SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 207 April 2017

Northern Ireland

Brexit and the border

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were bitterly fought around issues raised by the Brexit referendum – and, for the first time, unionist parties lost their majority. With the executive in limbo, unable as yet to form an administration, new elections could be called. Direct rule from Westminster could be re-imposed. Whatever the immediate outcome, sectarian wounds have been reopened, writes STEPHEN BOYD.

"In the early hours of Saturday morning last, we witnessed ‘The Fall of the Berlin Wall of Stormont’, which ended majority unionism for the first time in a century. This is a psychologically debilitating moment for unionism, with nationalists now breathing down the throats of the Democratic Unionist Party. The unionist party came home with just one seat more – 28 – than Sinn Féin did – 27 – in the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election". (Eamonn Mallie, Irish Times, 6 March)

The ending of a majority in Stormont for the unionist parties may not be immediately permanent, as increased turnout by Protestant voters and co-operation between the unionist parties at the next election may see them regain lost seats. However, the fact that it has happened once is a defining moment in Irish history. For Catholic nationalists it is an indication that they are moving closer to a united Ireland; for Protestant unionists it signals that the union with Britain is under threat.

Uncertainty hangs over the talks to re-establish the Assembly Executive. Potentially, the parties could fail to reach an agreement and either a new election will be called or the talks process will be extended by the Northern Ireland secretary of state, James Brokenshire, or direct rule will be implemented by the British government from Westminster.

The ‘fresh start’ agreement proved to be another false dawn in the so-called ‘peace process’. On 21 November 2016, Arlene Foster of the DUP and Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin issued a joint statement marking six months of the new Assembly Executive. They stated: "Day by day, slowly but surely, politics here is changing. And it’s for the better… This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding. Just ministers getting on with the work".

Eight weeks later, the executive had collapsed. The statement from Foster and McGuinness was a cynical attempt to perpetuate the illusion of consensus. The resultant election turned out to be one of the most sectarian in a generation, bringing back into the open the deep sectarian divisions. Festering behind the PR and spin were the same issues that after 20 years of the ‘peace process’ have still not been dealt with. Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, commented: "The days of leaving the debate on a united Ireland for another time are over… History has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to advance this entirely legitimate and logical objective. Let’s not waste it". (Sunday Times, 19 March)

Since the assembly election the media has been bubbling with discussion on the prospects for a united Ireland in the next period. Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and now Fianna Fáil (right-wing conservatives in the Republic) argue that Brexit is an accelerant of a process they believe will inexorably and inevitably lead to a united Ireland. They argue that leaving the European Union will be an economic disaster for the North, that Northern Ireland needs a special arrangement with the EU and that, ultimately, its future will be better served as part of one unitary Irish state in the EU.

The focus of the various hues of Irish nationalist politicians has been on the need to put forward credible arguments as to why a united Ireland will provide a better future. Fianna Fáil is preparing a white paper on the mechanics of how Irish reunification could be achieved. Sinn Féin wants an Oireachtas (Dáil and Senate – both houses of parliament) all-party committee set up to draft a green paper on reunification. It is calling for a border poll, and for simultaneous referenda to be held North and South on the question of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK.

Within hours of the call by the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Nicola Sturgeon, for a second Scottish independence referendum, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s new Northern Irish leader, said that the need for an ‘Irish unity referendum’ was urgent, and that her party wanted to see it take place ‘as soon as possible’.

Brexit talks tightrope

The Brexit negotiations will be significant for Northern Ireland’s economy as 60% of its exports are to the EU – 37% go to the South. In the event of a ‘hard economic border’, which cannot be ruled out, trade between North and South will be affected. If the UK exits the EU without agreement on a customs union then the potential for a hard border, with customs posts and restrictions on the movement of people, would become a reality. However, it is not as simple as the pro-remain parties in the North and the Southern government just putting forward a credible case.

The EU will be reluctant to agree a special arrangement for Northern Ireland because of the potential knock-on effects. Would the North be given special treatment without Scotland also getting similar rights? An advantageous deal for Scotland, which is being sought by Sturgeon, will be problematic for the Tory government in Westminster as it would strengthen the SNP’s hand in its campaign for independence and could lead to a breakup of the UK. It would also be problematic for the Spanish state which is engaged in a battle with independence campaigners in Catalonia. Special arrangements for Northern Ireland and/or Scotland would spur on nationalist forces in Catalonia.

