Irish Unity referendum: 50% + 1 < 50% – 1 ?

Jack O'Connor sets out his aims as new Labour Party chairman

The Irish press is full of news items and commentary on the possibility of a referendum on Irish unity and what a United Ireland might look like.  Fianna Fail and Fine Gael figures have ruminated on potential changes to the Irish flag and anthem to help accommodate unionists.

The national anthem – Amhrán na bhFiann – is usually taught and sung in Irish even though I believe it was originally written in English, and the Tricolour already has the colour orange to go with the white and green – to represent the peace and unity between Catholics and Protestants.  Unionists generally don’t speak Irish and they already have the national anthem and flag they want. ‘God save the Queen’ and the Union flag already suit them fine.

Irish Nationalist proposals regarding them are therefore really rather pathetic. Of more substance are proposals of political compromises that, for example, would allow the retention of British citizenship and of a Stormont Assembly with certain powers covering the current six-county area of Northern Ireland.

If it is not true, on this particular score, that unionists have already got what they want, it is only because many have not fully reconciled themselves to the current power sharing arrangements in the existing Stormont.  The DUP sends copies of the Good Friday Agreement to the President of France to inform him that Northern Ireland is inside the UK, but doesn’t inform him that the DUP opposed the agreement because they thought it was a route out of it.

More fundamentally, Unionists would not be Unionists if they would accept such power sharing as a definite minority in a unitary Irish State, something which they delight in pointing out.

So, when it was reported that Jack O’Connor would give a speech saying that there should be a guarantee that there will be a significant number of unionist ministers in any government formed in a united Ireland there might be a tendency to dismiss it as more of the same rubbish.  This time, for a socialist, this is not the case, since O’Connor was making a May Day speech and invoking the name and politics of James Connolly:

“It is imperative that we, who are informed by the legacy of Connolly, intervene to counsel against any proposition that a vibrant sustainable democracy can be constructed on the basis of a sectarian headcount, most especially one which results in a ‘50 per cent plus one’ conclusion.”

“Such a result would present the very real danger of a reversal into the ’carnival of reaction’, which he correctly predicted would accompany partition, to the power of 10.”

This is an extraordinary claim that is not supported by any evidence or argumentation that I have seen.  For it to be true Irish Unity would have to be accompanied by thousands of sectarian killings; the arming of thousands of Catholic paramilitaries by the state; the gerrymandering of political boundaries and systematic discrimination against Protestant workers on an enormous scale.  These workers would have to face massive intimidation and denial of basic civil rights for this prediction to be true.

Where does O’Connor think such a programme will come from and who does he think would support and carry it out?

It is not necessary to have illusions in the Irish State or in the existence of Catholic sectarianism in order to argue that this is nonsense.  We do not face a repeat of the effects, times ten, of the original partition through creation of a united Ireland.

On the contrary – just like the original – once again any violence that is threatened will undoubtedly come from loyalism, and what will matter is its strength and any potential support for it from the British state or elements of it.  This was the predicament 100 years ago and it remains so.

Of course, it is less of a problem today, given the growing weakness of unionism and potential disinterest within the British State in supporting any loyalist resistance to what would be a vote for unity within the North.  But it is a problem to be overcome and not legitimised and thereby strengthened.

So O’Connor is not standing against any future ‘carnival of reaction’ but stands deflecting from the real threat of political violence that would exist in the event of a vote for unity; and standing behind acceptance of the continuing results of the existing carnival of reaction.  He thus retrospectively endorses the original gerrymander and the original sectarian headcount that Connolly did indeed predict would be ‘a carnival of reaction’.  Worse, what he suggests is a continuation of politics based on it, as he must if he advocates the continuation of superior rights to be accorded to unionism.

This he also does by proposing a guarantee that any new constitution “should specify a significant minimum requirement in terms of the number of unionist ministers and the proportion of cabinet seats they would occupy, so as to avoid any suggestion of tokenism.”

No such guarantees are suggested for Irish nationalist representation, or any section of it, or representation by workers’ parties.  He might think the former doesn’t need it or that the latter shouldn’t have it but both considerations apply to unionism.

