Doug Beattie, leader of the UUP, and Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Fein, were in the United States last week.

Published: 7 December 2021

Separately, they met many of the same people and addressed several of the same New York and Washington audiences, but they weren’t going head-to-head, which was inevitable, but a pity.

The events were barely reported, though both parties have used Twitter to make the occasional report and argument.

Here, for instance, was McDonald on December 3.

“We are on the threshold of writing the next chapter of Irish history. We need to begin preparations now for the reunification of Ireland. The opportunities for our people are immense. This is a moment of great optimism and excitement.”

And here was Beattie’s immediate response.

“It’s not there. This rhetoric is played out each year to an eager & willing audience. There is no threshold, no preparations, no tipping point. We’re no closer to a UI than we were 20 years ago. Romanticism will not guide this argument but facts will.”

I can confirm that that nationalist rhetoric is played out annually to believers, whom I often heard In the States since I first began to visit regularly in the 1980s. Sinn Fein was brilliant at delivering shameless propaganda, raising money and schmoozing the kind of people who got turned on by “the whiff of the cordite”. And unionists weren’t.

Irish-America became a destructive force in Irish politics more than a century ago when it began exporting its bitterness and its money to encourage violent nationalism. My first biography was of Patrick Pearse, who in 1914 was radicalised by hate-filled activists on his American visit to raise money for his school, and goaded into promising a bloody revolution.

Many Irish-Americans went on cheering the die-hards after 1916 in the civil war, right up to the 1990s, when being compelled to sue for peace softened republican rhetoric. But the fundamental change of Irish-American attitudes came with 9/11, which had a profound effect on republican rhetoric.

In New York, police and firemen who had unthinkingly raised money for romantic Irish ‘freedom fighters’ had a terrible lesson in the reality of terrorism. So since 2001 Sinn Fein leaders have had to use the language of political rather than armed struggle.

They’re still belligerent, though. And shamelessly Anglophobic.

“We are living through the last phase of partition,” says McDonald, adding that the Brexit vote was “a product of narrow English nationalism and a hankering for the days of Empire”.

In foreign policy, Sinn Fein is tunnel-visioned and parochial, focussing on hating Israel, the only democratic state in the Middle East, which Hamas — which it supports — wishes to eradicate: “Israel needs to be finally called out for what it is: a racist, apartheid regime. We in Ireland have a special obligation to act because we know the colonial experience of dispossession, division and what it is to be left destitute.”

The party ignores the persecution of Jews and Christians by Islamic governments, yet also shows no interest in China’s genocide of the Muslim Uighurs.

Of course these days it snuggles up to the EU, which it opposed from 1973 until a decade ago when it switched to supporting it for electoral reasons.

The UK meanwhile continues to acknowledge its past responsibilities as an imperial power by, for instance, offering to more than five million Hong Kong beleaguered residents the right to move to the UK: 90,000 have so far been welcomed.

That UK senior ministers include family roots in India, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Uganda does not suggest that the taunts of ‘Little England’ are based on anything other than bigotry that has Sinn Fein supporters describing unionists as ‘planters’.

It is good to see the UUP looking outwards and presenting a broad vision. The Executive Director of the influential National Press Club tweeted of meeting “the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on his visit to the US this week. He has an impressive record of service on tough missions like Afghanistan and Iraq and is now working his best towards peace in Ireland. Compelling speaker”.

Beattie points out that since there is no prospect of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future, unionism should not get involved in a pointless arguments with groups like Ireland’s Future.

The polls prove him right. Last week the authoritative RedC poll in the Republic showed, said its publishers, “that while the public are very supportive of the ideal of a United Ireland, this appears to be at a very superficial level, and the reality is they don’t support much of what a United Ireland may well entail”.

Among other changes, they won’t consider increased taxes, a new flag, a new anthem or re-joining the commonwealth. Especially if they are Sinn Fein voters.

In the Sunday Independent, the senior columnist Declan Lynch observed wryly that “it is now clear that a ‘strong majority’ of our Great Patriots really couldn’t give a monkey’s about any misgivings that our friend in the North might have,” but “are seeing this in one way only — as a hostile takeover”.

Sinn Fein is stuck in the bigoted swamp of its past.

Unionists need to make a compelling case for making an outward-looking Northern Ireland work.

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