The DUP is another factor in this process of course. It was triumphant at the Brexit vote and is politically committed to the idea that the UK will prosper better outside of the EU. Even if it was to reluctantly accept some form of special deal with the EU, which cannot be ruled out, it would only do so in the context of no change whatsoever in the status of the North as part of the UK, an arrangement that was not seen as a shift towards a united Ireland.

The DUP’s current position is that Northern Ireland as part of the UK will leave the EU. It dismisses the argument of Sinn Féin and the SDLP that a majority voted in the North to remain on the grounds that Northern Ireland participated as a region in a UK-wide referendum. The DUP will resist attempts to undermine that aspect of the referendum vote as it will argue that separating out the North from the rest of the UK would weaken its position within the UK. The whole process of the Brexit negotiations and the issue of a special arrangement for the North, as well as the potential for a hard border, have the potential to increase sectarian tensions significantly. They may even result in conflict.

A majority of Northern Irish Catholics voted to remain in the EU. This was in part because the two main nationalist parties campaigned for this position. It was also because they see the EU as a guarantor of their human rights and a block to a return to the discrimination they suffered under the Protestant-run Orange State. A hard border post-Brexit would be seen as a significant setback by Northern Irish Catholics, and a roadblock to a united Ireland. It might also result in a significant increase in support among Catholics for Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll and would significantly destabilise the situation.

Writing an opinion piece in the Irish News on 3 February, Denis Bradley, ex-priest, former vice-chairman of the police board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and a moderate nationalist, explained that a hard border would have significant consequences: "I think it impossible to go back to the past. The memories are too vivid, the consequences too disruptive. I think the backlash from the native population would be so great that they would be likely to tear down any new customs structure with their bare hands. It might be possible to recruit custom officials from outside the border areas but they might come to view the job as akin to the Bluecoats of the US cavalry entering Apache territory".

A hard border with customs posts and border checks would be a target for protests by nationalists and, potentially, for military attacks by dissident republican groups such as the New IRA. Sinn Féin’s latest electoral success will cut across the ability of the dissident republicans to win over discontented Sinn Féin supporters in the immediate period. However, the current situation and the resulting growth in sectarianism can create the conditions for both dissident republicans and loyalists to recruit disaffected youth, opening up the possibility for armed sectarian conflict to return to the streets.

Border poll issue

The vote in the June 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit put the question of the border back centre-stage. The overall turnout across the UK was 72.2%. In Northern Ireland it was 62.7%, but in mainly Catholic working class West Belfast it was only 48.9%, the lowest (by a significant amount) of any constituency in Northern Ireland and Britain. Although the vote in West Belfast was 74.1% to remain, the low turnout reflected a failure by the pro-remain parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, to inspire significant numbers of their constituents to come out and back continued membership of the EU.

This low turnout reflected the anger, discontent and disillusionment among working class people in West Belfast. This anger towards Sinn Féin, because of its role in implementing austerity and being seen to allow the DUP to dominate it in government, was a major factor in Sinn Féin’s decision to bring down the Assembly Executive.

In Northern Ireland, 55.8% voted to remain, 44.2% to leave. The referendum vote in the North was divided, broadly speaking, along sectarian lines, with greater support for staying in the EU among Catholics than Protestants. Within the Protestant community there was a class divide, with a majority in working class areas voting to leave and more middle class and ‘affluent’ areas voting to remain.

Sinn Féin is campaigning for the secretary of state James Brokenshire to call a border poll under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. This allows for a poll to be called if there are indications that a majority would vote for a united Ireland. Brokenshire spoke in Westminster after Taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny had raised the prospect of a future vote on Irish unity in the wake of Brexit: "I have been quite straightforward in relation to the issue of the border poll. The conditions are set out very clearly in relation to the Belfast Agreement and I have been very clear that I do not think those conditions have been met".

The assembly election result, Brexit, the potential for a hard border and a second Scottish independence referendum (maybe in 2018) have created the tumultuous conditions whereby there will be growing support among Northern Irish Catholics for Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll. The DUP will play upon the fears among Protestants about the future of the Union, fears which have increased significantly since Sinn Féin’s successful election.

