Should socialists support a border poll? 5 – a socialist approach

The leader of the SDLP Colm Eastwood has claimed that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a referendum on Irish unity without a plan, saying a border poll should not be held until work to build a new and reconciled Ireland was completed.  Gerry Adams has made a similar statement on the need for preparation.

We have seen in earlier posts that unity of the working class, especially within the North, does not mean reconciliation to bigotry and sectarianism.  It does not therefore mean the sort of reconciliation that Irish nationalism, endorsed by the British State, has put forward in the name of “equality of the two traditions.” These traditions are defined by sectarianism in one case and by a nationalism incapable of going beyond Catholic support on the other.

Nationalism is now dead as a practical programme, in the sense that the objective of an economically and politically independent and sovereign nation is now impossible.  Brexit is demonstrating this is the case for a much larger and more powerful nation, never mind for a much smaller and weaker one.  We are seeing that the attempt to do so is inevitably reactionary as it seeks a world that has disappeared.

This is not to say that the demand for self-determination by the Irish people is not a democratic demand that socialists should endorse.  It is one of many democratic demands that cannot be fully delivered under the current capitalist system; but in terms of setting up a wholly separate sovereign state Ireland has missed that nationalist bus.  Small nations, in fact even the big ones, are now subject to international capital, an international division of labour, and international political organisation in a way that did not exist 100 years ago.

The fate of the nominally independent part of Ireland, which started its road to statehood almost 100 years ago, demonstrates this today through its reliance on multinational capital and its membership of the European Union.  To seek an Irish capitalism without such capital, and outside the EU, is to doom the Irish working class to a perfectly national form of capitalism that can no longer exist, and which would be reactionary from the point of view both of capitalism and socialism.

It is no accident that the most militant republicans support Brexit, but this is only testament to their programme of independence being utopian – it is not possible to achieve. Utopias can be forward or backward looking and theirs is forward looking in terms of seeking the end of direct foreign rule, a rule that has engendered deep and malignant division, but is backward, not only in its continued devotion to militarism, but also to the idea of undiluted and undivided national sovereignty and independence.

Socialists seek not only the unity of the working class within nations but between nations.  This unity cannot be the unity of self-sufficient and independent states, since the productive powers of capitalism have long ago burst out of such narrow confines.  The unity of nations that socialists seek is now one of mutual dependence and cooperation.

This is obviously a long-term perspective but it informs our attitude to a border poll today, for example in the primacy of the pursuit of working class unity.  For socialists, removal of the border is a necessary part of the struggle for working class unity.  So too is opposition to Brexit, which much of the Irish Left and militant republicanism support.

Unfortunately, the working-class movement is a very long way from being able to offer a credible plan for unification based on its existing organisations and structures.  If the call for a border poll means anything more than a statement of principle then this must be accepted.  The only possible form a united Ireland could take today, after a majority in favour of it in the North following a poll, would involve the incorporation of the North into the South.

While much of the left might propose a left Government in the South, this too is far off and is not a perspective that would convince anyone that the immediate result of a United Ireland would be incorporation into a left social democratic state.

Support for a border poll is not therefore a stand-alone demand but focuses the socialist and working class movement on what it can do to make such a poll an opportunity to fight for the unity of the working class.  Today, when there is no immediate likelihood of a border poll, it requires that socialists state what we would mean by having a ‘plan’ of our own, to put it in the words of Colm Eastwood.  Or as socialists would put it – a programme to fight for that would, if successful, lead not only to territorial and state unity, but also the much increased unity of the Irish working class, as part of a wider united European working class.  Obviously, this last objective would mean opposition to Brexit and Irexit.

Since leading by example far surpasses any other means of seeking support, what this must involve is the growth and strength of the working class movement itself – its trade unions, political parties and campaigns.  At present the meshing of the trade unions in social partnership and the devotion of the left to state ownership as socialism, means the working class movement does not offer Northern workers any alternative to simple incorporation by the southern state.

The working class movement itself is in many ways a husk, with empty trade union branches and hollowed out parties.  This is the case even in its supposed advanced, activist form.  In the last Southern local elections a spokesperson for People before Profit stated that it lost seats because it could not get its vote out – a humiliating admission that its support is not more political than the bourgeois parties but less so. Many unions are no advertisement for democracy and most parties on the left are sects incapable of containing political differences that will and must arise in truly mass parties of the working class.

As we have noted before, much of the left is actually reactionary, including its support for Brexit, accompanied by its dishonesty in not fighting openly for Irexit.  Not all members of the relevant organisations support Brexit but where then is the open debate that might inform workers of the issues at stake?  In its approach to democracy, the internal regimes of these organisations contain little debate of political principle and not much on strategy and tactics.  How to implement the line is usually the only thing up for some discussion.

If we accept that there must be no coercion of a nationalist majority, under the guise of any requirement for an increased majority (or the latest version of this – parallel majorities), it is also true that there can be no coercion of Protestant workers. This does not mean acceptance of a veto by loyalism, of the sort we have examined in the last few posts.  There can be no admission that any loyalist reaction must have its objections accepted.  The unity of the working class requires the defeat of sectarian division and the political forces that represent it.

