Should socialists support a border poll? 3 What sort of Protestant opposition?

I have stated that the purpose of a united Ireland for socialists is not to unite the nation or the territory but to unite the working class.  The Socialist Party opposes a border poll, which might be one way to move in this direction, because it says that the Protestant working class in the North will oppose it and may do so violently.  It has pointed to Protestant opposition expressed in the flags dispute beginning in 2012 as an example of such opposition, opposition which socialists should concede makes the initiative one that will increase sectarian division.

In this post I will look at this opposition and argue that it is not an example of an initiative that socialists should accede to, and certainly should not be presented as an example of the sort of response that should determine socialist views on the way forward, even if by necessity such actions must of course be taken into account.

In effect, what I am saying is that such opposition has no progressive content, should not be conceded to as legitimate barriers to fighting for progressive, democratic and socialist change, and are in fact wholly reactionary.  Rather than bow to them, it is the task of socialists to oppose such mobilisations – these do not constitute resistance reflecting legitimate interests of the working class but are defences of the most virulent division. Rather than being a reason to retreat or stand still, the forces behind the flag dispute are the most diehard defenders of sectarian division, which if it is to be defeated, will mean the defeat of the forces that defend it.  To do otherwise is to capitulate to sectarianism.

The flag dispute began at the beginning of December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag outside the City Hall to 18 designated days, instead of the existing arrangements of flying it every day of the year.  It led to a riot outside the building on the night of the vote by a loyalist crowd, which had been roused to anger by the distribution of 40,000 leaflets by the two main Unionist parties, who claimed that the unionist (with a small u) but self-identified non-sectarian Alliance Party was threatening unionist identity.

This led to a series of protests that involved almost 3,000 ‘occurrences’ according to police, which included demonstrations, riots and assaults on people and property, although no one was actually killed.  At its height it mobilised about 10,000 people at any one time, and in one night involved 84 different sites across the North.  It was therefore pretty widespread if not massively deep.

The mobilisations declined rather quickly, although continued into 2013, the following year, and a ritual demo takes place outside the City Hall every Saturday to this day.  In terms of previous decades of ‘the troubles’ it was small beer, except it was supposed to be after the success of the ‘peace process’ when we were all apparently to be living in a ‘post-conflict’ society.

However, in other respects it was typical of Northern Ireland politics, and therefore a reasonable controversy on which to hang the argument.  It suits the purpose of the Socialist Party position not only because it is relatively recent, no one was killed, and it obviously involved the question of Protestants’ identity as ‘British’, but also because, unlike other expressions of unionist politics in what they see as defence of their rights, which they could have used, such as the protests around the Drumcree Orange parade in the second half of the 1990s or Holy Cross Primary School in 2001, these would have too obviously demonstrated the naked bigotry of what often passes for Protestant defence of their rights.  No one outside the ranks of the bigots could ever be impressed by an assertion of Protestant rights that involves attacking primary school children and their parents going to school.

We don’t however need the worst examples in order to criticise Loyalist politics, and the example of the flag protest is neither ‘the best’ nor the worst.  It is the one that the Socialist Party writer decided to reference and the essential politics involved has wider application than the contingent factors involved in this particular episode.

The policy of flying the flag on designated days was a compromise from an original Sinn Fein proposal not to fly it at all, although Sinn Fein’s later support for the designated days policy could be guaranteed to anger loyalists, even though three councils with unionist majorities were already adhering to designated days before the Belfast council decision.

Policies on flying the flag had already been agreed for Government buildings and in workplaces (were they are prohibited) but not in local government, and the council already had legal advice pointing out the legal risk on grounds of equality legislation in the existing policy of flying the union flag every day.

The Unionist Parties were now in a minority on the council and the balance of power lay with the Alliance Party, which proposed the new designated days motion, and Catholics now constituted a majority in the city – 136,000 against 119,00 Protestants.  The equality and community relations industry was generally sympathetic to this sort of approach and two public meetings, entailed by official consultation on equality impact grounds, was attended at the first by two members of the public and by one at the second.  A petition of almost 15,000 supported existing policy but this was a result of many of the signatures being acquired at a loyalist celebration.

The Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, actually supported the designated days policy in its submission to the consultation, although quickly changed its mind. For some loyalists it is fine if they can determine what does and does not happen, but what does and does not happen cannot be because Catholics have either asked for it or demanded it.  In other words, they have the rights that are allowed to them, which is to say, more strictly and accurately, no rights at all.

In a poll almost three quarters of Catholic Council employees stated that they would be pleased or very pleased if the union flag didn’t fly, while 88 per cent of Protestant staff said they would be displeased or offended.

The successful motion in the council to fly it on only designated days, including on birthdays of members of the royal family, stated that “this reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories . . . it also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.”

When the result of the vote was made known outside the meeting loyalists at the back of the City Hall rioted and attempted to enter the building.  Later, on their way home to East Belfast, they attacked houses in the small Catholic area of Short Strand, which was to become a regular occurrence.

Protests at the City Hall also became a regular occurrence each Saturday, with the first appearing chaotic and without clear leadership, although a number of individual loyalists became recognised spokesmen for the protests if not the actual leaders.  One was Jim Dowson, formerly a member of the British National Party.  At the march round the City Hall protestors sang sectarian songs such as The Sash, the Famine Song and the Glasgow Rangers football ‘Bouncy’ song (if you could call it a song).

Police appeared to facilitate rather than stop protestors in what were illegal protests.  This was later challenged by a resident of the Short Strand, which was initially successful but then lost on appeal, with the judiciary declaring that not preventing illegal parades was within the discretion of the police.  Catholics had earlier argued that the police had used their discretion to arrest Republican protestors in Ardoyne while taking a different approach to loyalists.

The other significant target for the protestors was the property and personnel of the Alliance Party which were attacked and which had been the original target of unionist politicians’ leaflet campaign.  Most of these politicians kept quiet during the period of violent loyalist protest, with a few issuing ritualistic and general condemnations of violence while a few others were openly standing with the protestors.  However, the leadership of unionism was sufficiently rattled by the out-of-control protests for them to call for unity around a Unionist Forum, which included themselves and paramilitary figures, although this outward show of unity did little to dispel the obvious disunity among them.

The protests petered out although continue in a ritualistic form today.  On the first anniversary of the protest 1,500 took part when 5,000 or 10,000 had been predicted, while a year later only 200 showed up.  By this stage loyalists had found a new assault on their identity with the rerouting of a return parade past the shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area.

This did not mean that the cause the loyalists were protesting was not popular among unionists, or even that the protests themselves were unpopular.  An opinion poll shortly after the protests started found that, while among all respondents 44 per cent thought designated days was the correct policy and 35 per cent supported flying the flag all the time, 73 per cent of unionists wanted it up 365 days a year and 64 per cent of nationalists 18 days. While there was majority support (51 per cent) for the right to protest, after nearly two months 76 per cent wanted them to stop, although 45 per cent of unionists wanted them to continue.

