Opinion polls and a United Ireland (4) – Support in the South for unity

Large majority of voters favour a united Ireland, poll finds

The Irish Times

It stands to reason that for a united Ireland to happen both North and South would have to agree to it.  The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in December last year recorded the results of an opinion poll on support for a united Ireland in the South.

An Irish Times columnist summed it up right from the start – ‘So, you want a united Ireland?  Of course.  Soon? Eh, not really.  Want to pay for it? Nope. Want unionists involved? Sure. Want to change the anthem or the flag? Not a chance.  How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’

One thing really gets me about this type of thing, but I’ll get to this in a minute, after I briefly set out the results of the poll.

Support for Irish unity is broad – 62% support it, 16% say Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, 13% are undecided and 8% won’t bother themselves to vote.

Asked when they would like to see a referendum, 15% said now and 13% said never, while a further 16% said they would like to see it more than 10 years in the future.  Since the most popular response was ‘in the next ten years’, at 42%, it means that support for a referendum within this timescale is almost the same as that supporting a united Ireland at 57%.

It might be thought then that those supporting a united Ireland are rather keener on it than the spin placed on it by political commentary such as that just quoted.  Unfortunately for such a view the question was asked ‘how important is a United Ireland to you?’ and the most popular answer was ‘not very important, but I would like to see it someday.’  (For some reason this makes me think of this less well-known Irish rebel song).

This was the response of a majority of 52%, with only 20% saying it was ‘very important, it is a priority for me.’ More people than this, at 24%, said it was ‘not at all important’ with 4% saying they didn’t know.  Even among Sinn Fein supporters this was the most popular answer at 47%, with 16% saying ‘not at all’.

If I might seem flippant about this question it is because how important something is very much depends on the context and one might reasonably expect that an actual referendum would make the question have greater importance.  Whether this would increase or reduce support for a United Ireland again depends on context.

To determine the importance of it, or rather to emphasise its unimportance, the poll asked a number of questions about what compromises people in the South were prepared to make in order to make a united Ireland happen. Hence the comment above – ‘How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’

So, asked if they would agree to a new flag, a new national anthem, paying higher taxes, having less money to spend on public services or re-joining the Commonwealth, support was 16%, 21%, 15%,13% and 14% respectively.  Or, to put it another way, 77%, 72%, 79%, 79% and 71% said no.  On the other hand, 47% agreed to ‘having closer ties to the UK’, whatever that meant – perhaps visiting their cousins more often? – and 44% agreed to ‘having unionist politicians as part of the Government in Dublin’, which is a hell of a lot more important than a flag or a song.  Yet another reason to doubt the value of these particular questions.

Which brings me to the one thing that really gets me about this type of thing.  These ‘compromises’ are paraded by liberals and the great and the good as if they are in the least bit important to unionists.  These people continually parrot that the concerns of unionists have to be listened to, yet their proposals show that they are the last to listen to them.  Unionism frankly doesn’t give a shit about what flag is flown in the South of Ireland and doesn’t care what the national anthem is either etc. etc.  As far as they are concerned, or rather proclaim loudly, it’s a foreign country and you can stand to whatever flag and sing whatever song you want.

In such circumstances, refusal to countenance such ‘compromises’, where only one side might agree, is perfectly rational.

This, however, is not very important.  What matters is the question that wasn’t asked, which reveals much about the blindness of those behind the opinion poll.

In the North, Lord Ashcroft’s poll asked ‘what would change in a united Ireland?’, in other words, what would be the benefit or cost of a united Ireland to unionists, nationalists and ‘neutrals’.  In the The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll only costs are considered to exist and only questions on this were asked.

Behind the poll is the view that partition has brought the Irish state freedom and is an unquestionable success, how could it be improved?  How could incorporation of the North involve anything but potential costs or uncomfortable compromises?

For the liberal political classes and their cultural and diluted political nationalism, what might be acceptable to their comfortable existence – which they deftly weave into working class concerns about standard of living and welfare services – is the only relevant issue.

There is therefore a complete absence of the question ‘what problem is a united Ireland meant to solve?’

As far as the Southern establishment is concerned the only headaches reside in the North while a potential united Ireland itself raises problems.

But before we pour scorn on the bourgeois political classes in the South, socialists also have to ask themselves – what problems do we see being solved (at least even partially – as a step forward) by a united Ireland?

Since the answer is the unity of the working class this can only register in political consciousness in the South if there is a struggle for the independence of the working class for which such unity is required – and where is that struggle?

It hardly exists.  The trade unions are bureaucratised and are welded to social partnership in whatever form it takes, or appears not to take.  There is no mass working class party asserting the separate interests of the working class, and the left organisations with elected representatives are wedded to an electoral strategy fundamentally based on the institutions of the Southern State, with implications that they don’t understand and an effect on their state-socialism they are equally only dimly aware of.

Of course, they want a united Ireland, or some of them do, but since their conception of advancing socialism is through the current Irish State their whole approach involves promises of the potential benefits from this state and not the gains from an existing mass working class movement that has already delivered.

We can point to the gains made by the women’s and gay movement, in contraception, divorce, abortion and gay marriage but where is the recent experience of a mass workers’ movement achieving more or less comparable permanent advances?

