Predictably, absolutely nothing new of real consequence emerged from Sinn Féin’s conference on a “United Ireland” last month. While attendees were invited to think new thoughts, there was precious little evidence of any. We should nevertheless welcome that at least Sinn Féin is now engaged with reality – no, they are not the “legitimate government”, yes Ireland is partitioned in reality, so indeed persuasion (and nothing else) must be the way forward.
For all that, it should be obvious that this is already an almighty task. For all the talk of finding ways to reflect “Unionists’ British identity” in a United Ireland, there is very little evidence that this identity is seriously understood and, in any case, the fact is that Unionists’ British identity is already reflected by the constitutional status quo.
Even if this could be overcome, one of the most obvious “new thoughts” should have been, of course, that Sinn Féin cannot deliver a United Ireland. You simply cannot, on one hand, apologise for a terrorist campaign designed to force Unionists into a United Ireland and then, on the other, act as persuaders of those same Unionists. The level of trust will never seriously be there to accomplish that.
In fact, the very first step in any progress towards Irish unity would be an acceptance that that terrorist campaign was both illegitimate and pointless. It is easy to forget that most Irish Nationalists do accept this basic point, even if they rarely say it as directly. So if a United Ireland is ever to become feasible, it will be those other Irish Nationalists, not Sinn Féin and certainly not Gerry Adams, to make it so.