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The Unintended Consequences of Brexit: Sinn Féin’s New Look and the Feasibility of a United Ireland

The general elections held in Ireland on 8 February 2020, have witnessed the decrease of traditional parties’ electoral support and the rise of Sinn Féin, the left-wing party and former political wing of the IRA. Rather than being another populist phenomenon in Europe, this unusual (but not unexpected) victory could bring about more interesting developments for the EU, with the unwitting help of Brexiteers.

Among the populist and nationalist waves that appeared across general elections in several EU member states, the one which took place in Ireland on 8 February 2020 was probably the most interesting and somewhat peculiar.The nationalist party Sinn Féin (belonging in the GUE/NGL party group of the European Parliament or EP) won24.5 percent of the votes, hampering traditional parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael (belonging in the EPP party group of the EP), which respectively won 22.2 percent and 20.9 percent. While the former prime minister, Leo Varadkar (Fine Gael), has to accept an extremely disappointing performance, Sinn Féin may now have the chance to form a coalition.

The first immediate observation is that Sinn Féin is directly linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and indirectly involved in several terrorist attacks during the 1970s, in favor of a united Ireland and strongly opposed to UK rule. That period, sadly knows as the Troubles, has been affected by increasing political violence, caused by both Catholic and Protestant armed groups. However, the fact that in 2020 elections it has gained 10.7%more than in the previous elections, and more importantly managed to achieve that after Brexit, is also equally important.They rather depict the beginning of a new journey for Ireland and Northern Ireland that may slowly and peacefully bring them closer to a new political and institutional perspective. The Ulster province may start considering being part of the UK in a different way and maybe link the unification with the rest of Ireland and remain part of the EU.

There are several reasons why the election outcome reaches beyond the domestic dimension.Firstly, Sinn Féin can no longer be considered merely as the IRA’s political wing. It has a very different political profile compared to the past, and not only because of its commitment to ending violence under the Good Friday Agreement.Although remaining loyal to its basic identity and principles, the party has been engaged in political discussions on the improvements of welfare state, the promotion of more efficient social services particularly in child care and public housing, and the necessity for public spending, of which has always been in favor . More importantly, despite being critical positions on major EU issues, it has played an important role within the EU Parliament and gone through a ‘socialization process’. The party has slightly change its initially very Eurosceptic positions and more actively cooperate within European Parliament groups . During the years, Sinn Féin has thus become the example that change is possible  without the populist perspectives that challenge ruling parties in other EU member states.

Secondly, the post-conflict setting in Ulster has always been shaped by EU intervention.Through economic investments, special bodies, support to local civil society organizations and initiatives, the EU has significantly influenced both Protestant and Catholic communities in the Ulster region and in the Border counties. The latter, particularly Donegal, have seriously suffered the indirect consequences of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the economic deprivation this has caused. The EU has emphasized the North-South dimension, which was included as part of the Good Friday Agreement, but probably nobody considered it a real relevant tool.

Thirdly, it is now clear that peace and cooperation have been much more convenient than division. The conflict in Northern Ireland involved two democratic countries, but it was mainly the EU influence to emphasize that democratic political culture encourages peaceful means of conflict resolution. The EU has promoted efforts in the inter-community dialogue, economic investments, social empowerment initiatives.This contributed to weaken the perception that Protestants would suffer in a united and European Ireland, among globalized EU citizens.

Fourthly,  it is interesting that the issue of Brexit scarcely ever entered  the discussion,and was not particularly central in the Sinn Féin electoral campaign. However, it always remained in the background and indirectly facilitated its victory. The EU has contributed to change the patterns of communication within parties about the conflict, and provided new arguments facilitating agreement and peace among all communities. A potential coalition, with Sinn Féin playing a major role,could promote the reunification of Ireland, but within a renewed framework;as a project that is already included in the Good Friday Agreement, politically and socially acceptable and desirable by the majority of the population, who are now more interested in stability and economic prosperity than ideology.If this is the case, it will take time to actually have a referendum, according to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, but it is possible to say this perspective would never have been conceived without Brexit and without the long and tiring debates on the future of the border. The fear of a re-surge of the border and, more importantly, the fear of losing the economic and social benefits the EU has guaranteed to the citizens of Ulster and border counties can make the difference,

Could Brexit paradoxically lead to the reunification and the resolution of the last civil conflict of Europe? It is hard to say so for sure, but for the first time in history, this is more likely to happen.

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