England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. This is the saying that defined early 20th century Irish republicanism. It was adopted as a slogan by the organisers of 1916’s Easter Rising at a time when England was fighting World War I in Europe, and while there’s no hint of Ireland taking up arms any time soon, it would be easy to fall into the hole of thinking that the Irish government’s current refusal to acquiesce to English demands comes from a similar line of republican thinking.
The Republic of Ireland’s show of strength in the face of unworkable proposals for the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland has led to right-wing Brexiteers to claim that the Irish are up to something.
Andrew Lilico, executive director of the right wing think tank Europe Economics and favourite of Brexiteer Twitter, claimed on Twitter that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael government are following the century old political strategy to “advance the cause of a united Ireland”. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former Chief of Staff, has accused Varadkar of attempting to humiliate the UK and use the Good Friday Agreement “for his own ends”. It's a view that has been peddled in the North too, with DUP MP Sammy Wilson saying that Varadkar “deliberately chose to poke unionists in the eye by inaccurately talking up support for a united Ireland to an international audience”.
These are the opinions of people who started paying attention to politics in the Republic the day after the Brexit referendum. After the Partition of Ireland in 1920 and its acceptance in Ireland via the agreement of the Anglo-Irish Treaty came the Irish Civil War. During that war, the antecedents of Fine Gael fought against those trying to take the whole island away from British rule, choosing instead to settle for the Free State which excluded Northern Ireland (they won and the Free State was the basis for what is now the Republic of Ireland). What Lilico, Timothy, Wilson and their ilk don’t understand is that for a Fine Gael member to desire a united Ireland would be to tacitly trash their party’s foundational mythos.
Last week Varadkar listed possible ways to avoid a hard border, and mentioned a united Ireland before saying that the backstop was the “best one” out of the options. Minister of Finance Paschal Donohoe added that organising for a border poll – the mechanism by which Ireland could be united as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement – would be a “profound mistake”. Fine Gael fancy themselves as the classic economic conservatives/social liberals and their preferred method isn’t to outright deny a desire to see a united Ireland, but to use the typical liberal delaying tactics of “now is not the time” and “it would cost too much”.
Varadkar has said that he thinks Ireland will be united in his lifetime, but has warned against a border poll just yet. In the Irish media, Fine Gael proxies such as John FitzGerald – son of former Fine Gael Taoiseach Garret – put forward the case that a united Ireland would cost the Republic €8.4 billion.
This is where Fianna Fáil and their internal wrangling over their republican foundation come in. Fianna Fáil are traditionally Fine Gael’s biggest rivals, but are currently propping up Leo Varadkar’s minority government through confidence and supply.
Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly looked into the technicalities of uniting Ireland in his report, Brexit & the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity. He found that once you omit costs like the block grant the UK gives to Northern Ireland (which wouldn’t apply to Ireland in a unification scenario), the cost to the Irish state of uniting Ireland was close to £700 million, rather than the common guesses of between £9-11 billion.
Daly and his party colleague Éamon Ó Cuív, grandson of Éamon de Valera – a leading figure in the War of Independence and Ireland’s third Taoiseach – have been eager to push an all-Ireland agenda within Fianna Fáil, but this zealousness has seen them demoted within their party. Ó Cuív was sacked from the party’s front bench and Daly was removed as deputy leader in the Seanad after the two prematurely announced Sorcha McAnespy as the first ever Fianna Fáil candidate in Northern Ireland.
The announcement had been done ahead of a widely anticipated merger between Fianna Fáil and Northern Ireland’s SDLP that would have seen Fianna Fáil, who refer to themselves as “the Republican Party”, running on an all-Ireland basis for the first time. This would have been a good first step in showing the people of the North you do care about uniting Ireland. The merger never came and a limp electoral pact was eventually announced. The reticence within Fianna Fáil to push for an all-Ireland party showed that even in a party founded out of the rubble of a war it fought to take all 32 counties, a backlash against republicanism – perhaps because of its association to the violence of the Troubles – has taken root.
Since the Irish Free State’s foundation and then evolution into the Republic of Ireland, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have taken turns ruling; there has never been a government without one or the other. As both parties were founded from the splitting of the original Sinn Féin at the birth of the state, both are wedded to the state in a manner similar to how the Tories and Labour are wedded to the post-World War II British state.
The Tories and Fine Gael would never challenge monarchy or partition because they are conservative and these institutions have historically worked in their favour; while Labour and Fianna Fáil may have republicans of the British and Irish variations in their ranks, they have recognised that the state is as much part of their political project as it has been of their enemies’, and so to challenge its very foundations would lead to ruptures both public and in-party that they have decided they can ill afford. So the idea that anyone with any political say in the Republic of Ireland is conspiring to use Brexit to unite Ireland are laughable.
This is also why Sinn Féin have been the only outright republican party in Ireland in the 21st century; from their original foundation as a dual monarchy party in 1905 all the way to their modern day reorganisation under Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s raison d'être has been to question and eventually do away with the existing states in Ireland to deliver one, new Irish state. Their abstentionism in Westminster drives many British commentators mad, but it also annoys Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil because their refusal to acknowledge England’s power in Northern Ireland seeks to delegitimise partition and thus the Dublin government.
Sinn Féin have called for a border poll to get around the backstop, but even they have blinked in recent years when party leader Mary Lou McDonald suggested that the poll could wait until Brexit had been finalised. The suggestion was seized on by opponents and derided by supporters and has not been repeated.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, the preferred tactics of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has been to ignore the North where possible, but Brexit and threats of a return to violence have made that impossible. Still, when Varadkar told a Fine Gael party dinner that he would rather see wolves return to Ireland than Sinn Féin in government, he made clear where he and his party stand when it comes to Irish republicanism. Those who see him as another Paddy wanting to destroy Britain probably weren’t listening.