Should socialists support a border poll? 4 – working class unity

It has been noted in an academic study  of the flag dispute that “it has taken a unique political ideology to turn a clear ‘victory’ – a triple lock on the union,a change to the Republic’s constitutional claim, the signing up of Sinn Féin to ‘partitionist’ institutions – into abject insecurity.”

But insecurity in unionism is nothing new, thirty-five years ago a book on Protestant politics was entitled ‘Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders.” Uncertainty and political paranoia are inevitable when sectarian rights are based on proxies (such as bourgeois democracy) that either reject such politics implicitly or threaten to undermine it.  A demand for equality is especially pernicious since it appears reasonable but threatens loss when your claim to sectarian rights is necessarily based on inequality – every issue is zero sum game precisely because supremacy is what is being defended.

The Socialist Party defence of the rights of Protestants is a defence of their rights as Protestants and thus lapses into a defence of sectarian rights.

It leads to seeking justification for the claims of Protestants as a sectarian group, with its own anterior rights, and covering up for its sectarian and reactionary character. So, even when that Party has in the past defended civil rights (by their nature civil rights are not sectarian group rights) the Party claims that such rights were, and still are, not enough, because equality of poverty holds no attraction for Protestant workers.  What good is equality of misery it says?  What is required is a socialist programme.

But whatever justification there is for a socialist programme, which of course I support, and regardless of what this might look like, it cannot be advanced in order to obfuscate the opposition of many Protestant workers to equality per se.  It is not therefore the case that Protestant workers oppose a united Ireland because it may not be socialist. Their pro-imperialist, monarchist and reactionary politics makes the majority averse to socialism in any case.  The possibility that a united Ireland might in some way be socialist is against everything their political heritage defends, and is enough to guarantee the opposition of those who maintain allegiance to any specifically Protestant politics.

How can Protestant workers be won to socialism and the radical equality it promises if they do not accept the equality of Catholic workers in the first place?  Unless they accept the political emancipation of Catholic workers they will be unable to play any positive role in achieving the social liberation of the working class that includes themselves.  To believe that they can fight for the latter while opposing or even being passive to the former is to excuse their prejudice and undermine the possibility and meaning of socialism.  That this is also true of the perspective that Catholic workers must take is simply to state that sectarian division must be ended by mutual recognition by all workers of their equality regardless of religion or nationality.

It is still unfortunately the case that the majority of Protestant workers are attached to reactionary unionist politics, so that it is necessary for socialists to oppose both their unionism and their sectarianism.  There is an alternative political identity that must be fought for and is in their interests as workers, not as Protestant workers.

So, to employ episodes such as unionist opposition to the reduced flying of the union flag outside Belfast City Hall as justification for acceptance of limitations on one’s programme is to leave one defenceless against whatever reactionary veto unionist reaction decides to erect to any progressive change.

Loyalists now claim that it is Protestants that are discriminated against and it is they who are disadvantaged, and there is even some slight evidence of the latter.  The Northern Ireland Labour Force Survey recorded that over the period 1993 to 2017 the proportion of working age economically active Protestants with no qualifications has decreased from 30% to 12% while that of Catholics decreased from 32% to 11%, so Catholics were in a slightly better position.

It is a repeated complaint of loyalists that working-class Protestants, especially the young, are educationally disadvantaged.  In the same academic study referenced above the authors record interviews with loyalists and others that “the importance of education was stressed, but education with a very particular purpose, as a community project leader explained: We’ve got the programme there and it’s empowerment through education … once you teach them about their own identity then they understand what’s going on around them, cos I would say 100 per cent of our kids haven’t a clue about where they came from. “

“In the interviews we conducted the issue of Protestant/Catholic reconciliation did not arise unless raised by us [i.e. the academics]. It simply was not on any interviewee’s immediate agenda.”

“For those, within the PUL [Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist] community trying to re-build after the ruptures that opened up during the protest the key category is cohesion, not reconciliation. There was seen to be a strong imperative to build unionist unity, and to imbue young people with a deeper awareness of their unionist identity.”

