The hand of history has once more stretched over Ireland as the European and local government elections delivered another seismic shift which could send ripples not just across politics in the British Isles, but right through the European Union.
Sinn Fein, once the political apologist for the Provisional IRA, failed to pull off electoral gains not witnessed since the famous 1918 Westminster General Election immediately after the Great War which saw the fledgling republican party capture 73 of the 105 Commons seats when Ireland when then entirely part of the British Empire.
Southern voters gave Sinn Fein a significant electoral knee-capping, although the party still cab boast that it remains the third biggest movement in the republic. But the results do not auger well for a future Dail General Election as Sinn Fein’s hopes of becoming a minority partner in a future Leinster House coalition government seem to have gone up in smoke.
Its a far cry from 2014 when Sinn Fein chalked up successes on both sides of what was increasingly becoming an irrelevant Irish border and boosted its European Parliamentary team from one to four MEPs, making it the largest nationalist movement in the British Isles ahead of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (PC) in Wales.
Sinn Fein is essentially now fighting for its very existence. It is championing the cause of a border poll or a referendum on Irish unity, but lacks the vision that in a united Ireland, Sinn Fein will eventually become an insignificant communist party; indeed, what would be the need for Sinn Fein in an all-Ireland republic?
In spite of the summer recess, the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly is becoming steadily unstable regarding its long-term future. Increasingly, people are asking - why do we need an Assembly when Westminster can legislate for the Province via de facto Direct Rule from Westminster?
Red lines which were major sticking points for the return of devolution, such as equal marriage and more liberal abortion laws, will be rubbed out in Northern Ireland if there is no return of the Stormont Executive by 21 October - 10 days before the UK is scheduled to exit the European Union.
BoJo’s election as both Tory boss and British PM has fired a new political starting gun, triggering a chain of events which were deemed unthinkable when the Irish peace process began with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein had already become the largest party at Stormont in the Assembly polls in 2016 – the centenary of the doomed republican Easter Rising in Dublin and 2017. Sinn Fein has continued its electoral battering of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, and is also boosted with a fragmented pro-Union vote, as well as apathy among Protestant voters.
Given the exceptionally tight numbers game in the House of Commons, there is clear pressure on Sinn Fein to follow the lead given by the SNP and PC and take its Westminster seats, thereby confining the age-old policy of abstentionism to the dustbin of history. Sinn Fein’s seven MPs could guarantee Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street.
However, Sinn Fein has recognised that a united Ireland will never be achieved by working through a shaky Stormont. Irish unity must be brought about through the Dublin parliament in Leinster House, the Dail. After all, it was Sinn Fein which established the First Dail in 1919.
While Sinn Fein ex-president and former West Belfast Commons MP Gerry Adams masterminded the party’s rise to power in Northern Ireland before turning south, becoming an Irish MP (TD) in the Dail for County Louth, that same steady advance has become a decline under present party president Mary Lou McDonald.
In short, the wheels have come off its European bandwagon, which had been based on an anti-austerity ticket. Sinn Fein needs a dramatic rebranding if it wants to find itself as a minority government coalition partner following this year’s expected Dail General Election.
But some heavy electoral prices may have to be paid to achieve Irish unity. Following decades on the irrelevant fringes of Irish politics, the 1981 republican hunger strikes propelled Sinn Fein into the realm of mainstream politics. Then, it was a committed abstentionist party refusing to take seats in Westminster, the Dail or the 1982 Stormont Assembly.
But just over three decades later, Sinn Fein takes its seats in every elected forum, and even participated in a power-sharing Executive at Stormont with the Democratic Unionists until the late Martin McGuinness pulled the plug over RHI in January 2017.
While SNP and PC MPs take their Commons seats, Sinn Fein’s seven MPs operate the traditional, but outdated, abstentionist policy because of the Westminster Oath of Allegiance. It poses the question - could former PM Theresa May’s Brexit deal have got across the line in terms of votes if Sinn Fein MPs had taken their seats?
Even with only a few MEPs, Sinn Fein can still form a Celtic Front with the SNP and PC and other Left-wing nationalist parties to put pressure on the UK - and Boris in particular - from a European Parliamentary perspective. But a Dail/Europe political pincer movement may not be strong enough to crack the Irish unity nut.