A separate poll, as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, found that the designated days policy received the support of 53 per cent of all respondents while 24 per cent supported flying the union flag all the time.  In this poll 48 per cent of Protestants supported the designated days option while 44 per cent supported the 365 days option, although this may reflect the fact that most of this survey was carried out before the decision and protests had started.

A poll taken in August and September 2013, 9 to 10 months after the protests started and then died down – and been replaced to a great extent by those around Orange parades – found that 31 per cent of Protestants supported the all-year policy while only 8 per cent of Catholics did, while 19 per cent of ‘Other’ did, i.e. those who did not identify themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

It is clear that attitudes changed and the strength of Protestant opposition to the erosion of their British identity, as it has been put, was stronger during the height of the protests than after, and involved a more extensive identification of just what this meant during the protests than before.

It is clear that some of the most extreme elements of Protestant politics were involved in the flag protest.  The often primitive and disordered protests were satirised on line, most prominently in the LAD Site (Loyalists Against Democracy).  The originator of the site described how it began:

“I sat down at the computer one night and created a page and gave it this title, Loyalists Against Democracy – I’m trying to be humorous – and I went to bed and when I got up in the morning 50 people had ‘liked’ the page. I mean, I was trying to be as ridiculous as I could be. I posted one page in particular – it wasn’t very funny – complaining about Aer Lingus flying over east Belfast and next morning there were hundreds of comments agreeing with this, each one more vile than the last.”

While this says something of the political character of the flag protest it also throws into relief the approach of the Socialist Party, which wishes to employ this episode as justification for emasculating a socialist approach and acceptance of limits imposed by the most primitive unionism. Essentially the Party argues that those most wedded to reactionary sectarian politics must be conciliated in pursuit of defeating this politics.

In the next post in this series I will look at some of the implications of this.

Back to Part 2

Should socialists support a border poll? 2 – is a majority enough?

For some people, getting a simple majority in the North of Ireland is not sufficient to justify a united Ireland, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is not the first leading southern politician to question whether it would be enough.  The unionist leader Peter Robinson has also said that any border poll on Northern Ireland’s future in the UK could not be conducted on the basis of a simple majority.  Varadkar has said that an Irish unity poll would be divisive and “a bad idea”, that the idea of a “majority of one” would lead to chaos, and questioned whether it would be a “good thing”.

The Irish establishment, the classes it is based on, and the politicians who represent it are quite happy with partition, and are more or less at one on this with unionists.  As former Taoiseach Jack Lynch put it some decades ago, “if we were given a gift of Northern Ireland tomorrow, we could not accept it.”

In the North a recent opinion poll recorded that more than half of unionists rejected the idea of a referendum completely, while 90 per cent of nationalists wanted one within five years.  A slight majority of all respondents supported the idea of ’50 per cent plus one’, while almost 20 per cent said a two-thirds majority should be required.  A majority of unionists advocated a 70 per cent threshold while nearly 90 per cent of nationalists favoured 50 per cent plus one.

Behind the numbers however is the question of what the purpose of unity is and what it would be for. The SDLP leader John Hume used to repeat, seemingly endlessly, that it wasn’t territory that needed to be united but people.  And for socialists this is indeed the case, with perhaps a further three vital considerations.

The first is that the unity to be achieved is not just unity between North and South but within the North as well; secondly that it is the unity of the working class that is decisive for real progressive change and thirdly, that unity of territory really means a united State, and states and their practices have been decisive in the past in dividing the working class.  So, it isn’t simply a question of uniting two pieces of land or of territory, but of the political arrangements upon which they sit.

It might thus seem that the Socialist Party is correct for example to emphasise workers unity, and in tune with unionism and the southern establishment, to state that a border poll would be ‘very divisive’; could be seen as “a dangerous development”, is not a “democratic” solution”, would amount to “coercion”, and would be similar in effect to such things as the Anglo-Irish Agreement and flag protests in 2012/2013, which “will inflame opinion in Protestant working class areas . . . and will cause harm to the cause of working class unity.”

It is not necessary to agree with the strong formulations of the Socialist Party in order to start from the question of working class unity, because that is indeed the objective. But in doing so it is necessary to appreciate that at the present time there is an absence of such unity, between Irish workers in the North and those in the South, and within the North.  Such things as common membership of a trade union does not constitute such unity.

For a Marxist workers unity means some sort of political unity, based on material circumstances that includes union membership, but which must also take into account political consciousness and the existing profound political division of the working class.  Opposing a border poll on the grounds of protecting the status quo because it contains some sort of working class unity is not therefore an option, except in so far as we do not want to make the disunity that exists worse.

Unfortunately, given the economism of the SP, which routinely identifies purely economic issues with class issues and struggles around employment and wages etc. as precursors of socialism, it means that the Party consistently overstates the extent to which workers unity already exists.  This tends to lead to the view that any change to the current arrangements must entail some sort of promise of ‘socialism’.

So while the leaders of the Party state that “we are clear that we do not in any way ignore the rights of Catholics. It has always been the case that we take into consideration the intense desire for change of working- class Catholics and we recognise the positive side of this intense desire for change”, such a claim always struggles to find expression in their programme.

So while they oppose a border poll for not being democratic because it will “inflame Protestant opinion”, cause “widespread anger in the Protestant community”, “mass protests” and “street violence”, they seem not to comprehend the message thereby sent to Catholic workers.

For these workers, the Northern Ireland State is a single gerrymandered sectarian constituency that has routinely discriminated against them and used repression in every decade of its existence to enforce their subordination.  In the 1960s some campaigned for civil rights to overturn the most flagrant gerrymandering within the state, but they are now being told to accept the gerrymandering of the state, even if they are in a majority!

Having fought for ”one man one vote”, many unionists (and analogously the SP) are now saying to Catholic workers that they should either not be able to vote in a poll, or they can vote, but they will have to gain a two-thirds or 70 per cent majority; in other words they will still not be able to have ‘one person, one vote’.  A Catholic vote will not be equal to a Protestant vote and they will still in effect be denied their civil rights.

And for what reason? Because of opposition within the Protestant population to the denial of their ‘identity’ as British?  In the name of opposing sectarian division the Socialist Party has thus found itself opposing civil rights on the grounds of sectarian identity.  And this from a Party that claims to oppose ‘identity’ politics and base itself on class politics.

The position of the Party actually makes its position one of the most reactionary of those opposed to a border poll.  Like its position on Brexit its economism, and the general limitations of its politics, finds it planted in the most reactionary camp.  How bad this is is clear from its employment of the flags protest as a case justifying its opposition to the minor political border arising from customs and regulatory checks in any East-West border that might arise from Brexit.