The authors quote another academic study dealing with a small Derry town, which finds that loyalists “see no purpose in conflict transformation as their cultural identity is built on a glorification of sectarian conflict, and they reject democratic politics as ‘it did not stop the flag from being ripped down.’“

Yet another study based on North Belfast finds that even the Protestant church representatives did not talk about reaching out across the sectarian divide, but rather about: “The need to create a new confidence and a new identity around loyalism, one that was not demonised, and one that people could easily understand what it represented.”

As one flag protestor said: “They talk about a shared future. I don’t think the Protestant community is ready for a shared future.”

In other words, these loyalists want to see reinforcement of their sectarian identity. Why would socialists, as the Socialist Party does, erect such views as the limit to a democratic and socialist programme?  The Party ends up deferring to those most bitterly opposed to workers’ unity on the grounds of supporting it.

Of course, not all Protestant workers are sectarian and for such workers it is reactionary to seek to win them to socialism by offering to accommodate a sectarian identity they either don’t have or can be more easily broken from.  But many are sectarian, to varying degrees, and it is only blind political correctness that prevents acknowledging the obvious.  Socialists will get nowhere by pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it is marginal, or in some sense justified, or must be deferred to in some way.  They will get totally lost if they hand over a veto to the most sectarian voices just because they advance protests and politics with which many other Protestant workers have sympathy.

None of this means we do not advance a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian programme, and a socialist programme.  We must do so, obviously because we are socialists and socialism is our goal – a society governed by the workers themselves.  But we must be clear what it means.

Socialism is just the rule of the working class, as a whole, not a part of it.  To say that socialism is the answer to the division of the working class is just to say that working class unity is the answer to working class division.  To claim that a working class party is necessary to unite the working class is to say that the party created by the working class should unite the working class.

Escape into such truisms arises because real answers beyond such abstractions do not present themselves as obvious solutions, but as political programmes that offer particular courses of struggle.  James Connolly is famously noted for having denounced partition, but to end it means going beyond what he said –

“. . . the betrayal of the national democracy of Industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted.”

A role for those dedicated to the interests of the working class must mean that we are not paralysed.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

 

Should socialists support a border poll? 3 What sort of Protestant opposition?

I have stated that the purpose of a united Ireland for socialists is not to unite the nation or the territory but to unite the working class.  The Socialist Party opposes a border poll, which might be one way to move in this direction, because it says that the Protestant working class in the North will oppose it and may do so violently.  It has pointed to Protestant opposition expressed in the flags dispute beginning in 2012 as an example of such opposition, opposition which socialists should concede makes the initiative one that will increase sectarian division.

In this post I will look at this opposition and argue that it is not an example of an initiative that socialists should accede to, and certainly should not be presented as an example of the sort of response that should determine socialist views on the way forward, even if by necessity such actions must of course be taken into account.

In effect, what I am saying is that such opposition has no progressive content, should not be conceded to as legitimate barriers to fighting for progressive, democratic and socialist change, and are in fact wholly reactionary.  Rather than bow to them, it is the task of socialists to oppose such mobilisations – these do not constitute resistance reflecting legitimate interests of the working class but are defences of the most virulent division. Rather than being a reason to retreat or stand still, the forces behind the flag dispute are the most diehard defenders of sectarian division, which if it is to be defeated, will mean the defeat of the forces that defend it.  To do otherwise is to capitulate to sectarianism.

The flag dispute began at the beginning of December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag outside the City Hall to 18 designated days, instead of the existing arrangements of flying it every day of the year.  It led to a riot outside the building on the night of the vote by a loyalist crowd, which had been roused to anger by the distribution of 40,000 leaflets by the two main Unionist parties, who claimed that the unionist (with a small u) but self-identified non-sectarian Alliance Party was threatening unionist identity.

