Where Brexit is going: Ireland will be collateral damage
22 April 2018
Since the Brexit decision Irish workers have been subjected to an endless barrage of reassurance.
Firstly we were told of a "frictionless" border.
This was followed by a guarantee of European solidarity declaring that the interests of Ireland would come first in any settlement.
Then came the bizarre sight of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael playing the green card, saying that they would ruthlessly use their veto to face down unionism and the British.
Stage one ended with the British declaring that, whatever the outcome of the talks, there would be "regulatory convergence" on the Island of Ireland. The effect was somewhat spoiled when, following DUP protest, they drafted another clause saying exactly the opposite.
Europe helpfully drew up draft legislation including regulatory convergence between the North and South of Ireland. Theresa May immediately declared that no British prime minister would agree to such an arrangement.
Now we are into transition with no coherent statement from the British. All the previous assurances are now replaced by one giant reassurance that there will be a "backstop" protecting Ireland in the case of failure to produce more detailed proposals.
So what happened to European solidarity? What happened to the Irish veto?
The Irish government explained that it was impossible to use that veto because it was in the interests of Irish business that there be an orderly transition.
And that provides the key to understanding. It is time to stop listening to propaganda and time to look at the class interests of the various actors.
Britain is a special case of a general problem. It is becoming increasingly difficult to win elections on a programme of capitalist austerity or on claims of a recovery where the majority of the working class are struggling to make ends meet.
One political consequence is a growing hatred of the European project. The role of the European Central Bank and the Troika in transferring speculators debt into sovereign debt and on to ensuing every penny was paid by the workers has not been forgotten. Another political consequence of a decade of austerity is the decay of the social democratic parties, that loyally enforced it and, to a lesser extent, the credibility of trade union bureaucracies. The smaller socialist movements have often simply been pulled in the wake of social democracy and are offering a reformism lite heavily laced with a scrabble for parliamentary seats.
The response in many European countries has been a growing instability. Sudden upsurges of youth and workers offer the possibility of a revolutionary response, while capitalism defends itself through a growing populism, linked with racism and hatred of migrants. A new revolutionary wave will require a mass upsurge by the workers conjoined with a recomposition of the socialist movement. Yet the problems for capitalism are greater. History tells us that Fascist solutions inevitably lead to widespread war.
Brexit is the expression of this process in Britain. It represents an alliance of different forces; middle class bigots driven by racism, the old Thatcherite rentier capitalists and empire loyalists, small scale capitalists who want to abolish the very concept of workers rights and a section of finance capital that has always seen the connection to the dollar as a more central issue than the European project.
The problem is that no-one expected the Brexiteers to win. The majority of British capitalists are deeply unhappy, but there is no way to reverse Brexit without collapsing the structures of capitalist rule. May is incoherent because she is managing a civil war in her party that cannot be resolved.
Frequently suggested is a merger of Tory remainers with the Liberal Democrats and Blairites. That's back to square one. A pro-european, pro-austerity party can't win a majority.
Corbyn has refused a full endorsement of the European project and has the support of many youth, but the Corbynite strategy is to unite with the Labour right to win electoral victory. As Brexit looms nearer and economic pressures increase the tensions within this alliance can only grow. The third wave of right wing Labour attacks on Corbyn around support for bombing Syria and rabid support for Israeli genocide disguised as “anti-semitism” show that they would rather dissolve the party than offer any sort of support for the workers.
British strategy is, as European negotiator Barnier says: "to have their cake and eat it". They want to preserve trade while completely separating from Europe.
Europe have the upper hand in these negotiations. The British economy is far more dependent on trade with Europe than Europe is dependent on Britain. However the negotiators are walking a fine line. Political concessions to Britain might strengthen the tide of populism and demands for separation that are growing across the union. On the other hand, the failure to find agreement could generate economic downturn and call into question a weak political recovery.
