Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill (3rd from left), the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, at a rally for a united Ireland in Belfast in 2019 (Belfast Telegraph)

Amid debate about the prospect of a united Ireland, Sinn Fein has been rising in polls in the Republic. Decades of violence in Northern Ireland have been followed by the possibility of unity through political ends.

Recent opinion polls indicate Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Provisional IRA, could be in the next Irish Government. If that transpires, a border poll would be imminent.

But far from being the guide to a united Ireland, Sinn Fein may be its biggest obstacle.

Public Favor for United Ireland

In an April poll by the Irish Independent/Kantar, 67% of 1,500 people surveyed were in favor of a United Ireland. A February poll also showed overwhelming support among 5,376 respondents, from 75% among the 18-24 age group to 54% among 50-64. Only those over 65 missed a majority, with 47% in favor.

Some analysts argue that union will be costly, with one study projecting that Irish taxpayers could face a bill of €6.7 billion to €15.7 billion per year. If the assessment became common wisdom, it could doom united Ireland: the Irish Independent/Kantar poll showed a drop in support from 67% to 22% if taxes were increased.

However, if there is an economic burden, it would not be apparent until after a decision on the border. So political and cultural positions are likely to be more important in the coming months.

The Sinn Fein Obstacle

In the 2020 general election, Sinn Fein’s unprecedented success — combined with the coalition agreement between Ireland’s two leading parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — upended the traditional order of Irish politics. Sinn Fein is now the leader of the opposition.

Pledging a border poll in the next five years, Sinn Fein are cleverly using the cherished 1998 Good Friday Agreement as their platform. Under the agreement, the Irish Secretary of State should call a referendum if “at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

The political and social problem is that 50% + 1 logic is contentious in a fractious society such as that in Northern Ireland. Justifying a border poll on the grounds of a demographic advantage risks entrenched, intense opposition from those in the North favoring the ties with London.

That is compounded by the opinion of many that, despite formal dissolution of links, Sinn Fein is still part of the IRA. A 2015 report by the Police Service of Northern Ireland concluded that the IRA still controls Sinn Fein. This view was reaffirmed by the Irish Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in February 2020 and by PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne in April.

In this environment, many of the 75% in the Irish electorate who did not vote for Sinn Fein could find it difficult to follow the party’s lead over the border.

Seeking A Consensus Against Division

Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been wary of an immediate border poll. In January this year, Fianna Fáil leader and Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin cited Ireland’s history of subjugation to an imperial power and the hypocrisy of forcing one million Northern Irish Unionists to live under the rule of Dublin. Martin’s deputy and Fine Gael head Leo Varadkar has compared a border poll in the next five years to “getting married before the courtship”.

If next year’s elections in Northern Ireland offers large support for Sinn Fein, this will raise the pressure on upholding the 50% + 1 provision of the Good Friday Agreement. That in turn highlights the necessity of holding Sinn Fein to account on other sections of the Agreement, such as a culture of tolerance at every level of society, including initiatives for integrated education and mixed housing.

Naomi Long, the leader of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, has posed the question: “How can you unite this island when in Northern Ireland we are divided and segregated?”

While two-thirds of the Irish population back a united Ireland, 62% of people in the Republic think it will be accompanied by a return to violence, with the percentage rising to 70% among those over 65. The message is clear: a return to the Troubles in the North, rather than any tax rises, is an unacceptable price for Irish unity.

Comprehensive support in the Republic for a united Ireland will only be achieved if there is an emerging consensus in Northern Ireland, with almost 1 million Unionists agreeing to enter into dialogue. That path cannot come through the politics of Sinn Fein.