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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socialists and the elections in the North of Ireland – part 2

History has decisively proved that simple removal of Stormont did not entail a move to a united Ireland and that no such move was possible within the North itself.  The downfall of Stormont left a strategic gap that was filled by IRA claims that it could drive the British out of Ireland by sheer will and its armed struggle.

From then on, the struggle could go nowhere with such a view and nowhere is where it went.  While civil rights protest, and wider Catholic grievance and mobilization could bring Stormont down it could not implement its own solution while a struggle was waged solely in the North, even if it enjoyed Southern sympathy.  Only within a wider social movement for change could a progressive solution be imposed against unionist and British state opposition but this is still not even yet a practical proposition.

In terms of the reformability of the North it must also be obvious that the Stormont of today is not the Stormont of 1972.  The idea that Catholics and nationalists could be in office was incredible in 1972 yet today Sinn Fein is in office.  It is therefore equally obvious that you cannot re-run the story line again and expect the downfall of Stormont to be the same step forward that it was in 1972, even if the first time this step forward made evident the crisis in perspective for the next step.

Today Catholics and nationalists are not demanding the downfall of Stormont but that Sinn Fein stick it up to the unionists and demand equality within it.  Unfortunately, the equality demanded is not that of civil rights, which started the whole struggle off, but of communal sectarian rights which socialists must oppose.

The nature of the counter-revolution in Northern Ireland (if it can be put that way) is that the struggle for unity around civil rights has been corrupted to one of sectarian rights with most people oblivious to the difference.  Calls for a Workers’ Republic in such a situation takes us no step forward in the real world unless it signals not an end-point but a process to get us there – just as for Marx communism was not a state of things but a movement that abolished the present state of things.*  So what then is this movement given today’s conditions and circumstances and how will it abolish the present state of things from the premises currently given?

Despite the experience of incompetence, corruption and general venality there is little demand for the downfall of Stormont except from those who say they prefer Direct rule from a British state with a reputation for some minimal probity and competence (that will suffer greatly from Brexit).  The only other constituency is that which has been dismissed as dissident republicanism, which despite decades of Provisional betrayal of the traditional republican programme cannot convince anyone, including itself, that it can do anything other than repeat the failure of the Provos.

The task of socialists in elections therefore is to begin, and we really are only at the beginning, to break down the sectarian solidarity, not by thinking we could simply remove the mock-Parliament that oversees it but by building a movement that goes through Stormont in order to destroy it.  If this much experience of sectarian corruption and its baleful effects that we have endured is not enough to expose it and the uselessness to workers of sectarianism then it is unfortunately the case that we need to experience more of it, and we will, and crucially to have a socialist presence that can expose it and present a concrete alternative.  And by concrete I obviously mean more than slogans – slogans are easy and if sectarian division was amenable to easy slogans we wouldn’t still be faced by its dominance.

So pretending that workers are already virtually united is as barren as the view that, even though they aren’t, a direct struggle for state power and creation of their own Republic is a concrete alternative.  If it is not, then socialists are clearly fighting to build a working class movement not win this movement to revolutionary politics as if this were Russia 1917 or Germany 1918 or Spain in the 1930s.  If we are faced with the task of building this labour movement then we can only be in the position of seeking reforms since only the working class through its mass movement can achieve a social revolution.

There are two questions to consider at this point as a possible objection to what I have just said.  First, while social revolution can only be carried out by the working class acting as a class, political revolutions that do not require the overthrow of capitalism obviously can be carried out by movements that aren’t socialist. Most political revolutions of the last couple of hundred years have not been working class or socialist.  Such non-socialist revolutions can be progressive if they place the working class in a better position to fight for its own interests, if for example they increase the scope and capacity for workers to organise.

For a number of reasons a political revolution that creates an independent Irish democratic Republic (that is still capitalist) is unlikely to happen.  First, no significant class or political force is interested in carrying it out and the same applies to the international configuration of classes and forces that will be decisive for political and social change in Ireland.  Those who think that struggle for such a democratic revolution will travel towards a socialist one in some version of revolution that keeps going are wrong.  The social revolution is not something the working class will stumble upon in the course of seeking something much more limited.

The second point is that fighting to create an independent working class movement that fights for reforms that are designed primarily to strengthen itself is itself a revolutionary approach.  What is reformist is not seeking to strengthen the working class movement through smaller or greater steps or leaps but rather to seek to advance its cause through reliance on the capitalist state through nationalisation or other state intervention, or confusing socialism with left-wing MPs and TDs in or out of governmental office.