A booming economy with higher living standards and lower unemployment is the result of multinationals and this is now sold as the same route to prosperity in the North, through its unity with the South.  The left wants the fruits of the relative success of capitalism in the South spread more widely with particular market/state failures addressed (such as health and housing), which rely on this growing economy, in turn reliant on US multinationals.

On the same day that The Irish Times reported its opinion poll results it also reported on some other statistics.  These were from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which showed that almost double the number of Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged over a five-year period from the beginning of 2016.  This is the sort of material reality that drives Irish nationalism in the North.

The absence of such a reality in the South explains a lot.

Marxists are always regaled with the charge that they don’t understand and can’t cope with nationalism.  The experience of Ireland shows that nationalism doesn’t understand itself and can’t cope without material reality, understood by Marxists, giving it substance.  It is the power of the state that gives nationalism an objective and in the South of Ireland they’ve already got one.

Back to part 3

Opinion polls and a United Ireland (3) – a struggle not simply a vote

http://www.progressivepulse.org/ireland/are-there-are-more-cultural-catholics-or-protestants-in-northern-ireland

It would seem ironic if demographics determined a united Ireland.  Socialists over the decades have advanced a political strategy based on working class unity and opposition to sectarian arrangements, including partition, which has strengthened division.  We have condemned a strategy based on Catholics ‘out-breeding’ Protestants.

In fact, of course, demographics is not a political strategy anyway.  It will not of itself produce working class unity and remove division.  It will weigh on the balance of forces, but will not determine how this balance is ultimately determined, because any referendum will not be the result of demographics but of the weight of political arguments arising out of any changed economic and social circumstances.  A referendum will not just be a count but a result of a political struggle, a struggle based on political argument, interests and organisation.

Religion does not map one to one onto politics and there are Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists, although rather fewer of the latter.  Many nationalists may be described as soft and Lord Ashcroft’s poll records that ‘In our groups, many on all sides felt there was a growing number of voters, particularly younger voters, who would see a referendum in terms of practicalities rather than religion, nationality or tradition – or as one put it . . .“some will vote green or orange, but a lot of people will vote with their heads.”’

The 2021 census results will not show a Catholic majority or a Protestant one, while those defined as ‘other’ or ‘neutral’ are split two to one in favour of those from a Protestant background, who are currently more likely to favour remaining in the UK.  The nationalist vote has remained at around 40% for some time and the potential for the census to show the number of Catholics exceeding Protestants will not translate into votes for a generation.  The issue will sharpen well before this happens meaning that those who consider themselves soft nationalists or neutral will play a significant role in determining any majority.  Hence the importance given to non-nationalist opposition to Brexit and the poll findings of people changing their minds on the constitutional question.

The poll records that ‘More than a quarter of voters (27%) said they had changed their mind on the question of whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16% who said they had done so more than once.’  This seems improbable and invites some scepticism; somewhat mitigated by the elaboration that ‘31% of women, 38% of those aged 18-24 and 71% of those who describe themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their minds at least once.’  A significant change of mind would currently be required to create a majority in favour of a united Ireland.

All this points to a referendum on a united Ireland not being a question of simply counting the numbers within two blocs but of a political struggle that will much more immediately set the agenda and result.

This is more obviously the case since a referendum will inevitably be required in the South and there is no doubt that this will require a political debate and struggle.  One only has to recall the history of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which included that ‘The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas’, and its overwhelming popularity before it was overturned by a 94% vote because it would deliver ‘peace’. The nature of events in the North will affect voting in the South but equally the debate in the South will impact on the North.

Since socialists do not want a sectarian headcount the necessary debate on a united Ireland will be a welcome opportunity to fight for our ideas.  This will include support for a united Ireland, defending its claims for democracy and ensuring, in so far as we can, that promises are delivered.  At the same time we must admit that it is currently very likely that any unity will take place on a capitalist basis and will require socialists to oppose the particular form that this unity will take.

We should not fool ourselves that what will be on the agenda is anything other than the incorporation of the North into the Southern state.  We should obviously oppose the importation of sectarian practices from the North into the South in the name of accommodating unionism, as covered in this post.  In the meantime, we must continue to fight for the building, expansion and democratisation of the organisations of the working class and the influence upon them of militant socialist politics.

In this way we can hope that the struggle over a referendum will not involve just a count but will allow our politics to count.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

Opinion polls and a United Ireland 2 – unionist pessimism, nationalist optimism and Brexit

The pessimism of unionism revealed again in the Lord Ashcroft poll is based on their uncomfortable reliance on perfidious Albion – ‘more voters thought the Westminster government would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than thought it would rather keep the province as part of the Union. Only 11% of voters, and only 21% of Unionists, said they thought Westminster very much wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. A further 22% of all voters thought it would prefer to keep the province as part of the Union.’ 

If the Northern state were really as British as Finchley this would be inexplicable.

‘In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.’

Nationalist voters are more convinced that Britain wants to get out, with 68% believing this.  Given the determination of the British State to defeat the struggle against its rule by some of them this is somewhat surprising, but is only one element of their view of the world, and in part reflects their view of the patent illegitimacy of partition and the palpable failure of the Northern state to be what is considered ‘normal’.

