Is a united Ireland now on the cards?

Irish republican Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates her success. Photo: Getty Image

Irish republican Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald celebrates her success. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Is a united Ireland on the cards in the near future? ANDREW ADONIS says politicians should put local politics first for now.

Ireland has just had a watershed election and the Irish are standing back in amazement and saying "what next"? Is a united Ireland on the cards in the near future?

Maybe, appears to be the answer. It depends on two Sinn Féin women politicians that most of us had never heard of until they took over their pan-Ireland party two years ago: Mary Lou McDonald, in Dublin, and Michelle O'Neill, in Belfast.

O'Neill became deputy first minister in Northern Ireland last month, in the restoration of power-sharing after a two and a half year suspension at the behest of the Democratic Unionist Party. McDonald is now powerbroker in Dublin and could end up with a top government job - conceivably Taoiseach - or if not leader of the opposition in pole position to win next time.

So Sinn Féin could soon be at the heart of Irish government north and south. It is hard to see how that does not lead, sooner or later, to a referendum on a united Ireland.

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Sinn Féin is no longer regarded by most voters, particularly the young, as a front for terrorism and bitter sectarianism. It is on the way to becoming a conventional reformist party of the left. Given the esoteric ideological differences between the two traditional Irish parties of government, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, formed from the two sides of the Irish civil war of a century ago, this is a big calling card.

The changing of the guard, with McDonald and O'Neill replacing Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, turned out to be the creation of a largely new party in public perception, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement put widespread terrorism firmly into the past.

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McDonald was educated at a private school and Trinity College Dublin, the most respectable public institution in Ireland. It's like a Labour Party leader in Britain going to a top school, always (think Tony Blair and Clement Attlee) a good starting point for winning over moderate voters on both sides.

Like most outside observers, I assumed that Leo Varadkar's impressive performance in the Brexit negotiations, and his genial modernising persona, would win him another term.

But it turns out that once Brexit was sorted by Varadkar on terms highly advantageous to Ireland, the voters wanted answers to the big problems of public services and housing in Ireland, and these issues dominated the campaign. Ironically, Sinn Féin benefited from the same populist forces which drove Brexit in left-behind communities in England and Wales, which have still not recovered from the 2008 slump.

Ireland fared even worse than England in the slump. Its health services, in particular, are deplorably bad by European comparison. The Irish want a new deal and a groundswell of voters want it now.

It would be impossible to have a Dail more 'hung'. The three largest parties have respectively 38 seats (Fianna Fail), 37 (Sinn Féin) and 35 (Fine Gael) out of the total of 160, with the Greens fourth on 12. The possible combinations are various and so too is the possible head of government.

If Sinn Féin gets into government, its best course would be to ignore the unification issue for the time being and concentrate on becoming a serious party of public service improvement. This is equally true in the north, where the nationalist communities, particularly in Derry, still have terrible public services and don't look back at Sinn Féin's record in the last period of devolution with particular affection.

I have seen this at first hand in Derry, the second city of Northern Ireland which, incredibly, still does not have its own university. This is an emotive, and socially and economically very significant, cause for the city.

It dates back to the sectarian Stormont government before power-sharing, which refused to locate Northern Ireland's second university in Derry. They instead put it in Coleraine, a Unionist-dominated town 30 miles away.

However, more relevant to today is that for three crucial years Martin McGuinness was education minister of Northern Ireland - and he didn't deliver a university for Derry.

All politics is local. This is no less true of nationalist politics. Sinn Féin should concentrate on all those schools, hospitals, universities and housing projects. And let nationalism look after itself.

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