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Why Gerry Adams thinks his Brexit loss could win him Northern Ireland

The political and economic fallout of the Brexit could boost support for a vote on Irish unification, which would see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom.
July 26, 2016, 5:20pm
Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News

There's losing, and there's losing while still sort of winning. Gerry Adams, the president of Ireland's Sinn Féin party and current doyen of Irish republicanism, campaigned firmly against last month's Brexit vote. But today, Adams appears delighted with the losing result: a less-than-United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

"Never waste a crisis, never waste a difficulty," Adams said while speaking to VICE News last week from the parliament building in Dublin. "Obviously, a positivity is emerging…. Why should we pick up the bad collateral damage for a stupid decision taken in London?"


In Northern Ireland, 56 percent of voters wished to remain in the EU in last month's Brexit referendum — but the country will be dragged out along with the rest of the UK anyway. This, in Adams's estimation, gives him a chance to win more support for Sinn Féin's core proposition: that Northern Ireland should leave the UK and reattach itself to the independent Republic of Ireland, an EU member, after nearly a century of separation.

The day after the Brexit result was announced, Sinn Féin declared that Britain had lost its democratic mandate to rule Northern Ireland, and party members called for a popular vote on reunification, known as a "border poll."

Adams shrugged off bleak predictions that Brexit will kick up sectarian dust from "The Troubles," three decades of conflict — generally considered to have ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement — that saw pro-UK unionists and anti-UK republicans fight each other on the streets.

"It's more that progress that has been made would be undone," Adams said. "And that the harmony and the new dispensation that would be created would start to unravel."

But Adams also cautioned several times over the course of an hour-long conversation that dissident paramilitary outfits are still lying low in Northern Ireland, and that "they do have the capacity to carry out actions." Adams is widely believed to have been a commanding officer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Troubles, and to have personally ordered executions. However, he has always denied IRA membership.


That Adams — now, in his 33rd year at the helm of the Sinn Féin — would use Brexit to make his case for a united Ireland and border poll was "as predictable as the flowers in May," said Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, whose Democratic Unionist Party campaigned to leave the EU.

Related: Here's what World War II veterans say about Brexit

"I think Sinn Féin has to call for that because that is their position," Aaron Edwards, a historian based in Belfast, told VICE News. "They no longer have the bargaining chip of the Irish Republican Army."

But Brexit has altered the calculation by linking the notion of a united Ireland with the prospect that Belfast, in leaving the UK, could hang on to its EU membership. Whether or not this is legally possible, or politically feasible, has been the subject of some debate with respect to Scotland.

There's now a feeling that Brexit has given weight to Sinn Féin's decades-old push, and that fear of economic upheaval and anger at what many in Northern Ireland believe to be the particular solipsism of English Leave voters could inspire moderate loyalists to relax their old allegiances. Adams also makes his case against a forgiving political backdrop: a sense that all bets are off in UK politics, which has rattled the many voters who never saw Brexit coming.

"Don't worry about the polls," Adams said coolly when asked about prospects for a border vote. "It used to be in Scotland that it was men in kilts with big beards who wanted Scottish independence, then it became a real issue."


Citing support from the Irish diaspora in America, Adams also said that he would write to US President Barack Obama, urging him to "uphold the integrity of the vote in the North."

Earlier this month, Ireland Prime Minister Enda Kenny surprised many by arguing that Brexit negotiations should consider the possibility of Irish unification, which he likened to the joining of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "It may be, in the eyes of some, a fanciful theory, but who knows what will happen in 10, 20 years' time?"

(Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News)

There is much talk in Belfast about the border, a 310-mile divide between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Today, it's wide open; a driver could be forgiven for missing it entirely. But once Britain Brexits, the border will become the European Union's new frontier. And there is worry that conflict-era military checkpoints and guard towers could be re-introduced, which in turn could return conflict to the region.

Far lesser gestures have inspired acrimony. In 2012, Belfast was host to weeks of rioting after the local council decided to reduce the number of days that the British Union flag was flown outside City Hall.

The soft border was an important part of the Good Friday Agreement because it minimized the distinction between the UK and Ireland — and so appeased some of the republicans who resented the border's very existence.

"I represent the border constituents," says Adams, who is a parliamentary representative for county Louth. "I was just talking to a taxi driver, [and] he said that people who he was carrying as farers were really angry…. To think that they would have to bring their passport from one place to another place, perhaps in the same town or same parish, he said a lot of people just found offensive."


Leave supporters have argued all along that the border is a non-issue and that the open border will be maintained after Brexit. "Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past," said new UK Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday, adding to Kenny's insistence that there "will not be a hard border" for Ireland.

But before the vote, and before she became prime minister, May said it was "inconceivable" that present border arrangements would be maintained.

Related: Britain leaving the EU could threaten lasting peace in Northern Ireland

If Sinn Féin succeeded in a call for a border poll tomorrow, Sinn Féin would almost certainly lose it. An RTÉ/BBC poll from 2015 found that only 13 percent of people in Northern Ireland want a united Ireland in the short or medium term, though that figure increased to 30 percent when people were asked whether they want Ireland to be united in their lifetimes.

Dr. Dominic Bryan, director of Irish Studies at Queen's University, says that many of Gerry Adams's opponents would actually support his border call in order to reinforce Northern Ireland's status in Britain. "Some in the [Democratic Unionist Party] say 'Bring it on!' Because they think they would win so massively."

But Bill White of LucidTalk polling in Belfast, which regularly surveys public attitudes in Northern Ireland, says that Brexit could boost support for a united Ireland in the medium-term. "If [Sinn Fein] can get 40 percent, that is a great victory for them, because then they can say: 'Let's go for another referendum in five years.'"

While outside observers often describe Northern Ireland voters as rooted to longstanding and largely sectarian party lines, White suggests that 10 percent to 15 percent are malleable and could be persuaded to vote differently in a referendum. Dire economics forecasts about the possible impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland could help republicans to win over moderate loyalists, especially those who voted to Remain.

On this point, Adams is confident: "The conditions change, people's attitudes change. They see different possibilities. Don't underestimate that many, many unionists are on a little voyage of discovery."

For now, First Minister Arlene Foster, a Northern Ireland unionist, is keen to show that she is marching forward toward Brexit. "People should not panic," she said, addressing television cameras shortly after the Brexit vote. "We are now entering a new era of an ever stronger UK."

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart