A new Ireland, a new political landscape? Part 1: Party politics 

May 6, 2021

By Kieran Harrahill

Of the many unknowns which Irish unity could result in, one area of interest is the impact it could have on the political landscape of Ireland. A perceived likely result of 32-county politics is that Sinn Féin would dominate given their relative strength both North and South of the border. Alternatively, it could be the case that unionists will hold the balance of power in an all-Ireland parliament, resulting in a leading unionist fulfilling the role of Tánaiste and deputy head of government. There is also the potential for stronger connections between Northern and Southern parties as has occurred between Fianna Fáil and the SDLP. It is also possible that Irish unity could radically alter the political landscape of Ireland as occurred with the Sinn Féin landslide of 1918 and the formalised split of the party into pro- and anti-Treaty parties by the time of 1923 Irish General Election. In her interview on the Shared Ireland podcast, Alliance party leader Naomi Long outlined how ‘border politics has been the main cleavage in Irish politics’. With the removal of the border and the creation of a 32-county republic, is it possible that the removal of this defining factor could transform Irish politics as occurred with the development of the ‘2nd Republic’ of Italy in the mid-90s? This article will begin by highlighting how aspects of the current makeup of Irish politics may limit support for Irish unity. Secondly, this article will discuss what a transformed party system in a united Ireland could look like. Thirdly, this article questions the perception that unionism will remain a united political bloc when the cleavage of border politics is removed from the politics of our island.  

There is a slight irony that the most vocal political proponents of Irish unity or retention of the Union are often the ones who limit the appeal of their respective position. With regards to support for Irish unity, the role of Sinn Féin has been viewed as a potential hindrance to gaining broader support. As noted in the Shared Ireland conversation with Frazer and Nigel, if the campaign for Irish unity ‘ends up being a Sinn Féin thing and a demographics thing of we can out breed them… personally that seems doomed to failure’. The issue surrounding the past of Sinn Féin and the difficulty it could cause in securing the achievement of Irish unity has been noted. The influence the past plays on the politics of the present is evident when matters relating to legacy are raised. There is also the possibility that lived experiences of the past will influence the constitutional future of Ireland. The clearest account of this is provided by UUP MLA for Upper Bann Doug Beattie when he outlines how the supposed influence Sinn Féin will have in a united Ireland represents a significant aspect of his opposition to unity. He explains how he does not trust Sinn Féin and thinks that ‘they would have a big say in a unified Ireland’. As noted in the report Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity: ‘Economic arguments aside, much of northern Protestant resistance to Irish unity has been based on fear’… this fear can be broken down into three discreet but related roots: fear of dispossession, fear of retribution, and fear of assimilation into an alien Gaelic culture that eliminates their ethno cultural diversity as British/Ulster Scots’. The fears outlined within this report can be seen in unionist perceptions of what a perceived Sinn Féin dominated united Ireland would look like. As Doug Beattie further explains: ‘I think they would try and make this part of a unified Ireland a place where people like me would not want to live, would not feel welcome living here and would find it hard to live and that concerns me’. The negative perceptions presented by Beattie are shared by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP of the DUP when he explains how he believes Sinn Féin’s vision of unity is one in which he doesn’t see a place for his Britishness. While there is no doubt Sinn Féin do not own the united Ireland question as outlined by both David McCann and Niall Ó Donnghaile, there is an acceptance on the part of Sinn Féin TD for Mayo Rose Conway-Walsh that if Sinn Féin are leading this conversation it becomes toxic for loyalists and unionists. 

While the argument that Sinn Féin and its past represents a barrier for support for unity among some groups in Northern Ireland are valid, the case can also be made that the representation of Sinn Féin in the South is deeply distorted. Two examples of this stand out. The first can be defined as a sort of political paradox, something along the lines of ‘Schrödinger’s Sinn Féin’. Within the 26 counties, Sinn Féin is depicted as being a party controlled by shadowy authoritarian figures from Belfast. It is notable however that in the North, the DUP has claimed that decisions by Sinn Féin in the 6 counties have come from the orders of Dublin Sinn Féin. For Rose Conway-Walsh, this has the result of Sinn Féin being dehumanised whereby other parties are in competition regarding who hates Sinn Féin the most. While not as prevalent for obvious reasons, the partitionist mindset of outsiders having an undue influence on ‘our’ politics was also present regarding the franchise provided to members of the Green Party in the North in the party’s vote on entering coalition in the Republic.   