Another element is that one third of nationalists think the Southern state is indifferent or opposed to a united Ireland.  While almost 95% think there should be a referendum on Irish unity within 10 years and 86% think there will be, there is apprehension at how it might occur.  Commentary to the poll states that ‘Many were also nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle. They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.’

This view can hardly be dismissed, since every change to the Northern State, including the demand for civil rights, has been met with protest and violence by unionism.  The view that a referendum in the South should follow one in the North is an additional incentive for unionist aggression and to make any threats credible.

The latest change is the Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the British government and EU following Brexit.  Unionist leaders claim it has constitutional implications, that their agreement to it is therefore required, and that they’re not giving it.  Since the argued direct constitutional effect is mistaken, although not its implications, unionism is arguing – as it always does – that no change can be made to the arrangements within the Northern State without its agreement.  Since its politics are overwhelmingly sectarian and wholly reactionary this is one reason why partition should be ended and a united Ireland is progressive.

The main reason for nationalist optimism is demographic, that the share of the Catholic population is growing and Protestant Unionist one is declining; Ashcroft states that ‘one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane, “we breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.” More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.’

The poll states that ‘Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for unification, with 24% opting to stay in the UK; among those aged 65 or over, only 25% backed a united Ireland, with 55% choosing the status quo.’

It also reports the finding that ‘More than a quarter (27%) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK . . . Among neutrals, 62% thought voters would choose the status quo tomorrow, but 66% thought they would back a united Ireland in ten years’ time.’  Nationalists anticipate that people will change their minds and change them in only one direction.

One reason for this belief is the claimed effect of Brexit. According to the poll 95% of nationalists/republicans opposed Brexit while 66% of unionists supported it.  The 30% of unionists who opposed Brexit and the 92% of those defined as ‘neutral’ (those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution) who also opposed it are expected to, or at least it is hoped will, change their views on the constitutional question because of the UK leaving the EU.

The poll makes much of its effects – ‘Participants in all our focus groups spoke about rising prices and shortages of goods, including food, clothes, household items and building materials. Several noted that ordering items from overseas had become more expensive or in some cases impossible; several had experienced Amazon being unable to ship certain items to Northern Ireland. Such problems were attributed to Brexit, the Protocol, covid, the Suez Canal blockage, or various combinations of all four.’

It finds that ‘Nearly 9 in 10 voters (88%) said they thought Brexit had been a cause of shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland, including 62% who said it had been a major factor. This was especially true of Nationalist/Republicans, with 73% of 2017 SDLP voters and 90% of Sinn Féin voters saying they believed Brexit had been a major factor.’

‘Three quarters of 2016 Leave voters said Brexit had had a part to play in shortages, including 29% thinking it had been a major factor.’

‘Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) of them, including 89% of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major factor, compared to 38% who said the same of Brexit more generally.’

The poll asked ‘whether Brexit had affected people’s views as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. For three quarters, it had made no difference: 43% said they had thought the province should be part of the UK before Brexit and still did; 32% said they had favoured a united Ireland before Brexit and they still did.’

However, ‘13% said they had thought Northern Ireland should stay in the UK before Brexit, but now favoured a united Ireland. This included 40% of 2017 SDLP voters, 34% of those who had backed the Alliance party, and 36% of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution.

A further 9% (including 36% of 2017 Alliance voters, 29% of constitutional neutrals and 9% of self-described Unionists) said Brexit had made them less sure that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK.’

Again, its perceived effects reflect previous dispositions, with 34% of unionists believing Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, 99% of nationalists thinking it does, and 89% of ‘neutrals’ believing the same. Nationalist optimism and unionist pessimism are long standing but have not changed the existing political division.  It is therefore an open question whether Brexit will have the effect of persuading some unionists or ‘neutrals’ to support a united Ireland.  It will certainly not strengthen opposition to it and its longer term economic effects may be more powerful in shifting views than relatively minor shortages.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Opinion polls and a United Ireland – 1

Everyone loves an opinion poll on the potential result of a referendum on a united Ireland.  The media has something to report and its commentators have something to comment on. 

Nationalists in particular like them – they are a good fit with Sinn Fein policy of being in favour of a united Ireland while not actually being able to do very much about it.  It keeps the pot simmering with the promise that someday soon it will come to the boil.  Nationalism repeats that there needs to be a conversation about what a united Ireland will be like, as if talking about it brings it closer – giving the impression of doing so – at least to its supporters.

The Dublin Governing parties don’t mind since their policy of sometimes expressing support for a united Ireland tallies with the general view of the Southern population that it would be a nice idea, although without much evidence of it exercising itself to bring it about.  A perfect fit for the Southern establishment and its political representatives.

The British government doesn’t mind because it has said it will do whatever the people want, once again demonstrating its good offices, while it can be confident that it will not be required to do anything very much.

Only Unionists seem not be enamoured with them, even though they should, since they usually show there being no realistic chance of the majority in the North voting for unity in the foreseeable.  This might be a result of their normally dour political outlook in which seventeenth century politics seems by far the most attractive, and among whom some think flying the union flag for Prince Andrew on his birthday is the honourable and righteous thing to do.

