Why won’t Sinn Fein just say “Northern Ireland”?

The aftermath of the Northern Ireland elections has presented us with several examples of just how dysfunctional politics in that nation have become. Yesterday, I wrote about the perplexing refusal of the DUP to enter into a Government, and the folly of a system that permits a clear minority of the representatives to prevent anybody from actually governing the place. And of course, some unionist readers were quick and fair in pointing out that Sinn Fein were guilty of the same thing over the Irish language act.

But then we have this:

Sinn Fein’s terminology for the countries in which Irish people live is not hard to understand. They do not recognise the legitimacy of either, and so make a point of never referring to Ireland (or, more colloquially, the Republic of Ireland) by that name, just as they never refer to Northern Ireland by its name. It’s “the south”, or “the 26 counties”, or “this state” or “the Dublin Government” all the way down for the Republic, and “the 6 counties” or “the north” for Northern Ireland. As a bit of student politics radicalism, it’s harmless enough.

The problem with it in terms of grown-up politics, though, is this: If Sinn Fein refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland, then they are in breach of the Good Friday Agreement. And besides that, they look very silly: Michelle O’Neill is seeking the office of First Minister of Northern Ireland. What’s she going to do? Go on American television and correct people by saying “I’m actually the First Minister of the Six Counties”? You wouldn’t find the Prime Minister of Portugal or anywhere else refusing to acknowledge that their country is actually real.

When people North and South voted for the Good Friday Agreement, remember, they did it with Sinn Fein’s exhortation. They campaigned for a yes vote in both jurisdictions. The DUP, in fairness to them, did not.

That agreement enshrines the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. It grants the people of Northern Ireland self-determination about their future. The constitutional status can only change with the consent of the majority who live there. In addition, the Republic (again, at Sinn Fein’s urging) abandoned all territorial claims to Northern Ireland. Before 1998, the official position of Ireland was that Northern Ireland was an illegitimate, occupied exclave which rightly belonged in a 32-county state. We changed that view because Sinn Fein asked us to.

In the case of the South, Sinn Fein’s position is at least somewhat consistent: They had no role in the creation of the modern Republic, and can view it as illegitimate all they like. But their position in the North is that the very state and government that they urged people to vote for is illegitimate.

Republicans, of course, will give you the litany of complaints when you raise this point: Northern Ireland was a sectarian carve out with an in-built protestant majority, they’ll say. We didn’t accept the treaty which created it, they’ll say. You can’t expect us to recognise a state that perpetrated civil rights abuses against us, they’ll say.

The counterpoint is this: How can you say to Unionists that you respect them and their votes while at the same time saying that their country is illegitimate? And why, then, did you ask us to vote for an agreement which explicitly recognises the legitimacy of Northern Ireland? At best, you’re hypocrites. At worst, well, trying to roll back to a time before that agreement. Which is it?

It is not hard to say the following: That Northern Ireland exists, that it is a real place, and that it’s people can decide their future, and that we believe they should choose a future in a United Ireland. The refusal to do so is bad for nationalism, because it conveys to Unionists the impression that Nationalists do not see their choices as either legitimate, or worthy of respect.

It’s also just abominably silly.

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