Sinn Fein must take a massive gamble because of the rapid rise of the vehemently Euro-skeptic Brexit Party fronted by MEP Nigel Farage.
Tory British Prime Minister Boris Johnston must fear that his Confidence and Supply arrangement with the DUP is doomed if there is a Westminster General Election and the Brexit Party splits the Right-wing vote, allowing Labour, Liberal Democrats or Green Party candidates to snatch marginal Conservative seats.
Sinn Fein roaming the corridors of Westminster calling for a second referendum on any EU exit deal, or even a border poll, may not be enough to halt the Brexit Party bandwagon, especially if Farage’s outfit starts itself winning Westminster seats, rather than causing the Conservatives to lose seats to other parties.
Although it is one of the ironies of Irish politics that a Westminster Government voted to grant two of Sinn Fein’s red lines - marriage equality and more liberal abortion laws for Northern Ireland. Maybe the British Government could even introduce legislation to grant a stand-alone Irish Language Act, thereby paving the way for a Stormont Executive to return?
The solution is, however, brutally simple for Boris Johnston – merge with the Brexit Party with the latter holding a place in the new Conservative movement once held by the Right-wing National Monday Club pressure group.
If Theresa May could not swallow this exceptionally bitter pill to save her premiership, would a Right-wing dream team of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnston do the trick?
Likewise, if neither of these possibilities is a runner, BoJo will simply have to find himself another potential coalition partner, especially if this year’s expected General Election produces yet another hung Parliament with no party boasting an overall majority.
Could Nigel be the ace card who again steps up to the mark? In this case, Nigel Dodds, the North Belfast MP and deputy leader of the DUP. The DUP presently has 10 MPs.
The 11th MP in the pack is North Down’s Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, a former Ulster Unionist. In a hung Commons chamber, these 10 votes could keep BoJo in power, even with a hornets’ nest of Brexit, Labour and the Lib Dems buzzing around the fringes. Then again, what happens if the DUP clinches Lady Hermon’s seat if she decided to retire at the next election?
Sinn Fein may be building a Celtic Front at the European Parliament, but its outdated abstentionist policy is certainly preventing it from constructing a similar voting movement in the Commons chamber. In reality, if the SNP – which wants to take Scotland out of the Union – can take its seats, why can’t Sinn Fein MPs – who want to take Northern Ireland out of the Union – take theirs?
Sinn Fein must also keep looking over its shoulder at the level of support for the so-called dissident republican movement, comprised of hardline working class republicans who do not agree with Sinn Fein’s peace strategy. Strong co-operation between the Republic’s and Northern Ireland’s security forces have kept dissident republican terrorist activity to a minimum compared to the intensive campaign unleashed during the Troubles by the Provisional IRA.
If Sinn Fein is to become a significant contender for coalition partner in the next Dail, it must truly convince Southern voters that it is more than a protest party against austerity and the IRA itself has been confined to the dustbin of history.
While Sinn Fein will be able to successfully ‘spin’ the Easter Rising, War of Independence, Anglo-Irish Treaty centenaries to its electoral advantage, the party still faces a huge public relations nightmare over the centenary commemorations of the Irish Civil War, which raged between June 1922 and May 1923.
That civil war saw republican commit atrocities on fellow republicans more brutal that in the previous War of Independence against the British which began in 1919. Indeed, more IRA members were executed by the new Free State forces in partitioned Ireland during the Civil War than were killed by the notorious Black and Tans British militia during the War of Independence.
The bitter pill which Sinn Fein may have to swallow is that it must ditch abstentionism, and take some kind of oath to enable its MPs to sit in the Commons Chamber. With Unionist disunity, and the collapse of moderate political nationalism, Sinn Fein could even be poised to take as many as eight Northern Ireland Westminster seats this year.
Taken in this light, Sinn Fein could be in pole position to form its Celtic Front right in the very heart of the British establishment – the House of Commons Chamber – especially if there is a significant Yes vote for independence in any second Scottish referendum.
That Commons Celtic Front could include Sinn Fein, the SNP, Plaid Cyrmu, and anti-monarchist or pro-republican Labour MPs on the hard Left of the party.