Of course, they have an aversion to seeing the little enclave carved out for them being anything other than as British as Finchley, and nobody asks this North London district if it wants to leave the union. They are also concerned that opinion polls may show them winning most of the time, but that they only have to lose the real thing once to have lost definitively, which is progress of a sort, since the last time they lost such a vote they changed the rules to ensure that they couldn’t.

Two opinion polls were reported at the end of last year, one in the North and one in the South, and the issue will become more excited as the results of the March 2021 census in Northern Ireland begin to be published in March this year, although with full results only by next year.

These polls are attractive because they allow for various interpretations.  As we have seen in the vote for Brexit, some on the left still see it as a great idea even if it rallied a reactionary vote around Boris Johnson and split the Labour Party.  If only, they say, the Party had supported Brexit it could have stolen Johnson’s thunder and won over all the pissed-off working class voters available to a progressive sovereignty politics!

Fortunately, opinion polls can rule some claims out, including the idea of Brexit powered by progressive politics, as the Lord Ashcroft poll showed. It demonstrated that it was primarily an English nationalist vote with strong anti-immigrant content that would supposedly have expanded the Labour Party vote by pissing off the 63 per cent of its supporters who voted Remain.  Very convincing, I don’t think.

The Ashcroft poll on Irish Unity reported that ‘The news that Northern Ireland voters would choose to stay in the UK – by a majority of 54% to 46% in my poll, once undecideds are excluded – is a welcome early Christmas gift for unionists. In a similar survey two years ago, I found a wafer-thin margin for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland.’

It then said that ‘My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom . . . But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.’

When I first heard this previous poll result, I didn’t believe it to be accurate and in discussion with a colleague in work he didn’t believe it either. It wasn’t consistent with what I knew and with other polling results.  There has also been no political development in the past two years that could explain an increase in support for remaining in the UK or a fall in support for a united Ireland.

The latest poll has recorded that ‘Nearly two thirds (63%) of voters thought that in a border poll tomorrow, Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK. However, by 51% to 34% they thought that a referendum in 10 years’ time would produce a majority for joining the Republic in a united Ireland.’

‘While 90% of self-described Unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64% thought this would be the outcome ten years from now,’ while Nationalists belief that the vote would be for a united Ireland increased from 47% to 91%.

Nationalists overwhelmingly (93%) expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67%) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47%) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23% said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30% said they didn’t know.

This reflects a certain pessimism of unionists, consistent with their reactionary and generally paranoid politics where ‘Lundies’ and traitors are a constant threat, but also reflects for some a nagging unspoken acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of their position, which doesn’t however extend to shifting from it.  I recall my not very political late Aunt from the Shankill Road in Belfast saying that there would be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  That, it appears, continues to be another largely unacknowledged view.

Whether the pessimism of unionism collapses into resignation and the optimism of nationalism becomes a spur to action is yet to be determined.

Forward to part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should socialists support a border poll? 5 – a socialist approach

The leader of the SDLP Colm Eastwood has claimed that there would be a special place in hell for those who call for a referendum on Irish unity without a plan, saying a border poll should not be held until work to build a new and reconciled Ireland was completed.  Gerry Adams has made a similar statement on the need for preparation.

We have seen in earlier posts that unity of the working class, especially within the North, does not mean reconciliation to bigotry and sectarianism.  It does not therefore mean the sort of reconciliation that Irish nationalism, endorsed by the British State, has put forward in the name of “equality of the two traditions.” These traditions are defined by sectarianism in one case and by a nationalism incapable of going beyond Catholic support on the other.

Nationalism is now dead as a practical programme, in the sense that the objective of an economically and politically independent and sovereign nation is now impossible.  Brexit is demonstrating this is the case for a much larger and more powerful nation, never mind for a much smaller and weaker one.  We are seeing that the attempt to do so is inevitably reactionary as it seeks a world that has disappeared.

This is not to say that the demand for self-determination by the Irish people is not a democratic demand that socialists should endorse.  It is one of many democratic demands that cannot be fully delivered under the current capitalist system; but in terms of setting up a wholly separate sovereign state Ireland has missed that nationalist bus.  Small nations, in fact even the big ones, are now subject to international capital, an international division of labour, and international political organisation in a way that did not exist 100 years ago.

The fate of the nominally independent part of Ireland, which started its road to statehood almost 100 years ago, demonstrates this today through its reliance on multinational capital and its membership of the European Union.  To seek an Irish capitalism without such capital, and outside the EU, is to doom the Irish working class to a perfectly national form of capitalism that can no longer exist, and which would be reactionary from the point of view both of capitalism and socialism.

It is no accident that the most militant republicans support Brexit, but this is only testament to their programme of independence being utopian – it is not possible to achieve. Utopias can be forward or backward looking and theirs is forward looking in terms of seeking the end of direct foreign rule, a rule that has engendered deep and malignant division, but is backward, not only in its continued devotion to militarism, but also to the idea of undiluted and undivided national sovereignty and independence.

Socialists seek not only the unity of the working class within nations but between nations.  This unity cannot be the unity of self-sufficient and independent states, since the productive powers of capitalism have long ago burst out of such narrow confines.  The unity of nations that socialists seek is now one of mutual dependence and cooperation.

