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

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.