There is no attempt by it to define or defend some arbitrary majority that should be respected in a border poll, should it be 50%+1 or 2/3 or 70%, but simply that a poll cannot be entertained because it will inflame Protestant opinion.  In effect what we have is a sectarian veto and a defence of the continued existence of the Northern State as a sectarian one, justified only by its sectarian composition, by the opposition of some part of the Protestant working class through its identification with Britishness, an identification defined by loyalty to the monarchy, the Protestant religion, and British imperialist conquest. The logic of such sectarian privilege could easily be extended to all political practices within the state  because no limits are placed on the salience of this Protestant opinion.

In such circumstances no amount of explanation that this represents legitimate opposition by Protestant workers to Catholic sectarian claims would be the least convincing.  Nor would any claim that there was anything progressive about it, such as Protestant opposition to a ‘capitalist’ united Ireland as if – given their wholly reactionary politics – unionists would not express even more opposition to a socialist united Ireland.

Such a political position would not be defensible by claiming that a non-sectarian workers unity might be built within the North around economic issue.  If there was a majority for a united Ireland, any attempt to deny this majority could not possibly be defended from a socialist perspective, although this does not exhaust questions that arise about implementation.

Whether such a poll should be supported now is not quite the same question, although similar issues arise, and with the same consequences.  Outright denial of a border poll in principle is a denial of democratic rights and, if expressed on the grounds put forward by the Socialist Party, is a capitulation to sectarianism.

This does not mean that the question of increased sectarian division should not be taken into account but it does mean outright opposition to a border poll for the reasons given by the Socialist Party is not the answer.

The flags protest is a good example of Protestant workers’ opposition to changes which should definitely not be accommodated or accepted.  Even a cursory examination of it illustrates that to do otherwise is actually to capitulate to sectarian demands.  In the next part I will briefly review this episode.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 2 – towards a United Ireland?

While the EU may not have been a main actor to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) or a party to it, and not seen at the time as particularly important to it, this does not thereby mean that Brexit and the creation of a hard border is unimportant.

As I have said before, the creation of a hard border matters not so much because of what happens at the border itself, and the creation of any border controls and infrastructure this will involve, but what it means for what happens behind the border. This does not mean the symbolism and real effects to cross border traffic are unimportant; they will be the visible sign of the stresses that Brexit will impose across Ireland.  It is these stresses that are important and are doubly important because the GFA is not working.  If the GFA was working then there would be less concern that Brexit would destabilise politics in the North.

No part of the UK will suffer as much economic damage from Brexit as Northern Ireland.  Cross border trade, especially of agricultural products will be very badly hit.  In September 2017 British officials told their opposite EU Brexit negotiators that there were 156 distinct areas of North-South cross-border cooperation, and a lot of these depended on EU law.  A no-deal Brexit would leave many without legal basis and unable to function, causing dislocation to everything from health service delivery to the delivery of electricity across the border.

This would not breach the Good Friday Agreement but would signal big problems not just for those along the border seeking the nearest effective health care but for economic growth and employment both North and South.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to someone working in a lamb feed business who predicted that freely imported New Zealand lamb could easily put the factory she works in out of business. Costs to the business have already risen because of Brexit.  The alternative, now mooted by the Tories, of the continuation of tariffs has its own host of problems.  The large state sector in the North will suffer from the decline in tax receipts consequent on the reduction in economic growth.

Some companies based in Northern Ireland have already made advanced plans to move south and others will follow. The largest private sector employer is Bombardier, which makes wings for Airbus.  The Airbus out-going CEO has warned of fierce competition from other countries for the work carried out in the UK even before Brexit has happened. The decline in the value of sterling will hit living standards as much as anywhere else in the UK while being at the end of many supply chains may mean it will hit more.

The move by Britain to exit the EU will leave it a supplicant to other more powerful forces, if it does not otherwise become an arms’ length appendage of the EU.  These forces, such as the US, will be rivals of the EU and in any conflict over trade etc., or geopolitical events, will see them rub up against each other, just as now the controversy over the backstop is a reflection of the border between the EU and the UK.

This will not lead to cross-border cooperation but to a border upon which various frictions can be played out.  In this sense, Brexit will undermine the relationship between Britain and the Irish State, which the GFA signalled was in many ways aligned.  The first and most obvious friction to arise may be negotiation of a new free trade deal between the EU and the UK after Brexit.

These economic effects will therefore reverberate into political ones.  None of the effects of Brexit will have any democratic legitimacy as 56 per cent in Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU.  Within the North the DUP will be seen as the architects of the disaster.  The majority of unionists voted for Brexit while the vast majority of nationalists voted to Remain.

Avoidance of the Brexit divide mirroring and strengthening the sectarian divide will be difficult.  The British nationalist and reactionary imperialist prejudices that motivated Brexit are an important part of unionist ideology

So to some extent avoidance will depend on the estimated one third of unionists who voted to Remain, although not only on them.  There are an increasing number of people in the North who don’t identify as Protestant or Catholic, although it is not possible to say that they don’t therefore have a view on the border.  It is also obvious that Catholic nationalists can also play a more progressive or more reactionary role – the demand for a United Ireland is historically a progressive one that socialist should support but, like many historical tasks, it can be solved in either a progressive or a reactionary fashion and socialists cannot be indifferent to these alternatives.

Only the most ignorant could believe that any greater hardship following Brexit will overcome sectarian consciousness and serve to develop class consciousness.  Still less is this the case if sectarian division is reinforced by its effects.  It is therefore extraordinary that the small socialist movement has mostly ruled itself out of any progressive role by supporting the Brexit that they simultaneously worry will increase sectarian division.  Everyone can make a mistake but doubling down on it, as they have, makes their position inexcusable.

So this brings us to the second part of the argument, that Brexit creates the grounds for a vote for a united Ireland.

If the same development of consciousness in the North of Ireland that has taken place in Britain were now occurring then this might be a possibility; that is one where a wide section of the population has developed a Remain political identity that rivals and exceeds that of traditional party identity (which in the North largely reflects the sectarian divide). But this is not the case.

It is not the case, for example, that most unionist Remainers will drop their unionism for the sake of support for remaining in the EU and a united Ireland, even if Brexit proves to be economically disastrous.  Unionism will be weakened and some may revise their unionism, but not in enough numbers to change the current arithmetic of a majority in the North in favour of partition.  Much more likely is that the economic damage inflicted by Brexit will make middle class nationalists more fervent supporters of a united Ireland, which is currently muted by many of their number having a relatively comfortable standard of living, while also no longer subject to the same indignities arising from Protestant sectarianism that existed in the past.

But this will not produce a majority vote for a united Ireland.  There is not yet a Catholic majority in the North of Ireland, even were all these politically nationalist and committed to a united Ireland, which is not the case.  Demographics’ is not politics.  So, while the religious split was 65% Protestant and 35% Catholic when the Northern State was set up, and it is now 48% and 45%, respectively, this does not suggest a majority for a united Ireland, Brexit or no Brexit.

What there is, is a growing Catholic population, which labour force statistics show has grown to almost equal that of Protestants in the workforce, i.e. not just among the very young.  The latest Labour Force Survey has shown that the population aged 16 and over defined as Protestant has declined by 14 percentage points since 1990 from 56% to 42%, while the number of working age Catholics has increased from 38% to 41%. The remaining 17% define themselves as ‘other/non-determined’ an increase from 6% in 1990.  While population forecasts are unreliable, it is argued that Catholics will outnumber Protestants in the population in 5 to 10 years time, while it is more obvious that those not defining themselves as either will form the pivot.

This population shift has many social and political ramifications that are already playing out. In 1992, 69% of working age Protestants and 54% of Catholics were in employment, but by 2017 the respective figures were 70% and 67%.  In 1992 76% of working-age Protestants were economically active (as opposed to in employment) while the percentage of Catholics was 66%.  By 2017 the respective figures were 73% and 70%.

The politically totemic figures on religious unemployment, so often in the past held up as evidence of sectarian discrimination, have moved from a 9% unemployment level for Protestants and 18% for Catholics in 1990 to 4% for both in 2017.

A state cannot function efficiently on the political exclusion of a minority this size, especially one repeatedly predicted to become a majority.  The GFA created a political framework that, it was hoped by its architects, would allow a fair balance of political power between two separate populations defined by sectarian identity, but this identity inevitably entails sectarian competition, which accounts for the political instability that Brexit will only accentuate.

But once again it has to be noted that Brexit hasn’t created the problem of sectarian competition and political paralysis.  Brexit is threatening because the GFA isn’t working and cannot work to deliver a ‘fair’ balance of power between sectarian blocs, when these blocs exist only in opposition to each other.

What might reasonably be expected is that the effects of Brexit are widely enough recognised to be the fault of Brexit and that those that supported it lose influence and power.  This might also entail growing recognition of British decline and the benefits of unity with a state still in the EU.

This would ally with parallel processes that have also become obvious.  Traditional Protestant opposition to a united Ireland has portrayed itself as opposition to ‘Rome rule’, while the development of a more secular consciousness in the south of Ireland has shown that for many this ‘Rome rule’ claim was only a cover for their own sectarianism.  It is also however the case that the growth of secular consciousness, and especially the demand for abortion and gay rights, that might feed into opposition to the Northern State as presently constituted, does not threaten it.  Most supporters of such rights fully expect them to be delivered eventually within the Northern State.

Much has been made of opinion polls that show the potential for a majority for a united Ireland arising from Brexit, and especially from a no-deal Brexit.  But this often appears to be selecting the results that one likes and ignoring others.  The fact that those defining themselves as Unionist have begun to score less than 50% in elections has also been hailed as a harbinger of the near-future, ignoring that the majority of the 11% ‘others’, that is not nationalists, have favoured remaining in the UK.

The ‘Irish Times’ reported last October that the five most recent opinion polls showed support for the North staying in the UK ranging from 45% to 55% and averaging 50%.  And it is certainly true that more people think that Brexit will make a united Ireland more likely.   A poll by RTE and BBC reported in November showed that 62% of those polled believed this.

Other recent polls are not so kind to the view that there is an imminent majority for a united Ireland. A MORI poll for academics at Queens University Belfast found just 21% would vote for Irish unity after Brexit.  A second poll, commissioned by Policy Exchange across the UK, found support for membership of the UK at 58%, although the sample size for Northern Ireland was only 500. A poll by LucidTalk reported in October found that 33.7% would vote for a united Ireland if a referendum was called immediately.

It would appear that the company carrying out the polling affects the result, with Ipsos MORI showing lower figures in favour of Irish unity compared to LucidTalk. But these MORI polls also show an increase in support for Irish unity, if not yet anywhere near a majority, with those in these polls in favour of Irish unity increasing from 21% in 2013, to 26% in 2016 and 30% in 2018.

So what we are seeing is the development of objective conditions which assist the move to a united Ireland, and on a progressive basis, but which needs to develop much further for it to give rise to a more immediate threat to the state created for sectarian reasons and defined by its sectarian composition.

A progressive solution requires a conscious political movement that gives more coherent expression to these progressive developments and also fights sectarianism.  This means more than simply pronouncing its absence from its ranks.  It means not trying to accommodate, manage or conciliate sectarianism but consciously fighting it and those who practice it.  The victory of democratic, never mind socialist, politics necessarily entails the defeat of all the sectarian forces, and particularly means the defeat of unionism and loyalism.

As the alliance of the DUP with the Tories once again shows, and even Corbyn’s expression of concern at the unionist position also illustrates, this includes implacable opposition to the divisiveness of British rule. While claiming disinterest the British state has routinely placated the most extreme loyalism, and when threatened actively supported and organised it.

So it is not that Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement so much as the disintegration of the Agreement makes Brexit a threat to political stability.  Were the institutions of the GFA working as they were intended Brexit would not present the threat that it does, which will persist in undermining the Northern State beyond any immediate shock.

Whether this threat to the State leads to democratic change or reactionary sectarian conflict, or rather whether democratic change overcomes sectarian conflict, will depend to some exent on how progressive forces organise and around what political programme. In this regard a future post will look at whether socialists should support demands for a border poll.

It must be admitted however that the existing weakness of the working class as an independent political actor inside the North means that socialists are at the stage of seeking to develop independent working class politics rather than realistically presenting these as an immediate solution to sectarian and political division.  This political division includes the bystander status which the working class in the South has become accustomed to taking when it comes to the political development of the movement in the North.

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 1

The British parliament has voted for a no deal Brexit through the Tory demand that the backstop, that would prevent a hard border inside Ireland, should be removed.  Theresa May has gone to Europe (again) and been told the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened for negotiation.  Her humiliation (again) was partially avoided by attention switching to Donald Tusk’s remark about a special place in hell for those who led Brexit without a plan.

Theresa May continues to kick the can down the road in an attempt to blackmail MPs into supporting her deal as the only way to avoid a no deal exit.  The alternative is an extension of Article 50 to postpone the dreaded decision.

But lo and behold, here then comes Jeremy Corbyn to overturn his demand that the Withdrawal Agreement pass his six tests and instead he demands five tests from the Political Declaration. Since this declaration has no legal force it is purely a political document, which doesn’t make it unimportant but does mean it can contain all sorts of pious wishes and contradictory or impossible elements that could in large part contain what Corbyn has said he wants.  Less charitably it’s not binding and not worth the paper it’s written on.

This may have three effects. It gets May’s deal over the line and we have Brexit.  It makes the Tory deal the basis of this Brexit and it makes them responsible for whatever ensues – as in British business continuing to shift to the rest of Europe that remains part of the EU.  A fourth effect is that Corbyn is seen to be consistent in his demand for a ‘jobs’ Brexit while also sticking to Labour Party policy.