All this is very general and presents the socialist alternative at a very high level of principles which should guide more concrete and specific proposals.  However, even at this high level it is already clear that this approach differs from that practiced by the Irish left.

To make this alternative more specific is not a question of a set of proposals that guarantee growth of the left.  Ultimately a party of the working class cannot rise any higher than the working class itself.  The working class party is only such if it is part of the working class, yet both preponderant left approaches are not about how this working class can be made stronger but assume that it just has to be led differently.

But the fact that working people in the North of Ireland vote massively for sectarian based parties is not simply a question of leadership but reflects the divisions in society which mean that class cleavage is not decisive to the everyday experience that shapes their political consciousness. How this is changed is the problem and only the self-activity of working people themselves is capable of accomplishing this task – the emancipation of the working class is a task for the working class itself and socialists can only help to lead such a process by being leaders in rebuilding the labour movement to become the political representative of the class as a whole.

Since elections in themselves are a small part of working class experience, though play a rather larger role in their experience of politics, it is outside elections that the working class alternative will be built.  In elections, you only reap what you have sown.  As Engels put it “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class.   It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state.”  In other words, it will not be the road to socialism, and the generally pitiful votes for self-declared socialist candidates shows how far to maturity it has to go.  Facing this reality is the first step to changing it.  Pretending that either it is anything other than badly divided or that it can be presented with the task of overthrowing the state is to fail to take that step.

 

*“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

Back to part 1

Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2

Trade union leaders support austerity? Oh yes they do!

Pantomime season is upon us, where actors go through well rehearsed and sometimes laughable theatrics to keep us distracted in the chilly season, performing roles we have seen so many times we could write the script ourselves.  Familiarity creates half the fun for the adults and innocent gullibility the mirth for the children.  Or at least for some.

A number of years ago a work colleague reported a conversation between two young boys sitting behind him while he was watching a panto with his kids.  “He’s behind you”, roared the children in the audience, only for the object of their warnings to turn round and miss the actions of the dastardly villain about to carry out the nefarious deed.  “Oh no he’s not” exclaimed the gormless actor.  “Oh yes he is!” screamed the children in the audience.  “He’s behind you!” they would roar again and so again would the witless actor turn round to see nothing amiss.  This obviously went on at some length until my friend heard one very well-spoken boy behind him tell his companion to shut up about the “he’s behind you” stuff – “be quiet Roger, the man’s obviously a fool.”

This story came into my head when I read the latest statement from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) about the “Fresh Start” agreement between the British Government, Irish Government and Northern Ireland parties.  The agreement was a stunning exposure of the hollowness of Sinn Fein’s opposition to austerity as it agreed and subsequently praised its agreement to Tory austerity, with less mitigation of the cuts than they had previously denounced as harmful to the most vulnerable.  The rest and larger part of austerity, including job losses, it had simply ignored as it happily implemented the cuts without a murmur of protest.  Shame and embarrassment are fundamentally important human emotions but there is something that Sinn Fein and the Tories share – they don’t have any such feelings.

The ICTU statement is a staged event which acts out opposition that is without even the merit of being funny and which could only be bought as serious if one was a small child, or rather the vast majority of small children.  It sets out ICTU’s support for the agreement even though this agreement is an agreement to implement austerity.  How then do ICTU hope to oppose austerity while supporting the agreement that implements it?

Why, you may as well shout “he’s behind you”, because austerity lies inside, behind, beside and in front of the ‘Fresh Start’ but ICTU will pretend not to see it – “Oh no it’s not! – it’s over there”.  “It’s inside, behind, beside and in front of you!” you might cry, to no avail.  And so it might go on.

As you can see, not half as funny as your regular panto.

The ICTU statement is full of lies and pathetic, vapid declarations of opposition that are a tiny leaf protecting its extremely modest pretence at opposition.  Not so much the naked emperor as the emperor’s naked servant.

So we can’t get past the first line of the statement before we get untruthful nonsense – “Given the critical role of the NI trade union movement in promoting and securing a peace process, Congress views it as essential that our devolved institutions remain intact.”

