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.