A Brexit compromise with Unionism?

In the previous post I argued that there should be no attempt to conciliate unionism, and certainly not by socialists.  Although its politics is entirely reactionary this is what is being proposed by a number of commentators who really should know better.

In one blog, a comment asserted that the ‘institutions of the [Northern] State are errand boys for Sinn Féin, who are errand girls for the Army Council, which is a body of totally unreconstructed IRA hard men from back in the day.  Moreover, it is an almost entirely Northern body, on the cusp of taking control of a 26 County State.’

This, of course, is phantasy.  Locally, the regular columnist in the nationalist newspaper questioned whether ‘sectarian control [has] simply changed hands?’ and asserted that it was ‘difficult to avoid the observation’.

This ignores recent history that is littered with loyalist riots against what they see as encroachment on their rights by Catholics.  Indeed, such riots played a major role in the start of ‘the Troubles’ with such inconvenient facts as the first policeman killed being shot by loyalists.

Conciliation has already been adopted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland pretending that loyalist paramilitaries are not involved in organising and leading the riots.  Its first statement pointed the finger but refrained from outright assignment of responsibility.  It waited until the umbrella group for the main paramilitary groups had issued an appropriate statement denying involvement, and calling for only peaceful action, before stating that these organisations had not ‘sanctioned’ violent protest and that only individuals may have been involved.  This is the normal way of trying to prevent escalation; part of what was called a long time ago an ‘acceptable level of violence.’

The Unionist columnist Newton Emerson has written in a number of Irish newspapers that compromise with loyalist demands should be made to protect the peace process.  After all, warnings by nationalists and the Irish Government that republican violence would follow any Brexit land border within the island had led to it being placed down the Irish Sea.  If Irish nationalism could threaten violence to get its way what’s wrong with unionism doing the same?

There is some obvious truth in this, except that a hardened land border, while not strictly contrary to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as often claimed, would not only serve (dissident) republicans but would also severely undermine the current political arrangements.

In the GFA nationalists were to accept the legitimacy of partition and of the Northern State in return for some cross-border bodies, a hypothetical mechanism to bring about a united Ireland through a border poll, one however that was in the gift of the British Government, and a power-sharing Stormont regime that included an effective sectarian veto on change for both sides, which of course is more obstacle than opportunity for those seeking change.

If the border were to be strengthened as a result of a hard Brexit that most of unionism supported while the majority in the North of Ireland opposed, and with the stupidity of the DUP coming back to haunt them in loyalist riots, nationalism might consider that promises are cheap but reality expensive.  It was not republican dissidents that put a border down the Irish Sea but the Irish Government and the EU with the blessing of senior US politicians.

Emerson goes on to ask ‘should we risk restarting the Troubles ‘over inspecting packets of ham at Larne?’  He queries the evidence and reason for believing that the EU Single Market ‘would otherwise be swamped via circuitous smuggling of food through Britain and Northern Ireland.’

He also, in rather contradictory fashion, suggests a law-and-order solution to smuggling across the Irish border and maximum mitigation of the effects of the Protocol in order to assuage loyalist paramilitaries who, although almost defeated, require concessions.  In this regard there are further press reports of money for these paramilitaries in a continuation of the policy of weening them off criminality and political violence by giving them what they want.  Alongside this a law-and-order solution would be applied to the really delinquent factions.

All this is washed down by the admission that ‘at some point we will have to confront the moral squalor of giving in to violence but that moment is hardly now, when so little might be required to prevent violence.  Rather it would be immoral to prioritise hypothetical ham over life and property.’

Of course, the ham is far from hypothetical and Emerson gives every indication of suffering from the illusion of the supporters of Brexit who never understood the magnitude of the decision they supported.  He regards the potential breach of the EU Single Market as small, although both the EU and British sought to use the North of Ireland as leverage in the overall Trade and Cooperation Agreement, promoting its importance to any overall deal.

There is no reason to believe that loopholes would not be exploited and no reason for the EU to believe that the British Government would not seek to exploit concessions or mitigation or whatever term is used to fudge the regulations.  The British have openly breached agreements already reached and failed to implement practical measures, such as  installation of inspection posts and access to data, that it promised to deliver.

The EU has claimed that the most difficult issues could be solved by the British agreeing to synchronise their food standards with those of the EU but the British have ruled this out, and while the British have asked for flexibility the EU has stated that they must first implement what they have already agreed.

It would go too far to say that loyalism and the British Government are in cahoots, the latter is not attempting to get rid of the Protocol altogether, but the pressure applied by both is in the same direction.

The Single Market may not seem so dramatic as yet another political crisis in Northern Ireland but the EU has more interest in the former than the latter: concessions that are given only to Britain might easily give rise to discrimination cases against the EU.  More generally, retreating on the basis of pressure from political violence does not set a good example for any other potential challenges to Brussels and member states.

There is no reason or evidence to believe that smuggling would not take place on the Irish border were it also to become the border for Brexit, or to believe that such smuggling would need to ‘swamp’ the EU Single Market for it to matter to the EU.  On the other hand there is good reason to believe that mitigation of the trade border in the Irish Sea would not be enough for loyalism. For the EU, checks on any border would have to mean something and if they did loyalism would object.

There is no doubting that these checks are onerous and will increase after the transition but the negotiations between the EU and British to find technical solutions do not warrant the view that the Protocol will be effectively removed.  These negotiations were reported by RTE and the Guardian, with some sceptical coverage of them by one informed blogger.

There has so far not been enough direct impact on imports to motivate those not consumed by potential constitutional implications to protest.  As Emerson points out, Marks & Spencer has just announced the opening of a new food store in Coleraine, and Covid-19 has been a much more immediate barrier than Brexit to people getting what they want.