Sinn Féin will attempt to overcome the lack of progress towards its goal of a united Ireland by peddling the lie to the Catholic community that a border poll is a step in this direction. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin will increasingly use sectarianism in an attempt to distract their voters from their failure to deliver a fundamental improvement in people’s lives.

Gerry Adams has said: "There is now a democratic imperative for a border poll". This line of argument is supported by the SDLP and, unfortunately, also by People Before Profit which stated: "We are for the right of the people of the North, and Ireland as a whole, to hold referenda on whether or not the border should remain. This is simply a matter of basic democracy". This formalistic approach to the right of self-determination shows a disregard for the realities of the sectarian division that exists in Northern Ireland.

The idea that the national question in Ireland can be resolved by a vote in a referendum is a dangerous fantasy. Many Catholics may wish to express the right to self-determination but a majority vote to leave the UK in a border poll would not result in Northern Irish Protestants miraculously abandoning their opposition to a united Ireland. It would strengthen their opposition and spawn the conditions for new conflict and even civil war.

The Socialist Party does not support the call for a border poll on the grounds that such a poll would result in further sectarian division. We are opposed to the coercion of Catholics into remaining within Northern Ireland but we are equally opposed to the coercion of Protestants into a united Ireland. There can be no solution to the sectarian conflict except one based on the unity of the Protestant and Catholic working class for a shared socialist future, united in a struggle against the poverty and deprivation imposed by capitalism.

Sinn Féin’s view of Irish unity

In the foreword of ‘Towards a United Ireland’, published by Sinn Féin in 2016, Gerry Adams writes: "In almost every facet of life, co-operation has improved and people’s lives are better… Brexit is bad news for the people of Ireland, North and South. Nevertheless, it also opens up a unique opportunity to look again at a future beyond partition, sectarianism and division, and to a new and agreed united Ireland built in the interests of all the people of this island".

Nowhere in this document does it speak of the needs and interests of the working class or what type of social and economic system would prevail in its vision of a united Ireland. Socialism is a word not used. This discussion document is fundamentally based on the idea of building a capitalist united Ireland. Adams continues by saying this would be "an opportunity to create a new state in which religious and civil liberties are guaranteed… including the right to a job, to a home, to a decent standard of education, a clean environment and a health system that cares for all".

These aspirations are impossible to deliver on the basis of capitalism. Nowhere in the world, not even in the wealthiest and most successful capitalist economies, do the working class enjoy such rights. If Sinn Féin got its way and achieved some of what it calls the ‘key steps’ towards Irish reunification, it would not result in a greater unity among people but in greater division. In the document, Sinn Féin argues for the appointment of an Irish government Minister of State for Irish Unity, and a North-South Ministerial Council to work on unity, etc. Moves in this direction would shatter the already fragile power-sharing structures and Sinn Féin would get a rude awakening from its unity dream-world.

At the time of the Provisional IRA ceasefire, the Socialist Party stated that one of the key reasons why the IRA had ended the armed struggle was because it realised that the biggest barrier it faced to a united Ireland was not the British state but the opposition of one million Protestants. In this new document, Sinn Féin’s vision is not for a socialist Ireland free of sectarianism and division. Rather, it attempts the impossible: to reunite the island while maintaining the sectarian division.

There is no talk of the separation of church and state, or for a secular education system and integrated education. Instead: "A constitutional guarantee of a pluralist education system that reflects the two main traditions on the island". It talks of "recognition of the place of the loyal institutions (including the Orange Order) in the cultural life of the nation… Expression being given to the relationship between unionists and the British monarchy". It takes up where the Good Friday Agreement leaves off. That created institutionalised sectarianism. Sinn Féin’s new vision for a united Ireland is a further extension of this and is an acceptance that sectarian division is permanent.

Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the nationalist parties in the South, who argue either for a border poll or for steps to be taken to create the conditions for a transition to a united Ireland, ignore at their peril the opposition of the overwhelming majority of Northern Irish Protestants. Moves towards such a poll will increase sectarian tension. People will be put under enormous pressure to choose a side. Protestants would further harden their position of opposition to a united Ireland, fearful that they would suffer in an economically weak all-Ireland state. Under the status quo of capitalism, a border poll would be a vote on how to share out misery. It would not be the stepping stone to a shining new prosperity that Sinn Féin promises. In fact, rather than bridging the sectarian divisions, the triumphalism of Sinn Féin and its push for a poll and debate on bringing Irish unity could lead to conflict on the streets.

