The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces should be opposed by all socialists. It will deliver death and destruction and strengthen division between the workers of each country; not to mention division within Ukraine between its majority and Russian-speaking populations, and within Russia and its millions of Ukrainian residents.
Initial reports are of opposition by many Russians to the invasion and this must be supported by workers everywhere. If we seek to support these voices we must not rally to our own ruling classes and states in their aggression towards Russia, which will inevitably hit ordinary Russians most rather than the oligarchs who have been so royally entertained in the West for so long.
We must oppose NATO and its expansionism and demand no Western involvement in the war. The future of Russia must lie in its workers opposing the repression of Ukraine, which will be a foil to resistance to their repression from their own state. They will bear the cost of the war in the lives of their fathers, sons and brothers and the cost of bombs, shells and missiles as well as incurring the wider enmity created.
Similarly in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves and to seek support from Russian workers and workers in the West, they need to ask what sort of state and Government it is that has led them into this war. The higher living standards of the West have understandably attracted many in Ukraine, but the route to economic and social unity with the West does not lie through an alliance with NATO, which has demonstrated its aggressive and war-like nature in Afghanistan, in Libya and previously in Europe.
The promise of independence of Ukraine within NATO was a promise that could not be kept and could exist only as an increasing threat to Russia. NATO membership would simply make Ukraine a hostage to NATO – in reality US – foreign policy and its intentions. This does not excuse the Russian invasion but damns the policy of the Ukrainian Government and the lies of Western powers.
Self-determination for Ukraine today means opposition to the war and to NATO. At some point the fighting will stop but it will not be the Ukrainian people who will determine their future, just as the prelude to war has involved the US, EU and China arguing over their fate. Real self-determination can only be accomplished by the unity of the peoples of the region, of Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Europe as a whole. Who will achieve this?
Only the working people of Ukraine and Russia have an interest in denying the territorial ambitions of their respective states and ruling classes. Only they have a joint purpose in removing their own corrupt governments from power and denying their wider geo-political ambitions. The so-called end of the cold war and the Soviet Union has demonstrated that war is intrinsic to the existing regimes in both Russia and the West, and of most benefit to its strongest power the United States. The demand for peace will be hollow if it does not recognise this glaring fact of recent history.
In Ireland we are asked to join the hypocrisy of Western powers with blood on their own hands, to oppose Russia in its copying their own actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia etc. The call to join NATO is getting louder and the demand for a bigger Irish military is now prominent. Ukraine has demonstrated that neither of these is a contribution to peace or security.
The unity of the peoples of Eurasia can only be achieved over the body of capitalist state rivalry and the billionaires and oligarchs who have benefited from the existing political and economic system. The working class movement of each country must reject the aggressive policies of its own states and leaders and seek to build real unity of its working people.
Against the War! Against the invasion! For immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine! No to NATO! For the unity of working class people – Workers of the World Unite!
The decision by the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive was a bit of a surprise, but it only evoked the sort of reaction among many people of – ‘whatever’.
He had set so many deadlines and made so many declarations of his seriousness that most people had begun to take it as background noise. It’s not as if the Stormont Executive hasn’t collapsed before.
Those more interested couldn’t help recalling that he supported Brexit that gave rise to the NI protocol in the first place, and his claims about the damaging effects of it sit uneasily with his previous statement that he could live with the loss of 40,000 jobs as a consequence of Brexit.
The timing of the announcement makes no sense except in narrow party terms; as an attempt to shore up a vote that looks like it has fallen by a third: from 28 per cent in 2017 to one opinion poll recording 19.4 per cent today. All a result of the ‘existential threat’ to the union which Donaldson claims the Protocol represents but to which his party was midwife.
On top of this disastrous strategy we can factor in the shambolic removal of one leader only to have to get rid of her replacement in a matter of days. A party previously dominated by one messianic personality now looks at a crisis with no authoritative leadership at all.
The threat to its vote has appeared to come from two sources: from an even more rabid unionism but also from those less extreme who can see the party’s responsibility for the mess. In an effort to shore up support there could never be any doubt as to which side the DUP would seek to win back.
The weakness of its position is evident not just because its own policy clearly led to the Protocol but that its strategy is still to rely on the word of the most untrustworthy politician ever to hold the job of British Prime Minister, and that is a very high bar, especially when it comes to anything related to Ireland.
