Derek Mooney: Off Target on the Border


From top: Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (right) with Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill MLA at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit in Dublin Castle last week; Derek Mooney

There was a time when Sinn Féin was the master of targeting. It used to know to aim its attacks and not to waste its time or resources.

But not anymore. Maybe it’s the loss of the old big beasts or the ascent of a new middling style of leadership, but whatever the cause, it is increasingly clear that it has lost its ability to target.

We saw it last year with the misguided and misfiring presidential campaign. We saw it last week with its no confidence motion in Simon Harris. While it was supposedly aimed at the floundering health minister, most Sinn Féin speakers had Fianna Fáil in their sights.

They were not the only ones. Minister of State, Jim Daly… no, me neither… bizarrely concluded that the best way of defending Harris against Sinn Féin criticism was not to launch himself at the provos but rather to join them in lambasting Fianna Fáil.

If Sinn Féin wanted to get rid of Harris and cause an election, they would have gone after the independent TDs whose Tá votes are keeping the Taoiseach and his ministers in office.

But they didn’t.

This Sinn Féin propensity to miss the target was on display last weekend when it went into an online meltdown over SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood telling the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis, referencing Donald Tusk’s recent comments, that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a border poll in Ireland with no plan on how to deliver it.

No sooner had the applause for Eastwood died down than the online warriors were tetchily pounding their keyboards slamming Eastwood, the SDLP and its partners in Fianna Fáil.

It was like a bad rerun of the outrage from Farage, Rees-Mogg, Davis et al as they responded to EU Council President Donald Tusk saying there would be a special place in hell for Brexiteers who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan as to how to deliver it.

Just like the Farage and Johnson, Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill walked straight into the trap and manged to self-identify as wanting a border poll without having a plan on how to deliver it.

Really? Is the Sinn Féin of Michelle and Mary-Lou, telling us that it has looked at the absolute mess and mayhem that Cameron, Farage, Gove and Johnson have created in Britain by having a referendum for which they had not prepared and whose consequences they had not considered… and concluded, hell yeah… let’s have some of that?

All O’Neill has succeeded in doing is showing that their talk about border or unity polls now is mere sloganising.

Sinn Féin has no more interest in having a meaningful border poll that has a chance of passing, than it is in sorting out the health service problems here or the welfare/PIP mess in the North.

Sinn Fein’s concern is with having unity as a hashtag, a slogan, a way to hype up the base. It’s direct from the Trump playbook. Border Poll now is the provos’ build the wall and it is every bit as useless

Speaking at the Seanad Brexit committee two years back, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern addressed this issue directly, saying:

Having a sectarian or political headcount is the last thing that we should do. Yes, there should be the provisions for reunification for the future. At the meetings I have attended people have tried to jump on that and say that we should have a border poll as well.

This is not the time for that. There will be a time for it, and we should all work as hard as possible to get to that time and convince people and win them over, but do not insert the issue into this debate.

What Ahern said in 2017 is what Eastwood said in 2016, 2017, 2018 and again last Saturday: there will be a time for a border poll, that time is coming, and it is when it is when the necessary work has been done to have the poll, and to win it convincingly.

This is no small task.

What would a United Ireland look like? Would it be a unitary 32 county country with one parliament and government in Dublin? Does unity mean tearing down the parliament at Stormont and dismantling institutions there?

It is not a new question. It is one I have spoken about here on Broadsheet before and, as I mentioned then, it is a question that Sean Lemass posed during his famous Oct 1959 Oxford Union speech, given shortly after becoming Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader. In that address, almost sixty years ago, he openly accepted that:

“…Irish reunification could be considered on the basis of an arrangement under which the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland would continue to function with their present powers, while an all-Ireland Parliament would exercise the powers in relation to that area now exercised at Westminster.”

In other words, Northern Ireland could and would continue to have self-government… assuming that the Assembly and Executive as established under the Good Friday Agreement are re-established any time soon.

Also recall that Lemass was referring to a Stormont parliament and government which did not have power sharing and was unionist dominated.

I have no doubt that there will be a border poll at some point over the next decade and, like Bertie Ahern, Colum Eastwood and Micheál Martin, I see now, as we finally begin to see how Brexit will play out, as the time to start preparing for that pre-campaign phase.

The first step in that preparation is to learn the lessons of Cameron’s disastrous and divisive vote now, plan later, Brexit referendum. With their badly targeted attacks last weekend we can see that Sinn Féin has not even reached this point.

