Stormont falls again – Brexit on loop

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.

5 thoughts on “Stormont falls again – Brexit on loop

  1. socialists do not prioritise seeking out petty bourgeois allies..

    maybe a lasting remainder of the Trotsky legacy that you are re-examining. The idea that there are two tasks of revolution that stand out in themselves as the democratic ones and the socialist ones may be said no longer relevant to the post Soviet historical period. If it is true that Trotsky thought that State ownership of industry without direct workers democracy was unavoidable in the Soviet Union and therefore in some sense legitimate then those who came after the Fall of the Soviet Union have learned that it can no longer can be thought legitimate in any sense, then all socialist tasks and measures must be redesigned as fully democratic ones. If this choice on behalf of workers democracy over bureaucracy has still to be fully unpacked by socialist theory, it surely must imply that socialists should prioritise democratic tasks and measures, including supporting democratic allies even if they are drawn from another social class. This on the face of it goes against the grain of what Trotsky thought. However one can accuse Trotsky of being ambiguous about workers democracy.

    When it comes down to political decision by referendum like with any referendum on Irish national unity the question of correct or incorrect class allies is less important than the issue to be voted on itself. We can see this with the Brexit referendum, did it really matter which class of capitalists supported leaving and which class of capitalists supported remaining? It so happened that the big bourgeoisie tended to be in favour of remaining and voted accordingly, workers who voted in favour of remaining did not instantly become the class allies of the big bourgeois. In short the class allies point in the case of referendum politics may well be a false flag.

    One last point, it has become legend that the Irish Labour Party opted out of the national independence struggle of 1918-, taking on a sort of observer or bystander status and this cost it dear in the long run, I wonder if you may be in danger of falling into a similar trap! I can see why socialists don’t want to try and become more ardent about national unity than Sinn Fein but they also don’t want to be left looking on as mere bystanders.

    • As you will know, I have written a number of posts on the issues raised by a referendum on a United Ireland precisely because socialists need to have an independent position. For us the main point is not national unity per se but the unity of the working class and the deleterious effects of the existing undemocratic arrangements. The posts I have written have explained that simply campaigning on national unity without any specific social content will not be enough, something to which many parties in Ireland at least genuflect to.

      As in the Brexit referendum, given a binary choice, socialists cannot take a position simply on who might or might not be on their side. Some on the left in Britain came to the right decision only by looking at the most reactionary supporters of Brexit and deciding the didn’t like being on the same side. It is necessary therefore to look deeper at the issue and decide what grounds are most beneficial to the working class and this isn’t trying to wind the clock back on capitalist development.

      There are many types of tasks involved in socialist revolution and I agree with you that it is necessary that we learn from the experience of the Russian revolution including the inevitable restrictions on democracy. I am working on some posts on this question at the minute.

      As for supporting allies from other classes in the fight for democracy, in Ireland and Britain the basis for gaining allies in other classes, in so far as this is important in two advanced capitalist countries, is to create and build a strong working class movement that can win such people to our banner. Seeking out other class allies in the struggle for democracy gets things the wrong way round and if it becomes an absolute priority inevitably transforms into the Stalinist politics of relegating the specific interest of the working class in order to appease such ‘allies’.

      • I have had a few more thoughts on the matter. The first one has to do with History. I ask myself what period of History are we living through. When Trotsky was offering his political recipes for socialists and workers, his understanding was that the living period of History was characterised by wars, civil wars and revolutions. The period of History, 1950- 1980 is often characterised as the
        period of the cold war and the anti-colonial revolutions. Those who still read Trotsky mostly continued to think that the 1950-1980 were in many ways a continuation with the pervious epoch of wars, civil wars and revolutions. Then we moved on to another possible historical period, I am thinking about the period after the near disappearance of what was often referred to the Soviet Union and the ending of the progressive anti- colonial struggles, 1990- 2020. One thing that is very arguable is how to characterise this current period, it has been be questioned that this period also should still be characterised with the tag, ‘an epoch of wars, civil wars and revolutions.’ However the characterisation of the current period is open for discussion.