Could the Celtic Front headed by Sinn Fein then be the bloc which holds the balance of power in deciding the make-up and policies of the next Westminster Government, no matter if Scotland opts for independence or the so-called Devo-Max, or maximum devolution, route?
Would BoJo be brave enough to do a deal with any future Celtic Front to create an unholy alliance in the Commons between pro-Union Tories and republicans to get a Brexit deal which suits England?
Irish politics is the art of ‘never saying never’. After all, the current crisis in the Middle East has seen new alliances formed between old enemies, such as Iran and Iraq, as new Islamic groups - even more radical than Islamic State - emerge.
Look at Stormont. In 2007, firebrand DUP leader and Christian fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley senior – the late Lord Bannside – formed a power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister. Such was the political success of that partnership, it was dubbed ‘The Chuckle Brothers’ after the children’s TV programme of the same name.
If BoJo will not deal with the Celtic Front or the Brexit Party and Farage, might Labour boss Corbyn be handed the keys to Number 10 Downing Street by jumping into bed politically with the Celtic Front to form a Labour/Celtic Front coalition Government, with the Tories, Brexit Party and DUP comprising the Official Opposition?
It’s at this point that the strong Euro-skeptic potion enters the political mix. The Brexit Party - like Ukip before it - success pulled voters from all the main traditional Big Three parties. The Brexit Party was not simply a Tory rebellion over the lack of an EU exit. That rebellion could become a coup by late 2019 even if the UK does eventually leave the EU.
In this scenario, no matter if Scotland is in the Union or not, the UK will have to be a member of an influential global alliance capable of competing with an EU, still comprising more than two dozen states. Like a political witches’ brew, it’s at this stage the increasingly powerful Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) – formed in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association – enters the melting pot.
The CPA now comprises more than 50 national and regional parliaments, not all of them former members of the old British Empire. Only the Commonwealth has the political and economic clout to compete with the EU, especially if the CPA can do financial deals with the rapidly expanding economies of China, India and Brazil.
So where does this leave Ireland? Crudely, Unionists may be placated with the notion that after Halloween, Westminster dumps the Scots and takes back the Irish into the Commonwealth! Could Sinn Fein deliver a united Ireland within the CPA? Would Northern Ireland’s pro-Union community be happy with the old 26-county Irish Republic back under the British Throne?
If McGuinness can attend a royal banquet at Buckingham Palace, and the Queen can lay a wreath at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance which commemorates those who died fighting the British, then Sinn Fein can return to its founding roots in 1905 as a purely separatist – not a full-blown republican – movement.
Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith really wanted the dominion status option, or dual monarchy, for Ireland, whereby Britain and Ireland shared the monarch, but had separate governments. Ireland back in the CPA is a carbon copy of what Griffith envisaged. In this scenario, another role for Sinn Fein would be to persuade the Irish Republic to quit the EU along with the UK and re-introduce sterling as the common currency.
Given the significant role of the Southern Irish in the volatile journey of the Lisbon Treaty, Sinn Fein cultivating a vibrant Euro-skeptic tradition in the Republic is not such a far-fetched agenda. In 2009, Irish voters strongly endorsed the Lisbon Treaty - 16 months after their first vote rejecting it plunged EU reforms into deadlock.
A fascinating jigsaw puzzle is beginning to emerge with Ireland at its core. It’s a puzzle that will have serious ramifications for the future composition of Europe. What should concern Euro-federalists is if the UK and Ireland leave the EU for the CPA, is it possible a reinvigorated CPA could persuade other EU member states with solid Euro-skeptic support to also quit the EU and join the CPA?
Indeed, could federalists’ dream of a United States of Europe find itself the victim of a new pincer movement – the CPA on one side, with Vladimir Putin’s new-look Russian Empire on the other? After World War Two, Britain’s legendary Prime Minister Winston Churchill warned about an iron curtain descending over Europe.
But the Europe of 2019 may be witnessing the first stages in a new iron bandwagon travelling across the Continent, this time powered by an Anglo-Russian alliance. It is somewhat ironic that this alliance was conceived by Irish republicans in Dublin’s working class houses almost a century ago.
The years 1918 and 1945 saw a re-modelling of European states and borders. The maxim, ‘Get out of the Union!’ is being sung equally fervently by republicans and Unionists alike.
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com