Meanwhile the FF/SDLP partnership are already several steps ahead, including heeding the advice of Tiernan Brady and seeing how it is possible, as Brady demonstrated with successful marriage equality referendum campaigns in both Ireland and Australia, to have a campaign and pre-campaign process that both informs and unites people.

With their SDLP/FF partnership, Eastwood and Martin are well positioned to get moving on the next critical step of engaging openly with others, across communities and divides to discuss and explore how a new Ireland might look and feel from its day-to-day political operation, to how its health, welfare and transport systems might mesh, to whether it should have new flags, symbols or even an anthem.

It’s a complex task, but an exciting one. The question for Sinn Féin is whether it is ready to catch-up on reaching the target, or does it just want to continue taking aim at it, and missing?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney



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24 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Off Target on the Border

  1. eoin

    Thanks for the hilarity Derek!

    First up, the SF position on the Border Poll was, until recently, that they wanted it within the next five years. Recently, with the possibility of a hard brexit growing, the position changed and became “in the case of a hard brexit”, there be a Border Poll. What would a reunified Ireland look like? Given we’d have a year or so before any poll, the Shinners and others would have plenty of opportunity to fill in the details, but a reunified country would likely have one parliament, one policing service, one health service, etc.

    Second up, last week, the Shinners narrowly lost the vote of no confidence in the health minister who has presided over a plethora of disgrace, including the National Childrens Hospital. Are you seriously suggesting SF should have targeted Michael Lowry to vote on their side instead of the government’s? When the govt is handing out inducements? Yeah, right. The SFers got a 4% bounce in last Sunday’s polls for having balls, the no-ballers in your party were reduced to political eunuchs who couldn’t even hide behind the confidence-and-supply agreement after they begrudgingly admitted the NCH breached the no-surprise clause.

    Thirdly, FF in Northern Ireland with the SDLP? The same FF which committed five years ago to standing candidates in the 2019 Northern Ireland elections which will take place in May? The FF which you claimed recently had prominent elected representatives amongst their membership (one ex-SF councillor that no-one’s ever heard of). The FF which rounded on Mark Daly and Eamon O’Cuiv for trying to launch the FF party in the North a few months ago? No wonder the likes of senior SDLPers like Clare Hanna have resigned their position because of the tie-up with your lot.

    And, as for quoting Bertie Ahern in 2019, he may well have played an honourable role in affairs 20 years ago, but with everything that’s happened since, can anyone believe Bertie today is concerned about anything other than the bank account (or cash drawer) in his unlimited company, Ecne?

    1. Clampers Outside!

      So, a year, and they’ll be ready? And half that will be spent campaigning, so six months and they’ll be ready? Really… I mean really?

      1. eoin

        We can enact legislation to liquidate a €30 billion bank in 12 hours, we can enact omnibus legislation to cope with a hard border crash-out in 28 days, I’m sure we can cope with the challenges of reunification without breaking a sweat – 15 new constituencies, 60 new TDs, 15 new senators, it isn’t rocket science. It’s 2019, we’re an educated, resourceful and practical people. We can do it Clampers.
        How long did it take partitionists to set up brand new structures in Northern Ireland in 1922?

        1. SOQ

          Ok so lets start with the basics.

          Housing- Social is 16% in NI. Every single town and city is lined with it’s downright dreary uniformed architecture, and not just on the outskirts but right in the centre.

          Health care- No charges for GP, prescriptions, greatly reduced dental and a private sector which is marginal, certainly nothing compared to ROI

          Social Welfare- Direct is lower but given that 1 in 7 is on disability, including cars which are far from runarounds, it is comparatively a pretty good number.

          Now SF will say that it is a different system but never how the two will marry. The inference is that ROI will become more like NI which is just not going to happen, ever. By far, the largest employer in NI is the British state so what happens there?

          IMO the biggest cultural shock will be not to unionists but to some of SF’s own NI base because they will quickly realise that there is nothing ‘free’ about the new 32 state of Ireland. They will charge for fresh air if they can get away with it.

        2. Rob_G

          “We can enact legislation to liquidate a €30 billion bank in 12 hours..”

          – yeah, and look how well that turned out…

          “How long did it take partitionists to set up brand new structures in Northern Ireland in 1922?”

          – no time at all. And here we are, almost 100 years’ later, still picking up the pieces.

