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.

1 thought on “Irish Unity referendum: 50% + 1 < 50% – 1 ?

  1. I spend some of my time reading about past theological controversies. The intellectual history of the ‘West’ as told by the greatest historian of political thought Leo Strauss is best seen as a struggle between Jerusalem and Athens for intellectual supremacy. It is only in the modern time Athens has managed to gain the upper hand. When Strauss published his first book ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ he demonstrated that the victory of modern philosophy over traditional theology was underserved, the philosophers of the radical enlightenment had actually lost the intellectual argument. Despite losing the intellectual argument Spinoza and others like him had succeeded in winning the political struggle. Strauss explained that the success of the enlightenment really came about due to an adroit use of satire, especially political satire.

    It seems that Strauss revised his assessment in at least one respect. One of his students Strauss, Joseph Cropsey published a book about the thought of Adam Smith, it is called Polity and Economy. The book sets out to bring to the surface the disguised intention of the large works published by Adam Smith. I will paraphrase the result as follows; Adam Smith concluded that the arguments of the philosophers, the Enlightenment had failed to dislodge the control of religion over politics and hence over society, another approach to bringing about the same end ought to be experimented with. The new approach meant directing the passions of most men towards another end than a religion political end. The germ of the alternate end was first disclosed to the world by the English political thinker Thomas Hobbes, self-preservation in this life. What Adam Smith added were the various techniques to be used, under the supervision of Adam Smith the new end was transformed into comfortable self -preservation in this world.

    The supposed founder of modern economics, Adam Smith had projected a way for the enlightenment to win a real victory over theology and its politics. His study of human nature led him to think that the passions of most men could be redirected away from religious induced controversies, in favour of increasing the number of material comforts to be owned in this life. The theological and political controversies of the past could be left behind because the bourgeois man would be less interested in understanding what God and the Bible commanded than they were about their own comfortable self-preservation in this life. In the school of Strauss the intellectual end of capitalism is stated more clearly than it is in the school of Marx, the end is the comfortable self- preservation of the many in this life. Marx does not take the time to spell out a single end of capitalism as he in more interested in another end, the communist end.

    If we apply this conception to Ireland we are forced to conclude, it has succeeded beyond all expectation. In the most Catholic part of the world, the Republic of Ireland today pursues its quest for comfortable self-preservation with a passion almost unrivalled. This is not what northern Protestants thought would happen 100 years ago, they declared that Home Rule would result in Rome Rule, they imagined the class of bishops and priests would dominate the polis forever, that the country would not prosper, that it would be held back by its servile loyalty to a Roman Catholic faith grounded in superstition and ignorance, and worst of all clericalism.

    A personal story of mine, a little while ago an evangelic Protestant man came to my door, this of course in a 100 percent Catholic neighbourhood. I listened to him for a while, mainly because he was an elderly German and I was inclined to find out why a German Protestant was doing in this place. He told me that he had been raised as a German Lutheran but became dissatisfied with the lack of passion for the Lutheran Church in Germany, so he went off to America to take up bible studies. He then came to Ireland, the southern part, he lived his faith in the Cork area. He said after about ten years he came north because he realised his cause was absolutely hopeless in the south of Ireland. His protestant cause was hopeless not because of the strong presence of Catholicism in the South but due to the sheer indifference of almost everyone he met toward the Christian Faith. He told me the people had little knowledge of Christian doctrine and almost no knowledge of the contents of the bible. I asked him about the world famous Irish Catholicism, he said it was no more than routine social conformity, Irish people in the recent past had gone to Mass because they were worried their neighbours might talk about them, but today they cared little for the actual Faith, today they don’t even bother with Mass. He told most of the priests were implicit atheists because they were very often closet homosexuals.

    I asked him about his experience of the north of Ireland. He told me there was more genuine faith in both the Catholic and Protestant parts of the community than currently existed in the South. So there you have the historic irony, the modern part of Ireland, Ulster is now more traditional than the Southern part that has become fully modern. If you want further conformation of this you only have to look at the burning issue of abortion law and compare.

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