The second defence of Sinn Féin comes from the condescending attitude that young people need to read up on their history in order to understand what it is that Sinn Féin originates from and what they have done in the past. This is hypocritical for two reasons. Firstly, in the last government, controversy arose around the possibility that history would lose its status as a mandatory subject for Junior Certificate students. A more relevant hypocrisy of this attitude is the question of how far back should a young person go in order to understand a political party’s history? Should it go as far back as to when the future Fine Gael Taoiseach John A. Costello stated in the Dáil, ‘the Blackshirts were victorious in Italy and that the Hitler Shirts were victorious in Germany, as, assuredly, in spite of this Bill and in spite of the Public Safety Act, the Blueshirts will be victorious in the Irish Free State’. In light of what has transpired with mother and baby homes, how could a young person vote for a party which allowed the unionist claim that home rule means Rome rule become a reality? It is also rather ironic that one of the parties who are so vigorously opposed to Sinn Féin today faced the same charges under a century ago. One final distasteful aspect of party politics in the South is the constant ‘Othering’ of the six counties whereby the social difficulties and trauma experienced by communities who suffered decades of conflict are constantly used by politicians and media commentators to brush away legitimate criticisms of government policies and figures. This is not a novel phenomenon in Irish politics however, with similar methods being used as far back as the Home Rule crisis


Figure 1: Is the intention of politics to dehumanise suffering or is it to enhance the conditions of all? (Source: Varadkar, 2016)

What does all this mean for Irish unity and what party politics would look like with the creation of a 32-county parliament and political entity? It is possible that unity will see very little change with politics in a United Irish Republic being a competition between the current political parties. In contrast to the perception that a united Ireland would be dominated by Sinn Féin, John O’Dowd, MLA for Upper Bann has noted that ‘it could be easily argued that there’s more chance of a unionist style party being in government in a united Ireland than there is Sinn Féin’. It is also possible however that the creation of a new Ireland also sees the creation of an entirely new political landscape.   

An influential moment in Irish political history was the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis of 1917 which saw the party transition from Arthur Griffith’s aim of dual monarchy towards the aim of ‘securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish Republic’. Given that success in a referendum on Irish unity would result in international recognition of the creation of a United Irish Republic, the stated aim of Sinn Féin and the republican philosophy will have been achieved. Is there thus, a reason for the political parties which originate from this event to exist? Keeping with a timeline for unity I presented in a previous article, I would propose that on Thursday, the 12th of October 2028, the parties whose genesis is the Sinn Féin Ard Fhéis of 1917 (that being Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael alongside smaller parties such as Aontú, the Workers’ Party as well as other smaller Republican parties) would partake in a ceremony in the Mansion house, the location of the Ard Fhéis to firstly mark the achievement of the aim stated in 1917. Secondly at this event, the collective dissolution of these political parties would take place. This might sound like a frankly unbelievable suggestion in that political parties which have dominated the Southern state since its foundation and parties which present themselves as the constant linkage with what occurred in 1917 would disappear almost overnight. There are two reasons for my thinking. Firstly, if a united Ireland is to mean a new, shared, Ireland, why would it simply be a continuation of the old politics which has long been dominated by two parties with few if any policy differences and a political system in the north which has been coloured by sectarian division. 

Secondly, the rapid transformation of party politics in a short space of time is not without precedent in Europe. As Patricia McBride, noted in Beyond Brexit, Two Years On organised by Ireland’s Future: ‘Ireland should not be afraid of going into a 2nd Republic considering France is on its 5th; we have the chance to make something great’. Another country to look to could be that of Italy which underwent a transformation which has been informally defined as its 2nd Republic. Between the Second World War and the mid-1990s, the Italian political system was defined by Cold War politics whereby the US backed Christian Democratic party governed for the majority of the time. Opposed to this party was the Communist party which had strong connections with trade unions. The dominance of these parties came to an end with the Tangentopoli political scandal. This scandal focused on the extent to which corruption was prevalent within the Italian political system and resulted in the erosion of the above-mentioned dominant parties. 