Of course, only one of these is true – the most important one – that Brexit happens.  Corbyn having facilitated Brexit will also own it, and will not be seen to have put into effect what the majority of Labour members thought they were getting from the party’s conference resolution.

In one sense, in supporting the May deal, Corbyn can claim consistency, since both he and May have claimed benefits for Brexit that do not exist; and both have tried to ignore the wishes of the majority of the members of their respective parties.  Left supporters of Brexit claim that such a deal will split the Tories but they ignore the parallel process in the Labour Party.

To hide their complicity in this Tory project the left Brexiteers now regularly claim it doesn’t really matter because Brexit isn’t that important – we shouldn’t get that worked up about it, and really we shouldn’t take sides.  But if there’s one argument that really gets my goat it is this one – having voted for Brexit and a Tory initiative they are trying to cover their tracks.  Their argument is not only bogus but thoroughly dishonest.  Like the right-wing supporters of Brexit the project can only get by on lies, and it doesn’t matter who is telling them, for what purpose or with what motivation.

Corbyn is in the process of betraying the membership in a disregard for their views that equals that of Tony Blair, from whom he was supposed to be so different.  The only hope here is that May does not feel able to get her deal through her party with Labour support and/or the ranks of the Labour Party rise up to prevent the biggest betrayal yet, as they did with the leadership attempt to abstain on Tory immigration plans.

It is not therefore exluded that no deal will happen.

This has provoked the charge that the Tories are effectively tearing up the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This is sometimes followed by the forecast that this will lead to a vote for a united Ireland on the basis that the majority in the North of Ireland supported and continue to support remaining in the EU.

I don’t believe this to be true.

First, it’s debateable whether a no deal Brexit would amount to tearing up the Good Friday Agreement, either legally or in spirit.

If we take the legal position first, the UK Supreme Court in 2017 stated that the GFA ‘assumed’ but did not ‘require” UK membership of the EU.  Legal academics have claimed that the GFA requires citizens’ rights in the North, and human rights in particular, to be equivalent with the Irish State, but the GFA does not require the UK to be a member of EU’s human rights institutions or signed up to its standards. The GFA contains provisions for establishment of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights but that’s a dead letter as is the provision for a civic forum.  The North does not have women’s reproductive rights and nor is there the right to gay marriage, unlike the South, but no one is saying that the GFA is therefore dead.

The Common Travel Area will be put under strain by a hard Brexit as EU migrants freely entering through Dublin may be able to cross the border, if that border is ‘soft’, and then travel on to Britain with few checks if there is also no ‘border’ between the island of Ireland and Britain.

Since the main rationale for Brexit was control and reduction of immigration, and its introduction will embolden sundry reactionaries on this score, this will put pressure on to put a border somewhere.  The alternative would be a ‘hostile environment’ inside Britain (and also perhaps Northern Ireland) where daily transactions and activities are used in order to check people’s citizenship status, and we know that the Tories do hostile environments very well.

But these options too may not legally breach the GFA.  So what about its spirit?  Well, this very much depends on what you think the spirit of the GFA is and whether Brexit breaches it.  If you think it was a pacification process that is inherently sectarian then Brexit is hardly going to get you to complain that the GFA’s ‘spirit’ is threatened. What its spirit actually is has been demonstrated in practice, which means you have to ignore the unthinking rhetoric of the great and the good and look at how it has actually worked.

The Agreement has already been mangled and its centrepiece, the Stormont Assembly, has been suspended five times and has currently been suspended for over two years. Other parts of the Agreement, such as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, hardly exist. Much of the waffle composed of promises relating to good faith, non-discrimination, equality, propriety and accountability with public funds, transparency etc. are thoroughly discredited by the reality of an incompetent, corrupt and sectarian Stormont administration.

The DUP never supported the GFA, so it can be no surprise it isn’t working.  Sinn Fein clung on to Stormont up to its most recent suspension until it became clear its voters would no longer tolerate the humiliation involved. They then rejected the party’s idea of a new deal.  The GFA isn’t working so it’s debateable that Brexit preventing it working makes any practical difference.

It has been pointed out that the EU had little to do with the creation of the Agreement and that, for example, the US had a more significant input.  The Agreement itself does not rely on it and the EU is not a party to it.

The letter of the Agreement states that the British and Irish Governments wish “to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.” There is much about cross-border cooperation on a number of fronts, including agriculture, tourism and health etc. that will all be undermined by a no deal Brexit, but there is nothing that legally invalidates it.

The view that this will lead to a return to political violence rests partly on the lie, repeated endlessly, that the GFA led to the end of political violence, when the truth is that it was the other way round – the ceasefires preceded the political deal and the armed forces that ended the political violence, through the use of much more effective violence, are still present.

So the first part of the argument would appear not to hold; although it is not quite that simple.

to be continued

Brexit – the dogs that barked and those that didn’t

The Open Britain Campaign has listed seven promises that the Tory Government has broken in its welcome to the new draft of the Agreement for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. These are:

  1.  A transition period will be about ‘implementing’ the future relationship, not negotiating it
  2.  The UK will not pay money to the EU after March 2019
  3.  The UK will not have to abide by EU rules during transition
  4.  The UK will ‘take back control’ of fisheries policy
  5.  Free movement will end in March 2019
  6.  The UK will have new trade deals ready to come into force on 29 March 2019
  7.  The implementation period would last for two years and should not be time limited

These however are not even the biggest.  The most significant is the idea that Britain would take back control, beginning in the negotiations, at the commencement of which the importance of the UK to the EU economy would see the EU rush to agree a comprehensive deal that would suit the UK.  Now, one explanation how trade arrangements would work after Brexit includes open borders without any checks – about as far from taking control as you can imagine.

And this is not a fringe option to be considered as a fall back in the event of a no-deal.   For the only way to avoid a hard border inside Ireland and avoid a sea border between the island of Ireland and Britain is just such an arrangement.

The problems with this are not limited to those quoted in the last link to a BBC report – that even if the British did not have checks the EU would; and that the British would be compelled to let all goods flow without checks in order to be in compliance with WTO requirements that there could be no discrimination in favour of goods from or to the EU.

Already the part-time negotiator David Davis has stated that “we agree on the need to inckude legal text detailing the ‘backstop’ solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement is acceptable to both sides.  But it remains our intention to achieve a partnership that is so close as to not require specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland, and therefore we will engage on the detail on all scenarios set out in the joint report.”

The problem is that the British Government proposals, as set out in the last May speech have already been rejected – there can be no mutual recognition of UK and EU standards, such that all trade can proceed in the frictionless way that now currently takes place.  Any mutual recognition that the EU would agree to would be so limited as to make a border structure inevitable and significant.

There is no ‘technical’ solution that gets round the fact that the UK wants out of the Single Market (and Customs Union); mutual recognition as a general substitute for either is cherry picking on an industrial scale and ruled out, already by the EU, many times.

