The North of Ireland’s Anti-Brexit Election

Vote count at Titanic Belfast

No sooner is the general election over but the media hails the beginning of talks to resurrect the Assembly at Stormont and the power-sharing Executive.  The election has been hailed as a dramatic change yet the same old solution that cannot find a problem it can solve is put forward again.

We are expected to forget the rampant incompetence and corruption that characterised previous Stormont attempts.  However, it’s not quite everything changes but everything remains the same, because at the same time as we wake up to groundhog devolution day we are also informed that, just perhaps, real change is on its way – ‘United Ireland’ trended on Twitter.

In part this might appear as a result of Brexit getting done under Johnson, which will hasten a Scottish referendum that will lead to Scottish independence – shattering the ‘precious’ union upon which Irish Unionism depends. In part, it is because of the results of the election in Northern Ireland, which for the first time ever has elected more nationalist MPs to Westminster than Unionist – 9 to 8.

But caveats abound.  Johnson will not get Brexit done.  The UK may leave the EU at the end of January but the transition period means nothing will change – except losing its vote in the EU – until it ends at the end of the year, which is not long enough to determine the new arrangements between the UK and the EU.  These will be contentious despite the Irish Taoiseach warmly welcoming the result of the election as removing a worrying source of instability for the Irish state and its economy.  The value of Irish shares may have soared upon the result, especially those of the banks exposed to the British economy, and one right wing politician may have welcomed the election of another, but Brexit is by no means sorted and the North of Ireland (indeed Britain itself) has just voted against it.

If the Scottish Government elected by the people demands another separation referendum then it should have it, without this the national oppression that Scotland does not currently suffer from would become real.  But Brexit will involve the same, if not even greater problems, for any separate Scottish polity that puts itself outside its main economic partner, with a hard border between it and a Brexit England and Wales.  The austerity necessary for a separate Scotland would be made worse; it is not therefore a given that the Scottish people will change its mind.

In any case socialists should oppose the erection of borders, which divide workers, and oppose nationalism that frustrates class solidarity in favour of national allegiance.  Already nationalism has many Scottish workers voting for a Party that covers its right wing politics with nationalist rhetoric.  This has unfortunately led many on the left to support its cause, perhaps not so surprising since some have also capitulated to Brexit; populist nationalism has been on the march in a muted form for longer than Boris Johnson.

So the outcome of Brexit and Scotland are not clear, but if the Withdrawal Agreement continues in some form then a real difference will be created between the North of Ireland and Britain and real harmonisation between North and South.  A loyalist campaign that attempts to stymie this is not out of the question, but it is likely to be more isolated than previous mobilisations against Sunningdale in the 1970s and the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s.  It will struggle to identify meaningful targets (which normally leads to its default disposition of attacking Catholics) and the British State lacks the incentive to indulge it.

The election results themselves have been taken to represent another step towards a United Ireland through a border poll, but again the situation is not so straightforward.  Sinn Fein, which shouts loudest for such a poll – calling for the Irish Government to create an All-Ireland Forum to advance the cause, performed badly, dropped by 6.7 percentage points.  It stood aside in a ‘Remain’ alliance in three seats, which partially explains the fall, but it also gained from the SDLP withdrawing in North Belfast, which returned a new Sinn Fein MP.  From three out of four MPs in Belfast being Unionist we now have three out of four Nationalists.

It dropped votes almost everywhere else, in West Belfast to People before Profit and spectacularly to the SDLP in Derry where its reverse was stunning.  On top of terrible results earlier this year in the local and European elections in the South, Sinn Fein has major problems.  The shine has long since come off it, it has little positive to say, and its abstentionist policy to Westminster has just cost it votes in the North.  It might have been assumed that as Irish unity appeared closer Sinn Fein would grow and benefit, but the opposite could well turn out to be the case.

It is one thing to stand out for the traditional aspiration of the majority of the Irish people when it appears you are alone in this, quite another to do anything positive to achieve it when it appears to become a realistic prospect, at least some time that isn’t the distant future.  The closer to Irish unity the less relevant appears a Party with nothing much to say about how it should be achieved or how it would actually entail a new progressive Ireland.  Previously, the SDLP suffered because it demanded the end of the IRA’s unpopular armed campaign but Sinn Fein gained from the peace process because republicans and not the SDLP could make it happen.  Sinn Fein will not make Irish unity happen, certainly not in any progressive manner.