While the Socialist Party for example has also expressed opposition to coercion, it is clear that this concern is rather one-sided.  History has shown that democracy in Ireland has been subject to coercion mainly from the British State, usually in alliance with unionism.  It is not only possible but inevitable that a majority vote for a united Ireland in the North would be subject to unionist threats and violence. As this series of posts has made clear, the answer to the first question that this poses is opposition in principle to this veto.

The second question is how to minimise this coercion, and this firstly means opposing any threat by the British State, or any section of it – national or local – seeking to prevent unity or determine is nature and shape.  This is where the unity of workers across the two islands and Europe is necessary to isolate and repulse such coercive threats and actions.  This is not just a question of opposing and preventing loyalist intimidation of Catholics, the first victims of loyalist intimidation are always fellow Protestants who don’t accept that their religious identity requires them to be sectarian.

Before all this however comes the task of reducing Protestant support for unionism and increasing support for a democratic solution.  This means the socialist and working class movement breaking from its alliances with the Northern and Southern States and asserting its independence. It means demonstrating through deeds, and not just expression of principles, that it opposes sectarianism no matter from where it comes.  On this it does not have a very good record.

In the South there has been no anti-clerical movement and the left has avoided direct challenge to the power of the Catholic Church.  It has not been the left that demolished the reputation of the Church but the actions of the Church itself and media exposure of its crimes, particularly against women and children.  If any movement deserves credit for openly campaigning against the church it is the women’s movement, and at most the left can claim some credit for having supported it.

What the left has not done is seek to demolish the structural power of the Church.  Instead it almost appears content to believe that the power of the Church has gone, rather than confronting the reality that as long as its structural supports are maintained it has not been defeated.

Such defeat means something more than a loss of reputation, it means a debate on the democratic alternative to Church control of education and health services.  So, for example, despite the victory for abortion rights the Church’s potential role in maternity services shows the importance of destroying this structural power.

In terms of the North it also means opposing Catholic Church power in education and health, something the left has not done and radical nationalists have opposed.  For example, I recall at one meeting in a republican club in West Belfast, when an ex-IRA prisoner complained that he could not get a teaching job, one of my comrades told him – it wasn’t the British who discriminated against him.

Yet there has been no campaign against Church control.  Such opposition would of course  be vigorously opposed by the Church, on the basis that it was yet another sectarian Protestant assault on Catholics.  And there is no doubt widespread support among Catholic workers for sectarian education, simply assumed by them to such an extent that it is not even considered to be sectarian.  I have been to enough Masses to know that the clergy regularly ask congregants to pay for ‘their’ Catholic schools.

I also recall one member of the organisation I belonged to resigning when he found out that socialists do not support more state funding for Catholic education on grounds of equality, but an end to church control in the first place.  Such mistaken ideas hide behind the argument that state control is control by the imperialist state, ignoring the fact that British rule has long supported Catholic Church control.

The socialist position is democratic control of schools by workers themselves and complete separation of church and state.  To put it bluntly – Protestant workers should not pay for Catholic Church control of education, and neither should Catholic workers, or those who don’t define themselves as either.  This means there should also be no exemption from discrimination legislation allowing Church authorities to discriminate against non-Catholic teaching applicants.

The demonstration of opposition to all sectarianism is the alternative to “equality of the two traditions” and its ‘left’ variant of the Socialist Party, which seeks its own reconciliation with sectarianism through, for example, conferring legitimacy on loyalist reaction.  The only possible grounds for the latter is that it has some positive content.

For Catholic workers it means that they identify themselves not as a religious group defending a sectarian interest but as a section of the population that has faced discrimination and seeks an end of all privilege and sectarian rights. The view that because Catholics have historically been the sufferers of sectarian oppression, they can be relied upon to oppose all cases of it in the future is to believe that oppression somehow makes whole populations more righteous by virtue of their oppression, something that does not bear any historical investigation.  One only has to think of the appalling fate of millions of Jews at the hands of fascism and the repugnant use of this suffering by Zionism to excuse and justify the shocking oppression of the Palestinian people.

The strength of the Catholic population’s support for sectarian education is simply an example of the impact that the existence of a sectarian state has on how the society within it operates.  It is yet another illustration why the destruction of that state is required to eradicate it.  Too many Catholics object to a sectarian state but not to one sectarian policy of that state – a united Ireland but not a united classroom.

Without a strong working class and socialist movement it cannot be anticipated that a united Ireland can be brought about without coercion, even with the validation of a majority vote for it within the North.  This does not lessen our support for it as a component part of the necessary struggle of the working class in Ireland, because such a struggle will minimise such coercion and maximise the working class unity to be gained.

On the other hand, opposition to a border poll and a potential majority for a united Ireland on the grounds that this in itself involves coercion of Protestant workers must be rejected, not least because in such circumstances coercion will come immediately, if not long before, from loyalist reactionaries, with or without support of the British State or elements of it.  Such a position does not represent opposition to coercion but support for it.

Such then are examples of the issues faced by socialists, and the approach that should be taken.  There is little likelihood of a majority vote for a United Ireland within the North in the near future, and nationalist calls for a poll without a wider programme that demonstrates its progressive content is not something we should support.  Our support for a poll, in principle, and in practice, arises from our objective of a united working class and the achievement of this requires more than simply a majority vote.  Our support therefore rests on quite different grounds and we should neither reject this support nor surrender the grounds for it.

Concluded

Back to part 4

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