This is obviously a long-term perspective but it informs our attitude to a border poll today, for example in the primacy of the pursuit of working class unity.  For socialists, removal of the border is a necessary part of the struggle for working class unity.  So too is opposition to Brexit, which much of the Irish Left and militant republicanism support.

Unfortunately, the working-class movement is a very long way from being able to offer a credible plan for unification based on its existing organisations and structures.  If the call for a border poll means anything more than a statement of principle then this must be accepted.  The only possible form a united Ireland could take today, after a majority in favour of it in the North following a poll, would involve the incorporation of the North into the South.

While much of the left might propose a left Government in the South, this too is far off and is not a perspective that would convince anyone that the immediate result of a United Ireland would be incorporation into a left social democratic state.

Support for a border poll is not therefore a stand-alone demand but focuses the socialist and working class movement on what it can do to make such a poll an opportunity to fight for the unity of the working class.  Today, when there is no immediate likelihood of a border poll, it requires that socialists state what we would mean by having a ‘plan’ of our own, to put it in the words of Colm Eastwood.  Or as socialists would put it – a programme to fight for that would, if successful, lead not only to territorial and state unity, but also the much increased unity of the Irish working class, as part of a wider united European working class.  Obviously, this last objective would mean opposition to Brexit and Irexit.

Since leading by example far surpasses any other means of seeking support, what this must involve is the growth and strength of the working class movement itself – its trade unions, political parties and campaigns.  At present the meshing of the trade unions in social partnership and the devotion of the left to state ownership as socialism, means the working class movement does not offer Northern workers any alternative to simple incorporation by the southern state.

The working class movement itself is in many ways a husk, with empty trade union branches and hollowed out parties.  This is the case even in its supposed advanced, activist form.  In the last Southern local elections a spokesperson for People before Profit stated that it lost seats because it could not get its vote out – a humiliating admission that its support is not more political than the bourgeois parties but less so. Many unions are no advertisement for democracy and most parties on the left are sects incapable of containing political differences that will and must arise in truly mass parties of the working class.

As we have noted before, much of the left is actually reactionary, including its support for Brexit, accompanied by its dishonesty in not fighting openly for Irexit.  Not all members of the relevant organisations support Brexit but where then is the open debate that might inform workers of the issues at stake?  In its approach to democracy, the internal regimes of these organisations contain little debate of political principle and not much on strategy and tactics.  How to implement the line is usually the only thing up for some discussion.

If we accept that there must be no coercion of a nationalist majority, under the guise of any requirement for an increased majority (or the latest version of this – parallel majorities), it is also true that there can be no coercion of Protestant workers. This does not mean acceptance of a veto by loyalism, of the sort we have examined in the last few posts.  There can be no admission that any loyalist reaction must have its objections accepted.  The unity of the working class requires the defeat of sectarian division and the political forces that represent it.

While the Socialist Party for example has also expressed opposition to coercion, it is clear that this concern is rather one-sided.  History has shown that democracy in Ireland has been subject to coercion mainly from the British State, usually in alliance with unionism.  It is not only possible but inevitable that a majority vote for a united Ireland in the North would be subject to unionist threats and violence. As this series of posts has made clear, the answer to the first question that this poses is opposition in principle to this veto.

The second question is how to minimise this coercion, and this firstly means opposing any threat by the British State, or any section of it – national or local – seeking to prevent unity or determine is nature and shape.  This is where the unity of workers across the two islands and Europe is necessary to isolate and repulse such coercive threats and actions.  This is not just a question of opposing and preventing loyalist intimidation of Catholics, the first victims of loyalist intimidation are always fellow Protestants who don’t accept that their religious identity requires them to be sectarian.

Before all this however comes the task of reducing Protestant support for unionism and increasing support for a democratic solution.  This means the socialist and working class movement breaking from its alliances with the Northern and Southern States and asserting its independence. It means demonstrating through deeds, and not just expression of principles, that it opposes sectarianism no matter from where it comes.  On this it does not have a very good record.

In the South there has been no anti-clerical movement and the left has avoided direct challenge to the power of the Catholic Church.  It has not been the left that demolished the reputation of the Church but the actions of the Church itself and media exposure of its crimes, particularly against women and children.  If any movement deserves credit for openly campaigning against the church it is the women’s movement, and at most the left can claim some credit for having supported it.

What the left has not done is seek to demolish the structural power of the Church.  Instead it almost appears content to believe that the power of the Church has gone, rather than confronting the reality that as long as its structural supports are maintained it has not been defeated.

Such defeat means something more than a loss of reputation, it means a debate on the democratic alternative to Church control of education and health services.  So, for example, despite the victory for abortion rights the Church’s potential role in maternity services shows the importance of destroying this structural power.

In terms of the North it also means opposing Catholic Church power in education and health, something the left has not done and radical nationalists have opposed.  For example, I recall at one meeting in a republican club in West Belfast, when an ex-IRA prisoner complained that he could not get a teaching job, one of my comrades told him – it wasn’t the British who discriminated against him.

Yet there has been no campaign against Church control.  Such opposition would of course  be vigorously opposed by the Church, on the basis that it was yet another sectarian Protestant assault on Catholics.  And there is no doubt widespread support among Catholic workers for sectarian education, simply assumed by them to such an extent that it is not even considered to be sectarian.  I have been to enough Masses to know that the clergy regularly ask congregants to pay for ‘their’ Catholic schools.