If such a transformation were to take place in Ireland directly after the success of a border poll, what would party politics look like in Ireland? It is very notable that in the Shared Ireland conversation with Frazer and Nigel, there was an emphasis on creating ‘normal politics’ in terms of talking about tax and spend and health. As Nigel mentioned, part of the pitch for Irish unity is that people in the North would be involved in national politics, rather than remaining, as David Cameron noted ‘semi-detached’ from national politics. Rather than politics being based on Green versus Orange politics, the conversation between Nigel and Frazer highlighted how political debates could be based on left versus right arguments. A new political structure for Irish politics could be one that mirrors the European party system which ranges from anti-capitalist on the left to anti-Europe on the right. In his interview with Shared Ireland, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood spoke about politics as a demographic of thought rather than birth. I believe that this is something which should be a fundamental element of politics in a 32-county Republic. If someone is supportive of social democratic principles, there should be an all-Ireland party to accommodate these views. Similarly, if someone defines themselves as being centre-right, there should be a national party for them to vote for, whether they are living in Galway East, Cork East, or Antrim East. 

Figure 2: MEPs organise themselves into political groups based on political affinity rather than location. Can a similar approach assist in ending green versus orange politics? Credit: EU Affair (2020)

The question might be asked would it make any difference to the political discourse if the three largest parties in Irish politics dissolved and the parties which form government have a more ideological slant rather than being based on history. I believe it would for a simple reason. Ciaran Tierney of the Irish Central poses the question of ‘Will the Irish always be in the ‘shadow of the gunman’? In connecting with a previous article which outlined three phases of Irish history, the new era of all of Ireland out of the union would see political parties no longer having to answer questions regarding connections with paramilitaries whether this was decades ago or a century ago.

While this article so far has focused on how unity could alter nationalist parties, the question of how it will influence how unionist parties operate is also important. There appears to be a kind of conventional wisdom that unionism will unite to form a bloc which will hold the balance of power within a 32-county parliament. In the words of Alex Kane, this may lead to unionists working together as a ‘United Ulster Party’. The view that unionists would form a collective political unit in a united Ireland is also seen in the suggestion made by Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South Jim O’Callaghan that cabinet positions should be reserved for unionists. Similar calls have also been made by the chairperson of the Irish Labour Party Jack O’Connor. Something that requires clarification on this suggestion is how these ministerial positions will be allocated. There are currently 15 positions in the Irish cabinet, including the Department of the Taoiseach. Hypothetically unionists could receive 4 cabinet positions in a 32-county state. If in a general election following unity the DUP receive 30% of the vote in the six counties (previously Northern Ireland), Alliance receive 20% of the vote and the UUP receive 10% of the vote, would this result in the DUP receiving 3 cabinet positions and the UUP receiving 1? Furthermore, would the fact that Alliance is not classified as a unionist party result in them being excluded from government? Would such a composition of government result in a continuation of green versus orange arguments rather than it being a case that governments are formed based on coalitions of agreement among parties? 

I also question whether all unionists would be supportive of a type of catch-all post-unionist party or parliamentary alliance referenced above. As Mike Nesbitt, UUP MLA for Strangford noted, not only are Scottish nationalists and English nationalists a threat to the union but, in his view, the DUP also pose a threat to the Union due to their dealings with the Conservative party and how their placement into the limelight of British politics has impacted how people in England view Northern Irish unionists. Would moderate unionists who see the calamity caused by the DUP as a factor which resulted in the end of the union want to unite with them in the politics of a 32-county Republic? It is notable that in an interview with the Belfast Newsletter, Grand Master of the Orange Order, Rev Mervyn Gibson stated that his original ideal of having one unionist party has shifted as ‘people need a choice because unionists can be liberal, Labour or Conservative so they need a range of parties to be able to vote for’. This leads to the question of would someone from a unionist background who would vote for Labour if they were in England, Wales or Scotland vote for a 32 county Social Democratic and Labour Party based on the principles of Labour parties globally in the case of a united Ireland? Alternatively, would they want to join or collaborate with other unionists whose probable leading figures are politicians who have posed with a banner supporting Donald Trump? The same can be asked about a liberal unionist. Would they feel at ease being aligned with a figure who has blamed COVID-19 on abortion and same-sex marriage or would they view an all-island liberal, centrist Alliance party as their political home? 