          Btw, €30bn would pay for N. Ireland for a grand total of 36 months; we would then have to come up another €30bn to make up the deficit for the next three years, and three years’ later the same again, and again, and so on…

          1. SOQ

            Not necessary Rob. There is quite a strong argument for an all island economy and whatever the real figure of keeping the north afloat actually is, you can be certain it includes the maintenance of the military infrastructure which is still in place. Then there is a new quite highly educated workforce which IMO is very under utilised at the moment.

            Personally I support unification but would love to read some real nuts and bolts analysis as how it is going to work. Maybe it is out there but I have yet to see it. Engaging with such a process may turn some people on (or off) but at least it would be grounded in some sort of facts rather just a vague ideology.

            Politicians have a responsibility to encourage this engagement, rather than just rushing towards an end point which is actually, just the beginning.

          2. Cian

            I’m not sure is the military infrastructure could be dismantled in the aftermath of a United Ireland
            I’m sure there is a cohort of people that would use violence to rejoin the UK.

            As for an all Ireland economy – I’m not convinced that will yield fruit until decades after reunification.

  2. RuilleBuille

    That was a political broadcast on behalf of the Fianna Fáil party.

    Attack SF who had nothing to do with the cervical cancer predicament or the mess that is the NCH and support the Minister who is responsible for health.

    1. abaddon

      It’s been a while since FF’s resident hack on Broadsheet used his platform to attack SF. It was to be expected after the embarrassment FF suffered last week.

  3. Giggidygoo

    Ah yeah Derek. Continuing the FFG habit of inserting Firearms terms into debates. More akin to Vacron and Harris mind you.
    Yourself, Varadkar, Harris and a few more are running scared, and the usual childish response is to use terms such as ‘missing the target’, ‘aim its attacks’.
    It doesn’t wear these days lads. It shows incapability to debate, to defend. It’s a diversionary attempt, and I think a lot of people are looking at you and your FFG pals and saying ‘So this is the quality of politician we have?
    By the way, what kind of advice were you giving FF up to 2010? ‘Lads, deny the IMF is in town’ etc.?

    1. MaryLou's ArmaLite

      In fairness it was SF/IRA inserting firearms in peoples faces that got them the bad name they have

      1. Giggidygoo

        Well, in fairness, weren’t each of FF FG LAB involved in violence and murder ar some time in their existence, under whatever name they chose, or invited into their parties?
        I note Derek has as much guts as Michėal Martin. Afraid to answer the last paragraph.
        I suppose he was waiting for some village idiot or other to respond with…..’ something something IRA, something something SF’

        1. Cian

          Yes. All four groups were involved in violence 100 years ago.

          Three of them stopped the violence 80-odd years ago.

          One didn’t.

  4. Rep

    It would seem that nobody is allowed point out any faults with SFs current position on something quite important when there are other controversies happening.

  5. abaddon

    It’s been a while since FF’s resident columnist on Broadsheet used his platform to attack SF. It was to be expected after the embarrassment FF suffered last week.

  6. Zaccone

    FF (and their “retired” advisors) need to stop trying to deflect blame onto SF. The only reason Leo is still in power is because of FF’s support. They can pull it and bring him down at any time, they need to man up and do it sooner rather than later.

  7. Iwerzon

    The key word here is ‘unity’ and as long as people realise that reunification doesn’t simply mean the 6 counties of Northern Ireland being annexed by the Republic and Dail Éireann extending its political constituency and jurisdiction from its Dublin base. But, that its carte blanche. A new start. 1.5m northern voters is a big swinging voting bloc. New rules. Federalism? (My County Cork friends would welcome this!) New Government capital? New fleg and anthem? This, I put to you, would excite a lot of people across the island especially if it was agreed outside the influences and demands of Sinn Fein.

    1. Cian

      NI is 2.7% of the UK population.
      2.7% of the UK National Debt is about €55bn;

      Do we get 55bn debt too?

  8. SOQ

    A border poll right now is an Irish solution to a British problem and will result in not just the same level of chaos but a whole lot more. Lives will be lost before it actually happens.

    But speak to any SF member and that is the first thing they will talk about. Probe a little and you will find that just like the Brexiteers, they are strong on the ideology but weak on the practicalities.

    Brits out is not the same as an United Ireland. Flipping the coin will just cause the same problems in reverse. I am with FF on this one.

    Unite the peoples and the jurisdiction will follow.

  9. Truth in the News

    Where are the Unionists going to get the money to convince the Nationlists to stay
    in the Union, as the Brits wont since they are already pulling out of Europe for the
    same reason and the is no rebate from the North, as to the Shinners missing targets
    well they would hardly emulate FF missed target success of a couple years ago
    with Bale Outs and the IMF,

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