That this is the rationale for the Tory claim that they can avoid both a hard border inside Ireland and at the Irish Sea proves that the EU insertion of the “third option” – of full regulatory alignment of rules between the Northern and Southern Irish states – will come to pass.

Unless the British renege on their agreement.  Not unheard of, it might be said.  I came across the following on one web site – “North’s first rule of politics comes to mind: never trust a Tory. The second rule is: always obey the first.”  As in this little ditty – “Never trust a Tory, they’ll betray you when it matters / They will scramble to the top and then they’ll kick away the ladder, hinny / Never trust a Tory, or a Tory in disguise, You can see it when you look them in the eye”.  This is why EU figures are also stating that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The British Government has hailed the draft Withdrawal agreement as a great step forward because it says it allows it a transitional period within which they can negotiate their own trade deals.  This is not even a case of kicking the can down the road, as in the sense that the cliff-edge of leave is simply postponed, because the reality of leaving will still kick in before that, as it is already doing, and the failure to agree better trade deals than have been, or can be, achieved by the EU will become clearer.  It is generally agreed that no substantive deals can be negotiated within two years, and the Tories haven’t even got that long.

The prospect of Northern Ireland within the regulatory framework of the EU would be a bitter pill for the DUP and many unionists in general to swallow.  They have not barked opposition because they are possibly even more deluded that the Tory Brexiteers, although also more paranoid, so more likely to smell betrayal.

The Tory Brexiteers meanwhile are running out of justification, fabricated or not, for leaving the EU.  They also aren’t barking very loudly, and now simply want out, willing to accept more and more acts of capitulation until they get it.  As if they could then turn round when they’re out and implement their ultimate agenda of a deregulated dystopia on the edge of Europe.  Neither they nor the DUP have really appreciated that, in or out, the UK will remain under the shadow of the EU and subject to its more powerful economic interests, to a greater or lesser extent.

Just as Mays’ list of special arrangements she wants from the EU in a final deal beg the question, why is the UK leaving?, so will the period of transition make more obvious the rotten prospects that exit promises.

Even the deal on offer from the EU is far from any panacea.  The inclusion of Northern Ireland within the EU regulatory framework will mean an EU/UK border at the Irish sea, and more trade from the Irish State goes over it than across the land border inside the island.  The draft deal does not therefore solve the problems created by Brexit for Dublin.  Again, unless the British state capitulates further, and proves that a Tory plan for no border controls will actually work (which can only arise if they agree to membership of the Single Market and Customs Union) there is going to be a hard border somewhere.

For unionism in Northern Ireland the prospect of membership of the EU trading arrangements while the rest of the UK is excluded, is not in principle totally unacceptable, as they are quite happy to do things differently on many issues, such as abortion rights for women and gay marriage.  The real problem with the EU deal is that the Northern State will become more and more different from the rest of the UK as the EU develops.  This is not a static solution but a dynamic one in which their artificial majority is no longer potentially always a veto on any issue they decide to make a question of their sectarian identity.

The draft Withdrawal Agreement states that “authorities of the United Kingdom shall not act as leading authority for risk assessments, examinations, approvals and authorisations procedures provided for in Union law made applicable by this Protocol.”  So not only will the UK (as Northern Ireland) have to accept and implement EU law, in all those North-South bodies, it is the Southern authority that shall take the lead and the Northern authority will have to follow.

Of course, if one is a simple-minded Irish nationalist this is not a problem.  But this assumes that what is good for the Southern State is good for the population of Northern Ireland (and for the population of Southern Ireland as well for that matter).

So, for example, in the single electricity market, mentioned in Article six of the agreement, it could well be that the population of Northern Ireland will just have to accept the leadership of the Southern State, which dominates the electricity industry through its state-owned companies.  In the South this has led to ordinary domestic electricity customers paying higher charges than business, which involves yet another clear subsidy to multinationals and an effective tax on working people for the benefit of capital as a whole.

That this will cause aggravation amongst unionists will hardly come as a surprise to anyone.  However, a lot of the declaration of concern about a hard border endangering the peace process misses the point.  Where this peace process the success it is claimed by the same people fretting about its future there would be little concern about changed customs and trading arrangements.  What makes the border, and what happens at it, important is not so much the symbolic arrangements that may apply there, but the fact that behind it the peace process is failing, as the lack of an agreed Executive at Stormont makes abundantly clear.  Additional strain on the process is therefore widely considered unwelcome.

Maybe this is why Article 13 of the draft Withdrawal Agreement on ‘Safeguards’ is included, which states that “if the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties liable to persist, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate measures.”  In other words, if civil unrest erupts again the British State will be called upon to assert its control, perhaps in the customary way it has done so in the past.

As we have noted, the Tories have celebrated the latest EU document as a success even though they have retreated on issue after issue.  Even the hard Brexiteers have been relatively quiet, complaining mostly about the fishing industry, or about ‘vassal’ status during the transition (how ironic),yet not so quiet as that other principled opposition – the supporters of Lexit on the left.

These people discounted the reactionary Brexit campaign in their support for leaving the EU, and have discounted all the reactionary political developments we have witnessed since in order to confirm their position.  So why, if getting out of the EU is so important that it over-rides all this, are they not now condemning the sell-out Tories for prolonging UK membership, or denouncing their capitulation to condition after condition of EU membership that the Tories want to continue after the transition period?

The reason for this is their entirely light-minded and totally unreflective attitude to politics that has substituted protest for alternative and national reformism for working class politics.  These supporters of Lexit could learn a lot from their failure to get this right but it seems they have no desire to do so.

This, however, is much less important than the attitude of the leadership of the Labour Party, which it would appear thinks the reactionary consequences of Brexit, including under-cutting the basis of its social-democratic programme, are of limited consequence.  The most I have heard argued is that the Party should call for a vote on the eventual deal.  But this is meaningless outside fighting for an alternative and a principled campaign against what is clearly a reactionary decision with reactionary consequences.  On this, some dogs should be barking!

Sectarianism prevents sectarian agreement

So do we have yet another political crisis in the North of Ireland, with the failure of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein to bring back the Stormont Executive?  No one is really calling it a crisis since things remain as they were, and we simply have the now default position of no devolved administration.  And neither is it exactly causing panic in the streets.  So is there really nothing new then?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, the failure of the ‘peace process’ to process us some peace is not new.  From the start it has been sold on the lie that it brought an end to political violence, asking everyone to ignore and forget that the ceasefires happened before the sectarian deal, and that political violence remains, although at a much reduced level.  However the claim remains a vital illusion, since opposition to the process from any progressive standpoint must be painted as anti-peace.