Donaldson revealed only a day after his decision that Johnson had told him that there was only a 20–30% chance of an agreement between the British and EU on the Protocol and that he would not commit to unilateral action as previously promised if there was no agreement. On top of this Johnson’s Secretary of State has promised to implement legislation on the Irish language in opposition to DUP demands. And this is who they now rely on! When Johnson did make a gesture to help Donaldson out by allowing double-jobbing at Westminster and London that decision was reversed in a week.
This weakness of the DUP position was unconsciously revealed when the party complained that its four reasons for collapsing the Executive included failure by Sinn Fein to fund celebrations of the British Queen’s platinum jubilee and preventing the planting of a centenary rose bush at Stormont.
More relevant to this weakness is a recent opinion poll recording that not much more than one in ten unionists think the Protocol is the main issue, coming fourth in their list of concerns.
It is all very well for the British government to wave the DUP threat in front of the eyes of the EU, but given Donaldson’s report of his meeting with Johnson it’s hard to believe that the EU would change its relaxed attitude to the repeated threats of the British. The EU has been careful not to inflame opinion in Ireland as it needs no extraneous factor complicating its negotiations with a party it pretty well has the measure of.
What we have witnessed therefore is a re-run of the Brexit referendum. The DUP have been spooked by one opinion poll showing its more extreme competitor, Traditional Unionist Voice, increasing its potential support from 6 per cent to 12 per cent while its own vote has dropped.
So, it moves even further to the right and meets with loyalist paramilitaries before announcing its new strategy of withdrawal from a Stormont that it wants to lead. Very like the way the Conservative party felt compelled to play with a Brexit referendum under pressure from a UKIP that was never going to go very far. The otherwise lack of interest or prominence of the issue of EU membership among a majority of people in Britain before the referendum is mirrored in the North of Ireland by the relatively relaxed view of the Protocol.
We have even had the DUP parrot ridiculous numbers about the cost of the Protocol to the Northern Ireland economy, which bear as much relation to the truth as the claim by the Leave campaign that it could get back £350m a week from the EU to give to the NHS. In both cases the culprits are the most reactionary petty bourgeois movements with no positive agenda. In both cases, the British economy and the economy of Northern Ireland would actually benefit from what was/is the status quo.
The mini-drama in the North of Ireland is a reminder to the British public that Brexit isn’t done. While the Westminster opposition vituperates over Johnson’s lies over boozy parties at the office his biggest lie – Brexit – is ignored by the congenitally cowardly and reactionary leader of the opposition. Instead it reverberates in the North of Ireland through a crisis of the party of petty bourgeois reactionaries who supported it most; it’s not a coincidence that Donaldson worked for ultra-reactionary Enoch Powell as the latter saw out his remaining political days as a Unionist MP for South Down.
Just as DUP support for Brexit has ushered in the Irish Sea border, so have the changed rules to the formation of a First and Deputy First Minister at Stormont that the DUP championed opened the door to a potential Sinn Fein First Minister. In both cases the potential consequences were foreseeable but that didn’t stop the DUP.
It now faces the prospect of its stupidity putting this on the agenda after the elections in May, an outcome that it cannot accept and one no unionist party has admitted it will. An extended period of paralysis in the workings at Stormont can therefore be expected. New rules mean that the institutions can survive longer without anyone actually performing the role of a government. A case of making the rules conform to much of the experience of the devolved arrangements over the last couple of decades, where the lights have been on but nobody has been in.
All these circumstances testify to the continuing political degeneration of the Northern state and its unionist foundations, although decay is not an alternative. We can see this easily when we note that Sinn Fein are currently the biggest party in opinion poll terms with less than a quarter of the first preference vote. Even with the SDLP, the combined nationalist support is only one third. Countdown to a United Ireland this is not.
Internally, the failure of unionism to reassert sectarian supremacy to its satisfaction has created fracture and division. It hitching its wagon to the hubris of its old imperialist mentor has further weakened it where it thought it could have prospered. From outside it has instead been the development of European capital through the EU that has now delivered a different dynamic for change that will weaken it further.
Change often comes slowly but it still comes. The fracturing of unionism is to be welcomed as is the inevitable failure of Brexit, which will become ever more obvious. One barrier to this taking a more progressive direction is the failure of social democratic forces to expose the failure and to offer an alternative, and unfortunately the pro-Brexit left stands behind it as the redundant non-alternative.
It stands to reason that for a united Ireland to happen both North and South would have to agree to it. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in December last year recorded the results of an opinion poll on support for a united Ireland in the South.