Unionism shouldn’t have it because it is simply a concession and legitimation of sectarianism that pumps life into what should be a dying political movement, and it doesn’t need it because unionism would indeed be a dying movement, one that should be left to expire.

Any worker’s leader should have recognised a long time ago that unionism has been based on sectarianism and could only claim disproportionate political representation in a united Ireland on the same grounds.

It has already been pointed out than unionism in the Southern State after partition 100 years ago had no future, despite the distinct political interests of Southern Protestant Unionists in the new confessional Free State.  There was no future in hoping for a return of British rule which would then have required enormous force to impose.  Whatever remaining economic and social privileges that still persisted for Protestants in the new state were left to wither or were really a result of class privileges.

In time many Protestant citizens in the Southern state became indistinguishable in their national allegiance from the rest of the population.  The growing secularisation of popular opinion in the Irish State provides no grounds for believing that a new eruption of Catholic sectarianism faces Protestants in a unitary state.  In such circumstances a policy of sustaining the powers of unionism would serve not to eradicate sectarianism but to sustain it.

If this unionist political representation had any real effect on Government and state policy it would most likely be reactionary and anti-worker, although it seems that the interests of workers are the furthest thing from O’Connor’s mind.  It would lay claim to political allegiance based on religion, which would prompt resentment and opposition in the rest of the population.  If it had no effect on state policy it would be a promise to unionism betrayed and thus satisfy no one.

O’Connor thinks 50% + 1 is undemocratic but won’t say what result would be.  He is left with the unfortunate view that 50% -1 is the greater mandate.

BBC, DUP & Brexit

BBC's Andrew Marr slammed for 'poor research' on Brexit NI Protocol -  BelfastTelegraph.co.uk

In last weekend’s Marr show the  BBC rallied behind those Brexit forces, which would appear to be almost all of them, who still can’t get their head around the idea that you can’t leave the EU without consequences and that these consequences are not a punishment but actually what they voted for.

This time it was the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Edwin Poots, who was allowed to forget that it was his Party that had helped deliver Brexit and in a form that didn’t allow Northern Ireland to join with the rest of the UK in its new relationship with the EU.  Such a deal, as proposed by Theresa May, was opposed by the DUP as insufficiently Brexity.

Marr appeared to labour under the impression that the Northern Ireland Protocol is solely the EU’s baby and not a joint production with the British Government. Perhaps to be regarded as another one of Boris Johnson’s unrecognised children?

One even had sympathy with the EU representative who had to respond politely to the ignorant and repeated interruptions of Marr, including the latter’s injured innocence that the EU should seek to take legal action against the British for breach of their legal obligations under the Protocol.  Not for him the previous obvious and hardly avoidable observation that – for the DUP – it was “arguably your political incompetence that got you here.”

Marr pushed the incoherent unionist argument that they were so offended by the very temporary suggestion of the EU to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol in order to amend its operation that this was what was required, this time by the British Government.

While sarcastically referencing the ‘sacred’ Single Market, the one Brexit supporters want out of but also to enjoy its benefits, Marr pointed to an opinion poll in Northern Ireland which showed that ‘48% hate the Protocol’.  

‘Hate’ of course is a strong word; was not quite what the question asked, and presumably must mean that while 48% ‘hate it”, 46% also ‘love it’.  The numbers are within the margin of error, and repeating the unionist assertion that speaks of the people of Northern Ireland as if it consisted solely of unionists, the other assertion of Marr – that ‘the people of Northern Ireland have lost faith in the Protocol’ – was hardly justified by the poll.

The BBC, through Marr, appeared to adopt the view of unionism encapsulated in such mottos as ‘we are the people’ and ‘our wee country’, which may be properly understood as ‘WE are the people and ‘OUR wee country’.  That the majority in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit is ignored as unionism, and now the BBC, considers that the rights of the majority of unionism takes precedence.

But perhaps the BBC is also registering something else, which is the evolving strategy of its master – the British Government.