I also recall one member of the organisation I belonged to resigning when he found out that socialists do not support more state funding for Catholic education on grounds of equality, but an end to church control in the first place.  Such mistaken ideas hide behind the argument that state control is control by the imperialist state, ignoring the fact that British rule has long supported Catholic Church control.

The socialist position is democratic control of schools by workers themselves and complete separation of church and state.  To put it bluntly – Protestant workers should not pay for Catholic Church control of education, and neither should Catholic workers, or those who don’t define themselves as either.  This means there should also be no exemption from discrimination legislation allowing Church authorities to discriminate against non-Catholic teaching applicants.

The demonstration of opposition to all sectarianism is the alternative to “equality of the two traditions” and its ‘left’ variant of the Socialist Party, which seeks its own reconciliation with sectarianism through, for example, conferring legitimacy on loyalist reaction.  The only possible grounds for the latter is that it has some positive content.

For Catholic workers it means that they identify themselves not as a religious group defending a sectarian interest but as a section of the population that has faced discrimination and seeks an end of all privilege and sectarian rights. The view that because Catholics have historically been the sufferers of sectarian oppression, they can be relied upon to oppose all cases of it in the future is to believe that oppression somehow makes whole populations more righteous by virtue of their oppression, something that does not bear any historical investigation.  One only has to think of the appalling fate of millions of Jews at the hands of fascism and the repugnant use of this suffering by Zionism to excuse and justify the shocking oppression of the Palestinian people.

The strength of the Catholic population’s support for sectarian education is simply an example of the impact that the existence of a sectarian state has on how the society within it operates.  It is yet another illustration why the destruction of that state is required to eradicate it.  Too many Catholics object to a sectarian state but not to one sectarian policy of that state – a united Ireland but not a united classroom.

Without a strong working class and socialist movement it cannot be anticipated that a united Ireland can be brought about without coercion, even with the validation of a majority vote for it within the North.  This does not lessen our support for it as a component part of the necessary struggle of the working class in Ireland, because such a struggle will minimise such coercion and maximise the working class unity to be gained.

On the other hand, opposition to a border poll and a potential majority for a united Ireland on the grounds that this in itself involves coercion of Protestant workers must be rejected, not least because in such circumstances coercion will come immediately, if not long before, from loyalist reactionaries, with or without support of the British State or elements of it.  Such a position does not represent opposition to coercion but support for it.

Such then are examples of the issues faced by socialists, and the approach that should be taken.  There is little likelihood of a majority vote for a United Ireland within the North in the near future, and nationalist calls for a poll without a wider programme that demonstrates its progressive content is not something we should support.  Our support for a poll, in principle, and in practice, arises from our objective of a united working class and the achievement of this requires more than simply a majority vote.  Our support therefore rests on quite different grounds and we should neither reject this support nor surrender the grounds for it.

Concluded

Back to part 4

Should socialists support a border poll? 4 – working class unity

It has been noted in an academic study  of the flag dispute that “it has taken a unique political ideology to turn a clear ‘victory’ – a triple lock on the union,a change to the Republic’s constitutional claim, the signing up of Sinn Féin to ‘partitionist’ institutions – into abject insecurity.”

But insecurity in unionism is nothing new, thirty-five years ago a book on Protestant politics was entitled ‘Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders.” Uncertainty and political paranoia are inevitable when sectarian rights are based on proxies (such as bourgeois democracy) that either reject such politics implicitly or threaten to undermine it.  A demand for equality is especially pernicious since it appears reasonable but threatens loss when your claim to sectarian rights is necessarily based on inequality – every issue is zero sum game precisely because supremacy is what is being defended.

The Socialist Party defence of the rights of Protestants is a defence of their rights as Protestants and thus lapses into a defence of sectarian rights.

It leads to seeking justification for the claims of Protestants as a sectarian group, with its own anterior rights, and covering up for its sectarian and reactionary character. So, even when that Party has in the past defended civil rights (by their nature civil rights are not sectarian group rights) the Party claims that such rights were, and still are, not enough, because equality of poverty holds no attraction for Protestant workers.  What good is equality of misery it says?  What is required is a socialist programme.

But whatever justification there is for a socialist programme, which of course I support, and regardless of what this might look like, it cannot be advanced in order to obfuscate the opposition of many Protestant workers to equality per se.  It is not therefore the case that Protestant workers oppose a united Ireland because it may not be socialist. Their pro-imperialist, monarchist and reactionary politics makes the majority averse to socialism in any case.  The possibility that a united Ireland might in some way be socialist is against everything their political heritage defends, and is enough to guarantee the opposition of those who maintain allegiance to any specifically Protestant politics.

How can Protestant workers be won to socialism and the radical equality it promises if they do not accept the equality of Catholic workers in the first place?  Unless they accept the political emancipation of Catholic workers they will be unable to play any positive role in achieving the social liberation of the working class that includes themselves.  To believe that they can fight for the latter while opposing or even being passive to the former is to excuse their prejudice and undermine the possibility and meaning of socialism.  That this is also true of the perspective that Catholic workers must take is simply to state that sectarian division must be ended by mutual recognition by all workers of their equality regardless of religion or nationality.

