In an interview with Sky News’s Beth Rigby on May 19 the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald made a statement that is likely to be linked to her for the rest of her political career. She told the 46-year-old presenter that “a united Ireland will happen in our time” and elaborated: “It will happen in our lifetime… without a shadow of a doubt. We will see constitutional change in the course probably of the next decade. Of that there is no doubt and we need to prepare for that.”
would be very surprised if Border polls, on each side of the frontier, are held within that 10-year time frame. In the unlikely event of them happening, unless there is radical change before then, I would expect the option of a united Ireland to be rejected.
Sinn Féin entered power-sharing, in a lead partner role with the DUP, for the first time in 2007. I have observed its performance as a participant in the government of Northern Ireland since then. In the 15-year period, it had a significant role shaping, championing and helping to implement just one major and unique policy initiative: the devolution of justice and policing.
The party had a very obvious self-interest in that legislation because it helped Sinn Féin’s evolution as a post-Troubles political force, North and south. The three most important drivers of that project were Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly — all with connections to the IRA.
One of the trio is dead. A second has retired from public life. Kelly remains an active member of the Assembly. He is seen as “old guard”, but he remains important. Some of his IRA past is known, including his involvement in the bombing of the Old Bailey in London and the IRA mass breakout from the Maze during which a prison officer died.
In 2004, when three frightened British soldiers were surrounded by an angry crowd in Ardoyne and were on the point of using their guns, I saw Kelly intervene to rescue them and suffer a broken arm during the scuffles. Nowadays, he is probably the most effective example of the republican movement’s journey from paramilitarism to politics.
Conor Murphy, another who served a prison sentence for IRA activities, was minister for regional development from 2007 to 2011 and took over as finance minister in 2022 when his party colleague Máirtín Ó Muilleoir retired. Like Gerry Kelly, he is able. Yet Murphy was bypassed by Martin McGuinness when he preferred Michelle O’Neill to succeed him. McGuinness was impressed by the support she gave him during some of his years as an Assembly member and MP for the Mid Ulster constituency. He took note of how she faced down dissenting voices within the republican movement who were keen to undermine him.
Policing and justice changes aside, I saw no evidence of this senior group of Sinn Féin ministers pioneering policy change in the Northern Ireland Executive. The same observation applies to all the parties in the successive power-sharing administrations.
Stormont receives the bulk of its finance from Westminster through a block grant system. It and Northern Ireland are a branch office, at a significant distance from London headquarters. The default position of the devolved administration, support staff included, is to function like an end-of-the-line outpost.
On most occasions when the opportunity arose to make tough policy decisions that might trigger significant change, the chance was ducked or postponed. The standard response, usually supported by all the main parties when financial difficulties arise, is to make a case for Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances and ask Westminster for more money.
Health is an example of an important policy area affected by the procrastination malaise. Northern Ireland has the UK’s longest hospital appointment waiting lists. Even before Covid-19, its health system was creaking at the seams. Education is another area requiring reform, but there, too, the big decisions are on hold.
In the Republic, the obvious is worth stating. All of Sinn Féin’s Dáil experience is as a party of opposition, growing spectacularly from its one-member status in 1997 to 37 TDs after the 2020 elections. It has no hard-earned track record in government.
Opinion polls suggest that the party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, makes a better connection with voters than her predecessor, Gerry Adams. One senior civil servant told me when Fine Gael’s Michael Noonan was finance minister from 2011 to 2017, the practice was to always treat queries from Sinn Féin’s spokesman, Pearse Doherty, with urgency. He continues to be held in high regard.
Other consistently impressive performers include Louise O’Reilly (enterprise, trade and employment) and David Cullinane (health). As the party’s housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin consistently achieves traction over what is a priority issue with voters. Sinn Féin’s Dáil cohort compares favourably with its main rivals. It also has able officials who have contributed to the party’s growth and can at least match the teams of rival organisations. But Sinn Féin has never been a major or minor party in a sovereign government, interacting from that position of authority with civil servants and consistently making difficult decisions. When that opportunity comes for Sinn Féin, based on the experience of all previous newcomers to power, it will be a case of a very steep learning curve.
May 2032 is the deadline identified by Mary Lou McDonald for “constitutional change”. Given that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael show no appetite for such a historic challenge in that time frame, she must be banking on Sinn Féin being in government from the next general election onwards to drive those complex preparations. It would be an achievement, unparalleled in the history of the State, if an Irish administration manages to complete such radical groundwork within that timeframe.
The second part of the project, having the two neighbouring but very different administrations ready for successful fusion and able to attract the support of a majority of voters in each jurisdiction, will require statecraft well beyond the miraculous.
Health is a priority for most citizens, regardless of their political views. In Northern Ireland, services are provided through a faltering version of the National Health Service model. Its citizens have free GP care, free hospital care and free prescriptions — but the longest waiting lists in the UK. It is a single-tier system. Less than 5pc of the population have private health insurance.
