Should socialists support a border poll? 2 – is a majority enough?

For some people, getting a simple majority in the North of Ireland is not sufficient to justify a united Ireland, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is not the first leading southern politician to question whether it would be enough.  The unionist leader Peter Robinson has also said that any border poll on Northern Ireland’s future in the UK could not be conducted on the basis of a simple majority.  Varadkar has said that an Irish unity poll would be divisive and “a bad idea”, that the idea of a “majority of one” would lead to chaos, and questioned whether it would be a “good thing”.

The Irish establishment, the classes it is based on, and the politicians who represent it are quite happy with partition, and are more or less at one on this with unionists.  As former Taoiseach Jack Lynch put it some decades ago, “if we were given a gift of Northern Ireland tomorrow, we could not accept it.”

In the North a recent opinion poll recorded that more than half of unionists rejected the idea of a referendum completely, while 90 per cent of nationalists wanted one within five years.  A slight majority of all respondents supported the idea of ’50 per cent plus one’, while almost 20 per cent said a two-thirds majority should be required.  A majority of unionists advocated a 70 per cent threshold while nearly 90 per cent of nationalists favoured 50 per cent plus one.

Behind the numbers however is the question of what the purpose of unity is and what it would be for. The SDLP leader John Hume used to repeat, seemingly endlessly, that it wasn’t territory that needed to be united but people.  And for socialists this is indeed the case, with perhaps a further three vital considerations.

The first is that the unity to be achieved is not just unity between North and South but within the North as well; secondly that it is the unity of the working class that is decisive for real progressive change and thirdly, that unity of territory really means a united State, and states and their practices have been decisive in the past in dividing the working class.  So, it isn’t simply a question of uniting two pieces of land or of territory, but of the political arrangements upon which they sit.

It might thus seem that the Socialist Party is correct for example to emphasise workers unity, and in tune with unionism and the southern establishment, to state that a border poll would be ‘very divisive’; could be seen as “a dangerous development”, is not a “democratic” solution”, would amount to “coercion”, and would be similar in effect to such things as the Anglo-Irish Agreement and flag protests in 2012/2013, which “will inflame opinion in Protestant working class areas . . . and will cause harm to the cause of working class unity.”

It is not necessary to agree with the strong formulations of the Socialist Party in order to start from the question of working class unity, because that is indeed the objective. But in doing so it is necessary to appreciate that at the present time there is an absence of such unity, between Irish workers in the North and those in the South, and within the North.  Such things as common membership of a trade union does not constitute such unity.

For a Marxist workers unity means some sort of political unity, based on material circumstances that includes union membership, but which must also take into account political consciousness and the existing profound political division of the working class.  Opposing a border poll on the grounds of protecting the status quo because it contains some sort of working class unity is not therefore an option, except in so far as we do not want to make the disunity that exists worse.

Unfortunately, given the economism of the SP, which routinely identifies purely economic issues with class issues and struggles around employment and wages etc. as precursors of socialism, it means that the Party consistently overstates the extent to which workers unity already exists.  This tends to lead to the view that any change to the current arrangements must entail some sort of promise of ‘socialism’.

So while the leaders of the Party state that “we are clear that we do not in any way ignore the rights of Catholics. It has always been the case that we take into consideration the intense desire for change of working- class Catholics and we recognise the positive side of this intense desire for change”, such a claim always struggles to find expression in their programme.

So while they oppose a border poll for not being democratic because it will “inflame Protestant opinion”, cause “widespread anger in the Protestant community”, “mass protests” and “street violence”, they seem not to comprehend the message thereby sent to Catholic workers.

For these workers, the Northern Ireland State is a single gerrymandered sectarian constituency that has routinely discriminated against them and used repression in every decade of its existence to enforce their subordination.  In the 1960s some campaigned for civil rights to overturn the most flagrant gerrymandering within the state, but they are now being told to accept the gerrymandering of the state, even if they are in a majority!

Having fought for ”one man one vote”, many unionists (and analogously the SP) are now saying to Catholic workers that they should either not be able to vote in a poll, or they can vote, but they will have to gain a two-thirds or 70 per cent majority; in other words they will still not be able to have ‘one person, one vote’.  A Catholic vote will not be equal to a Protestant vote and they will still in effect be denied their civil rights.

And for what reason? Because of opposition within the Protestant population to the denial of their ‘identity’ as British?  In the name of opposing sectarian division the Socialist Party has thus found itself opposing civil rights on the grounds of sectarian identity.  And this from a Party that claims to oppose ‘identity’ politics and base itself on class politics.

The position of the Party actually makes its position one of the most reactionary of those opposed to a border poll.  Like its position on Brexit its economism, and the general limitations of its politics, finds it planted in the most reactionary camp.  How bad this is is clear from its employment of the flags protest as a case justifying its opposition to the minor political border arising from customs and regulatory checks in any East-West border that might arise from Brexit.

There is no attempt by it to define or defend some arbitrary majority that should be respected in a border poll, should it be 50%+1 or 2/3 or 70%, but simply that a poll cannot be entertained because it will inflame Protestant opinion.  In effect what we have is a sectarian veto and a defence of the continued existence of the Northern State as a sectarian one, justified only by its sectarian composition, by the opposition of some part of the Protestant working class through its identification with Britishness, an identification defined by loyalty to the monarchy, the Protestant religion, and British imperialist conquest. The logic of such sectarian privilege could easily be extended to all political practices within the state  because no limits are placed on the salience of this Protestant opinion.