The Stormont Executive has collapsed so many times I’ve lost count.  Talks between the parties have ended in failure even more times; while this latest failed agreement follows that of the ‘Fresh Start’, and the St. Andrew’s Agreement before that, which itself was supposed to sort out the problems with the Good Friday Agreement.  The Holy character of the last deal was sanctified by the forever peerless referendum that endorsed it in 1998.  It is fast becoming an imperialist version of the last all-island vote in 1918, that for some Irish republicans will forever legitimise armed struggle to impose its result against imperialist denial.

The latest crisis however reveals once again that the Good Friday solution cannot bring a settled peace or reconciliation and cannot bring an end to sectarianism.  This cannot be a surprise, since It is based on pacification by the militarily force that was most powerful; and it must hide or disguise the truth about what we have to be reconciled to, which accounts for the more and more open acknowledgement that there will never be any truthful accounting for the past.   And it cannot bring an end to sectarianism because we are asked to accept one sectarian outcome because it is claimed to be acceptable, as opposed to all the others that are not.

The claim to popular endorsement of the peace process deal is also becoming increasingly threadbare, as the reasons for the collapse of the latest talks make clear.

The local journalist Eamonn Mallie described DUP politicians dancing on the head of a pin in denying there had been a deal with Sinn Fein, one subsequently sunk by the DUP and its grassroots.  The British Broadcasting Corporation has danced on the same pin in the gyrations required to deny openly reporting that there was a deal and the DUP had killed it.  Impartiality and balance for it are the same as fairness and truth, so the good ship was sunk by the DUP was and was not sunk; it is both simultaneously dead and still breathing – everyone just needs to take a rest, and then go back to breathe new life into the stinking corpse.

But it is now widely accepted that the deal collapsed not because of the leadership of the DUP, who were willing to endorse it, but was collapsed because the rest of the DUP political class and its grass roots were opposed to it, including the unionist ‘NewsLetter’ newspaper – reflecting wider opposition to the Irish Language among the unionist population.  What sank the deal was the sectarianism expected to simultaneously deliver a settlement and also somehow be undermined by it.

The myth peddled by the media, British Government, certain politicians and by the most naïve sections of the population – that only a small minority oppose agreement – ignores the obvious fact that the vast majority of people mean very different things when they say they are for an agreement.

By its very nature, how sectarianism is to be shared is not something that can ever actually be agreed. By its nature, it identifies differences that must be maintained and defended; it identifies separate interests that are mutually exclusive and antagonistic, and it compels its expression through privileges that must be continually asserted.

There is therefore no such thing as the common good.  At most it can exist as the fair division of exclusive and opposing rights based on a division that, because it does not express the deepest interests of either section of the people concerned, can never be settled in a fashion that meets either’s deepest needs. Since sectarianism cannot ultimately meet the requirements of Protestant and Catholic workers there is potentially no end to the struggle to make it otherwise.

The current extreme of false sectarian rights is the demand for equality with Irish for the non-language that is Ulster Scots, which has become a totem for Protestant rights in general, and which a lot of Protestants regard as something of a joke.  However, such claims are true to the unionist tradition, a tradition that claims to stand for civil and religious liberty but which is less about claiming rights than denying those of others.

A rational recognition of interest would produce unity and not division, a unity based on the class interests common to both Protestant and Catholic workers.  However, the structure of society, including the most powerful political forces, presents sectarian answers, even when wrapped up in non-sectarian garb. So, resources must be ‘shared’ separately on a sectarian basis and sectarian interests are not to be eradicated but respected.

This prescription approaches absurdity when individuals must be assigned a sectarian identity even when they reject it, all in the name of equality.  For employment purposes what matters is what “community background” you come from.  As the old saying goes, or rather to paraphrase, you can take a man out of the Shankill but the state will not allow you to take the Shankill out of the man – your sectarian ‘community’ background will eternally define you.

That the latest deal was sunk by sectarianism is obvious.  Opposition to a ‘stand-alone’ or separate Irish Language Act was the declared reason for unionist opposition, but the ‘justification’ given for this shows that the language is but the latest hook on which to hang sectarian hostility.

You will look in vain for any rationale why the Irish language must be opposed.  Opposition to the Act, given what appears its modest objectives, might be seen to be opposition to the language itself, but the vehement opposition that has been expressed is such that it prevents agreement on  everything else.  It can therefore only denote opposition to something other than the language.

Arlene Foster’s walk-away statement said that “I respect the Irish language and those who speak it, but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.”  In other words, I can’t say what is wrong with the Irish language, or an Act to give it some recognition, but I’m going to oppose it anyway.  Since the Irish language must be a sectarian attribute of the Catholic population, Protestants must get something in return, something that isn’t defined but which is needed in order to accept something which otherwise there is no reason to oppose.

The DUP’s Nelson McCausland opposes an Irish language Act because it is simply a part of republicanism’s “cultural warfare”.  So he can’t say what is offensive about the language or an Act to promote it either.  The rationale for opposing it is simply that the other side want it, and that’s not only a necessary but also a sufficient reason to oppose it.

The real opposition to an Irish language Act is best expressed by DUP MP Gregory Campbell who replaced the Irish greeting in the Assembly “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the English words approximately sounding like it – “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”.

This of course is not an insult to the Irish language and it is not even an insult to those who speak it, it is a sectarian insult that manages to even be offensive to some not otherwise disposed to be sympathetic to Irish language rights.  While no one has the right not to be offended most recognise a deliberate offense based on bigotry when they see one.

From a socialist point of view, we are in favour of Irish language rights and the real capacity of its speakers to practice their language, and without insult or intimidation.  The key question is not that it furthers division, as some unionists hypocritically claim, but that its recognition would be an acknowledgment of what is now a minority cultural practice. In this way, a tolerance might be built up to such differences, not that these differences may be held up as the end objective in themselves, but that they become less and less important as markers or carriers of division.

The real gain would not be the bureaucratisation of the Irish language and its movement, which will not in the end help it but will place the dead hand of the capitalist state upon its shoulders, suffocating the voluntary impulses that make it so attractive to many.  Rather its free expression would help demonstrate that the language is but one facet of existence and that real freedom and human flourishing is not synonymous with language rights.  I remember listening to a young political and language rights activist, who thought the language was the most important issue and was the central element of liberation.  I would have been happy to tell him that you can be exploited and oppressed in any language.

However, responsibility for the failure to have a language Act lies more widely than with the narrow bigotry of the DUP.  The commitment to introduce one was given by the British Government, and the responsibility to ensure this commitment was delivered has rested with Sinn Fein.  That one does not exist is their failure.  Ian Paisley junior has claimed that republicans never pushed for one, and this is one unionist claim that has a bit more credibility.

Foster has now stated that there is currently no basis for a return to Stormont and both the DUP and Sinn Fein have said this round of talks are over.  For the DUP this means direct rule by Westminster in all but name.  For Sinn Fein it means that the input from the Irish Government must be increased.  Otherwise it becomes obvious that the North of Ireland remains completely under British rule, without any Irish input whatsoever, making any claims to have made progress in weakening this rule obviously hollow.

