Leading figures from Sinn Féin, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness will be in London next Saturday (Feb 20) for a conference on Irish unity at TUC Congress House.
The event, which follows similar meetings in New York and San Francisco, attracted a certain amount of scepticism in the blogosphere when it was announced last year. Perhaps the most noteworthy critique came from Jenny Muir of East Belfast Diary:
Adams is correct that UK policy is the key to any kind of progress on a referendum, because the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must decide whether to hold a referendum only if it appears that the majority would be in favour of reunification. However, to place the focus so strongly on rallying those who do not live on the island of Ireland to lobby the UK government on ‘one of the great unresolved and contentious issues of Britain’s colonial past’ smacks in itself of neo-colonialism.
In fairness, Sinn Féin have been have been at pains throughout the build-up to the conference to reiterate the view that the real debate has to happen in Ireland, and there are signs it may yet contribute to that goal.
For one thing, it has attracted some notably strong unionist representation, including the historian and advisor to David Trimble, Lord Bew, and the former loyalist politician David Adams, who highlighted the event in his most recent Irish Times column:
the London conference I am to speak at has presented me with a unique dilemma. Not a lack of expertise or worries about how the audience or hosts will treat me.
No, for the first time, thanks to a recent column of mine that took republicans to task for not wooing unionists enough, my role will be that of giving advice to people on how best to go about achieving something that I would rather they failed at.
Other speakers at the conference will include Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, and Salma Yaqoob, as well as figures from the Irish community such as Professor Mary Hickman, writer Ronan Bennett and Kevin McNamara of the Agreed Ireland Forum. This is a constituency which was described by Slugger O'Toole's Brian Walker last year as the "usual suspects of the old hard-ish left wing and the sympathetic diaspora." If that is rather too dismissive, it reflects a significant overlap with the support base for Livingstone's Progressive London group.
Indeed, there are significant parallels between Livingstone and Gerry Adams. In their different ways each has represented a profound challenge to the Westminster-centred political system.
Each can point to real political achievements, while having suffered significant setbacks in recent years, Adams with Sinn Féin's poor performance in the last Irish general election, and Livingstone with his defeat by Boris Johnson. Each has been accused of democratic centralist tendencies, and each is now trying to renew the political project they are engaged in through dialogue across partisan boundaries. In both cases, the stakes concern not merely their personal legacies, but the real interests of the often-marginalised constituencies they have represented.
For Sinn Féin that challenge must be resolved in Ireland, but developments in Britain may have a significant impact on its strategy of furthering devolution to Stormont.
All major parties in Britain are now discussing some kind of financial devolution for Scotland. If it is successful, a future Sinn Féin finance minister would have a strong argument for going down a similar route. That would, however, require much greater confidence both in the North's institutions and in the party's own economic credentials than exists today.
As regards the case for Irish unity itself, there is a significant opportunity in moves towards constitutional reform in Britain. In the wake of the expenses crisis, the case for popular rather than parliamentary sovereignty is perhaps becoming a serious part of that agenda for the first time, expressed in the growth of organisations like Power2010 and Republic. Ideas of democratic republicanism that owe much to Irish thinkers like Philip Pettit (pdf) as well as English counterparts like Quentin Skinner are gaining currency on the left.
For Irish republicans, that is an opportunity to make the case for their core belief, often assumed rather than articulated, that for Ireland, popular sovereignty means Irish sovereignty.
However, even if they accept that case, many of those on the British centre-left now attracted to democratic republicanism are likely to see their natural counterparts less in Sinn Féin than in the much-reduced SDLP, which will be represented at the conference by new assembly member, Conall McDevitt.
Ultimately, the task of building Irish unity is too big for either party to achieve alone. If it is to be done, it will be by a republican movement rather than a Republican Movement. It will require the kind of imagination and open-mindedness that In the past helped to bring about the civil rights movement and the peace process. The British left and the Irish community here were key allies of both developments and Saturday's conference may tell us much about the potential for another such movement for democratic change.
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