The E&L blog has been reporting the situation in Ireland since we started up. However, during current Brexit negotiations , the ‘backstop’ has pushed the issue of Northern Ireland to the fore. We are publishing two articles which share a lot in common in their analysis of Ireland, but which offer differing perspectives on the role of the EU. The first is written by David Jamieson and first appeared on the Commonspace blog. The second is written by Allan Armstrong and forms the seventh chapter of his new pamphlet From Blatcherism to Maybynism.
- ANALYSIS – MICRO-POLITICS ISN’T ENOUGH – WE MUST ADDRESS
THE PARTITION OF IRELAND
Debates around the UK border in Ireland and the so called ‘backstop’ bring the crisis elements of the British state into sharper focus.
Among the many hurdles facing the Brexit process and the British Government, perhaps the most intractable so far has proven to be the plans for a backstop plan covering a ‘open border’ on the island of Ireland – movement of people and goods across the UK state’s border in Ireland.
Against this backdrop, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has re-opened the question of Irish Unity through a border poll. An issue expected by many to be in some kind of permanent hibernation has now returned as a real force.
The renewed debate around unification reminds us that bold solutions speak more directly to the legacy of unjust conditions and regressive forces in modern British society than the micro-political wrangling of different wings of the UK establishment which has come to define Brexit.
The partition of the island by the British state almost a hundred years ago means that two separate regimes exist either side of the artificial border, regimes that will divert further after Brexit. Ireland will remain in EU institutions like the Customs Union and under Tory Brexit plans, Northern Ireland would not.
The backstop plan is an attempt to reconcile Britain being outside the EU with the lived reality and common history of those on both sides of the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border which means that Customs checks and border posts would create real challenges. The backstop would keep both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland effectively within the Customs Union if no new trade relationship is agreed by 2021 between the UK and the EU, but this would leave Northern Ireland as a third country – inside the UK but with a much closer relationship to the EU – something which the Tories and the DUP in Northern Ireland could not accept.
To make matters more delicate still, as in Scotland, only a minority in Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in 2016. Many on both sides of the border fear the return of a hard border after Brexit, and the implications this would have for trade people in moving across the island. The return of a hard border would also re-establish a potent symbol of British state authority in a country where it has traditionally been reviled.
Partition doesn’t work
There is a potent symbolism in the fact that such a major part of the Brexit debate now revolves around the British state’s relationship to Ireland. Almost a hundred years ago, in 1921, the country was partitioned as part of a response by the British state (and allied Northern landowners and industrialists) to the Irish Revolution from 1916. The borders of the new six county statelet were specifically tailored to exclude the largely Catholic Irish nationalist population – who were also subjected to brutal pogroms upon the founding of the new Northern Irish entity.
With the establishment of a Protestant supremacist ‘Orange State’ Catholics faced exclusion from housing, jobs and many civil and democratic rights. Partition was one of an arsenal of weapons deployed by British and other imperialisms around the world, from India to Africa and the Middle East. There are few examples which could be described as anything short of calamitous. Prevalent features include ethnic, confessional and national tensions that span generations and provoke repeated conflict, economic underdevelopment and wider regional destabilisation.
Though much of the worst supremacist aspects of the Orange State are now gone, the country remains hobbled by the very conditions under which it was founded. The Good Friday Agreement, whilst it ended the worst of the bloodshed from the war that had engulfed the six counties from the late 1960s, also institutionalised communal divisions in the country through the creation of power sharing executives.
This dysfunctional mode of governance has left a generation of both Catholic and Protestant people behind. It has led to democratic and economic dysfunction. And it left largely unresolved the scars from years of discrimination and war.
Incredibly, and in the midst of the Brexit crisis, the Northern Irish Stormont executive has not met for over two years.