Unionist backlash

The failure of unionists to win a majority in the assembly election has resulted in a debate on unionist unity. Former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP, David Burnside, has called for the reformation of the United Ulster Unionist Council. This umbrella group was set up in 1974 to oppose power-sharing with the SDLP after the signing of the Sunningdale Agreement (1973), and played a key role in bringing down the power-sharing assembly after the Ulster Workers’ Council stoppage in May 1974.

David Campbell (former chairperson of the UUP) has entered the debate. He argues for electoral co-operation between the DUP, the UUP and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) in order to maximise the unionist vote. He wrote in the News Letter (9 March): "I appreciate that the DUP and UUP are hurting after a bruising election but I urge members of both parties to use this opportunity to build rather than destroy. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain from co-operating… Republicanism and the insidious nationalism of the Alliance Party remain our common enemy and a continuing threat to the Union. That common enemy is feeding off our disunity. It is my intention, along with some other like-minded colleagues, to commence a process of private consultation amongst senior members of the main unionist and loyalist parties with a view to producing a set of sensible co-operative proposals that can be put to the parties. Our prize is the continued security of the Union and wiping the triumphal grin off Gerry Adams!"

An electoral agreement by the unionist parties in order to maximise votes and seats, along with Sinn Féin and the SDLP’s resurgent nationalism and drive for reunification, means that all elections in Northern Ireland will now be dominated by the struggle for dominance between the leaders of the two sectarian camps.

On his St Patrick’s Day trip to the US to fawn at the feet of Donald Trump, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael (Christian Democrats), announced plans to hold a referendum to allow Irish citizens outside of the Republic to vote in future presidential elections. He envisages making the change for the 2025 presidential election. Sinn Féin has welcomed the proposal and argues that the referendum be held sooner in order to allow people in Northern Ireland to participate in the Irish presidential election due in 2018. Sinn Féin will use this referendum as evidence that it is succeeding in its goal of achieving a united Ireland.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement everyone born in Northern Ireland is automatically entitled to dual British and Irish citizenship. Predictably, there has been a unionist backlash against Kenny’s proposal. UUP MP and former party leader, Tom Elliot, said: "I don’t want polling stations set up here in Northern Ireland… That would be imposing on the people of Northern Ireland… If they need to vote, they need to find another way". In the context of Northern Ireland, this proposal will be used as a sectarian weapon by both nationalist and unionist politicians, and it will add fuel to the simmering sectarian unrest.

Potential for an alternative

The 2011 census showed that the majority of under-four year-olds were Catholic. The exact figures were 61,225 Catholics, 45,240 Protestants, 16,692 no religion, and 1,225 other religion. Even if the establishment parties can get the assembly up and running again, no amount of fudging of the controversial issues that divide society can stop the impact of the demographic changes that are underway. Sinn Féin argues that a time will come when a majority of the population will be Catholic nationalists and that, once that happens, all they have to do is vote for a united Ireland.

However, the demographic changes will not, as Sinn Féin claims, create the conditions whereby a majority of Protestants will accept the inevitability of change and participate in an ecumenical process towards Irish unity. The prevailing conditions and difficulties that arise from Brexit and the potential breakup of the UK will be added to and aggravated by the demographic change.

There is an urgent need to build a genuine cross-community working class party that can unite Protestant and Catholic people in opposition to the sectarian parties and to provide a socialist alternative. There is not unlimited time. The conditions exist for the eventual return to open sectarian conflict if an alternative to sectarianism is not created. Only next time the conflict will be more akin to those that tore apart Lebanon and the Balkans, open conflict between Protestant and Catholics with the potential to develop into a civil war.

The vast majority of working class people in Northern Ireland are opposed to going back to the conflicts of the past. Opportunities exist to unite working class people in opposition to the austerity of Stormont and Westminster. The growth in membership of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland from just a few hundred to 3,000 members and supporters, as part of the Corbyn surge, shows the potential support that a genuine working class party could win. Trade unionists, socialists, Labour Party members and community activists need to come together to unite in the struggle to create a socialist alternative to Sinn Féin, the DUP and the other sectarian parties.

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