This led to a series of protests that involved almost 3,000 ‘occurrences’ according to police, which included demonstrations, riots and assaults on people and property, although no one was actually killed.  At its height it mobilised about 10,000 people at any one time, and in one night involved 84 different sites across the North.  It was therefore pretty widespread if not massively deep.

The mobilisations declined rather quickly, although continued into 2013, the following year, and a ritual demo takes place outside the City Hall every Saturday to this day.  In terms of previous decades of ‘the troubles’ it was small beer, except it was supposed to be after the success of the ‘peace process’ when we were all apparently to be living in a ‘post-conflict’ society.

However, in other respects it was typical of Northern Ireland politics, and therefore a reasonable controversy on which to hang the argument.  It suits the purpose of the Socialist Party position not only because it is relatively recent, no one was killed, and it obviously involved the question of Protestants’ identity as ‘British’, but also because, unlike other expressions of unionist politics in what they see as defence of their rights, which they could have used, such as the protests around the Drumcree Orange parade in the second half of the 1990s or Holy Cross Primary School in 2001, these would have too obviously demonstrated the naked bigotry of what often passes for Protestant defence of their rights.  No one outside the ranks of the bigots could ever be impressed by an assertion of Protestant rights that involves attacking primary school children and their parents going to school.

We don’t however need the worst examples in order to criticise Loyalist politics, and the example of the flag protest is neither ‘the best’ nor the worst.  It is the one that the Socialist Party writer decided to reference and the essential politics involved has wider application than the contingent factors involved in this particular episode.

The policy of flying the flag on designated days was a compromise from an original Sinn Fein proposal not to fly it at all, although Sinn Fein’s later support for the designated days policy could be guaranteed to anger loyalists, even though three councils with unionist majorities were already adhering to designated days before the Belfast council decision.

Policies on flying the flag had already been agreed for Government buildings and in workplaces (were they are prohibited) but not in local government, and the council already had legal advice pointing out the legal risk on grounds of equality legislation in the existing policy of flying the union flag every day.

The Unionist Parties were now in a minority on the council and the balance of power lay with the Alliance Party, which proposed the new designated days motion, and Catholics now constituted a majority in the city – 136,000 against 119,00 Protestants.  The equality and community relations industry was generally sympathetic to this sort of approach and two public meetings, entailed by official consultation on equality impact grounds, was attended at the first by two members of the public and by one at the second.  A petition of almost 15,000 supported existing policy but this was a result of many of the signatures being acquired at a loyalist celebration.

The Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, actually supported the designated days policy in its submission to the consultation, although quickly changed its mind. For some loyalists it is fine if they can determine what does and does not happen, but what does and does not happen cannot be because Catholics have either asked for it or demanded it.  In other words, they have the rights that are allowed to them, which is to say, more strictly and accurately, no rights at all.

In a poll almost three quarters of Catholic Council employees stated that they would be pleased or very pleased if the union flag didn’t fly, while 88 per cent of Protestant staff said they would be displeased or offended.

The successful motion in the council to fly it on only designated days, including on birthdays of members of the royal family, stated that “this reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories . . . it also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.”

When the result of the vote was made known outside the meeting loyalists at the back of the City Hall rioted and attempted to enter the building.  Later, on their way home to East Belfast, they attacked houses in the small Catholic area of Short Strand, which was to become a regular occurrence.

Protests at the City Hall also became a regular occurrence each Saturday, with the first appearing chaotic and without clear leadership, although a number of individual loyalists became recognised spokesmen for the protests if not the actual leaders.  One was Jim Dowson, formerly a member of the British National Party.  At the march round the City Hall protestors sang sectarian songs such as The Sash, the Famine Song and the Glasgow Rangers football ‘Bouncy’ song (if you could call it a song).

Police appeared to facilitate rather than stop protestors in what were illegal protests.  This was later challenged by a resident of the Short Strand, which was initially successful but then lost on appeal, with the judiciary declaring that not preventing illegal parades was within the discretion of the police.  Catholics had earlier argued that the police had used their discretion to arrest Republican protestors in Ardoyne while taking a different approach to loyalists.

The other significant target for the protestors was the property and personnel of the Alliance Party which were attacked and which had been the original target of unionist politicians’ leaflet campaign.  Most of these politicians kept quiet during the period of violent loyalist protest, with a few issuing ritualistic and general condemnations of violence while a few others were openly standing with the protestors.  However, the leadership of unionism was sufficiently rattled by the out-of-control protests for them to call for unity around a Unionist Forum, which included themselves and paramilitary figures, although this outward show of unity did little to dispel the obvious disunity among them.

The protests petered out although continue in a ritualistic form today.  On the first anniversary of the protest 1,500 took part when 5,000 or 10,000 had been predicted, while a year later only 200 showed up.  By this stage loyalists had found a new assault on their identity with the rerouting of a return parade past the shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area.

This did not mean that the cause the loyalists were protesting was not popular among unionists, or even that the protests themselves were unpopular.  An opinion poll shortly after the protests started found that, while among all respondents 44 per cent thought designated days was the correct policy and 35 per cent supported flying the flag all the time, 73 per cent of unionists wanted it up 365 days a year and 64 per cent of nationalists 18 days. While there was majority support (51 per cent) for the right to protest, after nearly two months 76 per cent wanted them to stop, although 45 per cent of unionists wanted them to continue.

A separate poll, as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, found that the designated days policy received the support of 53 per cent of all respondents while 24 per cent supported flying the union flag all the time.  In this poll 48 per cent of Protestants supported the designated days option while 44 per cent supported the 365 days option, although this may reflect the fact that most of this survey was carried out before the decision and protests had started.

A poll taken in August and September 2013, 9 to 10 months after the protests started and then died down – and been replaced to a great extent by those around Orange parades – found that 31 per cent of Protestants supported the all-year policy while only 8 per cent of Catholics did, while 19 per cent of ‘Other’ did, i.e. those who did not identify themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

It is clear that attitudes changed and the strength of Protestant opposition to the erosion of their British identity, as it has been put, was stronger during the height of the protests than after, and involved a more extensive identification of just what this meant during the protests than before.

It is clear that some of the most extreme elements of Protestant politics were involved in the flag protest.  The often primitive and disordered protests were satirised on line, most prominently in the LAD Site (Loyalists Against Democracy).  The originator of the site described how it began:

“I sat down at the computer one night and created a page and gave it this title, Loyalists Against Democracy – I’m trying to be humorous – and I went to bed and when I got up in the morning 50 people had ‘liked’ the page. I mean, I was trying to be as ridiculous as I could be. I posted one page in particular – it wasn’t very funny – complaining about Aer Lingus flying over east Belfast and next morning there were hundreds of comments agreeing with this, each one more vile than the last.”

While this says something of the political character of the flag protest it also throws into relief the approach of the Socialist Party, which wishes to employ this episode as justification for emasculating a socialist approach and acceptance of limits imposed by the most primitive unionism. Essentially the Party argues that those most wedded to reactionary sectarian politics must be conciliated in pursuit of defeating this politics.

In the next post in this series I will look at some of the implications of this.

Back to Part 2

Should socialists support a border poll? 1

One consequence of Brexit has been louder demands for a border poll and the legitimacy of a test of support for a united Ireland, on the basis that Brexit breaches the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

I have argued before that Brexit does not breach the GFA although it does exacerbate its failures and does involve increased tension between the British and Irish Governments, who are the custodians of the agreement.  It does catalyse increased instability and it does give rise to expectations that support for a united Ireland will have increased as a result. I have also argued that while this may be the case it is unlikely that a poll would result in a vote within the North for a united Ireland.

Nevertheless, the question arises whether socialists should support a poll, a question not only for us in the North of Ireland but for socialists in the South and for British socialists as well.  There is no such thing as a unilateral right to unification and this applies to those seeking unity with the South of the country and to those defending British rule.