In this election the SDLP came back from the dead to win two MPs with huge majorities in Derry and South Belfast.  Their opposition to Brexit was certainly a major factor in the latter, assisted by the fact that the sitting MP was from the DUP and Sinn Fein and the Green Party had stood aside.  Its vote however was much more than this assistance and represented more than mobilisation of a Catholic/Nationalist vote.  On the face of it this strengthens the push for restoration of Stormont since the SDLP is arguably its greatest supporter, although the sectarian carve up that is the lifeblood of Stormont faces challenges when there is competition not only between Orange and Green but also within each camp.

This is also the case in the Unionist camp where the threat to the DUP has come not from the Ulster Unionist Party, which has no real reason for existence, but from the Alliance Party – the biggest winner on the night. Like the footballer that is never off the subs bench while the team is crap, they get better the less they play, and the worse the team gets.  Alliance has benefited from appearing to stand above the sectarian incompetence and venality at Stormont but there is no indication that greater immersion into the devolution it also earnestly supports will not reveal its inadequacies as it has the others.  Its apparent opposition to the inevitable workings of Stormont will dissolve as it becomes an increasing part of it.

This however is not the major point to make about the rise of the Alliance Party.  It declares itself neither Orange nor Green although it has its origins within Unionism and has a pro-union policy.  This used to be much more obvious than it is now but has receded as the question has lost it sharpness following republican acceptance of the constitutional status-quo.  Its avowedly non-sectarian unionism has reflected its historic base inside the Protestant middle class, with an added smattering of aspiring middle class Catholics.  ‘Middle class’ here is used in the not very scientific sense to mean better paid workers and those with relatively higher standards of living.

It is now the third party in terms of votes with 17.4%, compared to the DUP with 31.6% and Sinn Fein with 23.6%, continuing its upwards trajectory following its success in getting the third MEP slot in this year’s European elections alongside one DUP and one Sinn Fein.

Much has been made of the overt sectarian arrangements at Stormont being predicated on balancing the Unionist/Protestant bloc against the Nationalist/Catholic one. This includes a veto wielding petition of concern available to each, which is blatantly undemocratic and discriminatory when a large number of representatives are defined simply as ’other’, which includes the Alliance Party.

This Alliance vote is a reflection of, but not identical to, increasing numbers of people who do not identify as unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic.  The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey reported that one in two identify neither as unionist or nationalist, although this seemed to me to be rather too big, confirmed by some colleagues in my office who are a generation younger than me and closer perhaps to those who might be sloughing off old identities.

This growth of ‘others’ dovetails with the growth of the Catholic population, which in the last census in 2011 reported 41% of the population as Catholic and 42% Protestant, with a Catholic majority among younger age cohorts.  Sectarian division is also influenced by the decreasing gap between Protestant and Catholic social indicators such as unemployment, and the obvious breakdown of large scale employment segregation. So society is changing in the North of Ireland, which gives credence to the idea that the union with Britain, by being less certain, is thereby closer.

Research has been done on the composition of this neither Orange nor Green population but I won’t go into it here.  Suffice to say that the majority of ‘neithers’ are in favour of the union with Britain, although one survey has reported that one third of Alliance voters have said that Brexit makes them more favourable to Irish unity.

What this shows, as if it needed pointing out, is that ‘other’ is not in itself a positive identity.  I am an ‘other’ in these terms, but I would never define myself as such because I am a socialist and do not define my views as simply other than Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.  It is pretty clear that the majority of ‘others’ do not have a coherent separate political identity beyond rejection of two major nationalisms suffused with religious identity.  And this is positive – as far as it goes.

But more importantly, this survey finding about Alliance voters shows that while ‘others’ do not define themselves as unionist or nationalist, there is no third position on the national question.  There are worlds of difference on how it might be solved, and how it might lead to more or less progressive outcomes, but increasing rejection of the old ideologies without a positive alternative leaves the old choice standing.

This does not mean that the growth of those rejecting the unionist and nationalist identities, probably because of the behaviour of the political movements that lead them, does not have an influence on the political situation or on prospective developments.  It has been remarked that these people will be pivotal in any border poll and will not be motivated by traditional war cries.  The majority are motivated by progressive impulses if only cohered in very primitive form (primitive as in undeveloped).  The struggle for a united Ireland will have to offer more than recovery of the fourth green field.

