A Nation once again?
Dream and reality in the United Ireland discourse.
27 August 2019
What do you learn when Irish nationalist sources start to pontificate about the inevitability of a united Ireland? The first thing you learn is that the forces involved have no new ideas or a new strategy for achieving their aim. The second is that they urgently want to distract attention from their own sheer incapacity. The torrent of output about this issue today speaks volumes about the weakness of the various currents.
To the fore we have the border poll proposed by Sinn Fein and other political groups. Alongside that stands a rather humdrum declaration organised by Sinn Fein and the Communist Party in which various trade unionists declare their support for an eventual United Ireland. In addition we have ongoing academic expositions claiming that the economics of united Ireland are feasible and finally we have some new analysis on the left which, while accurate, is heavily impressionistic and does not refer to the class nature of partition.
The economic analysis can be left to one side. While the technical arguments may be fine, they jibe with reality. In 2016 Northern Irish external trade was £14.6 billion with Britain, £4 billion with the 26 county state and £7.4 billion with the rest of the world. From these figures we can see that “Ulster is British,” and the economic foundations on which unionism rests still hold. We can also see that three decades of the peace process have brought little in the way of economic convergence on the island. A United Ireland would involve the replacement of existing economic structures rather than their unfolding towards a democratic future.
The calls for a border poll and trade union declarations can also be put to one side. A border poll within the Good Friday Agreement would be at the pleasure of the Secretary of State and there is absolutely no chance of the British agreeing to this. If a poll is planned across Ireland outside the structures of the agreement it would require mass organisation in every area and would be a challenge to the 26 Counties state as well as the six Counties state. It is quite clear that none of the Republican groups are considering this orientation.
Sinn Fein's main rationale for talk of a border poll is the need to distract attention from the utter collapse of the Good Friday strategy of sharing the administration of the northern statelet, as evidenced by the inability to re-establish the Stormont executive and the collapse of all the cross border councils and committees in the face of British and unionist disinterest. Unfortunately within that plan of distraction they are still unable to prevent themselves talking out of both sides of their mouth, alternating calls for unity with suggestions that they would be willing to fly the union flag over the Dail and discuss re-joining the British Commonwealth.
A recent statement by Gerry Adams following their poor election results is a masterclass in this method. By warning that a United Ireland will need careful planning, he simultaneously reassures his supporters that the plan is on track and assures capitalism that Sinn Fein is a safe pair of hands who will not make unreasonable demands.
The tone of Sinn Fein discourse, shared with the trade unions and the reformist left, converts the call for a United Ireland from a political demand to a cultural aspiration. The call is not an immediate demand needed to produce an Irish democracy. The groups see Northern and Southern states as democratic enough that all the groups can run programmes that foresee their gradual reform and a growing democratisation rather than both being bulwarks against democracy and the advance of the working class. Unity can be left until the sweet by and by. Yet in the decades following the civil rights uprising it was generally understood - in fact a central doctrine of republicanism and revolutionary socialism - that there were two partitionist states in Ireland in the North and South and that both would have to be dissolved to build an Irish democracy and a workers republic.
The same can be said for the trade union initiative. Firstly, this is not the first such initiative, the last disappeared without a trace. Secondly, as with the political initiative, a step outside the Good Friday Agreement would involve a challenge to the Southern government. As a number of the signatories are leading figures in partnership agreements that have supported Irish capitalism at the expense of the workers, the chance of this happening can be dismissed.
The strongest case is made by leftist Richard Seymour, echoed by a number of other left columnists. In an article in the New York Times he argues that much of the economic underpinnings of unionist hegemony have decayed. The old industrial base that guaranteed protestant employment has gone. A security economy based on war that emerged during the Troubles has gone also. Many young people reject the grim sectarianism that permeates society and over one third of graduates flee the north. In addition the relentless sectarianism of the Democratic Unionist Party has collapsed Stormont and, by tying themselves to Brexit and to the Conservative hard right in Britain they are weakening broader support and strengthening nationalist opposition. Demographics favour the nationalists and a united Ireland.
The hidden, and commonly held, assumption in the article is that the partition of Ireland was a matter of demographics. That is not the case. In order to provide demographics as a rationale, a “Protestant majority” had to be constructed by unionist leaders supported by Britain, going through parish records line by line and literally counting the Prods. The original Unionist policy had been for all Ireland to remain under British rule.
A boundary commission, agreed as part of the partition settlement, should have returned nationalist areas to the Irish state. Instead the British claimed the transfer of large areas to the North and effectively froze the border.
The new state had to prevent a large nationalist minority from becoming a majority. That meant unrelenting discrimination and levels of repression that created a police state.
Under the pressure of the civil rights movement the northern state began to implode. Britain fought a long and dirty war to preserve the state. When it emerged victorious it maintained partition and based the agreement and all the internal structures on sectarian division.
The difficulty for socialists in any argument about demographics is that, while demographics does lead to political change, it does not lead to any particular political change. Specific changes occur as a result of class struggle which can be accelerated by demographics but not driven by it.