It is interesting that Neale Richmond, Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown and member of the Church of Ireland defined himself as a politician of the centre right and of Christian democracy, a phrase he states doesn’t translate very well from German to English. Politics of the centre-right in Germany is notable as there is not one single party but two in a union. In 15 of the 16 German federal states, the Christian Democratic Union is the party of the centre-right. However, in the state of Bavaria, the Christian Social Union is the sole party of the centre-right. This leads to the possibility of a similar case for the centre-right in a united Ireland whereby there is a 26-county or three province party of the centre right alongside a 6-county or 9-county Ulster centre-right party which maintains a degree of independent identity similar to the CSU, yet holds positions when in government alongside having a member potentially lead the collective party. While the argument is often made that a united Ireland would see Northerners governed solely by Dublin, one difference between a united Ireland and the United Kingdom is that it would be possible for someone from a Protestant background and representing a Northern Irish constituency to become head of government within a united Ireland. This is one opportunity which is not possible given the lack of involvement of the main British parties within Northern Irish politics. 

Figure 3: Would politics in a united Ireland maintain the nationalist/unionist divide or would it take a more left-right form? (Source: Kilclooney, 2021)

Regarding how unification will alter the party politics in Ireland, the question arises as to what the aim of post-unionist politicians and parties would be. It is possible that it may seek to position itself similar to the Liberal Democrats during the Brexit process as the second referendum party, calling for another referendum on Northern Ireland returning to the Union. One issue with this is that returning to the Union would probably require the acceptance of the Westminster government which seems to be hastening the disconnect between Northern Ireland and Great Britain every passing day. A second potential ambition may be for the creation of an independent Northern Ireland state. Once again it is difficult to see how this could come about through a referendum. While it may be expected that support for an independent entity would be strongest east of the Bann given how support for unionism has receded geographically, it is difficult to see how this would be viable given the probability that Belfast would vote to remain in a united Ireland and the EU as opposed to an independent Northern Ireland spearheaded by leading Northern Irish Brexiteers. A third more probable political ambition for post-unionist political figures may be to stress the importance of local government, a policy traditionally held by the American Republican party although this has altered in recent years. How local government will function in a united Ireland is a matter which runs to the heart of how the island of Ireland will change with the end of partition. It is also possible that with their entry into 32-county politics, those who may have been under the false impression that Irish politics was ‘anti-British’ will come to a realisation that Irish politics is not homogenous and that they can find groups with similar views to themselves which can enhance their political strength in a manner not possible in Westminster. Could it be a case that like Italy a party that originally focused on its unique Northern identity transforms itself into a nationwide Eurosceptic party? 

It is difficult at this time to say with any certainty what a united Ireland will look like and what it will change about politics on our island. Alex Kane makes the point that the Good Friday Agreement created a Newtonian politics of equality whereby if one community gets something the other must also. This has the result of maintaining us versus them approaches to politics. Will it be the case that in a united Ireland green and orange politics will continue to dominate? Alternatively, can the ending of border politics result in Irish politics taking a more European approach whereby political parties will not be defined on the basis of their position on the national question but what their views and policies are. The call in this article for the dissolution of the dominant parties of Irish politics is undoubtedly radical. It would however reflect the fact that a united Ireland is not simply a coming together of two unchanged entities or bolting one part of the island onto another. Rather, it would reflect the fact that the creation of a united Ireland marks a new beginning for our island and that the focus of its politics is on the future, not on the past. 

Kieran is a regular contributer to Shared Ireland and you can read his highly popular pieces here, here, and here.

Kieran HarrahillKieran Harrahill is a 3rd year PhD researcher with University College Dublin and Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. He is 24 years old and is from Co. Tipperary. Kieran has a BA in Geography and Politics and International Relations and an MSc in Environmental Policy from UCD. His research on Just Transition in the coal industry has featured in a television interview on ABC Television in Australia and has been cited in a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute. The emphasis placed in his research on ensuring that a more participatory approach is taken in environmental policy is highly relevant to a number of policy areas, including the co-creation of a new, shared and united Ireland. His Twitter handle is @kharrahill_phd

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *