Friends of Sinn Féin Stoke NI Tensions with Border Poll Ad Campaign

At a time of heated tensions in Northern Ireland over the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, the U.S.-based Sinn Féin lobby group, Friends of Sinn Féin has decided to stoke those tensions by running an ad campaign to stir up support in the U.S. for a border poll on Irish reunification. As reported previously, Northern Ireland is far from ready for a United Ireland. The Unionist community, which continues to outnumber the Nationalist community, is vehemently opposed to reunification. The Unionist reaction to the Northern Ireland Protocol is proof enough of this. Firebombs have been thrown at the offices of Nationalist politicians, and threatening graffiti and posters have been put up across the state. Loyalist paramilitaries have withdrawn support for the Good Friday Agreement, believing that the NI Protocol contravenes the peace deal.

Loyalist Poster found in Kilkeel, Co. Down, Northern Ireland, 2021.

Friends of Sinn Féin placed ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Irish-American newspapers such as The Irish Echo and Irish Voice. The ad simplifies the choice that a Unity Referendum would pose as: “A United Ireland and membership of the European Union. Or a divided island at the mercy of the British Government”. The ad also misleadingly states that “the Unionist electoral majority in the North is gone”. While this is strictly true, the reason Nationalists have an electoral majority is because Unionists are less likely to vote. According to census data, Unionists still represent a numerical majority in Northern Ireland. While Unionist voter turnout may be low in local and parliamentary elections, it is probable that turnout would be much higher for a border poll as the Union itself would be threatened by it. The ad calls upon the government of the Republic of Ireland to plan for and promote a United Ireland. It also calls on readers to encourage the U.S. government and their public representatives to put pressure on the British Government to set a date for a Unity Referendum.

This comes a day after Simon Coveney, the Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Maroš Šefčovič, of the EU Commission, briefed the U.S. Friends of Ireland Congressional Caucus on the tensions surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol. To appease Unionists, Boris Johnson decided to unilaterally extend the grace period on customs checks in Northern Ireland, without authorization from the EU. Minister Coveney acknowledged the need for the EU to consider “if flexibilities need to be accommodated” but Šefčovič warned that “the EU side really has no option but to take legal action” if resolutions cannot be agreed collectively by the EU and UK governments in relation to the Protocol.

Minister Simon Coveney (first from right) at the US Department of Agriculture

Pressure from the U.S. government could be significant. House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi has previously stated that no trade deal would be done with the UK unless the Northern Ireland Protocol is implemented in full. White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, when asked about the possibility of a UK-U.S. trade deal, said that Joe Biden was unequivocal in his support for the Good Friday Agreement, appearing to mimic Pelosi’s stance. The U.S. appears to be following the line of the government of the Republic, which has taken a one-sided view of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to post-Brexit arrangements. Their focus has been on the threat that a hard border between the Republic and the North poses to peace; insinuating that Republican Paramilitaries such as the IRA would react violently to such a measure. Little focus has been paid to the potential of a hard sea border between Northern Ireland and the UK resulting in violence from Loyalist Paramilitaries.

The ad campaign has drawn criticism from politicians in the Republic of Ireland. Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar said yesterday that Sinn Féin was in fact an obstacle to Irish Unity. He asserted that Sinn Féin’s hostility towards Unionists, and its sectarian and anti-British sentiments made it a poor ambassador for Irish Unity. TD and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan said that calls for a date to be set for a referendum were “divisive and provocative”.

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