How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 1

Celtic snp2_310902033This week I had a conversation arising out of Jeremy Corbyn’s interview in the Andrew Marr show on the BBC.  Like others I have spoken to who saw it I can’t remember ever making a point of watching until I knew it featured this interview.

The basic issue that arose was how Corbyn could claim to support a united Ireland but oppose Scottish independence.  Surely if you support the independence of one you should support it for the other?

Given that I agree with Corbyn I answered this question by pointing out that in both cases we were talking about removing borders (or stopping them being erected) and thereby preventing barriers to unity.

Through a united Ireland the unity of Irish people would be advanced, and by opposing the separation of Scotland from England and Wales you would support the unity of British people.  Since unity of the working class irrespective of nationality is a basic socialist principle it would require some argument to trump it.  None has been advanced for Scottish separation that isn’t either factually incorrect (like Scotland is an oppressed nation) or exceedingly weak (it would also be good for the English!).

An obvious response would be – does that mean you are also in favour of unity of Britain and Ireland?   And the answer is yes.  Provided the unity was one of equals, then there could be no objection to political arrangements that would further the erosion of national division and increase the grounds for united action by the working classes of the nationalities involved – English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.  Previous unity of the islands involved British imperialist domination that was rejected by the majority of the Irish people and history demonstrated that no unity of the peoples was possible under these conditions, at that time at least. As I pointed out in this discussion – I am in favour of a united Europe.

The independence of Ireland has not been an over-riding principle for socialists and this is something that divides us from republicans, including those describing themselves as socialist republicans, or more bizarrely, republican socialists, whose socialism is in reality a variety of republicanism.  So much so that their socialism is not a means to overcome national division but a means of emphasising their nationalism: ensuring what they believe will be effective independence as opposed to nominal independence under a neo-colonial yoke.

What matters to socialists therefore is the unity of people, particularly of the working class, which is the bearer of a new socialist society, and not particularly the unity of state formations.  This is why socialists support self-determination so that unity is the voluntary unity required to overcome national divisions and not the forced unity of foreign rule and occupation.

As I have said before the absence of violent repression by English armed forces in Scotland stands in stark contrast to British repression in Ireland.  So while socialists support self-determination for Scotland we believe it should be exercised by continuing voluntary unity with the rest of Britain.  That the majority of Scottish people decided this in the referendum is therefore to be welcomed.

But if this is the case why do I support the unity of the Northern and Southern Irish states when quite clearly the majority in the north do not favour unity with the south?  Surely that would involve the coerced unity that you have just said you oppose?

Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this argument that unlike the Scots the population of Northern Ireland is not a nation and therefore not subject to the right of self-determination.  Leave aside also the argument that even if we restrict ourselves to the Protestant population it too, while being an identifiable people, are also not a nation and any purported right to self-determination on their behalf is transparently a means of frustrating the right to self-determination of the Irish people as a whole.

We’ll also ignore the historical fact that any declared separateness of the Ulster Protestants is inaccurate because it does not refer to Ulster but a truncated part of it and did not seem to arise when the whole of the island was ruled by Britain, when the Protestant population in the North was quite happy to consider itself Irish, the specifically ‘loyal’ part of the nation.

It’s much harder to put aside the coerced separation of partition and the continual violence needed to maintain it even if this is usually, but not always, ‘merely’ in the form of a threat to the majority of the Irish people residing south of the border.

We will however also ignore the visceral opposition to considering themselves Irish that some Northern Protestants express when the idea of a united Ireland is proposed.  Down this road leads capitulation to the most deranged bigotry – I recall being told by my father that my uncle refused to eat off a white plate with a green trim in a bed and breakfast in Blackpool, such was his sectarian impulses.  He even apparently showed some ambivalence about supporting the Northern Ireland football team because they played in green – much better the red, white and blue of Linfield and Rangers.

While it is of no interest of socialists to impose national identities on peoples against their will it is necessary for such identities to have some grounding in reality to be considered seriously by everyone else.

