As I write this column news is emerging that a British general election is likely to be held in December. If it is confirmed it will be an opportunity to send a clear message to whatever new government is elected to Westminster that the people of the North are opposed to Brexit and the austerity policies of the Tory/DUP government.
It will also be an opportunity to send a clear message to the DUP that only the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and a resolution of the issues which led to the collapse of the political institutions, will suffice to make progress. The election will also present an opportunity for Sinn Féin to put to the people our demand for a referendum on Irish Unity.
The DUP/Tory alliance has been bad for the people of the North. I warned against it when I led a party delegation to meet the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May and her secretary of state, James Brokenshire in Downing Street in June 2017.
I cautioned May and Brokenshire that doing a deal with the DUP, as a means of holding onto power, carried with it huge risks, not least for the Good Friday Agreement. It would clearly make it more difficult to restore the political institutions in the North. I also warned them that their deal would have long-term political consequences for the future of the Tory government and for all of those citizens worried by Brexit and the austerity policies it intended to pursue. I also warned the DUP that their deal with the Tories would end in tears.
However, I have to admit that I did not envisage the level of chaos and confusion that has since gripped the British Parliament, the DUP and the Conservative Party. Disarray bordering on anarchy has marked British politics for the last three years and especially since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. The British Parliament, the behaviour of many of its members, inside and outside of the chamber – the machinations – the repeated votes – the expulsions – the resignations – the vitriol – the insulting treatment by Tory MPs of Scottish and Welsh MPs, have all added to a very real sense of the disunited kingdom.
This was reinforced last week with the publication of the latest poll by independent pollster Lord Ashcroft. The poll surveyed the view of English voters on the Union and the impact of Brexit. The level of indifference about the future cohesion of the ‘United Kingdom’ is startling. Only 35% said the North should remain in the UK. 13% said it shouldn’t and 43% didn’t have a view. 28% of English voters felt Brexit made Irish unification more likely, with 27% saying it made no difference and 38% saying they didn't know.
A few days later the Sunday Times published LucidTalk’s ‘Tracker’ poll for October. It found that there was a significant increase in the number of voters – 72% - in the North who would vote to remain in the EU. Around 39% of unionists said that they thought Brexit could make Irish Unity more likely.
One result of all this was that last weekend’s DUP party conference had none of the triumphalism of 2018 when Boris Johnson told an enthusiastic audience that he would not create any new economic border in the Irish Sea. In a reference to the Titanic, which in recent weeks has taken on a completely different complexion, Johnson warned about letting Brussels determine the outcome of Brexit for the North. He said: “The Titanic springs to mind and now is the time to point out the iceberg ahead.”
As it has turned out the iceberg is Boris’s deal.
So, while the events in Westminster and the discomfiture of the DUP make for an interesting spectator sport our focus as Irish republicans must be on our own political objectives, especially our core objective of ending partition and achieving Irish Unity.
In this context I was very gratified during a visit to Washington a fortnight ago at the continuing priority which senior US political leaders continue for our peace process and the imperative of defending the Good Friday Agreement. In a short visit I met with the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Congress member Richie Neal, Chair of the powerful Congressional Ways and Means Committee, Congress member Elliot Engel, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, the Friends of Ireland Committee, the Ad Hoc Committee on Brexit and the Irish American Unity Conference.
Richie Neal was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony in DC, not least for his work for Ireland. Well done.
So, those in the USA who have stayed the journey with us for the last three decades continue to be supportive. They want to help find solutions to the mess that is Brexit. Many of them also support Irish Unity. They understand that Brexit has acted as an accelerant to the debate about this. They want to be helpful in encouraging that debate and in persuading the Irish government and others that if Brexit proves anything it is that you need a plan.
David Cameron didn’t have a plan for Brexit and consequently British politics has spent almost four years staggering from one damaging and debilitating crisis to another with no clear end in sight.
So, winning a referendum on Irish Unity - needs a plan.
Agreeing the democratic options available to citizens on this island in the event of Unity - needs a plan.
Winning over those who for whatever reason are unsure of or even fearful of Unity - needs a plan.
Winning the referendum on Unity when it takes place - needs a plan.
The British general election in December can be an important part of all of this. So on whatever day the election takes place – if you want positive change and progress – Vótail Sinn Féin.