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.