On this basis however it might seem that Irish Protestants in the northern state have some grounds to claim separate political rights since they obviously are in some senses a separate people.  It might appear that it doesn’t matter whether this is a nationality, defined as ‘Northern Irish’ or as simply British inhabitants of part of Ireland, or both.

What matters however again is the objective basis for claiming rights to self-determination because some of the argumentation above is really beside the point.

And the point is that (some) Irish Protestants have been provided with what they can consider self-determination, exercised as unity under the British state, which they chose to participate in through rampant and systematic sectarian discrimination; itself reflecting the objective fact that their claims for national status were based primarily on sectarian self-identification as a colonial population in what they considered, when it suited them, was (26/32 of) a foreign country.

Since for socialists national rights are democratic rights, which are reactionary if without democratic content, it would appear that the right to self-determination of the Irish/Ulster Protestants or Northern Ireland, however one wants to put it, is a reactionary demand that cannot be supported.  And it cannot be supported because not only does it not facilitate the unity of peoples but it furthers their disunity along sectarian grounds, plus the division that arises from living in two separate Irish states.  The violent and sectarian history of this self-determination is cast iron proof of the thoroughly reactionary nature of Irish unionism.

2 thoughts on “How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 1

  1. I should correct the last line by removing ‘better’ from the alternative. It is one alternative but I can’t say for sure that it is a better one. Looking at the matter from the point of view of the British Establishment keeping Scotland within the British Union would seem to be more important than keeping the north of Ireland within the union. This raises the question why has so much repression has been directed against the recent Irish secession movement and so little against the current Scottish secession movement. I have my own theory on it and no doubt have yours. My theory is that the so called right of self-determination is in reality a right of session from a sovereign State. Sovereign States usually don’t permit this right to get traction even though it is is sometimes part of the political constitution. Sovereign States often conflate secession with revolution. This conflation is really very pronounced, my favourite example is the American declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is the political philosopher of secession not of bourgeois revolution. The British Establishment reacted to the social disturbances that we call the Troubles as if it was facing down a revolution or coming revolution. This may have been down to the International circumstances of 1968 and the Cold War. There is an added complication in respect of the right of secession question. The right of secession has not been granted to Scotland without strings. Another issue is the completed point about having a right to secede from a Sovereign State is typically withheld from individuals and minorities and the British Establishment could maintain that the ‘Catholics’ in the North were a minority and the Protestants a majority. That stalwart Unionist MP John Taylor always referred to the northern nationalists as the minority community. So the British Establishment genuinely believed that they were standing on good ground because they were standing by the right of the majority to remain British.

  2. This is the most thought out accounts you have provided to date. There is still a little more to do on it. You have largely separated the concept of democratic rights from national identity. The democratic State is founded on a principle not beholden to a national consciousness expressing uniqueness or separateness. The remaining question concerns the guiding principle of the phrase ‘democratic rights.’ The phrase is not without some duplicity. The guiding political principle is sometimes said to be freedom and sometimes said to be equality. If I was a philosopher I would say that freedom is a subjective state of will or consciousness and equality is an objective state of
    social being. This distinction may turn out to be of some importance in the case of a divided Ireland. The terms of the Good Friday Agreement were ratified by a vote in both jurisdictions that made it an edict of State law that there could be no future unity without majority consent being demonstrated in both jurisdictions. The consent principle presupposes the existence of subjective will or consciousness, so its guiding political principle is freedom. However if the guiding political principle is said to be equality, an objective state of social being, then the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement is questionable. Why should a ‘class’ of people who are unequal in social being as the ‘nationalist minority’ in the north of Ireland have always been, concede that the Good Friday Agreement is legitimate because a majority of the already free Irish in the South have consented to its terms on their behalf? It can be argued that every conception of democratic rights that emphasizes freedom and consent can in some circumstances lead to a free majority agreeing to keep an unequal minority in chains. The conception of democratic rights that emphasizes the social being of equality is therefore a better alternative.

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