Irish nationalists will argue that Ireland is one nation, although in many of their arguments, and in their practice, most of them appear to accept the argument that the Protestant Irish aren’t Irish at all.  Irrespective of this, the argument is not about whether there is one nation but whether there should be one Irish state.

The practical consequences of this are what matter, as has been demonstrated both by the Scottish referendum and the British Brexit referendum.  All the airy metaphysical nationalist claims can only get you so far, but as Brexit shows – even if you win – the hard reality of the real world will demand answers from your nationalist vision.

Recently the author and commentator Fintan O’Toole argued in his column in ‘The Irish Times’ that while the demand for Britishness remains in the North of Ireland (from unionists, mostly Protestants), the supply of it is in danger of disappearing (I paraphrase).

This is because opinion polls have shown that the most vehement supporters of Brexit in England, who most revel in the idea of some sort of continuing British imperial glory, would be prepared to lose both the North of Ireland and Scotland from their United Kingdom in pursuit of their beloved Brexit.

A few days later the unionist columnist Newton Emerson in the same paper argued, in a thinly veiled response, that actually it was remarkable that English Brexiteers had not shown more antagonism to their entanglement with the North of Ireland, given that it was the cause of the hated ‘backstop’ that appeared to be impeding a successful Brexit.  Of course, this assumed forbearance might have a number of causes and doesn’t refute the argument that O’Toole advanced.  In any case, it is very unlikely that the British State would seek to ditch the North of Ireland in order to save Brexit.

Newton Emerson also seemed happy to point out in his column in ‘The Irish News’ that while an RTE poll at the end of January showed 87 per cent of people would back a united Ireland over a hard border, this dropped to 54 per cent when the question was not framed by this stark choice.  He argued that ‘southerners are essentially soft-nationalist Alliance voters: they do not want a united Ireland without a united Northern Ireland’.  While there is some truth in the argument, it does not follow from the poll, and is not therefore ‘a fact’.

An RTE poll also showed that support for a united Ireland fell to 31 per cent if it meant paying more tax, which implies the desire for a united nation is to a great deal a sentiment that recognises practical constraints.  Whether these constraints are ‘fair’ or not is not the point.

So, both Irish and British socialists will be required to take a position on a border poll even if it is limited to within the six counties of Northern Ireland.  How should we respond?

In the last few weeks I have read two very different approaches.  The Socialist Workers Network in Ireland has presented this position:

“. . . all of the polls are consistent that support for a united Ireland is on the rise. That much we can be certain of.”

“This should be welcome news to socialists and progressives across Ireland. Partition is a thoroughly reactionary device, arising from a counter-revolutionary movement supported by British imperialism in order to set up a ‘carnival of reaction’, that has copper fastened two rotten states over the last century. And it is not just the physical divide between North and South that matters. Sectarianism exists, and is perpetually recreated, precisely because of the way that partition guarantees the maintenance of a sectarian state, that shapes every political question in a communal manner. We are opposed to sectarianism, then, but we also understand that sectarianism can only be overcome as part of a simultaneous challenge to the structures that enshrine it.”

“We should support a border poll as a basic democratic right, and oppose any notion that a majority is not enough to end partition. But we should creatively intervene into the discussion about what a border poll should look like. It is often presumed that a border poll would be a vote in the North to join the Southern state. We should argue, instead, that a border poll should be a vote to create a completely new state, not one where we simply subsume the six counties into the Southern state under the auspices of its conservative constitution.”

Leaders of the Socialist Party, in an internal members bulletin, present a very different position. For them, a border poll has “the potential to push the north back towards sectarian conflict.” They note that in March 2017, the Assembly election “marked a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland.  For the first time since the foundation of the state unionist political parties no longer have a majority at Stormont.”