As a matter of fact it was not the trade unions and their large rallies that created the peace process but the secret negotiations between the British Government and republicans plus the unionists.  Everyone knows this.  All the rallies organised by ICTU did was reinforce support for the view that peace lay with those responsible for the violence.  It is only in the sense that ICTU continues to support the same sectarian politicians that can it claim to continue to “secure” the peace.

As I pointed out before, the demand for local sectarian institutions was justified by the erroneous claim that this was required to end the violence, while now acceptance of violence is justified by needing to do so to save the institutions.  Now ICTU claim that the existence of the sectarian institution is necessary to oppose austerity – “The imposition of Direct Rule would have unimagined consequences for the most marginalised in our society, as well as for trade unionists”, when in fact it has just been demonstrated to all but gullible children that austerity is necessary for the survival of the sectarian institutions.

In order to avoid reality ICTU is required to peddle the same nonsense as Sinn Fein but because it cannot be seen to be politically partisan it has to go further and cover up for all the political parties, including those whose policies are to the right even of the evil Tories and who make little pretence about their support for austerity: “Congress accepts the validity of the statements made by political parties that they pressed the UK Government for additional financial resources for NI to no avail  . . . Congress in this context recognises that our political parties are facing up to their responsibilities to ameliorate the negative impact of welfare reform.”

Other embarrassing aspects of the agreement are hard to just ignore so instead they are ‘noted’ –“Congress, while noting the insertion of a clause in the Fresh Start Agreement which specifies that the cut in Corporation Tax can only occur if the NI Executive’s finances are on a ‘sustainable footing’, will continue to oppose the cutting of CT in the unconditional method as advocated in the Agreement.”

I don’t know what this means. Is cutting corporation tax ok if finances are on a ‘sustainable footing’; does ICTU oppose “unconditional” cuts only but support cuts with conditions; what would these be?  Does the agreement not already state conditionality – finances on a ‘sustainable footing’ – so does this not therefore mean it supports the agreement on this issue as well?

ICTU claims it will oppose the terrible austerity but only in so far as it is the responsibility of the Tories in London, without accepting the responsibility of the local reactionary parties for agreeing to it and implementing it.  All so that ICTU can pretend that the face of austerity is not in front of them when they go to lobby the local parties but is “behind them”.

ICTU pledges that it will “continue a vibrant opposition to austerity” but this opposition rests on a platform of “actions” that read not as solutions to austerity but as a list of “actions” that provide jobs for trade union bureaucrats.  Their alternative policies consist of economic strategies, models, policies and quangos that culminate in a plea for the notorious patronage in existence not to pass them by – “That the membership of the trade union movement, as the largest civil society organisation in NI, be reflected in the composition of public bodies proposed under the Fresh Start Agreement.”  So while thousands of public sector jobs disappear ICTU wants jobs for their head boys and girls.

The duplicity of the drafting of this rotten statement is exposed by the first lines of the statement being contradicted by the last – “Congress advises all of its members to note that the Fresh Start Agreement is not a trade union agreement but one reached by democratically elected political parties and both governments.”  Having claimed credit for the process at the beginning they deny responsibility for its results at the end, from embracing it they state it’s nothing to do with them.

Which of course implies that one of their claims is actually true.  And since I’ve just said that the opening lines were a lie, this means their concluding lines are correct.  But only in the literal sense that the deal was made by the local parties and British Government, and the Irish government were in attendance as well.

The political purpose of the statement however is clear – don’t blame us for the consequences of the deal we’re supporting, we didn’t negotiate it, the “democratically elected” politicians did.  More bluntly – you elected these people so you’re getting what you voted for.

This is also true and explains the ability of the two main parties to come out of negotiations confident they will still be the two biggest parties after the next election.  But this does not excuse ICTU or its rotten statement.  It simply means they lack the courage of their declared convictions.  Most crucially it means they provide no alternative to austerity but are unable and unwilling to admit it.

But doesn’t the fact that the majority has voted, and repeatedly voted, for these sectarian parties that are imposing austerity mean that there really is no alternative?

Well, yes and no.  Yes, because there is no political alternative at present to the collective plans of the British and Irish governments and the sectarian parties – no one can credibly claim that there is even a semi-coherent practical alternative being debated, or even ignored.

No, because these agreements always erupt into crises because the parties just don‘t agree on what their agreements are. ICTU backs every rotten deal that comes along and then they fail; so there will at some point be an alternative.  The problem is that there is no progressive, working class one on the horizon.