An Irish Times columnist summed it up right from the start – ‘So, you want a united Ireland? Of course. Soon? Eh, not really. Want to pay for it? Nope. Want unionists involved? Sure. Want to change the anthem or the flag? Not a chance. How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’
One thing really gets me about this type of thing, but I’ll get to this in a minute, after I briefly set out the results of the poll.
Support for Irish unity is broad – 62% support it, 16% say Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, 13% are undecided and 8% won’t bother themselves to vote.
Asked when they would like to see a referendum, 15% said now and 13% said never, while a further 16% said they would like to see it more than 10 years in the future. Since the most popular response was ‘in the next ten years’, at 42%, it means that support for a referendum within this timescale is almost the same as that supporting a united Ireland at 57%.
It might be thought then that those supporting a united Ireland are rather keener on it than the spin placed on it by political commentary such as that just quoted. Unfortunately for such a view the question was asked ‘how important is a United Ireland to you?’ and the most popular answer was ‘not very important, but I would like to see it someday.’ (For some reason this makes me think of this less well-known Irish rebel song).
This was the response of a majority of 52%, with only 20% saying it was ‘very important, it is a priority for me.’ More people than this, at 24%, said it was ‘not at all important’ with 4% saying they didn’t know. Even among Sinn Fein supporters this was the most popular answer at 47%, with 16% saying ‘not at all’.
If I might seem flippant about this question it is because how important something is very much depends on the context and one might reasonably expect that an actual referendum would make the question have greater importance. Whether this would increase or reduce support for a United Ireland again depends on context.
To determine the importance of it, or rather to emphasise its unimportance, the poll asked a number of questions about what compromises people in the South were prepared to make in order to make a united Ireland happen. Hence the comment above – ‘How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’
So, asked if they would agree to a new flag, a new national anthem, paying higher taxes, having less money to spend on public services or re-joining the Commonwealth, support was 16%, 21%, 15%,13% and 14% respectively. Or, to put it another way, 77%, 72%, 79%, 79% and 71% said no. On the other hand, 47% agreed to ‘having closer ties to the UK’, whatever that meant – perhaps visiting their cousins more often? – and 44% agreed to ‘having unionist politicians as part of the Government in Dublin’, which is a hell of a lot more important than a flag or a song. Yet another reason to doubt the value of these particular questions.
Which brings me to the one thing that really gets me about this type of thing. These ‘compromises’ are paraded by liberals and the great and the good as if they are in the least bit important to unionists. These people continually parrot that the concerns of unionists have to be listened to, yet their proposals show that they are the last to listen to them. Unionism frankly doesn’t give a shit about what flag is flown in the South of Ireland and doesn’t care what the national anthem is either etc. etc. As far as they are concerned, or rather proclaim loudly, it’s a foreign country and you can stand to whatever flag and sing whatever song you want.
In such circumstances, refusal to countenance such ‘compromises’, where only one side might agree, is perfectly rational.
This, however, is not very important. What matters is the question that wasn’t asked, which reveals much about the blindness of those behind the opinion poll.
In the North, Lord Ashcroft’s poll asked ‘what would change in a united Ireland?’, in other words, what would be the benefit or cost of a united Ireland to unionists, nationalists and ‘neutrals’. In the The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll only costs are considered to exist and only questions on this were asked.
Behind the poll is the view that partition has brought the Irish state freedom and is an unquestionable success, how could it be improved? How could incorporation of the North involve anything but potential costs or uncomfortable compromises?
For the liberal political classes and their cultural and diluted political nationalism, what might be acceptable to their comfortable existence – which they deftly weave into working class concerns about standard of living and welfare services – is the only relevant issue.
There is therefore a complete absence of the question ‘what problem is a united Ireland meant to solve?’
As far as the Southern establishment is concerned the only headaches reside in the North while a potential united Ireland itself raises problems.
But before we pour scorn on the bourgeois political classes in the South, socialists also have to ask themselves – what problems do we see being solved (at least even partially – as a step forward) by a united Ireland?
Since the answer is the unity of the working class this can only register in political consciousness in the South if there is a struggle for the independence of the working class for which such unity is required – and where is that struggle?
It hardly exists. The trade unions are bureaucratised and are welded to social partnership in whatever form it takes, or appears not to take. There is no mass working class party asserting the separate interests of the working class, and the left organisations with elected representatives are wedded to an electoral strategy fundamentally based on the institutions of the Southern State, with implications that they don’t understand and an effect on their state-socialism they are equally only dimly aware of.
Of course, they want a united Ireland, or some of them do, but since their conception of advancing socialism is through the current Irish State their whole approach involves promises of the potential benefits from this state and not the gains from an existing mass working class movement that has already delivered.