At the beginning of the year the incoherence of unionist rejection of the Protocol led the DUP leader Arlene Foster to point to its benefits (as the alternative to futile opposition).  Unionist hostility spoke of changes to the Protocol.  Now this opposition demands its complete removal.

A large part of this hardening of position derives from the encouragement of the British Government, in a cynical attempt to play the Orange card and support its own policy of seeking changes but not complete abolition.

Of course, British opposition is mainly motivated by the attempt to create leverage elsewhere in UK-EU relations and not any particular priority allotted to the North of Ireland.  So, when it is reported that ‘a senior ally of the Prime. Minister’ says that the Protocol is “dead in the water” this is simply playing to the gallery, in this case just after Lord Frost and the Tory Secretary of State had met loyalist paramilitaries represented by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC).

Similarly, Poots’ total opposition puts forward, as an alternative, checks on goods in other locations within Northern Ireland “including the ports.”  This however rather undermines his argument that the level of such checks makes them impossible and doesn’t carry any weight when it is to the checks themselves that is the objection.  The promise of any such alternative is about as trustworthy as a promise from Boris Johnson. 

Unionists want the Protocol destroyed and the British Government would like it filleted for other purposes.  Neither are acceptable to the EU.

The increased legitimacy given by the British Government to the paramilitary front organisation is illustrated by its providing a platform to the LCC at a Westminster Committee hearing, allowing a teenage loyalist to make the statement that he stands by previous remarks that “sometimes violence is the only tool you have left.”

That the Orange card is being played is made abundantly clear when the Tories reveal that the 12th July has been “privately set” by David Frost for the easing of Protocol checks.  The culmination of the loyalist marching season is now aligned with deadline for acceptance of the demands of the British Government.

Such recklessness by the Tory regime passes right over Andrew Marr’s head, while he accuses the EU of endangering the peace process.  He denigrates the EU Single Market, but is unwilling even to raise the question whether the vast majority of European States constituting the EU is going to roll over on account of teenage threats on behalf of criminal gangs; the pronouncements of creationist politicians, or as a result of the perfidy of the serial liars of the British Government.

Unionist opposition, backed by the British, may have hardened but the reality of their mistaken Brexit policy has simply compounded their frustration at their inability to push the peace process in a sufficiently rightward direction, a process many of them never supported in the first place.  As unionism has hardened it has also thereby divided.

The DUP is now irreversibly split down the middle.  The only question is what organisational from this division will take.  It is haemorrhaging support to the softer unionist Alliance Party and the even more uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice.

It has attempted to protect one flank by making overtures to the loyalist paramilitaries in the LCC (by both sides of the current split) but this has proceeded to claims that the UDA has intimidated DUP members to support the new leadership.

The paramilitaries are themselves united in opposition to the Protocol but divided on everything else, so that what appear as marginal figures present as leading spokesmen of loyalist opposition.

On the other side of unionism, its moderate commentators denounce EU ‘intransigence’ while calling on it to protect Northern Ireland from the potential for unionism to finish off the Stormont Executive.  Unfortunately, the DUP has made promises in its opposition to the EU that it cannot keep and the EU has no interest in ensuring that they are kept.  The party may soon no longer be the largest political party or even the largest unionist party.

To expect the EU to capitulate to such a weakened and fractured opposition and a British Government flailing about for trade deals that won’t deliver is to live in an alternative universe.

The EU seeks to become a major political as well as economic power on the world stage.  It expects to be taken seriously by the likes of China, Russia and the United States.  Whatever ‘pragmatic’ changes it is prepared to make to the workings of the Protocol will not amount to accepting any significant risk to its Single Market. Such changes as are proposed will require the British Government to introduce all the measures agreed by it but not implemented.

The failing and weakening of the Good Friday Agreement institutions will continue as will the parallel confusion of unionism.  The Northern State will continue to hold together and no Irish unity referendum will come along soon to save everyone from the decay.  Out of all these processes it is ironically only the successful operation of the EU Protocol that promises some grounds for successful, if only temporary, stabilisation.