No again, because the statement not only fails to oppose the agreement and the austerity that necessarily goes with it but endorses it.  Exposing the austerity that resides in the heart of the agreement would begin to weaken it on grounds that are minimally progressive.  When the leaders of ICTU can’t even oppose austerity then what we need is to oppose the ICTU leaders.

Use ‘ A Fresh Start’ to whitewash your dirty linen – maximum spin programme recommended

2015-11-24 21.25.27

The richest political party in Ireland paid for the Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ to include a glossy leaflet inside it, selling the latest political deal which has been negotiated between it, the British government, Irish government and the Democratic Unionist Party.

It’s called ‘A Fresh Start’ although it isn’t: the whole point of it is to refurbish the previous agreement, of which Sinn Fein had been an enthusiastic supporter.

So it’s not fresh, since it contains no new ideas, and because we have been here countless times before and the main point is to implement the Stormont House Agreement, it’s not a start either.   In fact according to Sinn Fein no fresh start was even necessary.

Not necessary because the first paragraph in its open letter states that the crisis which prevented the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement was provoked by Tory cuts and a contrived political crisis caused by the murder of two people; one of which was carried out by Provisional republicans (so the contrivance must be partly their responsibility).

The other respect in which they were responsible for the ‘contrived’ crisis was their acceptance and then refusal to implement all the Tory welfare cuts, in the process claiming opposition to austerity while implementing it in all its other aspects.   In their leaflet they state that “the only way to protect our people and our public services from Tory austerity was through working the democratic institutions.”  Except that implementing Tory austerity became the only way of saving “the democratic institutions”.

The new deal implements the Tory cuts to welfare, with apparently some local mitigating measures already agreed, and nothing more than that.  The hollowness of the previous angry Sinn Fein opposition to the Tories and their cuts has been exposed through the ‘Fresh Start ‘Agreement making provision for transferring the powers to make the cuts from Stormont to Westminster.  Not so much standing up to Tory cuts as handing over the knives to the Tories to make them.

In parenthesis it may be noted that during all this fake opposition to welfare cuts the people affected were as utterly dependent on Sinn Fein as they are on the benefits themselves and have seen this opposition withdrawn along with some of their benefits.  What it proves is that the only way to protect our people and our public services from Tory austerity is through working people organising to fight back and creating an alternative.

The next paragraph in their open letter notes that Sinn Fein is standing up for victims by demanding the British Government discloses information, which it is refusing to do.  What a pity then that this is repeated on the other side of the leaflet below a picture of Gerry Adams whose complete disclosure of the past involves complete denial of ever being in the IRA.

The next paragraph boasts of “securing over £500 million in additional finance for the Executive over the next four year.  We also negotiated a £585 million fund to support those hit by savage Tory cuts to benefits and tax credits”.

The last deal they walked away from, because it failed to protect welfare recipients sufficiently, provided for £564 million over 6 years.  Sinn Fein claimed that this roughly £95 million per year was not enough “to protect the most vulnerable in our society” but has now accepted that £86.25 million a year over 4 years to cover the same cuts will be a better deal!  The money they claim to have negotiated now – £585 million in total – will have to be set against not only previous cuts but the new cuts to tax credits introduced since the previous agreement.  Even the ‘new’ money may not be new at all and the lone Green party member of the Assembly has claimed that some of it will come out of the existing Social Security Agency budget!

So what about the first £500 million claimed by Sinn Fein?

Well most of that is earmarked for those traditional objects of Sinn Fein sympathy – security and social security.  £188 million will go to security, with £160 million going to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle republicans (the dissident ones?), and £125 million going to clamping down on social security fraud and error ( the irony of this is matched only by their calling those who murdered Kevin McGuigan “criminals”).

In the debate following the Agreement neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have been able to demonstrate that all the claims about there being new money stand up and that the partial and temporary welfare relief is not just going to be paid by existing budgets.

So when Sinn Fein claims in its leaflet that “Sinn Fein is totally opposed to the austerity North and South” this really means nothing very much in the North and will very likely mean not a great deal in the South either.

In the penultimate paragraph it says that “the best safeguard against future Tory cuts is having the powers to grow and manage the economy in our hands.”  So how have they done this and how do they propose to do it in future?