        How is this relevant to the Irish question today. Well in the past we used to thing that any possible Irish Unity would belong to an episode in revolution, democratic and social. What I think has happened is that we have been persuaded by the mass media that Irish Unity can take place as an episode of quiet diplomacy and reform, without all of the thunder and lightening associated with revolution, to be carried out by a civilised exercise in voting in a democratic referendum. This may be where we are going wrong, I am not sure myself. If you use the comparative method, one can look at the referendum in Scotland and the referendum covering Brexit and conclude that there is no hint of revolution to be had with the above and so it will be like that when the vote takes place in Ireland. In fact we my be mistaken to think that all of the above are mere exercises in mild change or reform, some disruption in the weather certainly but all lacking the historical thunder and lightening of revolution.

        It has been assumed that all those who agree to participate in a referendum will abide by the rules. That the winners and losers will both accept the voting outcome and just melt away. However this maybe a wrong assumption to make, an assumption of belief in civilised democratic reform. I can now wonder if the losers in Scotland have really accepted the outcome of their referendum and what about both the winners and losers when it comes to Brexit. I certainly don’t think that the vote losers on Irish Unification will accept the outcome with ranker, it is just as likely to stir up even more political rancour, so the epoch of wars, civil wars and revolutions might not have passed away, it might only appear to look that way.

  2. I agree that we are not in a countdown to a united Ireland because of the Brexit debacle. I do have a question for you along this axis. What social class or stratum of a social class is more likely to be receptive to a united Ireland in the near future?

    The founding nostrum of all Marxists in Ireland and indeed in Britain has been for as long as I can recall has been ‘only the working class can united Ireland on the basis of socialism.’ There have been several empirical obstacles to the truth of the founding nostrum, the obvious one being the recalcitrant loyalism of the Protestant working class.

    I could not help noticing another example of this ‘brass neck loyalism’ on the regional news yesterday when people were asked people if they thought the Street name tributes referring to Prince Andrew, Crescent, Drive and so on should be changed, all of of those living at the addresses said ‘no there was no proof the Prince had done anything wrong.’ The No answer of course is standard brass neck loyalism. So while the prince maybe out of favour in England he is still top of the tree in loyal Ulster.

    Maybe the founding nostrum of Irish Marxism, ‘that only the working class will unite Ireland’ is a utopian ideal rather than an empirical hypothesis to be confirmed or refuted. If the empirical reality tells us that it is the more progressive sections of capital that have an interest in ending partition maybe we should side with them rather than hanging on a decayed nostrum? What do you think?

    • I have been writing more posts in the series on Marx’s alternative to capitalism, which has involved further consideration of the preconditions for it. This has involved thinking about Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and the view that the bourgeoisie in an underdeveloped country cannot solve the tasks of the bourgeois revolution such as land reform and independence etc., which requires working class leadership of a revolution that goes beyond capitalism in order to solve these tasks.

      This naturally has had me thinking about Ireland and whether the outstanding tasks of the bourgeois revolution here require the working class to lead the struggle to achieve them and also to combine this with a struggle for socialism. A number of my posts on opinion polls show the current weak basis for such a view. As you say, Protestant workers in the North are opposed and Southern workers have not created a vehicle to assert their independent interests and otherwise haven’t identified any burning class interest of their own in ending partition.

      Even during Marx and Engels’ day tasks of the bourgeois revolution that were not solved by democratic revolutions, such as those of 1848, were later ‘solved’ from above by a variety of social actors to various different degrees. I recently read Neil Davidson’s book on ‘How Revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions?’, which recorded the different ways in which this has happened.

      While it is obviously in the interests of the Irish working class to end partition for the reasons just set out this is not currently on the cards. Instead, as I implied in the post above, Brexit has involved promotion of all-Ireland economic integration, naturally along capitalist lines, which highlights the relative decline of British imperialism and the growth of the capitalist economy in the South with the benefit to it of being in the EU. Membership prevented the British just foisting its Brexit border inside the island.

      In my view while this is the direction of travel the current strength of this process should not be exaggerated.

      To answer your final question directly: since socialists do not prioritise democratic tasks over the independent struggle of the working class we are not going to advocate seeking out petty bourgeois allies, sections of the capitalist class or imperialist forces in order to unite Ireland, even if currently these are progressing this task more than anyone, in however limited a way.

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