It is still unfortunately the case that the majority of Protestant workers are attached to reactionary unionist politics, so that it is necessary for socialists to oppose both their unionism and their sectarianism.  There is an alternative political identity that must be fought for and is in their interests as workers, not as Protestant workers.

So, to employ episodes such as unionist opposition to the reduced flying of the union flag outside Belfast City Hall as justification for acceptance of limitations on one’s programme is to leave one defenceless against whatever reactionary veto unionist reaction decides to erect to any progressive change.

Loyalists now claim that it is Protestants that are discriminated against and it is they who are disadvantaged, and there is even some slight evidence of the latter.  The Northern Ireland Labour Force Survey recorded that over the period 1993 to 2017 the proportion of working age economically active Protestants with no qualifications has decreased from 30% to 12% while that of Catholics decreased from 32% to 11%, so Catholics were in a slightly better position.

It is a repeated complaint of loyalists that working-class Protestants, especially the young, are educationally disadvantaged.  In the same academic study referenced above the authors record interviews with loyalists and others that “the importance of education was stressed, but education with a very particular purpose, as a community project leader explained: We’ve got the programme there and it’s empowerment through education … once you teach them about their own identity then they understand what’s going on around them, cos I would say 100 per cent of our kids haven’t a clue about where they came from. “

“In the interviews we conducted the issue of Protestant/Catholic reconciliation did not arise unless raised by us [i.e. the academics]. It simply was not on any interviewee’s immediate agenda.”

“For those, within the PUL [Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist] community trying to re-build after the ruptures that opened up during the protest the key category is cohesion, not reconciliation. There was seen to be a strong imperative to build unionist unity, and to imbue young people with a deeper awareness of their unionist identity.”

The authors quote another academic study dealing with a small Derry town, which finds that loyalists “see no purpose in conflict transformation as their cultural identity is built on a glorification of sectarian conflict, and they reject democratic politics as ‘it did not stop the flag from being ripped down.’“

Yet another study based on North Belfast finds that even the Protestant church representatives did not talk about reaching out across the sectarian divide, but rather about: “The need to create a new confidence and a new identity around loyalism, one that was not demonised, and one that people could easily understand what it represented.”

As one flag protestor said: “They talk about a shared future. I don’t think the Protestant community is ready for a shared future.”

In other words, these loyalists want to see reinforcement of their sectarian identity. Why would socialists, as the Socialist Party does, erect such views as the limit to a democratic and socialist programme?  The Party ends up deferring to those most bitterly opposed to workers’ unity on the grounds of supporting it.

Of course, not all Protestant workers are sectarian and for such workers it is reactionary to seek to win them to socialism by offering to accommodate a sectarian identity they either don’t have or can be more easily broken from.  But many are sectarian, to varying degrees, and it is only blind political correctness that prevents acknowledging the obvious.  Socialists will get nowhere by pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it is marginal, or in some sense justified, or must be deferred to in some way.  They will get totally lost if they hand over a veto to the most sectarian voices just because they advance protests and politics with which many other Protestant workers have sympathy.

None of this means we do not advance a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian programme, and a socialist programme.  We must do so, obviously because we are socialists and socialism is our goal – a society governed by the workers themselves.  But we must be clear what it means.

Socialism is just the rule of the working class, as a whole, not a part of it.  To say that socialism is the answer to the division of the working class is just to say that working class unity is the answer to working class division.  To claim that a working class party is necessary to unite the working class is to say that the party created by the working class should unite the working class.

Escape into such truisms arises because real answers beyond such abstractions do not present themselves as obvious solutions, but as political programmes that offer particular courses of struggle.  James Connolly is famously noted for having denounced partition, but to end it means going beyond what he said –

“. . . the betrayal of the national democracy of Industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted.”

A role for those dedicated to the interests of the working class must mean that we are not paralysed.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

 

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

Should socialists support a border poll? 1

One consequence of Brexit has been louder demands for a border poll and the legitimacy of a test of support for a united Ireland, on the basis that Brexit breaches the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

I have argued before that Brexit does not breach the GFA although it does exacerbate its failures and does involve increased tension between the British and Irish Governments, who are the custodians of the agreement.  It does catalyse increased instability and it does give rise to expectations that support for a united Ireland will have increased as a result. I have also argued that while this may be the case it is unlikely that a poll would result in a vote within the North for a united Ireland.

Nevertheless, the question arises whether socialists should support a poll, a question not only for us in the North of Ireland but for socialists in the South and for British socialists as well.  There is no such thing as a unilateral right to unification and this applies to those seeking unity with the South of the country and to those defending British rule.

Irish nationalists will argue that Ireland is one nation, although in many of their arguments, and in their practice, most of them appear to accept the argument that the Protestant Irish aren’t Irish at all.  Irrespective of this, the argument is not about whether there is one nation but whether there should be one Irish state.

The practical consequences of this are what matter, as has been demonstrated both by the Scottish referendum and the British Brexit referendum.  All the airy metaphysical nationalist claims can only get you so far, but as Brexit shows – even if you win – the hard reality of the real world will demand answers from your nationalist vision.