In the past socialists have dismissed nationalist claims that the Irish Government has either any separate interest or the power to enforce any separate interest on the British in relation to the North.  Brexit changes this, or rather modifies it.

The DUP have claimed they want a soft Brexit with no return to a hard border but they wanted Brexit and they want a hard border – in the same way that some Tories want Brexit in the manner of having your cake and eating it.  Unionists are very keen on an identifiable border that has real meaning, while the more intelligent understand that the conveniences of the current internal EU arrangements are important.  It’s doubtful they have any more clue about how these conflicting wishes can be accommodated than the Tory Brexit ejects now in Government.

The Irish Government however has strong reason for seeking as soft a Brexit as possible, and in this case have not only a separate interest but have potentially European Union support for this objective, as it is one that the EU shares, if not to the same degree.  For both, an arrangement whereby trade between North and South continued to be carried out under current rules would be preferable.  However, the EU can also accept strict border controls inside the island in order to defend the integrity of the Single Market in a way that the Irish State would find more damaging.

The unionist pursuit of Brexit, alongside the reactionary support for it in Britain, is a response to decline and a misguided attempt to reverse history in order to return to a past glory that has gone and is not coming back.  Like unionist intransigence and bigotry, it denotes a movement that has no other understanding of the way forward because it does not want to go forward.  It wants the past, but the past, as they say, is another country.

Unionist demands for untrammelled sectarian supremacy are not sustainable.  The Catholic population is too large, and although it is not politically active in the sense of any mass political movement, it is not completely passive and brow-beaten either.  The demands of unionism are ultimately too extreme, and if given freedom to implement them would provoke reaction.  The current impasse is the result – the British Sate cannot allow unionism the freedom to do what it wants, even while it continues to conciliate its more amenable demands.  And this is the case whether the DUP props up a Tory administration or not.

The impasse is however obviously unstable, and as nothing continues forever it is especially true that this instability will not last forever.

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

In a 1 June article Socialist Democracy (SD) wrote that “a popular slogan by People before Profit (PbP) candidates – “we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!” – is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism.”

In another post SD say that “This neutrality ignores socialist support for democratic rights and the frequent alliances between republicanism and socialism that are part of our history. It can blind workers to the very real mechanisms employed by loyalism and the state to combat radicalism amongst Protestant workers and prevent working class unity.”

First some basic points.  Saying you are neither Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, is not to equate the two, no matter how SD convinces itself it does.  It is a matter of fact, and a matter of principle that socialists are not unionists or nationalists.

It is similarly the case that socialists do not believe that workers should be led by either unionists or nationalists.  We do not believe nationalism can deliver the equality that socialists support never mind the fundamental reorganisation of society we seek, and which makes us socialists.

It is therefore not only permitted, but absolutely required, that socialists state that they are socialist!  At a very basic level it is as simple as that.  It is also the case that they need to do so to distinguish themselves from Irish unionism and Irish nationalism.  In the SD version of democratic alliances with republicanism it would seem that we cannot say that we are not unionist or nationalist, which amounts to politically surrendering your flag.

Does SD believe that Irish nationalism, in whatever form, can unite the Irish working class?  If so, it should reconsider its independent existence.  If not, it should drop this ridiculous line of criticism, and in doing so the comrades should consider how they ended up defending such a position.

I will venture that they did so because of their understanding of nationalism. As quoted above, SD states that “Irish republicanism . . (has a) revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content”, forgetting the fact that Sinn Fein is no longer standing by the traditional republican programme. The Provisional republicans, as SD say (in their article of 10 March) have moved from “armed struggle to constitutional nationalism.”

Their failure to register this when condemning PbP must have something to do with their declared opposition to the slogan of the PbP and their claim that this disregards “the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism.” (1 June 2017)

SD state in their response to my original posts that “all theories have to deal with real life”.  So how does the theory that the programme of Irish nationalism is “generally democratic” stand up to real life?

Let’s examine the concrete, real life expressions of Irish nationalism, and not the theoretical one clearly envisaged by SD.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the ‘United Ireland Party’ and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, are both reactionary Irish nationalist parties of the capitalist class.  Sinn Fein, by SD’s own admission, is a “constitutional nationalist” party and cannot be considered as either a party of working class interests or even of revolutionary nationalism.  The role of the real republicans is actually obstructive of working class unity, since they convince everyone including themselves that the only alternative to the peace process and the current sectarian arrangements is militarist violence.  In doing so they don’t threaten British rule but bolster it.

So, in the real world, just what nationalist movement does SD defend and support, so much so that it wishes not to declare socialist independence from it?

Socialist Democracy do advance correct criticisms of PbP, but they are lost in an avalanche of the good and the simply atrocious, which will convince no one who is not already convinced.  Its articles are written in such a way that it is not clear that they are designed to convince anyone not already on-side, but simply to declare a position.

This reaches the point that even when PbP make clear that it is not neutral on the question of democratic rights and the issue of the border this isn’t welcomed, but dismissed – “ A key slogan of the new [People before Profit] election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism? (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In summary, my original posts were designed to raise the problem of strategy that socialists face in the North of Ireland.  The response from Socialist Democracy does not take us any step forward.  My initial overall impression when coming to draft this reply to their criticism was that the comrades are wrong in several serious respects in relation to socialist strategy.  In drafting the response my final overall impression is now one of their more or less complete confusion arising from misunderstanding the reactionary role of Irish nationalism.

On this there is obviously much more to say (see this post and ensuing discussion for example). The demand for an end to partition and national self-determination has historically been reflected through Irish nationalism (and still is today by the real republicans), but the utter inadequacy of nationalist politics in maintaining any democratic content in these demands in its real world political manifestations, in its political parties and programmes, is something that must be understood.  Otherwise the essential role of socialist organisation and a socialist programme, based on the self-activity of the working class itself, and not on organisation and a political programme divorced from it, is not understood.

Irish nationalism must be combatted North and South because (among other important reasons) it cannot uphold the democratic impulses that are contained, and have erupted periodically, within the Irish working class.  This much should be obvious in the South of the country.  It should certainly not be defended because at some times and in some places it has taken leadership of struggles that have had such a democratic content.  Not least because it will fail and end up strangling such democratic dynamics while sidelining and opposing socialism.

This is what happened over the period following the rise of the civil rights movement, where Irish nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, substituted itself, its methods and its programme for this mass democratic struggle, and then helped bury it in the sectarian deal brokered by imperialism.

This is the underlying political analysis that answers a question that might be posed by my posts – does any of this matter?  The SD response states that “perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply commonplace”, but the author will know that it is, in fact, much more commonly ignored.

Socialist Democracy wants to resist the rightward drift of the socialist movement in Ireland, and its arguments would ideally be as powerful as pure argumentation can be in countering this drift. Unfortunately, its arguments cannot play such a role, and if the comrades seek that they should they will have to be seriously revised.

concluded

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