We can point to the gains made by the women’s and gay movement, in contraception, divorce, abortion and gay marriage but where is the recent experience of a mass workers’ movement achieving more or less comparable permanent advances?
A booming economy with higher living standards and lower unemployment is the result of multinationals and this is now sold as the same route to prosperity in the North, through its unity with the South. The left wants the fruits of the relative success of capitalism in the South spread more widely with particular market/state failures addressed (such as health and housing), which rely on this growing economy, in turn reliant on US multinationals.
On the same day that The Irish Times reported its opinion poll results it also reported on some other statistics. These were from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which showed that almost double the number of Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged over a five-year period from the beginning of 2016. This is the sort of material reality that drives Irish nationalism in the North.
The absence of such a reality in the South explains a lot.
Marxists are always regaled with the charge that they don’t understand and can’t cope with nationalism. The experience of Ireland shows that nationalism doesn’t understand itself and can’t cope without material reality, understood by Marxists, giving it substance. It is the power of the state that gives nationalism an objective and in the South of Ireland they’ve already got one.
It would seem ironic if demographics determined a united Ireland. Socialists over the decades have advanced a political strategy based on working class unity and opposition to sectarian arrangements, including partition, which has strengthened division. We have condemned a strategy based on Catholics ‘out-breeding’ Protestants.
In fact, of course, demographics is not a political strategy anyway. It will not of itself produce working class unity and remove division. It will weigh on the balance of forces, but will not determine how this balance is ultimately determined, because any referendum will not be the result of demographics but of the weight of political arguments arising out of any changed economic and social circumstances. A referendum will not just be a count but a result of a political struggle, a struggle based on political argument, interests and organisation.
Religion does not map one to one onto politics and there are Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists, although rather fewer of the latter. Many nationalists may be described as soft and Lord Ashcroft’s poll records that ‘In our groups, many on all sides felt there was a growing number of voters, particularly younger voters, who would see a referendum in terms of practicalities rather than religion, nationality or tradition – or as one put it . . .“some will vote green or orange, but a lot of people will vote with their heads.”’
The 2021 census results will not show a Catholic majority or a Protestant one, while those defined as ‘other’ or ‘neutral’ are split two to one in favour of those from a Protestant background, who are currently more likely to favour remaining in the UK. The nationalist vote has remained at around 40% for some time and the potential for the census to show the number of Catholics exceeding Protestants will not translate into votes for a generation. The issue will sharpen well before this happens meaning that those who consider themselves soft nationalists or neutral will play a significant role in determining any majority. Hence the importance given to non-nationalist opposition to Brexit and the poll findings of people changing their minds on the constitutional question.
The poll records that ‘More than a quarter of voters (27%) said they had changed their mind on the question of whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16% who said they had done so more than once.’ This seems improbable and invites some scepticism; somewhat mitigated by the elaboration that ‘31% of women, 38% of those aged 18-24 and 71% of those who describe themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their minds at least once.’ A significant change of mind would currently be required to create a majority in favour of a united Ireland.
All this points to a referendum on a united Ireland not being a question of simply counting the numbers within two blocs but of a political struggle that will much more immediately set the agenda and result.
This is more obviously the case since a referendum will inevitably be required in the South and there is no doubt that this will require a political debate and struggle. One only has to recall the history of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which included that ‘The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas’, and its overwhelming popularity before it was overturned by a 94% vote because it would deliver ‘peace’. The nature of events in the North will affect voting in the South but equally the debate in the South will impact on the North.
Since socialists do not want a sectarian headcount the necessary debate on a united Ireland will be a welcome opportunity to fight for our ideas. This will include support for a united Ireland, defending its claims for democracy and ensuring, in so far as we can, that promises are delivered. At the same time we must admit that it is currently very likely that any unity will take place on a capitalist basis and will require socialists to oppose the particular form that this unity will take.
We should not fool ourselves that what will be on the agenda is anything other than the incorporation of the North into the Southern state. We should obviously oppose the importation of sectarian practices from the North into the South in the name of accommodating unionism, as covered in this post. In the meantime, we must continue to fight for the building, expansion and democratisation of the organisations of the working class and the influence upon them of militant socialist politics.
In this way we can hope that the struggle over a referendum will not involve just a count but will allow our politics to count.
