‘Burn everything British, but their coal’






Of all the nationalist oppositions to Brexit, in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland or Scotland, perhaps also the trans-nationalist EU, Sinn Fein’s opposition is perhaps the most cynical.

Sinn Fein was once opposed to the European Union, but as soon as talk about a Referendum on the EU got serious they changed their position for political expediency (and/or opportunism, take your pick). Just in case, Sinn Fein barely operated in the Remain campaign in Northern Ireland, registering its own campaign, promoting some posters rarely seen anywhere, and keeping itself to statements along the usual tropes.

In Gerry Adams’ book, The New Ireland: A Vision for the Future, published in 2005, Chapter 10 deals with ‘Sinn Fein Europe and the European Union’ and glancing through it my impression is that as late as 2005 Adams was representing ‘Irish Republicanism’ as hostile to the project of European unification, which does not fit with the current stance of Sinn Fein (see pages 116-17).

He is basically reiterating the position he took in his book, published in 1987, Politics of Irish Freedom, where he states that “Ireland is now a small divided and powerless part of a new kind of collective imperialism in Europe” (p.92). The use of the word imperialismis of course key, accusing the EU as being an Imperial power (just as ‘England’ once was), while Ireland is a mere colony.

Irish Republicanism at its core it not about internationalism. It should be opposed to globalisation, but in the 1960s it became apparent that the policy of autarky was the road to no town. It is therefore, or should be on paper, opposed to the idea of a ‘united Europe’. Ironically, the ‘founding fathers’ of the State, played on the breakup of Europe with the help of Germany, who, while slaughtering young men on the fields of France and Belgium (Irishmen included), were seeking to cause havoc in Russia and the then British Empire through the promotion of internal strife and unrest.

Today, the Republic of Ireland, while seeking to achieve its own objectives, is once again being utilised by Europe to unsettle the implementation of Brexit and the stability of the United Kingdom, primarily in using the matter of the Border. While insisting it does not want a border or any sort, the logic of the EU position is that a border will be created whatever the final arrangements with the UK. In that respect it would be the EU insisting the Republic of Ireland should be ‘securing’ the EU land border with the UK; though securing against ‘what’ is questionable. The rather practical proposals of the UK were instantly dismissed. This is pure politics.

In the minds of many establishing the European project, a primary purpose was  to secure political stability and peace after two horrid World Wars.  If a ‘hard border’ is such a huge risk to peace it is odd that the EU would now seek to either annex Northern Ireland to the EU, or certainly disconnect Northern Ireland from the UK in trade but necessarily in constitutional terms. Playing politics with something that is accepted as volatile is hardly mature. Hard to expel from the mind is the idea that the EU on Northern Ireland and Putin on Crimea aren’t so far apart.

Nevertheless, this is the institutional politics of the EU and its political classes will use any means necessary to achieve its objectives, even if it comes at a price to the people of Northern Ireland, which has just emerged out of bloody conflict.

But of course, the British get the blame, and first in line to point the finger is Sinn Fein. This was reflected in the rhetoric of Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd after meeting Lord Adonis who was in Belfast on Thursday when he said: “What the people of England and Wales does [do] is a matter for them in regards a second referendum.” He continued: “Sinn Féin do want to see a referendum held here to give people the choice of which union they want to belong to, that should be a referendum on Irish unity.” Though here it is clear Sinn Fein uses Europe as just another reason to press for Irish Unity, which it sees as possible by the destabilisation and uncertainties around the EU negotiating stance with the UK, the ‘backstop’ in particular.

The fact of the matter is that the United Kingdom is a single political unit, reflected through the Houses of Parliament, which is Sovereign over all four nations, and it voted on the 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union. All those who took part in the referendum campaign implicitly accepted that position.

I suspect of many people who voted ‘Remain’, that their love of the EU is not wholesome or unyielding. This is something they have in common with those who voted ‘Leave’, I being one of them. Personally, I sat on the fence until the very last moment and in the end voted ‘No’. I have never regretted my decision since.

The mind boggles when the Republic of Ireland, a country that fought for Home Rule to give up their sovereignty to Europe, to be committed to the European project (despite many people, not unreasonably, apportioning blame on the EU for the financial woes of Ireland in 2008).

This strikes me as a case of ‘Burn everything British, but their coal’.


Dr Andrew Charles – Ulster History Project