This does not mean that some economistic agenda is the way forward, for in essence this is still a political question that requires a political stand.  It is rather that what will become more and more important is what sort of transformational project will this political struggle involve – what sort of united Ireland is being fought for?

The setback for the DUP in the election is a blow to the most sectarian and reactionary Party and must be welcomed. The vote for the SDLP and Alliance is to a significant degree a vote against Brexit and again should be welcomed.  The shift of some unionists away from the parties of traditional Unionism is also a weakening of the unionist programme and acts to isolate the most extreme loyalist reactionaries, which again should be welcomed.

That Brexit has not overcome the traditional sectarian/political divide is not unexpected – in fact it is entirely to be expected that the reactionary politics of Brexit should find its natural base in unionism.  That opposition to Brexit has weakened the unionist parties and unionism is thus inevitable and once again to be welcomed.  Even the small gains by People before Profit could be welcomed were it not for the fact that it continues to fail to recognise the reactionary character of its support for Brexit and demonstrates an inability to learn from mistakes and correct them, which is more serious for it than the question itself.

What appears as significant political changes in the election are therefore, from a socialist point of view, relatively small steps forward.  They do however reflect more significant changes below the surface that socialists should be concerned to understand.

Who will I vote for?

UK general elections mean something different in the North of Ireland, and have usually revolved around the national question, whether there should be a united Ireland.  Latterly, the division has been one of squabbling over the detritus of incompetence and corruption that is the life blood of the local devolved administration.

The scandalous nepotism and waste uncovered in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was the trigger for Sinn Fein to eventually pull the plug on its participation in the Executive, but only after continuing to hold onto the coat tails of the DUP proved untenable.  Now the republicans have made clear that the architect of the RHI scandal, DUP leader Arlene Foster, will not have to go after all.  Sinn Fein would be happy to have this more-than-usual unpopular Unionist leader back as First Minister.

So now, with only haggling over the spoils at issue, the question of importance might appear to be whether to endorse another round of the sectarian settlement.

This time however the main issue is the same as that in Britain, albeit with very different ramifications and with many thinking it’s the old one in disguise.  It’s a Brexit election in the North. Just as it is a Brexit election in Britain; and when it comes to deciding how I am going to vote it is this that will determine whether, and who, I will be voting for on Thursday.

Brexit was supported by the majority of Protestants and opposed by the vast majority of Catholics, with the former voting Leave 60 / 40 and the latter voting Remain 85 / 15.  In terms of declared political identity the difference were even more marked, with 66% of Unionists supporting Brexit and 88% of nationalists supporting Remain.  Among those who defined themselves as neither Unionist or Nationalist – as ‘Other’ – the support for Remain was 70%.

Unionist support for Brexit is perfectly consistent with identification with an imperial nationalism and illusions in the power of Britain in the world, upon which their political position has always primarily rested.  It is not consistent with the real position of Britain in the world, which has been rammed home – to unionism’s discomfort – by Boris Johnson’s acceptance of Northern Ireland being de facto within the EU customs union and single market.  The same ideological blindness infects the same core constituency of the DUP as the Tories in Britain, while the pretence that they got Brexit right has been maintained despite the DUP having been shafted by Johnson.

If this was to be the position of the North of Ireland upon UK exit then it would mark a significant political defeat for unionism and a step towards a united Ireland.  But one, or even two steps, do not take you to your destination; although it points to one possible direction by which an objectively progressive resolution of the national question can be implemented by reactionary forces – the joint efforts of English nationalism that has no interest in Ireland and the European Union and the Irish State, which are progressive only relative to the former.

Much has been made by Sinn Fein of a border poll and increased support for a united Ireland because of Brexit but there is still no majority for a united Ireland and for that majority to arise the nationalist population has to grow significantly and/or the benefits of a united Ireland have to be demonstrated.  A border poll is not in itself an answer.

It is ironic that People before Profit (PbP) trumpet their differences with Sinn Fein but present a border poll in exactly the same way; while adding the vacuous call for a socialist Ireland, which means nothing outside of a wider programme that has to be internationalist to be socialist.

They have complained of Sinn Fein dirty tricks in putting up posters beside PbP ones stating that ‘People before Profit – Still Support Brexit’, which must be the first time a party has condemned a rival for putting up posters declaring its own policy.

