We are posting this article from Republic Media (Ireland) outlining why it is very unlikely there will be a Border Poll anytime soon. This article also breaks out of the Irish nationalist exceptionalist tradition and draws evidence from recent events in Scotland.
This is followed by a comment by Allan Armstrong, RCF, RSP about the class nature of the Brexit/Irexit campaign.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – but there isn’t going to be a border poll!
I’ve thought about writing this article for quite some time, but something always stopped me; it’s a story that no one wants to hear. Those who have committed themselves to the pursuit of a border poll as a key political objective towards Irish unity do not – understandably – want to believe that it isn’t on the table. Those who believe that no border poll is required to end partition are also uninterested, because for them, a border poll would change nothing and its occurrence is unimportant – Ireland is one country already and partitioning the republic of 1916 was unconstitutional.
I want to challenge all of these assumptions and argue that – yes, a border poll would matter in terms of realpolitik because it would force the British government to give up on the pretence that they have some kind of mandated role in Ireland, but no – it isn’t going to happen and we should have our eyes open about that. To explain my reasoning, I want to walk you through some key events in English and Scottish politics in the last decade – these may seem unrelated to the question of a border poll, but they are not, as we shall see.
First, let’s go back to the Edinburgh Agreement on the 15th of October 2012 – this was when the SNP-led Scottish assembly negotiated with the British government for the Scottish independence referendum to happen in 2014. David Cameron was the then British prime minister, and he wanted his legacy to be the settling of the British constitutional position (as he said, “for a generation” in the case of Scotland, and “forever” in the case of British membership of the EU).
The majority faction within the British establishment at that time (consisting of both the Labour Blairites and the Conservative Thatcherites) regarded this as an important legitimising exercise – the constitutional arrangements which underpinned the UK had to be validated by a series of votes.
The Scottish independence and Brexit referenda were therefore calculated risks. They did not want to adopt the ‘Spanish model’ of simply refusing all requests for referenda (to Catalonia and the Basque Country) outright, fearing that such a policy would eventually lead to increasing tensions and disfunction. Prior to the Edinburgh agreement, Cameron had very good reason to believe that the decision which Scotland would make was not in any real doubt. Opinion polls before the agreement was signed gave the unionist side a very comfortable, average 18.1% lead. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals joined together to campaign for a ‘No’ vote on independence, but only narrowly won – Cameron should have taken this as a warning that affirming the British state’s position through referenda was too risky – but he didn’t.
Prior to the Brexit referendum, the opinion polling was much closer. Cameron’s determination to secure his legacy cost him the office of British prime minister. Only a few hours after the results of the referendum were announced, he was forced to resign. We know for a fact that Cameron’s government never considered losing to be a possibility, because they refused to make any contingency plans for this outcome. It was entirely for the sake of proving that the UK’s position in the world was affirmed by democratic consent. Again, they felt that they didn’t have to worry about it; political support for Brexit was limited to a minority faction of the Conservative party (along with UKIP, and the Unionists in the six counties). The majority of the Conservatives, along with almost all of Labour, the Liberals, the Greens, the trade union movement, the SNP and an array of NGOs were in favour of remaining within the EU. What happened on June 23rd 2016 was not supposed to happen.
We should recall that in the years following the result, every attempt was made by the mainstream establishment of the day (then represented by Theresa May) to walk-back the referendum result – to convert it into ‘BRINO’ (Brexit In Name Only) – and, of course, to “give the British voters a chance to change their minds”, in a re-run referendum. The Pro-Brexit faction, although small, were savvy political operators. They turned ‘Brexit’ into the ultimate anti-establishment populist cause, accused the political class of trying to overturn the referendum result (which was, of course, true) and formed the ‘Brexit Party’. They immediately turned English politics on it’s head, first sweeping aside all other parties in the European elections in May 2019, and fully intending to go on to win the General Election later in the year. By June they were polling ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives, the latter of which saved themselves in the only way they could – by adopting Nigel Farage’s entire platform as their own; enter Boris Johnson – the Conservatives then became the Brexit party.
We need to be very clear about a few things when we look at all that transpired since Cameron sat down with Alex Salmond to set this process of ‘constitutional validation’ in motion in 2012: This period is now viewed as a catastrophe by the British establishment. They didn’t want Brexit, and they fought it every step of the way. Had the Brexiteers been less politically and electorally effective, there is no doubt that ‘BRINO’ would have been the end result of the 2015 vote. Equally, had the SNP produced a shock win in their 2014 independence referendum, there is no doubt that ‘SIINO’ (Scottish Independence In Name Only) would have been the result – as the SNP could never do what the Brexit Party did – threaten to win-over the base of England’s Conservative and Labour voters, upon which the whole of the Westminster political system rests.
The upshot of the events of the past eight years is that the border poll strategy for Irish republicans – whatever chance it may have had of eventually coming to fruition before (as the 2014 referendum did in Scotland) – is now dead and buried. The British establishment today is divided between the ultra-nationalist Brexiteers who view Irish or Scottish separatism with complete distain, and the old David Cameron / Theresa May / Tony Blair / Keir Starmer establishment who view the constitutional risk-taking of the past decade to have been the greatest of political blunders. There is no longer a faction of the British establishment which will countenance a border poll in Ireland under any circumstances.
If you need clear evidence for this – let’s return to Scotland and look at it. The SNP last month released their ‘roadmap to a [second] referendum’ on independence. They have said that if they win the next Scottish elections in May, they will hold the referendum – or rather, they will request permission from the British government to hold one, saying “there could be no moral or democratic justification for denying that request”, and adding that if the UK government did adopt that position, it would be “unsustainable both at home and abroad”. Despite this claim, the SNP are already implying that they won’t get the go-ahead for a second referendum, and are floating the idea of the “advisory referendum” instead (one with no legal standing, which the British government can simply ignore).