The pessimism of unionism revealed again in the Lord Ashcroft poll is based on their uncomfortable reliance on perfidious Albion – ‘more voters thought the Westminster government would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than thought it would rather keep the province as part of the Union. Only 11% of voters, and only 21% of Unionists, said they thought Westminster very much wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. A further 22% of all voters thought it would prefer to keep the province as part of the Union.’
If the Northern state were really as British as Finchley this would be inexplicable.
‘In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.’
Nationalist voters are more convinced that Britain wants to get out, with 68% believing this. Given the determination of the British State to defeat the struggle against its rule by some of them this is somewhat surprising, but is only one element of their view of the world, and in part reflects their view of the patent illegitimacy of partition and the palpable failure of the Northern state to be what is considered ‘normal’.
Another element is that one third of nationalists think the Southern state is indifferent or opposed to a united Ireland. While almost 95% think there should be a referendum on Irish unity within 10 years and 86% think there will be, there is apprehension at how it might occur. Commentary to the poll states that ‘Many were also nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle. They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.’
This view can hardly be dismissed, since every change to the Northern State, including the demand for civil rights, has been met with protest and violence by unionism. The view that a referendum in the South should follow one in the North is an additional incentive for unionist aggression and to make any threats credible.
The latest change is the Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the British government and EU following Brexit. Unionist leaders claim it has constitutional implications, that their agreement to it is therefore required, and that they’re not giving it. Since the argued direct constitutional effect is mistaken, although not its implications, unionism is arguing – as it always does – that no change can be made to the arrangements within the Northern State without its agreement. Since its politics are overwhelmingly sectarian and wholly reactionary this is one reason why partition should be ended and a united Ireland is progressive.
The main reason for nationalist optimism is demographic, that the share of the Catholic population is growing and Protestant Unionist one is declining; Ashcroft states that ‘one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane, “we breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.” More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.’
The poll states that ‘Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for unification, with 24% opting to stay in the UK; among those aged 65 or over, only 25% backed a united Ireland, with 55% choosing the status quo.’
It also reports the finding that ‘More than a quarter (27%) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK . . . Among neutrals, 62% thought voters would choose the status quo tomorrow, but 66% thought they would back a united Ireland in ten years’ time.’ Nationalists anticipate that people will change their minds and change them in only one direction.
One reason for this belief is the claimed effect of Brexit. According to the poll 95% of nationalists/republicans opposed Brexit while 66% of unionists supported it. The 30% of unionists who opposed Brexit and the 92% of those defined as ‘neutral’ (those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution) who also opposed it are expected to, or at least it is hoped will, change their views on the constitutional question because of the UK leaving the EU.
The poll makes much of its effects – ‘Participants in all our focus groups spoke about rising prices and shortages of goods, including food, clothes, household items and building materials. Several noted that ordering items from overseas had become more expensive or in some cases impossible; several had experienced Amazon being unable to ship certain items to Northern Ireland. Such problems were attributed to Brexit, the Protocol, covid, the Suez Canal blockage, or various combinations of all four.’
It finds that ‘Nearly 9 in 10 voters (88%) said they thought Brexit had been a cause of shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland, including 62% who said it had been a major factor. This was especially true of Nationalist/Republicans, with 73% of 2017 SDLP voters and 90% of Sinn Féin voters saying they believed Brexit had been a major factor.’
‘Three quarters of 2016 Leave voters said Brexit had had a part to play in shortages, including 29% thinking it had been a major factor.’
‘Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) of them, including 89% of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major factor, compared to 38% who said the same of Brexit more generally.’
The poll asked ‘whether Brexit had affected people’s views as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. For three quarters, it had made no difference: 43% said they had thought the province should be part of the UK before Brexit and still did; 32% said they had favoured a united Ireland before Brexit and they still did.’
However, ‘13% said they had thought Northern Ireland should stay in the UK before Brexit, but now favoured a united Ireland. This included 40% of 2017 SDLP voters, 34% of those who had backed the Alliance party, and 36% of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution.
A further 9% (including 36% of 2017 Alliance voters, 29% of constitutional neutrals and 9% of self-described Unionists) said Brexit had made them less sure that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK.’
Again, its perceived effects reflect previous dispositions, with 34% of unionists believing Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, 99% of nationalists thinking it does, and 89% of ‘neutrals’ believing the same. Nationalist optimism and unionist pessimism are long standing but have not changed the existing political division. It is therefore an open question whether Brexit will have the effect of persuading some unionists or ‘neutrals’ to support a united Ireland. It will certainly not strengthen opposition to it and its longer term economic effects may be more powerful in shifting views than relatively minor shortages.