It is taken as a given that Sinn Fein are opposed to the partition of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s existence. This is perfectly legitimate. Sinn Fein also have an aspiration to achieve a united Ireland. Again, this is an entirely legitimate aspiration. Sinn Fein have a right to their narrative of our history and their view of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. However as one of NI’s major parties, they have a responsibility to step up to the plate when it comes to delivering a shared future for everyone, not just their own supporters or Nationalists. A genuinely shared future means barriers and divisions being broken down and people living together rather than apart, with difference and diversity respected and celebrated. It means a Northern Ireland where everyone feels at home, regardless of religion, political persuasion, race, sexuality, nationality etc. Sinn Fein’s actions over recent times have shown they do not really appear to be committed to a shared future.
The actions I am talking about relate largely to their behaviour around the marking of the NI Centenary. No-one was asking Sinn Fein to celebrate the Northern Ireland Centenary this year. In fact, in the case of many of the official events around the Centenary, a celebration would certainly not be the appropriate way to describe them. Take the Centenary Church Service held in Armagh in October by the leaders of the four main churches in Ireland including the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and the Primate of All Ireland, the Most Rev. Dr Eamon Martin. This service could hardly be described as a celebration of partition, or the NI Centenary given the sombre and sorrowful tone of much of the content of the service. Yet on the day the service was held, in contrast to the calls for forgiveness of past wrongs and a reconciled, shared future which came out from Armagh, the deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill issued a Tweet with three simple words, “Make partition history”. Instead of trying to stretch themselves and seek to come together with others to honestly reflect on our troubled and complex but shared history, Sinn Fein thought it better to use their absence from the church service for their own political benefit. Add to this Sinn Fein’s childish and petty decisions to veto the erection of a Centenary Plinth of the six counties of NI at Stormont proposed by the Unionist parties and the blocking of the lighting up of Belfast City Hall to mark the Centenary and one gets the impression that Sinn Fein are more interested in boycotting and opposing rather than building bridges and reaching out.
I have heard the argument made that Nationalists should not engage with any events to mark the Centenary of Northern Ireland because this would go against what Nationalism stands for. However, in contrast to Sinn Fein’s actions, the actions of their fellow Nationalists in the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have been quite different. The SDLP made the decision to attend the Centenary Church Service in Armagh with the Party’s Leader, Colum Eastwood saying before the service, “Attending a church service in Armagh… to mark the centenary of partition does not diminish anyone’s Irish nationalism. This is about stretching ourselves to heal the wounds of partition. It is about reaching beyond ourselves and reaching out to people from a different tradition. Given the choice between remaining in the trenches of the last 100 years or reaching out to build a new future, I know which side I want to be on.” In the same spirit, the SDLP agreed to the proposal for a Centenary stone at Stormont which the Unionist Parties were going to pay for themselves. The SDLP’s actions showed that while they disagreed with partition, they understood the necessity of extending the hand of friendship and reconciliation. Perhaps Sinn Fein could learn from the SDLP’s example.
In recent years, many within Unionism have not exactly covered themselves in glory either when it comes to reaching out to try and build a shared future. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have all opposed measures to give Irish language speakers in NI the same rights as their counterparts in Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales. Many Irish speakers still remember Gregory Campbell’s infamous “Curry my yogurt, can coca coalyer” remarks, mocking the phrase used by some Nationalist Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), “Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” meaning “Thank you, Speaker”. Members of the DUP in recent years have linked Gaelic sports to Irish Republican terrorism and have ignored the Gaelic Athletic Association’s (GAA) genuine attempts to reach out to people who do not traditionally play Gaelic sports. The DUP have disrespected Irish identity with the Party’s East Belfast Member of Parliament (MP), Gavin Robinson suggesting that people born in Northern Ireland have to be British before they can be Irish, “The reality is that citizens born in Northern Ireland under the Belfast Agreement have the right to both Irish citizenship and British citizenship, but it's in addition to British citizenship not instead of it.” While Sinn Fein are rightly worthy of criticism when it comes to failing to deliver a shared future, Unionists also need to be held to account and must commit to doing more to help build a shared future here in Northern Ireland. Like many things in life, building a shared future is a two-way street.
Recent opinion polls have shown that Sinn Fein look set to emerge as the biggest party at Stormont after the next Northern Irish Assembly Election and it is also looking likely that the Party will be part of the next Irish government. Given that Sinn Fein will continue to play a major role in Northern Irish politics for some time to come, it is important Sinn Fein understand the need to move beyond their fine words about a “new Ireland” and “equality” and start translating their words into action to help build the shared future we all want to see.
Peter Wilson is an 18 year old student and a member of Alliance and the Liberal Democrats. His interests include the climate crisis, human rights and political reform.