Last May, a political earthquake shook Ireland. Sinn Féin became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and won the First Minister position. The Northern Ireland state was created a century ago to copper-fasten the political hegemony of Unionists (those wanting to remain part of the United Kingdom) and exclude the Irish Nationalist minority from any meaningful participation in politics. The minority community endured discrimination in housing and employment and frequently suffered physical repression from the sectarian police. That Sinn Féin can now win the largest number of seats in the Assembly is a stunning reversal of the established order.
On May 26, Quebec Solidaire international affairs critic MNA Andres Fontecilla formally welcomed Sinn Féin MP Órfhlaith Begley to the Quebec National Assembly and called for support for Sinn Féin’s demand for a vote on Irish unity. Ms. Begley also met with NDP deputy leader Alexandre Boulerice MP during her visit to Montreal. Nonetheless, Canadian progressives remain largely unaware of the Sinn Féin phenomenon, and it is past time they started paying attention.
Sinn Féin is both the oldest and the newest political actor on the Irish scene. Founded in 1905, the party won 75 per cent of seats in Ireland in the 1918 UK election but refused to go to Westminster. Instead, Sinn Féin MPs set up an Irish parliament in Dublin and declared a Republic. The British government tried to crush this initiative, which led to a bloody guerrilla war between the Irish Republican Army and the British Army. Finally, in 1922, Ireland was divided with the northern six counties kept by the UK, while the South became largely independent. The peace settlement was divisive, and a civil war followed. The two opposing parties in this violent conflict are both splits from the original Sinn Féin and became the establishment parties that have exchanged power back and forth for the last century. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael detest each other but now form a coalition government because Sinn Féin has emerged as the largest party in the Republic and is the official opposition. Moreover, Sinn Féin is largely favoured to form the Irish government after the next general election. This is the incredible progress from the bad old days of the 30-year armed conflict (1968 -1998) when Sinn Féin members were heavily censored by the media, harassed by British security forces, and were targets of assassination by Loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with British intelligence agencies. At that period, the party was labeled a one-issue party, that being Irish unity.
Today, Sinn Féin still advocates for a vote on Irish unity as provided for by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that brought an end to the 30-year conflict. However, it does not simply want to attach the North to the South and call it a day. Sinn Féin calls for a citizen’s assembly where the people of the island will be invited to discuss what a new progressive, inclusive united Ireland would look like. As Paul Maskey, Sinn Féin MP for West Belfast said recently at a conference of progressive European parties: “We want to build a just, fair, and equal Ireland, an economically prosperous and socially and culturally inclusive Ireland. We want to protect our most vulnerable, the elderly, children, the ill, the ethnic minorities, those with disabilities – and ensure that equality is the touchstone upon which all policies are formulated. The Sinn Féin vision of a united Ireland is based on the principles of equality, inclusion, and sovereignty.”
Sinn Féin’s message of a new united Ireland where people have good health care, access to decent housing and education, and cultural affirmation is resonating with voters, and particularly with the young. Under the dynamic leadership of its president Mary Lou McDonald and vice-president Michelle O’Neill, the party is promoting a progressive agenda and attracting support. Gender equality is a core value in the party as evidenced by its two female leaders and that, for the first time for any party, a majority of the successful Sinn Féin candidates in last May’s Northern election were women.
A successful progressive party should be of interest to the left in Canada in these days of increasing far-right threats to democracy. However, there is another reason why people should pay attention to the rise of Sinn Féin and a likely vote on Irish unity. Canada is home to many people of Irish origin and Canada played an important role in the Irish peace process. Among others, General De Chastelain oversaw the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the late Warren Allmand, OC, led several observer missions to defuse provocative Orange Order marches through nationalist communities. These days, the Good Friday Agreement is being threatened by the increasingly rogue British Tory government. Brexit could lead to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the six-counties which would violate the legally binding Good Friday Agreement. This catastrophe has so far been avoided because the European Community negotiated and signed the Northern Ireland Protocol with Boris Johnson in December 2019. Almost immediately, Johnson began to claim he had not understood the implications of the Protocol and threatened to tear it up (despite it being a negotiated treaty). His successor Liz Truss has also indicated that she might simply scrap the Protocol, thus provoking a trade war with the EU and violating the GFA.
The Canadian government is currently negotiating a new trade agreement with the UK. It is essential that any such agreement reinforce and not undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Furthermore, progressives should support what is the logical solution to the current crisis – a vote on Irish unity. Friends of Sinn Féin Canada is holding a cross-country Irish unity road show this year, which will finish in October with Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast John Finucane meeting Canadian politicians on Parliament Hill. Finucane will be bringing the message of a united Ireland in the making. Canadian progressives should listen to this message and support making it a reality.