The model operating in the south is an imperfect two-tier hybrid, with up to 50pc of citizens prepared to pay for private health care in order to bypass the queues in the public system. A number of Ireland’s best-known entrepreneurs are shareholders in the network of private hospitals.
Some health professionals, used to an income stream from the public and private systems, are wary about giving up the practice. Administrative staff of the HSE expend significant time and resources trying to identify and retrieve revenue due to the State from the complex hybrid system.
In May 2017, a cross-parliamentary committee published its Sláintecare (healthcare) report, mapping out a 10-year plan to achieve universal health care in Ireland. It has the support of all the main political parties. In theory, its timetable could neatly dovetail with Mary Lou McDonald’s timeline for constitutional change by May 2032. But there is little chance of the radical change advocated for in the Sláintecare plan being completed on time.
Merging the different health service models, North and south, to the satisfaction of a majority of voters is one of those challenges facing those advocating a united Ireland. I can’t see it happening within Mary Lou McDonald’s 2032 time frame.
There are different systems, in so many areas, North and south of the Border.
The Motability Scheme was one of the features of Northern Ireland I learned about during my Belfast-based years. It provides those who qualify for certain levels of disability payments with a new car, scooter, power wheelchair or wheelchair-accessible vehicle, free of charge, with all insurance, service and tyre-replacement charges covered. The vehicle can be used by up to three named drivers. It is replaced with a new one free of charge to the recipient every three years.
In the four-year period from 2018 to 2021, the Motability Scheme accounted for 32pc of all the new cars sold in Northern Ireland. It is a huge factor in the number of new Northern Irish cars and the quality of used cars in
circulation. In some postcode areas, including in Sinn Féin heartlands, three out of every four cars purchased during 2018-21 were Motability vehicles.
At its network of advice centres, Sinn Féin often provides practical information about how to access the scheme. When the detailed debate gets under way about how a united Ireland might work, the future of the Motability Scheme is an example of those thousands of policy issues that will have to be addressed. Would such a scheme be extended to the Republic of Ireland, or would it be scrapped or changed to the less generous provisions that apply in the south?
Third-level education fees are an interesting example. Students at Northern Ireland institutions pay annual fees of £4,600 (£9,250 in England) compared to the €3,000 third-level charges in the Republic of Ireland. For decades, generations of Northern Irish and British students received grants to cover the cost of third-level education. But that UK grants model has been replaced by a system of student loans. In the Republic a system of means-tested grants, as well as lower annual fees, operates.
Corporation tax varies significantly between south and North. The current UK rate, Northern Ireland included, is 19pc, compared to Ireland’s figure of 12.5pc. Significant voices within the Conservative government want to increase the rate to 25pc.
Brandon Lewis, then Northern Ireland secretary, stated last October 2021 that the British government was providing £15bn annual funding for the Northern Ireland Executive — the largest-ever settlement.
He claimed that Stormont was receiving around £121 per person for every £100 per person of equivalent UK government spending in England. In the event of a united Ireland, would that UK subvention to Northern Ireland disappear or would Britain be pressurised to provide several years of “balloon payments” following constitutional change?
Would the 7,000 PSNI officers and 2,600 support staff be subsumed into An Garda Síochána? The current garda commissioner, Drew Harris, is a former deputy chief constable of the PSNI. He crossed the Border to take charge of a garda force with 14,000 personnel. Since then, PSNI chief superintendent Paula Hilman made the same journey to become an assistant garda commissioner. The pair have experience of working with Sinn Féin on both sides of the Border. How would such an amalgamation of the police services work?
In Northern Ireland, 40pc of the voters in the 2022 Assembly elections supported unionist parties who favour remaining part of the UK. Convincing significant numbers of them to change their loyalties won’t be easy. It may well be that a majority on both sides of the Border can be persuaded to support a new start as an island nation of seven million people, a member of the EU, with huge goodwill from the USA and a special relationship with Great Britain.
The ambition to unite Ireland has been central to Sinn Féin’s existence since its foundation in 1905. The constitutional change by 2032 predicted by McDonald is one yardstick by which she and her party will be judged.
But there will be others, too. If Sinn Féin makes its way into government on both sides of the Border, it will be assessed on how it exercises power and delivers on the many promises made from the opposition benches.
If or when Sinn Féin enters government, the electorate, including the growing cohort of those born after the 1994 IRA ceasefire, will exercise their democratic right to decide on Sinn Féin’s effectiveness and future.
But there can be no doubt that unfinished business from the foundation of the State a century ago will present itself for attention during the next decade.
From ‘Never Better: My Life in Our Times’ by Tommie Gorman, published on Thursday by Atlantic Books.
Tommie Gorman will be signing copies at Liber Books, Sligo, on Saturday, September 24 at 2pm, and at Castle Bookshop, Castlebar, on Sunday, October 9, at 6pm
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/unification-wont-magically-happen-itll-need-a-miracle-of-statecraft-41997273.html Unification won’t magically happen — it’ll need a miracle of statecraft