The difficulties of this position in relation to a United Ireland are illustrated by an article crafted by Dan Finn "Ireland's Rocky Road to Unity" in the magazine Foreign Affairs (21/08/19). Dan argues that the growth of the Catholic population in the North of Ireland more or less guarantees an eventual united Ireland. However he goes on to argue that in fact that change has not occurred because of the major political differences among the nationalist population, with many completely content with the current situation, where middle class advance has been secured. The article then attempts to study various political shifts in the current situation and the way in which they drive nationalist opinion North and South of the border.
The conclusion of the article is that, although political circumstances may drive opinion here and there, eventually demographic change will push the political situation towards Irish unity.
The main weakness of the argument is that, although many of the current political events in Ireland are referenced, they are not referenced from the point of view of class struggle. The reliance on demographics leads towards an equals sign being drawn between Catholic and Nationalist, Protestant and Unionist and this obscures deeper political forces. For example, the anti-partition campaign by the early Irish government is seen as having the same aim as IRA campaigns. That's not the case. The IRA believed that they could drive the British out. The Irish government wanted to throw dust in the eyes of Irish workers with the illusion of action.
Today recent statements demonstrate the deep-seated unionism of the Irish bourgeoisie, while Brexit cements the alliance between Britain and the Unionists.
So the crucial question in relation to Irish unity is: Has Britain's strategic interest changed?
Many argue that Brexit changes British interest and reference a poll showing majority opposition in the North to Brexit and suggesting that Brexiteers would throw the unionists under the bus to achieve their aims. Yet the core of the Tory right are absolutely committed to partition and the crisis over Europe centres on the backstop, where the EU looks for continuity of the Good Friday Agreement if the British have no alternative other than a hard border.
The British fought a 30 year dirty war to preserve partition. They drew up an agreement that reinforced partition. They stand ready to break absolutely with the EU to preserve partition. This seems very dubious evidence of a journey towards a United Ireland on their part.
If the role of the British acts as a barrier, so also does Irish nationalism. Sinn Fein have sponsored a "nationalist community" - sections of the middle class who regularly appeal to Dublin to defend an equality agenda in the North. Southern politicians attending meetings with them were astounded to find an absolute lack of interest in a United Ireland. The catholic middle class are very comfortable in their position and want no upset. This position was codified by Seamus Mallon, a former leading figure in the SDLP, who said a majority “50+1 would not be sufficient to establish a united Ireland, A substantial section of the unionist community would have to give their support". In the modern world identity politics trumps democracy!
The claim of the left is that unionist middle class opposition to Brexit runs alongside an increased willingness to consider Irish unity, but most observers see this effect as marginal. The weakness of left analysis is that it is superficial. It is true that the economic underpinnings of sectarian division have declined. Levels of unemployment between Catholic and Protestant are now roughly equal. Demographics indicate a nationalist majority in a generation and there is a growing contempt for political corruption and indifference to the continuation of partition.
However all is not as it seems. Structural division in the workforce is still high, with the nationalist middle class benefiting from the opening of civil service positions and an endless supply of community jobs available with British and European funding. Housing apartheid is strictly enforced in working class areas, with loyalist intimidation tolerated by the state. Unionism continues to dominate civic and business society with nationalism dependent on the system of patronage flowing from the political structures.
Political systems do not fade away quietly. The Catholic Church has lost support in the 26 county state but controls the majority of the education service and the southern health system. Loyalism does not have mass support but is sponsored by the British at every level of society and has a great deal of impunity that allows widespread intimidation.
Fervent unionists today are to be found in the ranks of the Irish bourgeoisie. The foundation of the Good Friday settlement was the repudiation of any national claim to a united Ireland by the Irish government. The Irish economy and political system are run in the interests of European and transatlantic capitalism, with the Irish elite enriching themselves on the side. They have persuaded Irish workers that no resistance is possible, largely because political parties and trade union leaders argue the same thing. For the Irish bourgeoisie the partition of Ireland, the division of the working class, are strong support for their rule. Is it any surprise that an all-Ireland majority was not enough in the 1920's or that a majority for unity in the northern enclave would not be enough now?
The political consciousness of youth shows a lack of support for sectarianism but is limited by identity politics. The recent announcement that gay marriage and abortion rights were to be ratified by the Westminster parliament in the autumn in the absence of a Stormont assembly was greeted with rapture, but no-one asked why language rights were not also legislated or why the issue was being used to pressure the DUP rather than being immediately legislated. Gay rights and abortion rights are seen as elements of modernity. National rights have been downgraded to issues of cultural disagreement, with unionism having a cultural right to suppress the Irish language.
The issue of unity was clarified by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Sinn Fein's West Belfast festival. The imposition of a majority vote would be an injustice equivalent to the denial of that majority at partition. A new Ireland would not simply be the addition of states but the creation of a new one. That new state would amend its constitution to meet the sensibilities of loyalism.
Varadkar is quite right. An Irish democracy would be completely different from the current partitionist states and immense threat to his class. That's why his arguments are designed, not to propose an alternative road to unity but to prevent it or, if it comes, increase the power of Britain in Ireland. A United Ireland is a class question and workers have the historic responsibility of resolving the question in the process of shaking off the oppression of capitalism and imperialism.
A final resolution of the
Irish national question, an Irish democracy, will require the mobilisation
of Irish workers both North and South and the organisation of the most
advanced sectors in a revolutionary party. Irish capitalism no longer has
any democratic content and will need to be swept away along with the forces