Their complaint of course is that people will interpret this as support for the current Brexit, but unfortunately for them and for the rest of us a reactionary Brexit is the only one possible.  The current Tory Brexit was the only one proposed in the referendum – that they voted for – and the only one put forward now for implementation.  And it is still the case that People before Profit support leaving the EU – Brexit – and still see it as progressive.

So, if they now complain it is only because they know that the only Brexit in town is regarded by everyone as reactionary, and People before Profit condemns itself by not accepting that it is making a gross mistake by continuing to support this reactionary step backwards.

PbP complains that Sinn Fein allowed benefit cuts by agreeing that the decision on welfare should be handed back to the Tory Government in Westminster.  But this is exactly what it is doing by supporting Brexit and handing the power to inflict much greater damage on working people – throughout the UK – to an even more rapacious Tory administration that is salivating over the deregulated dystopia that is planned after Brexit.  There is no Brexit on earth that will not lead to cuts in welfare and attacks on pay that PbP claim they alone will fight.  The greater dependence on the State sector for employment in Northern Ireland will mean a greater impact from the cuts to this expenditure, which will be considered perfectly fine by a project sailing on the winds of English nationalism.

Whatever the benefits and drawbacks of the precise arrangements for the North under Brexit, it is not designed to further the interest of Irish workers: this much must be obvious even to PbP.  The same right-wing views associated with Brexit in Britain are reflected also in the North of Ireland, with those supporting Brexit more likely to have reactionary views on immigration, on the marriage rights of same-sex couples, and support for the most sectarian political parties.

A Brexit that will leave the North largely within the EU trading arrangements will be less damaging than a hard border within the island, but it is obvious that this is a more realistic way to prevent a hard border than a Brexit with PbP protests at how unfair it all is; and that no Brexit at all is the best solution of all.

Brexit has also been opposed because it is claimed that it will raise sectarian tensions, which means that it will upset many loyalists and may lead it their violent mobilisation.  To argue this however is to accept the Unionist veto on progressive change that has made the Northern State the political slum that it is and has always been.  There is no step forward that will not excite the opposition of loyalism.  The Protestant support for Remain should instead be viewed as an objective acceptance that Unionism does not represent their long-term interest; this progressive step should be supported rather than seek to pander to the most reactionary sections of the Protestant population.

So, if Brexit is the issue, who shall I vote for?

A couple of months ago I bumped into a Sinn Fein supporter I have known for years who after a couple of minutes launched into a defence of Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy in relation to Westminster.  We hadn’t discussed politics up to then and I just listened to his poor apologetics for an obviously indefensible position. It has been widely criticised in Ireland and his defensiveness should not have been a surprise.  For a movement that was so wedded to theological shibboleths, from the IRA army council being the legitimate government of Ireland; to abstention from the Dail and Stormont; to not recognising the courts even though it meant longer sentences; to the sanctity of armed struggle; it’s as if one totem of their republican credentials must be retained to convince themselves they are still the republicans of old.

But this is a long way of saying there’s no point opposing Brexit by voting Sinn Fein because Sinn Fein will not be voting against it.  In the event of a Westminster hung parliament the SF position should be strung up with it.

Since Sinn Fein have stood down in my constituency, I don’t have to bother with considering these arguments.  Sinn Fein have withdrawn their candidate while the SDLP have withdrawn theirs from North Belfast to give Sinn Fein an uncontested Nationalist in that constituency.  The ‘Remain’ alliance that has justified these actions can be denounced as purely sectarian solidarity, except that the Green Party has also stood aside and the SDLP candidate has put opposing Brexit to the fore.

The Alliance Party has not stood aside and is also anti-Brexit, and of course also claims to be non-sectarian.  It is also however a unionist party in all but name and has rightly been described as the party of the British Government’s Northern Ireland Office.  The sitting MP is from the DUP and of course a supporter of Brexit.

So, in this election I will be voting against Brexit by voting for the Stoop Down Low Party, as it was sometimes disparagingly called (a long time ago).  And I never thought I would do that.

It is necessary to vote against Brexit and necessary to have that vote carried forward into Westminster.  It is justified also in order to weaken, however slightly, the most reactionary and sectarian major party in the North, the one that has thrown its weight behind Brexit and all the reactionary politics that that project encompasses.