It is worth taking a step back here to acknowledge just how much further away Scottish independence is now, when compared to the pre-Brexit era. The British government won’t give them another referendum, and all sides know that this position isn’t “unsustainable”, just as it isn’t unsustainable for the Spanish to deny an independence referendum to Catalonia in perpetuity.
In both Ireland and Scotland the penny has perhaps not yet dropped with most people, but the referendum route is already closed. Anyone who still wants to campaign for a border poll here can of course do so if their aim is to ‘call the bluff’ of the British government (force them to officially reject applications for a referendum) – but they should not become despondent when that rejection comes. They should understand now, at this point, that there will not be a legally binding border poll, or second Scottish independence vote.
Those who said that the ‘referendum route’ was a dead-end to begin with will, I believe, be conclusively and undeniably be proven correct, but it is they who will then have the most heavy burden of responsibility of all – to lay out the strategy for independence which comes next, in the face of the British government’s outright denial of ‘peaceful and democratic means’.
12th February 2021
This piece is written by a former Republican prisoner and associate of Republic Media, who has decided not to disclose his name publicly to allow for the opinions contained within this article to stand on their own merit.
This article was first posted at:-
2. A Comment by Allan Armstrong
The argument in this article connecting the unlikelihood of either a Border Poll in Ireland or a straightforward IndyRef2 in Scotland is persuasive. It is also very welcome, since many republicans or socialist republicans in Ireland have tended to keep the issue of Irish self-determination, i.e. Irish reunification, separate from the national democratic challenges to the UK state in Scotland (and Wales). Two notable exceptions to this have been former hunger striker and communist republican, Tommy McKearney’s invitation to the SSP International Committee to address the Independent Workers Union conference in Dublin in April 2009, and eirigi’s invitation to the Radical Independence Campaign to address their ard fheis in Newry in November 2014.
However, the Republic Media article misjudges the British ruling class’s attitude to Brexit, believing they were overwhelmingly opposed. In reality they were divided. The Euro-sceptics led by David Cameron were certainly expecting victory over the Europhobes who led the Brexit campaign. But the official Brexit campaign was fronted by Boris Johnson and Nigel Lawson, central figures for the British ruling class. They ran the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign. However, they formed a symbiotic relationship with the unofficial and much more openly British chauvinist and racist ‘Grassroots Out’ campaign led by Nigel Farage.
What gave this Brexit campaign so much influence was not so much
savvy political operators but its connections to the US Hard Right, and in particular Donald Trump and his backers. Between them ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘Grassroots Out’ spent money more than the official ‘Stronger in Europe’ campaign, indicating serious ruling class backing. The DUP was one conduit for ‘dark money’. As soon as the Brexit vote was passed (on the basis of a rigged franchise), Trump announced his US presidential candidacy, as “Brexit, plus, plus, plus.”
In the process, Cameron’s ‘Project Fear’ was challenged not by the ‘Project Hope’ of the Scottish IndyRef1 campaign, but by the ‘Project Hate’ of ‘Grassroots Out’. The official ‘Vote Leave’ could verbally distance itself from ‘Grassroot Out’s undisguised racism, whilst considerably benefitting from it too. And this was to form a continuous pattern. The pro-Brexit section of the British ruling class soon became leaders of the Tory Party. May saw off UKIP in 2017. Johnson, then played the Brexit Party for his backers’ own ends (standing back in the May 2019 EU election, when the Brexit Party got 30.5% and the ’s Tories 8.8% of the vote). Once he became Tory leader he forced Farage to retreat and in the December 2019 Westminster election the Tories got 43.6% and Brexit Party 2% of the vote.
At no point did the British ruling class give serious backing to BRINO, and by October 2019, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, was giving his backing to Johnson’s Deal. Theresa May, far from trying to bring about BRINO, helped to shift the terms of the debate even further Right. “No Deal is Better than a Bad Deal” Brexit.
In this she was assisted not only by the pro-Brexit DUP (who wanted on to push this even more, with the further undermining of the Good Friday Agreement as their aim), but by the very British Corbyn-led Labour Party, and the ‘British jobs for British workers’ pushed by trade union bureaucrats, especially UNITE general secretary Len McCluskey. Trying to out-Brexit the Tories had a similar catastrophic effect upon Corbyn’s British Labour Party in December 2019 (reduced from 262 to 191 MPs), as trying to out-Unionist the Tories had on Ed Miliband’ branch office, the Scottish Labour Party in 2015 (reduced from 41 to 1 MPs in Scotland).
Whatever the illusions held by various Left Brexiters and Irexiters, Brexit and Irexit have always been dominated by the Right (and this is true of Exiteers elsewhere in the EU). The Hard Right Populists and the Far Right want to step up attacks on migrants and asylum seekers. They want to undermine the ‘internationalism form below’ unity already achieved by EU workers and their families. They want to reverse the top-down liberalisation of their states’ traditional social conservatism and reaction, because the EU opened the space for campaigns over women’s, gay and transgendered rights. Significantly these have been cross-border campaigns.
We should see Irish reunification on our class terms, not the 26 Counties Irish state’s (should the Irish ruling class ever be persuaded) because this provides an opportunity for greater class unity. But we also need to have our own European unification vision. This is not that of the EU bureaucracy backed by existing EU member states which do not include Scotland, Catalunya or Euskadi. Instead, we should be campaigning for a democratic, secular, federal, socially just and environmentally sustainable, European Republic, based on the ‘internationalism from below’ already achieved, but needing defended and further advanced.
15th February 2021