In such circumstances no amount of explanation that this represents legitimate opposition by Protestant workers to Catholic sectarian claims would be the least convincing.  Nor would any claim that there was anything progressive about it, such as Protestant opposition to a ‘capitalist’ united Ireland as if – given their wholly reactionary politics – unionists would not express even more opposition to a socialist united Ireland.

Such a political position would not be defensible by claiming that a non-sectarian workers unity might be built within the North around economic issue.  If there was a majority for a united Ireland, any attempt to deny this majority could not possibly be defended from a socialist perspective, although this does not exhaust questions that arise about implementation.

Whether such a poll should be supported now is not quite the same question, although similar issues arise, and with the same consequences.  Outright denial of a border poll in principle is a denial of democratic rights and, if expressed on the grounds put forward by the Socialist Party, is a capitulation to sectarianism.

This does not mean that the question of increased sectarian division should not be taken into account but it does mean outright opposition to a border poll for the reasons given by the Socialist Party is not the answer.

The flags protest is a good example of Protestant workers’ opposition to changes which should definitely not be accommodated or accepted.  Even a cursory examination of it illustrates that to do otherwise is actually to capitulate to sectarian demands.  In the next part I will briefly review this episode.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

3 thoughts on “Should socialists support a border poll? 2 – is a majority enough?

  1. It is premature to call for a border poll today. We must remember that the previous border poll was used by the British Conservatives to take the idea of a unified Ireland of the agenda for decades and this one by design would be no different. The Republicans are investing in a border poll at this moment only because they are feeling disorientated by Sinn Fein support for a return to Stormont. Arlene Foster says she does not want a border poll and says she does not fear it. She will grow to fear it only when all of the ramifications of Brexit are unfurled in real time. The ramifications of Brexit will vary depending on location and class position, in the north of Ireland where agriculture is a substantial economic sector heavily assisted by the EU it will be especially bad, Unionism as a credo has its political roots in the countryside despite the existence of industrial Belfast.

    Therefore Brexit needs to become actual before a serious argument can take place. The argument made by Boffy about a federal approach is one I agree with, the current powers of Stormont could be devolved for a period of time from a new written Irish Constitution instead of the nebulous British Constitution. The ideological opposition to Irish unification in the South of Ireland could also be worn down after Brexit is made actual, many of the disconnect problems with the EU would be solved if the North was no longer a Brexit territory and the southern opponents of unification would find it hard to dismiss the rationality of the argument. A key thing needed would be an agreement with the British Agreement not to arm the Protestants gangs that still persist and would not go quietly into the night.

  2. The Socialist Party/Militant’s economism always privileged the idea of workers unity in the North based around trades union struggle, whilst failing to recognise that there could be no workers unity in the North whilst the question of the border, and national rights was still a dominating issue. (Incidentally, the idea that Labour can make any headway by focusing on its economic agenda, whilst continuing to argue for Brexit is likewise whistling in the wind.)

    The question of unity cannot be won over the bones of Northern Catholic workers, by denying them national and civil rights. But equally nor can it be won over the bones of Northern Protestant workers by forcing them into a United Ireland against their will. The question has to be addressed on a whole Ireland basis, of how to forge both unity (there will always be some who will not agree) across the island of Ireland, and within the North.

    It seems to me that Brexit has opened a perfect opportunity for this. It is possible to argue convincingly to Northern Protestant workers that Brexit will be disastrous for them, even more than for British workers as a whole. As part of a United Ireland inside the EU, however, there medium to longer term prospects are much better, because a) here and now, the huge EU economy can act to protect Ireland from the worst effects of Brexit b) Ireland can be well placed as a home for inward investment that floods out of Britain c) the continuation of free movement in the EU, enables Irish citizens to use the method they have used in the past to escape economic downturns, i.e. to move to where jobs are more plentiful in Europe d) as part of a wider progressive social-democratic reform of the EU, it will be able to use fiscal and monetary levers to help develop regions within the union.

    The economic interests of Northern workers, Catholic or Protestant is clearly to be in the EU, which means in a United Ireland, as against a British economy that is in relative decline, anyway, and whose decline will accelerate outside the EU. The question then is political.

    A lot of the political reasons for Northern Protestants being hostile to a United Ireland have gone. The simple fact of the international division of Labour, with large scale, multinational capital moving into both Northern Ireland and the Republic, means that the old Unionist owned and controlled industries have given way, and so has the ability to utilise discrimination that went with it. Indeed, membership of the EU, and its requirements in respect of civil and human rights made that old Unionist supremacy difficult to sustain. But, also the justifiable fear that the Protestants had of being trapped in a southern Catholic confessional state has gone for similar reasons. Not only are such forms of bigotry actually a barrier to real capital accumulation, but – and largely for that same reason – they are outlawed by the EU. Hungary and elsewhere will have to accept that sooner or later, or be sidelined, and potentially expelled.

    Marxists prefer a unitary state where possible, but in specific circumstances a federal state is the next best thing, if it can form a temporary basis for unity. We should attempt to win over Northern Protestatnts by offering a political solution based upon a United, but Federal Ireland. It should guarantee political and civil rights for minorities in each area of the country. For both Catholics, and Protestants in the North, that would advance their political situation compared to where it is today, with no Northern Ireland government functional, and with direct rule from Westminster always hanging over their heads.

  3. nicely argued – I particularly like the sentence “what we have is a sectarian veto and a defence of the continued existence of the Northern State as a sectarian one, justified only by its sectarian composition” – well said

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