This does not mean that loyalism is not angry, or has cause, but their anger should really be directed to the DUP who led them up the garden path with Boris Johnson at the forefront. Nevertheless, while loyalism does not need to be particularly coherent, there are also limits to what an incoherent view of the world will achieve in bending that world to its own misapprehensions.

Emerson’s law-and-order solution does not seem to recognise the incongruity of calling for increased repression of dissident republicans and others in order to reduce ‘paperwork’.  He wants a retreat on policing of protest demonstrations that are held within unionist-majority areas so as to avoid ‘confrontation’, but it’s not clear how much consideration he has given to the minority living within these ‘unionist-majority areas’.

Of course, in most Protestant areas Orange marches are generally popular and there can be little doubt that a majority of Protestants oppose the protocol and would have sympathy with the aims of demonstrations against it.  The majority would have less sympathy with the paramilitaries who often accompany such displays and that is their problem: one doesn’t come without the other.  Emerson forgets that the immediate victims of loyalist paramilitaries are Protestants in working class areas who are often presented as the paramilitaries’ political constituency, in so far as they can claim one.

He is right therefore to acknowledge the ‘moral squalor’ involved in concessions to loyalism but over twenty years from the deal that was supposed to bring peace and an end to them, we apparently have to make some more, and to the same people.   He says that ‘we’ have to make them but the majority of the population have had no choice in the matter.  His ‘giving in to violence’ has in the past not only involved ‘giving in’ but the sponsorship of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State through all sorts of collusion.  This has involved not only accepting loyalist violence but protecting its perpetrators and assisting its organisation and effectiveness through state agents.  In his seemingly bold and brave admission of unfortunate necessity we are to forget what it has meant in the past.

If Newton Emerson’s proposals have any educative value, they show the limitations of unionist opinion, even from its most intelligent and least prejudiced sources.  It reminds me of the statement last week by First Minister Arlene Foster who, after riots and petrol bombs, and with one bus driver attacked in a case of “attempted murder”, declared that these actions were an “embarrassment” and “only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.”

In the mind of unionism, even when its their fault it’s really someone else’s, anybody else’s.  Brexit was a unionist own-goal which they are trying to reverse.  Socialists have no interest in defending their seventeenth century reaction from twenty-first century capitalism.  It would be good if the many on the left in Ireland who also supported Brexit would acknowledge that they too have made a mistake.

Back to part 1

1 thought on “A Brexit compromise with Unionism?

  1. It seems that we have closed a chapter and opened a new one with the removal of British capital from the EU enclosure. When most of the communist States broke down, beginning in 1989 the European political consensus was that these States had to be transformed and welcomed into the democratic enclosure. In the case of the reunification of Germany there were political reservations stated in high places, in both Great Britain and France. We know that a deal was brokered between Germany and France to proceed with German Unification only on condition that Germany agreed to set in place a single European currency, this is what President Mitterrand asked for and got from Chancellor Kohl. So the EU consensus was mostly about absorbing the collapsing communist States. Thirty years later the task has yet to be finished, Serbia for example remains a blockage, a friend to Putin’s Russia. One of the most pronounced traits about the current situation is just how hostile Putin is to the continued existence of the EU. Maybe that is the reason the RT news channel is allowed to continue, it dislikes the EU as much as Farage does.

    In leaving the EU the British have waved goodbye to the standing EU consensus covering the historical Communist legacy, the Tories were the most uneasy with the advent of German Unification and Brexit grew out of that unease.

    The new context is that the British have broken with the EU consensus over the cold war legacy problems posed by broken down communism, without really having elaborated an alternative consensus for a Europe without the EU. One can speculate that several other bourgeois classes like the Dutch for instance are waiting on a British elaboration of a set of new high priorities.

    An enlightened Britain cannot leave the EU and expect to simply go into a splendid isolation of fallowness, they will have to develop an economic strategy and set of tactics for dealing with the EU. It is hard to see how they can carry on without becoming at least a potential rival to the EU, offering corporate capitalism a better deal on exploitation of labour and retention of profits. I recently heard the spokesperson for Vauxhall Motors speak with relish about moving into one of the planned ‘free ports’.

    The context of Irish politics is therefore about to face a new historic reality . One can already see the Irish Government scrambling around for a new approach. For about three decades the Irish State has had a hands off approach when it came to the problem of the North, basically helping the British out in the North by repressing the IRA and nudging along constitutional nationalists to support a restored Unionist controlled Parliament and Executive. They will likely seek to carry on as before but Brexit makes for a less optimistic reality. The nationalists in the north are firmly opposed to the entire Brexit endeavour, less inclined therefore to shore up Stormont.

    The Irish State will have to try to balance between a Brexit travelling Britain and the EU. To not offend one flank or the other will be a hard thing to manage. However a policy of diplomatic ‘neutrality’ will not be acceptable to the EU, loyalty will be asked for and tested in practice. On the other political flank, the Brexit fanatics have already decided that Ireland must be pressed hard to leave the EU sooner rather than later. The Brexit supporting press and media already have a solid presence in Ireland, the Daily Mail sells a lot of newspapers in the country. It will be interesting to see if the British political class decide to assist the Brexit fanatics searching out the sort of pressure points that might persuade/force the Irish also to turn their back on the EU, or if they decide to try and keep the Irish within the European enclosure, helpfully reporting back the secret conversations taking place, the EU is if nothing else very secretive about all of its deliberations.

    The socialists will have to decide in this changed context what is best for workers, it will not be an easy road to travel.

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