support Sinn Féin and the cause of Irish unity ever...