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A united Ireland? Sinn Fein's win brings it only one step closer

Dara Doyle, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

DUBLIN -- Following an unexpected election triumph, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald wasted little time in calling for a united Ireland, demanding a referendum on reunification within five years.

Meanwhile, one of her successful candidates regaled his celebrating supporters with the iconic "Up the RA" slogan, referring to the Irish Republican Army, the terror group that fought in the name of uniting Ireland. Another broke into a rousing rebel song commemorating the IRA's fight with British forces in Dublin.

So nearly a century after its partition, is Ireland's wave of nationalist fervor leading inexorably to a movement to unite one of the last divided countries in Europe? Well, not quite.

Despite the unification-themed celebrations, Sinn Fein ran as a populist, anti-establishment party. It won by building a coalition of nationalists, the socially liberal and those who simply wanted to smash the centrist system that's dominated government for most of the country's history. Its surge to take the popular vote in last weekend's election had more to do with a focus on housing than patriotism.

One thing that is clear is that Sinn Fein upended a political order that had seen power swapped between the two main parties -- Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael and Fianna Fail -- for much of Ireland's history since independence from Britain in the 1920s, when the island was divided into north and south.

But Sinn Fein does bring Irish unity to the forefront of the political debate -- particularly in the wake of the U.K.'s historic, and potentially destabilizing, decision to leave the European Union.


"Brexit has changed the nature of the discussion around reunification fundamentally," said Colin Harvey, law professor at Queens University Belfast. "It's not going to happen tomorrow, but I'm convinced we are going to have referendums within a decade. The momentum is there."

Ultimately, it's up to London to call a border poll, and there's little appetite for such a move anytime soon. But the sands are shifting.

It's been almost a century since the country was split to placate a largely Protestant, unionist majority in the north in the face of increasingly militant demands from the Catholic-dominated south for independence from Britain. By the turn of the 1970s, tension morphed into violence between sectarian groups that left more than 3,500 people dead. Sinn Fein emerged out of that morass.

As the political wing of the IRA, the party started to contest elections in the 1980s as part of a strategy known as the "Armalite and the Ballot Box," mixing violence and elections in pursuit of a united Ireland.


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