Well, the Agreement notes approvingly the reduction of 7,410 jobs from state employment in the three years between April 2014 and March 2016 and “If cost cutting does not achieve the results required the Executive will “consider revenue raising measures.”   To indicate the meeting of minds involved, and to demonstrate that we are all in it together, “the Executive commits itself to lowering corporation tax to 12.5% in April 2018.”

In addition the British Government will legislate to ensure that local spending plans cannot exceed what is permitted and will review the Block grant to Northern Ireland after four years to take account of the effect of the reduction in corporation tax, no doubt with a view to further reductions.  How all this is opposition to Tory austerity is anyone’s guess.

Rather stupidly the other side of the Sinn Fein leaflet advertises the opposition of the British Government to disclosing its role in the past, about which Sinn Fein has achieved absolutely nothing.  The Agreement includes as the first of its principles “the ending of paramilitarism”.  This is straight after The British Government has issued an ‘independent’ report saying that the IRA army council still exists, and of course following the murder of Kevin McGuigan, all while Sinn Fein continues to claim that the IRA has left the stage.

On the Unionist side the repeated collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries by the unionist parties is studiously ignored.

It would be tempting to point the finger at both Sinn Fein and the DUP for their hypocrisy but the British have a special talent when it comes to this sort of thing.  It was reported only last week that there have been only ten convictions based on membership of a paramilitary organisation since 1998 and none for nearly seven years.  So how come, all of a sudden, it’s become such a big deal?

A new task force made up of the Northern and Southern police forces and tax authorities is to be established but this will achieve what its masters want it to achieve.  It is the stick to the carrot of additional (or not so additional) money.  However, as it’s a cross-border body it’s clearly aimed at republicans.

What sticks in the craw most about this part of the deal is that the Executive, made up of Sinn Fein and the DUP etc., is to “undertake a public awareness campaign to raise public understanding of the harm done by paramilitarism.”  Yeah, we really don’t have a clue.

The heading for a ‘Shared Future’, costing £60 million over four years, gets one paragraph and explains nothing, which could mean it will never be spent or might be spent on buying off ‘community representatives’, as flagged in the latest loyalist offensive for ‘inclusion’ of their gangster outfits in the Stormont gravy train.

By contrast the section ‘Irish Government Financial Support’ gets two and a half pages, with the highlight a meager £75 million for a road, although it also includes such key aspects of the Agreement as “development of further cross-border Greenways and Blueway cycling-walking-water leisure routes, including the Ulster canal.” The Irish Government also champions the use of private finance to fund further infrastructure projects.  In other words the Irish Government is pretty irrelevant except to allow nationalists to claim some role for it, what role is pretty clear.

The rest of the Agreement promises to implement the previous Agreement on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition.  So, while the paper mentions sectarianism twice it mentions Flags twenty-two times.

The ‘Fresh Start’ also rather embarrassingly reminds nationalists that the British Government endorses “the need for respect for and recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland” but again this means nothing and reminds everyone of the failure of Sinn Fein to achieve its long held objective of an Irish language Act.

What to do about the past is the one area where failure is so total that the Agreement has to admit it.  Yet, rather than skirt round the issue in its leaflet, Sinn Fein states that dealing with the past was one if its four priorities – so what happened then?

If the only thing now that has yet to be agreed, and which will therefore involve yet more talks, is about the past, it will continue to be easy to present the problem as one of living in it.

The Sinn Fein leaflet then is a catalogue of failure and the new Agreement is an attempt to build on that failure.  It is such an open declaration of defeat that even some of those opposed to Sinn Fein appear to find it a bit embarrassing.  The ‘Irish News’ columnist Newton Emerson begins his assessment of the Agreement by saying:

“The ‘fresh start’ agreement is such a total defeat for Sinn Fein that it is positively bizarre.  Even as a unionist, I find it unnerving”

The leaflet aimed at their supporters is just as bizarre as their negotiations and their spin on it is empty and pathetic.

It should also be said that the Agreement is also a rejection of unionist appeals to take steps to ditch Sinn Fein and allow the unionists to begin running the local state apparatus without them.  This would represent a clear break from British strategy and a divided unionism is in no position to achieve this.

Besides, for the British, with ‘enemies’ like Sinn Fein who needs friends?

 

 

How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 2

Roy-Keane-as-Braveheart-Paddy-Power-3When Irish unionists claim rights to self-determination history has shown that this is not a claim for equality but a claim on behalf of sectarian supremacy – a claim to the right to inequality.