Micro-politics vs structural analysis
As has often been the case during the Brexit debate, opposition to the pro-Brexit right has taken on the form of support for the status quo. Much of the commentary around the ‘backstop’ impasse treats it as a wholly unnecessary national embarrassment, the only meaning of which is that the Tory Brexiteers are arrogant, nationalistic fools.Irish ~Home `Rule
This is simply implausible. The whole bloody history of British suppression in Ireland is linked to its economic and geopolitical development as a power. Both the plantation of Ireland by Scottish and English settlers, and Oliver Cromwell’s invasion in the 1600s, reflected the interests of the burgeoning new British order. The Battle of the Boyne accompanied the consolidation of that order in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In the 1700 and 1800’s, the suppression of Irish movements represented the expansion of the British Empire as a global power, and British resistance to radical liberal and democratic movements that were sweeping Europe in these decades.
Irish nationalism’s pro-Home Rule stance at the start of the 20th century was shattered by the British Empire’s entry into the catastrophe of WW1. What emerged from the ruins was a new republican generation and the Irish Revolution.
In each and every turn, Irish national events were inevitably impacted by developments in British society and those which reverbrated across Europe. Until the early part of the 20th century, Ireland was impacted by British state ascendancy. From then on, through revolution, war in the north and now Brexit, by British state decline.
At each historical turn, the British ruling class could be identified as variously shrewd, bungling, racist, arrogant and worse. But this was never the fundamental reason for the crisis.
Irish Unity today
No one can pretend that the Brexit process is not dangerous for Northern Irish society. Nor can anyone deny the gravity of organising a border poll or even simply agitating for Irish reunification. There are, of course, forces utterly opposed to the idea of Irish reunification.
But it would be naive and historically ignorant to imagine that micro-politics, defending the constitutional status quo, or other tinkering that maintains the fundamental reality of partition, is an adequate response to a crisis that threatens to engulf Irish as well as British society.
It is not adequate either to imagine that reunification would simply solve the crisis, North or South of the border. The creation of the six county state also produced a mirror image in the republic, where church and state were intertwined. In recent decades, and under the tutelage of the EU (which far too many also see as an uncomplicated boon for Irish stability), Ireland has become a model of a European financialised economy, with disastrous consequences which have only exasperated its history as an underdeveloped economy preyed upon by British imperialism (the tragic persistence of massive migrations of labour from the island is one such tragic legacy).
A new movement towards Irish reunification should therefore be the basis for a re-organisation of society, meeting the problems of historical reaction with social and economic justice.
This article was first posted at:-
2. THE PRECEDENT OF RIGHT NATIONAL POPULIST DOMINATION IN REACTIONARY NORTHERN IRELAND
The Right populism of Unionists and many, Loyalist as well as fascist forms of Loyalism, have been a feature of ‘Ulster’/Northern Irish politics more than a century. The word ‘fascism’ has often been used somewhat loosely. Here it is used to refer to the existence of street forces, which can sometimes include paramilitaries, able to act independently of the state to impose their reactionary designs. The UVF and UDA, which have been responsible for many deaths, injuries and evictions, meet these criteria. What these Loyalists were not able to do in Northern Ireland, in the early 1920s (or since then), was to establish a fully-fledged fascist state like Mussolini’s Fascisti in Italy.
The Orange Stormont regime belonged to the apartheid family of states – the old South Africa, present day Israel, and the old ‘Jim Crow’ South in the USA. The fascist wing of Loyalism did not gain to gain complete ascendancy, but ended up helping to create this apartheid-type Northern Irish sub-state, which operated in the interests of the British ruling class and their Ulster Unionist allies. This sub-state maintained its own paramilitary forces – the B Specials and RUC, as well as giving the Orange Order a privileged role.
Both Right populist Unionism/Loyalism and (neo)-fascist Loyalism represent reactionary unionist forces. Reactionary unionism has been prepared to undermine the existing UK constitutional order, whenever liberal unionists have pushed for, or defended political devolutionary reform. Some reactionary unionists were prepared to take the UK into a civil war in 1914, to prevent the implementation Westminster’s Third Irish Home Rule Act. Following Ireland’s Partition in 1921, and the Loyalist pogroms used to set up a new Orange Stormont regime, reactionary unionism became hegemonic in Northern Ireland until 1969. However, from 1969-72 there was a vibrant Civil Rights Movement, which tried to win the same political, economic and political rights in Northern Ireland that existed elsewhere in the UK. But in 1972, after the British troops stepped into the shoes of the B Specials and RUC, but gunning down rather than batoning down civil rights protestors, a Republican opposition emerged.
