Sean Donlon: former Irish diplomat
By any measure the Irish diplomat Sean Donlon is a man to be reckoned with.
One of the pivotal figures in Irish Foreign affairs over the past generation, he served successive Irish governments. He played a key role securing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, a precursor to the peace process that emerged from John Hume’s engagement with Sinn Fein.
As Irish Ambassador to the United States, he helped cement American support for peace in Ireland, and his advice to the Irish government was crucial as it sought an end to the use of violence for political ends.
He knows his history, and has an intimate understanding of the complicated relationships within this island, and between these islands. He has tangled with the British often enough to have a good understanding of what makes them tick.
So when he speaks, it is worth listening.
This week he was one of the guests at the MacGill Summer School. Now in its 37th year, the summer school’s theme was almost apocalyptic – Global Turbulence and Uncertainty: Ireland and Europe must prepare for a new era.
The backdrop to the school’s deliberations is Britain’s exit from the European Union – a political catastrophe made greater by the inept and incoherent behaviour of a crippled British government. In committing this act of national self-harm, Britain threatens the very safety and security of Ireland, north and south.
For Ireland, never mind the UK, Brexit is an existential crisis. It is perhaps the single biggest challenge to Ireland’s future in the history of the state – and I include the demise of the Celtic Tiger in that.
In his address, Donlon turned his attention to the outcome of last month’s British general election resulting in a minority Conservative government – propped up by the DUP.
Sinn Fein’s electoral success was a gift for the Conservatives because its long-standing policy of abstention effectively gives the Tories a cushion of seven votes. Sinn Fein’s success also means that, for the first time in living memory, there is no Irish nationalist voice in the House of Commons.
On the face of it, that is not Sinn Fein’s problem. The party position on abstention is clear, and has been since it first contested Westminster seats in 1917. Immediately following the June election, Gerry Adams confirmed there would be no shift in policy. Given the growing discontent with politicians, the party’s commitment to principle is to be applauded.
But if a week is a long time in politics, I do not know how you would describe100 years. We now live in a very different age, with a different political dispensation to that which existed in the heady years between the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.
Republicans have committed themselves to change through peaceful means. Sinn Fein sits comfortably in the post-partition Dail, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In calling on them to take their seats, Donlon said Sinn Fein’s mandate was strong enough for it to “brave and generous”. Generosity has little to do with it. Sinn Fein need not kow-tow at the bar of the house, or play the arcane games demanded of this antiquated parliament. By attending it would not be doing Britain a favour.
But it could use its power and influence in the best interest – short and long term – of its electorate, and voice the expressed wish of the Irish people to remain within the European Union.
Abstention was a tactical choice in 1917, it may have been right for its time. It is not right now.
Frank Maguire, who helped bring down the Callaghan government by abstaining in person, demonstrated it is possible to be a republican and a sitting MP without compromising integrity.
Quoting Gerry Adams’ recent call for a “new approach, one which unlocks unionist opposition to a new Ireland by reminding them of their historic place here and of the positive contribution they have made to society on this island”, Donlon said a decision to take their seats would help “translate those very fine words into action”.
The current Oath of Allegiance to the Queen is anathema to republicans and must be challenged and replaced. And it is difficult to see how Sinn Fein could take their seats on their current mandate.
But another election cannot be far off. The party should use this time to reconsider and revoke this policy. Each generation must make its own choices for its own time.
As Donlon said: ”This is their moment and I hope they use it.”
- This article appeared in The Irish News on July 21