Irish Unity Comes to Toronto, or Does It?

Today The Pensive Quill carries an article by guest writer Mike Burke on the topic of the Gerry Adams' recent visit to Toronto

Irish Unity Comes to Toronto, or Does It? by Mike Burke

On 7 November, I attended the public forum in Toronto entitled “A United Ireland – How Do We Get There?” featuring Gerry Adams as the keynote speaker. He was joined by a distinguished panel of Canadian and Québécois guests. This forum was one installment of Sinn Féin’s larger project of holding a series of national conversations in Ireland and across the Irish diaspora about how to achieve Irish reunification. I did not attend the “very successful fund-raising dinner” held the night before the conference.

On entering the hall, I picked up a letter of greeting signed by Jason Kenney, Conservative Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, who is an ardently right-wing member of a right-wing Canadian federal government. I noted how legitimate Sinn Féin had become and how much things had changed. As Canadian supporters of a united Ireland, we used to be hassled by the police, followed by agents of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and mocked in the mainstream Canadian media.

Hundreds of people filled a large hall to spend three and one-half hours discussing the transition to a united Ireland. As one speaker noted, the panel was “preaching to the converted.” Audience members were largely, but not exclusively, fans of Sinn Féin, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. The sole critical note of the afternoon was sounded when a questioner asked how Sinn Féin could justify its support for the PSNI in the face of continued sectarian policing.

The Canadian panelists and audience members engaged the issue in good faith. However much I might disagree with their political analysis, their commitment to a united Ireland and their integrity were obvious. The public forum heard numerous recommendations flowing from Canadian and Quebec experience. Many participants spoke in favour of establishing a Canadian-style federal system of government in Ireland, which is a little ironic given that the current leadership of Sinn Féin was central to the party’s decision to abandon the federalism of Éire Nua. Some speakers underlined the need for an entrenched Charter of Rights, achieved in Canada in 1982, to protect the collective rights of the two main communities in the north. One mentioned that Sinn Féin might consider a “distinct society clause” as a constitutional accommodation for unionism, modeled after the series of constitutional (and extra-constitutional) efforts in Canada to address the linguistic and cultural concerns of French speakers in the province of Quebec.

There were two main, and related, assumptions that animated the conference. The first was that forming broad nationalist alliances has proved to be a formula for political victory. The second was that the GFA sets Ireland on a non-violent, democratic path to a 32-county Republic.

I disagree with both these assumptions. The current Sinn Féin mobilization campaign should be seen as an attempt to repeat what the party regards as its earlier unequivocal success in helping to create the nationalist consensus that ushered in the Irish peace process. But the nationalist consensus of the 1980s and 1990s was a failure for republicanism, not a success. Instead of increasing pan-nationalist pressure on the British government to become “persuaders for a united Ireland,” as was Sinn Féin’s stated intention, it served as a vehicle for Sinn Féin’s nationalist partners to press the party to concede one republican principle after another. Similarly, the GFA signifies the defeat of the Provisional republican project. The Agreement frustrates rather than facilitates the social, economic, political and constitutional objectives of republicanism. Sinn Féin has seriously misinterpreted the institutional implications of the GFA, which legitimizes the north as a political entity and encourages political identification with a partitioned state.

After Gerry Adams’s keynote address, I found myself wondering about the purpose of the conference. I couldn’t help but notice the imprecision and superficial nature of his thoughts on the transition to a united Ireland. More than a decade after the signing of the GFA, Sinn Féin’s strategy for getting there from here is riddled with vague generalities.

I think this conference, and the others like it, have two purposes. The first is to respond to the emerging critical opinion in Ireland that the peace process and the GFA represent serious losses for Provisional republicanism and the objective of reunification. Sinn Féin hopes to answer its critics by pointing to its mobilization campaign as evidence that it does remain a republican party working toward unity. But given the party’s lack of any coherent strategy actually to achieve Irish unity, the (never-ending) process of moving toward unity has become more important than the outcome of a united Ireland. The function of the conference appears to be to buttress Sinn Féin’s republican credentials at the very moment those credentials are being questioned because of the absence of any real movement toward the primary republican goal.

The second purpose of the conference concerns the relationship between republicanism and electoralism. Sinn Féin recognizes that republicanism can be an efficient tool for collecting votes in Ireland and funds in North America and elsewhere. Here, republicanism is reduced to a rhetorical element in a party political campaign. Sinn Féin has, in effect, internalized the project of Irish unity, transforming it from a social and political objective to a partisan institutional goal: having Sinn Féin share governmental power in the north and the south is the essence of the endgame now. And even this limited outcome seems increasingly out of reach given the party’s unexpectedly poor electoral showing in the south and recent signs of a stagnating vote in the north. While these conferences might rejuvenate Sinn Féin as an electoral machine, they do little to advance the realization of a united Ireland.

I don’t think Irish unity has yet made it to Toronto.


  1. A sound, clear, non-vitriolic critique. Good man sir.

  2. What have been said in Toronto could only have been said in Toronto. IT would have been impossible to pretend in Quebec that the Canadian federation should be considered as a source of inspiration by partisans of a united Ireland. Nationalists in Quebec have been trying to get out of it for the past 40 years. As to the Charter of Rights of 1982, it has been voted to overrule the Charter of Rights adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec. The main aim of that charter of rights is to reduce the collective rights of the people of Quebec, just take for example the many rulings in favour of those opposing the French language Charter voted by the National Assembly of Quebec. But the irony of all of this is that panellists are saying that Sinn Féin should look at the Canadian federation to a possible path to United Ireland, the same federation that denies the right to self determination to the people of Quebec.

  3. Interesting post Andre. I would be interested in knowing more about the Quebec nationalist movement if you could recommend me any books? Cheers.

  4. Andre,

    I think people were offering federalism as one possible institutional response to territorially-based political divisions.

    I agree with you that the solutions proposed are highly problematic.

    Former Prime Minister Trudeau designed the minority-language provisions of the Charter of Rights to beat Quebec nationalists over the head.

    The distinct society clause was unpopular in Quebec partly because it was sold in English Canada as a meaningless symbolic gesture that would not increase the collective rights of Quebeckers. Prime Minister Harper's sudden conversion to the cause of the Quebecois nation was justifiably seen as a narrowly partisan attempt to build a Conservative majority government on the support of Quebec voters.

    All of this suggests to me that Sinn Fein is not really concerned about the realization of a united Ireland. They are only now, eleven years after the signing of the Agreement, beginning to collect proposals that are highly complex, contradictory and controversial. I doubt that Sinn Fein will even try to fit all these proposals into concrete action. As I said, I think the conference had other purposes.

    Had Sinn Fein been serious about making real moves toward a united Ireland, party thinking on the issue would be much more advanced than it currently is.

  5. Hi Nioclas, here are books that could be of interest,
    1. McRoberts, Kenneth, Quebec : social change and political crisis, Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, c1988.

    2. Gilles Gougeon :
    A history of Quebec nationalism, 1994

    3. Garth Stevenson Parallel paths: the development of nationalism in Ireland and Quebec.

  6. Good read, Mike. Glad there's still a voice out there with integrity. Roisin