In the face of the state’s armed repression, the IRA was prepared to use armed resistance. A wider Republican Movement emerged, with cultural, social and political wings. These challenged most aspects of the UK state and British rule. However, it took more than a quarter of a century for this growing and deep-rooted popular resistance to bring about the end of fifty years Unionist hegemony and the UK state-backed, and the Loyalists’ ferocious defence of what remained of their old order.
But the Irish Republican challenge meant that the UK state was eventually forced to alter course. This was first flagged up in the Conservatives’ Downing Street Declaration in 1993, and consolidated under the New Labour’s Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, this ‘New Unionism’ was introduced, not to totally dismantle the older Unionist/Loyalist order, but to put the UK state in the position of ‘honest broker’ between Unionism/Loyalism and Nationalism/Republicanism. Pushed by the UK state, Unionism and Loyalism retreated from a position of hegemony to one of domination. This was copper fastened by the provisions of the Good Friday and St. Andrews (2006) Agreements.
The new Stormont was given a Unionist/Loyalist veto over any prospect of Irish reunification. A talking-shop was set up at Stormont to help manage the sectarian/ethnic divide. The US and EU were brought in to provide further ballast for this, neo-liberal, ‘post-colonial’, model settlement (another was introduced in post-apartheid South Africa). But Stormont has introduced no reforms. It was set up to allow grievances to be aired, UK state financial subventions to be divided up, and appeals to be made to the UK government to arbitrate. Only two groups were given political recognition, Unionists/Loyalist and Republicans/Nationalists. Partition now took on new forms, which the personnel running the UK state hoped it would be easier to control.
Although there was a Unionist/Loyalist veto over any Sinn Fein moves to get Stormont to move towards Irish reunification, there was also a Nationalist/Republican veto preventing a return to the old Unionist/Loyalist supremacy. This is one reason why the reactionary unionist DUP is privately happy, despite public denials, to see the Good Friday Agreement, which is underwritten by the EU, ended under Brexit. The DUP is keen to retain its Loyalist voting base, including the neo-fascist paramilitaries. These still hold sway in many Loyalist communities, helped by state funding to bribe them to behave themselves. This DUP connection to Loyalist paramilitaries was shown when DUP member, Emma Little-Pengelly, after getting married, took on the hyphenated surname, Little-Pengelly. This way she could use the surname of her Loyalist gunrunner father, Noel Little, when she campaigned in Belfast. She won the South Belfast Westminster constituency in 2016, ousting the Irish constitutionalist nationalist SDLP MP.
Ultimately the DUP, TUV and other Loyalists want to restore Unionist majority rule. The 2012 Loyalist Flag Riots, led to the burning out of the liberal unionist, Alliance Party offices, and the intimidation of their members in East Belfast. This reactionary campaign paved the way for the return of the then Alliance-held Westminster East Belfast constituency to the DUP in the next election. Since the DUP took the South Belfast constituency, the UVF have intimidated Catholic residents away from Cantrell Close, which had been built as non-sectarian housing. The misnamed ‘Peace’ Walls, which divide Nationalist and Unionist communities in Belfast, have become the most visible new borders of Partition. They are supposedly to come down by 2023, but the UVF and UDA act as the main forces behind these walls, ensuring that Unionist and Nationalist communities become even more exclusive.
In the North, reactionary unionism remains dominant. Instead of moving forward, the DUP and Loyalists want to turn the clock back. To do this they have resorted to the psychological compensatory mechanisms used by other national populists to maintain support in the absence of any material rewards. Unionist and Loyalist organisations uphold the right of their members to intimidate Nationalists in their streets, homes and schools. Triumphalist Loyalist marches, are attended by unionist MPs, MLAs and local councillors. Stormont and Belfast city council sponsor Loyalist bonfires. The PSNI assist in removing non-unionist residents in Loyalist majority areas, or migrant East European Gypsies from Belfast’s streets and hostels. This symbiotic relationship of the state with national chauvinist, racist and other reactionary forces in promoting discrimination and eviction, is something the wider national populist and reactionary unionist forces in the UK hopes to develop.
