UK general elections mean something different in the North of Ireland, and have usually revolved around the national question, whether there should be a united Ireland. Latterly, the division has been one of squabbling over the detritus of incompetence and corruption that is the life blood of the local devolved administration.
The scandalous nepotism and waste uncovered in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was the trigger for Sinn Fein to eventually pull the plug on its participation in the Executive, but only after continuing to hold onto the coat tails of the DUP proved untenable. Now the republicans have made clear that the architect of the RHI scandal, DUP leader Arlene Foster, will not have to go after all. Sinn Fein would be happy to have this more-than-usual unpopular Unionist leader back as First Minister.
So now, with only haggling over the spoils at issue, the question of importance might appear to be whether to endorse another round of the sectarian settlement.
This time however the main issue is the same as that in Britain, albeit with very different ramifications and with many thinking it’s the old one in disguise. It’s a Brexit election in the North. Just as it is a Brexit election in Britain; and when it comes to deciding how I am going to vote it is this that will determine whether, and who, I will be voting for on Thursday.
Brexit was supported by the majority of Protestants and opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, with the former voting Leave 60 / 40 and the latter voting Remain 85 / 15. In terms of declared political identity the difference were even more marked, with 66% of Unionists supporting Brexit and 88% of nationalists supporting Remain. Among those who defined themselves as neither Unionist or Nationalist – as ‘Other’ – the support for Remain was 70%.
Unionist support for Brexit is perfectly consistent with identification with an imperial nationalism and illusions in the power of Britain in the world, upon which their political position has always primarily rested. It is not consistent with the real position of Britain in the world, which has been rammed home – to unionism’s discomfort – by Boris Johnson’s acceptance of Northern Ireland being de facto within the EU customs union and single market. The same ideological blindness infects the same core constituency of the DUP as the Tories in Britain, while the pretence that they got Brexit right has been maintained despite the DUP having been shafted by Johnson.
If this was to be the position of the North of Ireland upon UK exit then it would mark a significant political defeat for unionism and a step towards a united Ireland. But one, or even two steps, do not take you to your destination; although it points to one possible direction by which an objectively progressive resolution of the national question can be implemented by reactionary forces – the joint efforts of English nationalism that has no interest in Ireland and the European Union and the Irish State, which are progressive only relative to the former.
Much has been made by Sinn Fein of a border poll and increased support for a united Ireland because of Brexit but there is still no majority for a united Ireland and for that majority to arise the nationalist population has to grow significantly and/or the benefits of a united Ireland have to be demonstrated. A border poll is not in itself an answer.
It is ironic that People before Profit (PbP) trumpet their differences with Sinn Fein but present a border poll in exactly the same way; while adding the vacuous call for a socialist Ireland, which means nothing outside of a wider programme that has to be internationalist to be socialist.
They have complained of Sinn Fein dirty tricks in putting up posters beside PbP ones stating that ‘People before Profit – Still Support Brexit’, which must be the first time a party has condemned a rival for putting up posters declaring its own policy.
Their complaint of course is that people will interpret this as support for the current Brexit, but unfortunately for them and for the rest of us a reactionary Brexit is the only one possible. The current Tory Brexit was the only one proposed in the referendum – that they voted for – and the only one put forward now for implementation. And it is still the case that People before Profit support leaving the EU – Brexit – and still see it as progressive.
So, if they now complain it is only because they know that the only Brexit in town is regarded by everyone as reactionary, and People before Profit condemns itself by not accepting that it is making a gross mistake by continuing to support this reactionary step backwards.
PbP complains that Sinn Fein allowed benefit cuts by agreeing that the decision on welfare should be handed back to the Tory Government in Westminster. But this is exactly what it is doing by supporting Brexit and handing the power to inflict much greater damage on working people – throughout the UK – to an even more rapacious Tory administration that is salivating over the deregulated dystopia that is planned after Brexit. There is no Brexit on earth that will not lead to cuts in welfare and attacks on pay that PbP claim they alone will fight. The greater dependence on the State sector for employment in Northern Ireland will mean a greater impact from the cuts to this expenditure, which will be considered perfectly fine by a project sailing on the winds of English nationalism.
Whatever the benefits and drawbacks of the precise arrangements for the North under Brexit, it is not designed to further the interest of Irish workers: this much must be obvious even to PbP. The same right-wing views associated with Brexit in Britain are reflected also in the North of Ireland, with those supporting Brexit more likely to have reactionary views on immigration, on the marriage rights of same-sex couples, and support for the most sectarian political parties.
A Brexit that will leave the North largely within the EU trading arrangements will be less damaging than a hard border within the island, but it is obvious that this is a more realistic way to prevent a hard border than a Brexit with PbP protests at how unfair it all is; and that no Brexit at all is the best solution of all.
Brexit has also been opposed because it is claimed that it will raise sectarian tensions, which means that it will upset many loyalists and may lead it their violent mobilisation. To argue this however is to accept the Unionist veto on progressive change that has made the Northern State the political slum that it is and has always been. There is no step forward that will not excite the opposition of loyalism. The Protestant support for Remain should instead be viewed as an objective acceptance that Unionism does not represent their long-term interest; this progressive step should be supported rather than seek to pander to the most reactionary sections of the Protestant population.
So, if Brexit is the issue, who shall I vote for?
A couple of months ago I bumped into a Sinn Fein supporter I have known for years who after a couple of minutes launched into a defence of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy in relation to Westminster. We hadn’t discussed politics up to then and I just listened to his poor apologetics for an obviously indefensible position. It has been widely criticised in Ireland and his defensiveness should not have been a surprise. For a movement that was so wedded to theological shibboleths, from the IRA army council being the legitimate government of Ireland; to abstention from the Dail and Stormont; to not recognising the courts even though it meant longer sentences; to the sanctity of armed struggle; it’s as if one totem of their republican credentials must be retained to convince themselves they are still the republicans of old.
But this is a long way of saying there’s no point opposing Brexit by voting Sinn Fein because Sinn Fein will not be voting against it. In the event of a Westminster hung parliament the SF position should be strung up with it.
Since Sinn Fein have stood down in my constituency, I don’t have to bother with considering these arguments. Sinn Fein have withdrawn their candidate while the SDLP have withdrawn theirs from North Belfast to give Sinn Fein an uncontested Nationalist in that constituency. The ‘Remain’ alliance that has justified these actions can be denounced as purely sectarian solidarity, except that the Green Party has also stood aside and the SDLP candidate has put opposing Brexit to the fore.
The Alliance Party has not stood aside and is also anti-Brexit, and of course also claims to be non-sectarian. It is also however a unionist party in all but name and has rightly been described as the party of the British Government’s Northern Ireland Office. The sitting MP is from the DUP and of course a supporter of Brexit.
So, in this election I will be voting against Brexit by voting for the Stoop Down Low Party, as it was sometimes disparagingly called (a long time ago). And I never thought I would do that.
It is necessary to vote against Brexit and necessary to have that vote carried forward into Westminster. It is justified also in order to weaken, however slightly, the most reactionary and sectarian major party in the North, the one that has thrown its weight behind Brexit and all the reactionary politics that that project encompasses.