But, the question can be put, if socialists regard self-determination as a means to facilitate the voluntary unity of nationalities surely a united Ireland will itself involve the forcible suppression of Protestants and of Protestant workers?  This would mean that while Irish unionism has no legitimacy the alternative of a united Ireland is also not one that socialists can support?

Some on the Left have stopped there, accepted this, and said that the only solution to the question of democratic national rights in Ireland is therefore socialism.  This tends to come from those for whom every thorny problem is solved by the invocation of socialism.

Workers’ opposition to mass immigration? A socialist society with full employment, great public services and housing would deal with objections.  Economic crises, with periodic mass unemployment and cuts in living standards? A socialist society!  Women’s oppression and racism? Socialism is the answer.  Workers’ passivity in the face of their right wing leaders’ betrayals?  A revolutionary party with a socialist alternative.  Sectarian division?  Workers unity around a socialist programme!

Such solutions are not so much an answer to a specific problem as an invocation that the problem would simply go away if it were made not to exist. It invokes an alternative reality and not an alternative set of policies to get there.  It says that the problems and challenges faced by workers are solved by socialism when in fact the reality is the reverse – socialism is created by workers.

This means working people being persuaded and organised to present answers to all these different questions, not invoking an idealist formula disembodied from those whose conscious actions alone can bring them about.  And the only people who can do this are working people themselves, with those who are socialists attempting to advance this process.

In the case of Ireland, the point of opposing self-determination for the Protestant Irish in the North is that such a claim is not compatible with workers’ interests.  It is not an invitation to violently impose a united Ireland.  Its purpose is to explain that the claiming of such rights is reactionary.  It is meant to identify unionist and loyalist ideas and movements as right wing by virtue of the demands they hold most dear.  In this sense the demand for a united Ireland is not one taken up despite the Protestant population but because of it, because it is they who are most saturated with reactionary sectarian and imperialistic ideology.

Treating it as a sanction to pursue an armed struggle against the wishes of the artificial majority in the Northern State is part of the Irish republican liberal understanding that there are rights which, if they exist, should be exercised regardless of any considerations of the reality in which they are supposed to be grounded.

This means for example that armed struggle by republicans is justified by the principle of the right of the oppressed to fight their oppressors by any means necessary, without stopping to ask ‘by any means necessary to achieve what?’  It means rights asserted as abstract principles without regard to efficacy or morality.

Socialism on the other hand is based on workers’ interests and needs grounded in the world they live in and not of abstractions that efface these needs and interests.

Opposition to Scottish independence by socialists can therefore only respond with bemusement to nationalist claims that every other country to achieve ‘independence’ has not wanted to go back, so that it can’t therefore be such a bad idea.

Well how many of these countries are really independent, of the requirements and pressures of capitalist globalisation for example?  How many of the workers in these countries have had their basic needs and interests resolved by the ‘independence’ of the countries they live in?  In what way does the principle of separation of itself address these problems; meaning have these nationalists really considered the alternatives; meaning also that if they have, this particular argument is not really one of principle at all.

The nationalists who claim that there are 200 or so nation states in the world – why has Scotland to be different – might want to ask how this world of nation states has fared in the twentieth century and whether it has been such a good way to order the world’s affairs.  Or have two world wars taught nothing?  Perhaps a look at the character of many of these states might make one think twice that this model is one to emulate.

When it comes to the demand for a united Ireland such a demand is both abstract and unrealistic outside of its insertion into a social and political struggle that understands it, not as the demand for a new Irish capitalist state, but as a means of reducing division; including by rejecting sectarian claims to state legitimacy and power by the Protestant population and rejecting the intervention of the British state to uphold such claims.

But it also means rejection of all the other ways in which division is imposed, including sectarian organisation of education and other state services both North and South, religious imposition of restrictions on women’s rights, sectarian employment practices, sectarian political arrangements such as Stormont and state sponsorship of armed sectarian paramilitary outfits.

It means building alternative centres of working class identification and power including a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian labour movement, trade unions and political parties, democratic campaigns, and workers cooperatives where workers livelihoods directly depend on their working together.

This socialist agenda is light years from nationalist answers. By understanding this workers might be able to see that the arguments of nationalists, their claims for rights that do nothing for workers, and their claims to address grievances which are either spurious or actually derive from class oppression are false.

concluded