In these negotiations British weakness has been their strength. Europe has abandoned red line after red line and have settled on the Irish question as a way of constraining Britain. This means very little. Complaining that a hard border would breach the "international treaty" agreed 20 years ago is to ignore the fact that the Good Friday Agreement has collapsed and the British have implemented an undeclared direct rule administration in the North. In any case at the end of transition the Europeans will face the same dilemma. Is some sort of deal better than none? Concern for Ireland will evaporate like snow off a ditch at this point.
So what of the Irish government? Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was quick to wrap the green flag around himself and boast of the power of European solidarity. There is no follow through when it comes to action.
The Irish state is ruled by a comprador capitalist class, acting as an agent for the major imperialist powers and raking off a cut for themselves as they turn the screw on Irish workers. It was they who agreed that Irish workers, making up less than 1% of the European population, would pay 42% of the banking debt, bankrupting the country in the process. They claim that their policies have led to rapid recovery, with the Irish economy the fastest growing in Europe, yet wages have been cut by 10% and public services have been decimated. Now workers face a second assault around private debt based on rents and mortgages. The government has staged a firesale of public property to vulture funds, stuck to a budget based on a fiscal space set by the Troika, and encouraged rapine by property speculators and landlords.
Ireland is so dominated by imperialism that the section of the economy controlled by transnational firms and by tax avoidance schemes is substantially bigger than the native economy. It is not difficult to work out Dublin's response when asked to sacrifice Irish workers again in the interests of European capital.
The collateral damage from Brexit then tilts the Irish economy further away from the weak native economy and towards the transnational and financial sector, with the uncontrolled corruption and deformation of state and legal structures associated with this control. It will also mean a third wave of attacks on Irish workers, reeling from austerity and the current housing crisis and out of control rent hikes.
It also means the return of the national question. A hard border negates the conceit that the northern state will at some stage evaporate and leave a united Ireland. The border issue does not sit alone. The Good Friday institutions have collapsed and the British have now instituted a direct rule regime demanded by the unionists. They refuse to resolve issues of democratic rights that they now have direct responsibility for and recently a revised Boundary Commission report gerrymandered electoral areas with the effect of restoring the unionist majority eaten into in the 2017 assembly election.
Some have speculated that the British will abandon unionism due to the pressures of Brexit. The history of the Troubles negates this idea and the far-right nature of the Brexit coalition makes it impossible.
The main obstacle to building a resistance remains Sinn Fein, closely followed by the union leaders. Faced with Brexit, they demand special status for Northern Ireland rather than a united Ireland. Faced with implacable unionist bigotry and the collapse of the northern institutions they express their anxiety to get the failed institutions up and running again while denying the self-evident reality of direct rule. Their only concern is to conceal the collapse of their political strategy and win places in a coalition government in Dublin.
Behind Sinn Fein come the majority of socialist and republican groups who mainly sponsor Irexit - the idea that Ireland should also withdraw from Europe.
It is hard to pin down the ideology behind this. In part it reflects the near universal dislike of Europe and the recognition of their role in enforcing the austerity. However why oppression by Europe would be resolved by separation is not clear, especially when separation would force us further under the sway of Britain, the former colonial power who continues to occupy the north-eastern segment of the country.
Part of the answer is that Irish republicanism, by its very nature, tends to think that self-determination can be achieved within the boundaries of the nation state. The socialists no longer believe that socialist revolution is likely and focus on schemes based on structural and democratic issues.
But that makes them blind. While much of the left in Ireland and Britain constantly promote failed reformist experiments such as the Syriza government in Greece, they ignore class struggle in France. There a comrade of our own has led a bitter battle against attempts to deny postal workers union rights and workers and students have united to defend students at Nanterre University from an administration using both fascist groups and riot police to attack them. The country is convulsed by rolling strikes as the mass of workers fight President Macron's attempt to establish his own "Thatcher moment" by abolishing many working class rights.
The counterpoint to Brexit and Irexit is a 32 county Workers epublic and solidarity with workers across Europe to build a United Socialist States of Europe. The mechanism for that journey is implacable defence of workers from every new assault and a coming together of working class activists to found a revolutionary party of the working class.
That is what revolutionaries should fight for.