And now, following the Brexit vote, reactionary unionists see considerably greater opportunities to advance their sectarianism and other reactionary policies. The UDA hasbeen involved in behind-the-scenes deals with the DUP to pressure for a Brexit that meets its aims. And, in return for propping up May’s government, the DUP has accepted the suspension of the post-Good Friday Stormont. This also ends the embarrassment caused by their growing corruption and their continued opposition to social policies, which younger people from both communities support. DUP leader, Arlene Foster’s own involvement in Cash-for-Ash corruption could be buried, now that Stormont is mothballed.
At the highpoint period of liberal unionism in the UK, the DUP’s Peter Robinson, Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley Junior had been prepared to give Stormont a go. This led to the emergence of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ phenomenon – Ian Paisley Senior and Martin McGuinness. Robinson and Paisley Junior found the new Stormont provided plenty of opportunities to line their own pockets. However, the more hardline Arlene Foster thinks there is more to be gained for reactionary unionism at the UK level. Westminster, under the control of the Tory Right, now forms the DUP’s backstop for ‘Ulster’ reaction. And if May still holds on to some of Blair and Camerons’ old social liberalism, detested by the DUP, then the socially reactionary Jacob Rees-Mogg is there in the wings. He has visited Northern Ireland, following a path to ‘Ulster’ adopted by UKIPs Nigel Farage – notice those UK, not just British initials in the party’s name.
The DUP now appears to be in the position of being the ‘Ulster’ Loyalist tail able to wag the British Unionist dog. That could still change in the future. It did so for a disheartened Conservative and Unionist, Sir Edward Carson, when the UK government partitioned his beloved unionist Ireland under the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1921; and it did so for Ulster Unionists, when previously ardent UUP supporter, Margaret Thatcher, signed up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. However, in Northern Ireland, there is no longer any pretense of the UK government acting as the ‘honest broker’.
May’s government is the most reactionary that has existed at Westminster, since Lloyd George’s post-First World War Coupon Coalition government. This was dominated by the Conservative Unionists (including the Irish Unionists) with many Liberal, a few Labour and some further Right MPs. Perhaps the main difference today is, that over the Brexit issue, the DUP does not even represent the majority in the Six Counties. But May does not care. She has resorted to all the most reactionary features of the UK state to override Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. She welcomes DUP support. She is ‘taking back control’ on behalf of the national populist wing of the British ruling class, ready to step up their reactionary offensive. She will use whatever forces help her at a particular time, and discard them when they become an obstacle. Trump is another master of this technique.
The Good Friday Agreement brought Sinn Fein on board, as a junior partner in the running of the Northern-Irish sub-state. The now constitutional nationalist, Sinn Fein accepts the reformed Stormont set-up, which has an inbuilt Unionist/Loyalist veto. There is very little likelihood of Stormont, even if it were to be resuscitated, voting to allow an Irish reunification referendum to take place. And without this vote, there is even less chance of a UK government allowing such a referendum,
The reformed Stormont was created as part of the UK state’s liberal ‘New Unionist’ strategy to head off rising national democratic movements in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Sinn Fein hoped that an extended period of peace would create the conditions within Northern Ireland, whereby enough of those from the GFA’s officially designated Unionist/Loyalist bloc would eventually vote to allow a referendum on Irish reunification; and that a liberal unionist government in the UK would facilitate this. Joint membership of the EU would continue to soften the Partition on the Border. It was thought that this would also contribute to the breaking of down barriers between North and South.
However, in the post-Brexit voting, 2016 Westminster general election, the DUP won all but one traditionally Unionist seat. They retook the only seat held by the liberal unionist, Northern Irish, Alliance Party in East Belfast, as well as that of the constitutional nationalist SDLP in South Belfast. Under Westminster’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the DUP now holds three out of Belfast’s four seats. In contrast, earlier in 2016, in the Stormont election in with its transferable vote electoral system, Sinn Fein held 7 seats and the DUP only 5 seats, out of the city’s total of 20. This is another reason why the DUP is happy to mothball Stormont. And the DUP holds the whip hand over the conditions for any Stormont resuscitation.