Recently the author and commentator Fintan O’Toole argued in his column in ‘The Irish Times’ that while the demand for Britishness remains in the North of Ireland (from unionists, mostly Protestants), the supply of it is in danger of disappearing (I paraphrase).

This is because opinion polls have shown that the most vehement supporters of Brexit in England, who most revel in the idea of some sort of continuing British imperial glory, would be prepared to lose both the North of Ireland and Scotland from their United Kingdom in pursuit of their beloved Brexit.

A few days later the unionist columnist Newton Emerson in the same paper argued, in a thinly veiled response, that actually it was remarkable that English Brexiteers had not shown more antagonism to their entanglement with the North of Ireland, given that it was the cause of the hated ‘backstop’ that appeared to be impeding a successful Brexit.  Of course, this assumed forbearance might have a number of causes and doesn’t refute the argument that O’Toole advanced.  In any case, it is very unlikely that the British State would seek to ditch the North of Ireland in order to save Brexit.

Newton Emerson also seemed happy to point out in his column in ‘The Irish News’ that while an RTE poll at the end of January showed 87 per cent of people would back a united Ireland over a hard border, this dropped to 54 per cent when the question was not framed by this stark choice.  He argued that ‘southerners are essentially soft-nationalist Alliance voters: they do not want a united Ireland without a united Northern Ireland’.  While there is some truth in the argument, it does not follow from the poll, and is not therefore ‘a fact’.

An RTE poll also showed that support for a united Ireland fell to 31 per cent if it meant paying more tax, which implies the desire for a united nation is to a great deal a sentiment that recognises practical constraints.  Whether these constraints are ‘fair’ or not is not the point.

So, both Irish and British socialists will be required to take a position on a border poll even if it is limited to within the six counties of Northern Ireland.  How should we respond?

In the last few weeks I have read two very different approaches.  The Socialist Workers Network in Ireland has presented this position:

“. . . all of the polls are consistent that support for a united Ireland is on the rise. That much we can be certain of.”

“This should be welcome news to socialists and progressives across Ireland. Partition is a thoroughly reactionary device, arising from a counter-revolutionary movement supported by British imperialism in order to set up a ‘carnival of reaction’, that has copper fastened two rotten states over the last century. And it is not just the physical divide between North and South that matters. Sectarianism exists, and is perpetually recreated, precisely because of the way that partition guarantees the maintenance of a sectarian state, that shapes every political question in a communal manner. We are opposed to sectarianism, then, but we also understand that sectarianism can only be overcome as part of a simultaneous challenge to the structures that enshrine it.”

“We should support a border poll as a basic democratic right, and oppose any notion that a majority is not enough to end partition. But we should creatively intervene into the discussion about what a border poll should look like. It is often presumed that a border poll would be a vote in the North to join the Southern state. We should argue, instead, that a border poll should be a vote to create a completely new state, not one where we simply subsume the six counties into the Southern state under the auspices of its conservative constitution.”

Leaders of the Socialist Party, in an internal members bulletin, present a very different position. For them, a border poll has “the potential to push the north back towards sectarian conflict.” They note that in March 2017, the Assembly election “marked a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland.  For the first time since the foundation of the state unionist political parties no longer have a majority at Stormont.”

They then go on to say that “This is the context in which we operate and in which the calls for a border poll have become louder and louder. This is a dangerous development. A border poll does not represent a “democratic” solution to the division of Ireland and will not provide a “solution” in any sense. Protestants have the right to say no to being coerced into a united Ireland. If this coercion takes the form of a majority vote in the North it is still coercion, even if dressed up (in) ‘democratic’ clothing. In stating this publicly 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.”

They then ask “how do we reconcile what appear to be irreconcilable aspirations, and at the same time drive forward the struggle for socialism.”  Even a leading member of the Party, who writes in opposition to these leaders’ understanding of the politics of Sinn Fein, writes that “It currently plays a sectarian role in the North, including trying to coerce the Protestant working class into the southern State via a border poll.”

The general approach of the Party has been covered in a number of recent articles, (beginning here) dealing with its support for Brexit.  Its position in relation to a border poll expresses its general political approach, which is well expressed in a recent article that notes Protestant opposition to a customs/regulatory border in the Irish sea, which would be required for a Brexit that avoided a ‘hard’ border within the island of Ireland:

“The draft agreement outlines a scenario in which there will be a developing East-West border. This will inflame opinion in Protestant working class areas. The opposite scenario, in which there is a hardening of the North-South border, will cause anger in Catholic areas. Either “solution” is no solution, and will cause harm to the cause of working class unity.”

This position is based on the following considerations:

“Any East-West border, no matter how minor, has come to represent a threat to the union between Northern Ireland and Britain. If an agreement is voted through at Westminster which allows for East-West checks after December 2020 against the opposition of the DUP, there will be widespread anger in the Protestant community. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was agreed between the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald without the involvement of unionist political parties. As far as most Protestants were concerned cross-border institutions had been undemocratically imposed on them and mass protests and an upsurge in violence resulted. In December 2012 widespread disorder broke out when a mere emblem of the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland-the union flag over the City Hall in Belfast-was removed. If there is a perception in the coming months and years that the British identity of Northern Ireland is being diminished street protests and street violence cannot be ruled out.”

In the next few posts I will review these two positions and present my own views.

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.