And following the Brexit vote, the majority of the British ruling class now also supports reactionary unionism with regard to the UK constitution. They were shocked by the close vote in Scotland’s IndyRef1, and the subsequent 2015 SNP landslide victory at Westminster. This is why they have abandoned the idea of any further experimentation with liberal unionist constitutional reform. Their reactionary unionism means falling back on the most anti-democratic features of the Crown-in-Westminster. They are prepared to undo concessions made under the earlier liberal unionist order. The Brexit campaign and its result greatly strengthened reactionary unionism. Therefore, Sinn Fein’s Irish reunification strategy, based on an alliance of constitutional nationalism and liberal unionism, has hit a metaphorical brick wall, but still one as hard as the concrete ‘Peace Walls’ of Belfast.
Sinn Fein has ditched much of its older Irish populist politics – including opposition to the EEC/EU. Sinn Fein began to see the EU as the provider of an economic framework, which transformed the old inward looking, still big farmer dominated, traditional Ireland. This Ireland had still been economically dependent upon the UK. Following the precedent of the one-time, official Communist, but now social democrat parties, and the Left Greens, Sinn Fein joined the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group at the EU’s Strasbourg parliament. Although, the EU was being increasingly dragged along a neo-liberal course, the GUE/NGL’s international, Left social democratic, diplomatic alliance still saw the possibilities of changing the EU. Sinn Fein also adopted Left social democratic, neo-Keynesian economic policies. They saw a European Ireland as offering better prospects for longer term economic, social and political reform than an Ireland outside the EU. This would be even more prey to the UK and US.
The drastic treatment meted out to Ireland by the post-2008 EU Troika and by the UK government and banks, did not fundamentally alter Sinn Fein’s course. Despite the even more severe treatment meted out by the Troika to fellow GUE/NGL member party, Syriza, in Greece, it had not been the Left Grexiters who benefitted, but the Right Grexiter and neo-fascist Golden Dawn. Young Greeks now mostly consider themselves to be Greek Europeans. They have no wish to return either to the more insular days of civil war, or of military rule, which preceded Europeanisation. They can now build new lives, with far more international connections, including work, education and travel. Similarly, young people in Ireland are now more likely to see themselves as progressive Irish-Europeans than as traditional conservative Catholic Irish. Long used to emigration, whether to the US or UK, the EU added new welcome options for young people This has contributed to two impressive referenda victories in what had been as socially conservative Catholic Ireland – the first over gay marriage, the second over abortion rights.
A sizeable section of Sinn Fein’s older members, particularly in rural areas, still hang on to aspects of their socially conservative Catholicism. But the new, more socially progressive, Sinn Fein leadership, with Mary Lou Macdonald in the South and Michelle O’Neill in the North, have relied heavily upon EU induced liberalisation from above to overcome their party’s traditional social conservatism. As a consequence the party has followed, rather than led, the young people mainly responsible for initiating these new social changes.
There is now a campaign to extend these social changes to the North, where the DUP and other reactionaries have used their veto powers to obstruct any social advance. There is also the Borders Communities Against Brexit campaign. However, whether at Stormont, with its Unionist/Loyalist in-built veto, or at Westminster with its Tory/DUP alliance, reactionary unionism is in the ascendancy.
The liberal constitutionalism, which informs EU politics, meant that the GFA transcended the anti-democratic, unwritten, UK constitution. The GFA amounted to an international treaty guaranteed by the EU and the US. The significance of the opposition of the Brexiteers, including the DUP, to the EU is clear. They see the need for the UK, with its reactionary Crown-in-Westminster powers “to take back control.” An unwritten constitution allows the British ruling class to make it up as they go along, something May now does daily.
But this new situation provides a challenge for the now constitutionalist nationalist Sinn Fein in Ireland, as well, as for the constitutional nationalist SNP in Scotland. They have placed the further advance of their reunification and/or independence hopes upon liberal political support in the EU and the US, and upon liberal unionist accommodation in the UK. These political pre-conditions are no longer there.
For an earlier discussion and debate between David and Allan at the beginning of IndyRef1 see:-