They then go on to say that “This is the context in which we operate and in which the calls for a border poll have become louder and louder. This is a dangerous development. A border poll does not represent a “democratic” solution to the division of Ireland and will not provide a “solution” in any sense. Protestants have the right to say no to being coerced into a united Ireland. If this coercion takes the form of a majority vote in the North it is still coercion, even if dressed up (in) ‘democratic’ clothing. In stating this publicly we are clear that we do not in any way ignore the rights of Catholics. It has always been the case that we take into consideration the intense desire for change of working- class Catholics and we recognise the positive side of this intense desire for change.”

They then ask “how do we reconcile what appear to be irreconcilable aspirations, and at the same time drive forward the struggle for socialism.”  Even a leading member of the Party, who writes in opposition to these leaders’ understanding of the politics of Sinn Fein, writes that “It currently plays a sectarian role in the North, including trying to coerce the Protestant working class into the southern State via a border poll.”

The general approach of the Party has been covered in a number of recent articles, (beginning here) dealing with its support for Brexit.  Its position in relation to a border poll expresses its general political approach, which is well expressed in a recent article that notes Protestant opposition to a customs/regulatory border in the Irish sea, which would be required for a Brexit that avoided a ‘hard’ border within the island of Ireland:

“The draft agreement outlines a scenario in which there will be a developing East-West border. This will inflame opinion in Protestant working class areas. The opposite scenario, in which there is a hardening of the North-South border, will cause anger in Catholic areas. Either “solution” is no solution, and will cause harm to the cause of working class unity.”

This position is based on the following considerations:

“Any East-West border, no matter how minor, has come to represent a threat to the union between Northern Ireland and Britain. If an agreement is voted through at Westminster which allows for East-West checks after December 2020 against the opposition of the DUP, there will be widespread anger in the Protestant community. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was agreed between the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald without the involvement of unionist political parties. As far as most Protestants were concerned cross-border institutions had been undemocratically imposed on them and mass protests and an upsurge in violence resulted. In December 2012 widespread disorder broke out when a mere emblem of the “Britishness” of Northern Ireland-the union flag over the City Hall in Belfast-was removed. If there is a perception in the coming months and years that the British identity of Northern Ireland is being diminished street protests and street violence cannot be ruled out.”

In the next few posts I will review these two positions and present my own views.

Sectarianism prevents sectarian agreement

So do we have yet another political crisis in the North of Ireland, with the failure of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein to bring back the Stormont Executive?  No one is really calling it a crisis since things remain as they were, and we simply have the now default position of no devolved administration.  And neither is it exactly causing panic in the streets.  So is there really nothing new then?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, the failure of the ‘peace process’ to process us some peace is not new.  From the start it has been sold on the lie that it brought an end to political violence, asking everyone to ignore and forget that the ceasefires happened before the sectarian deal, and that political violence remains, although at a much reduced level.  However the claim remains a vital illusion, since opposition to the process from any progressive standpoint must be painted as anti-peace.

The Stormont Executive has collapsed so many times I’ve lost count.  Talks between the parties have ended in failure even more times; while this latest failed agreement follows that of the ‘Fresh Start’, and the St. Andrew’s Agreement before that, which itself was supposed to sort out the problems with the Good Friday Agreement.  The Holy character of the last deal was sanctified by the forever peerless referendum that endorsed it in 1998.  It is fast becoming an imperialist version of the last all-island vote in 1918, that for some Irish republicans will forever legitimise armed struggle to impose its result against imperialist denial.

The latest crisis however reveals once again that the Good Friday solution cannot bring a settled peace or reconciliation and cannot bring an end to sectarianism.  This cannot be a surprise, since It is based on pacification by the militarily force that was most powerful; and it must hide or disguise the truth about what we have to be reconciled to, which accounts for the more and more open acknowledgement that there will never be any truthful accounting for the past.   And it cannot bring an end to sectarianism because we are asked to accept one sectarian outcome because it is claimed to be acceptable, as opposed to all the others that are not.

The claim to popular endorsement of the peace process deal is also becoming increasingly threadbare, as the reasons for the collapse of the latest talks make clear.

The local journalist Eamonn Mallie described DUP politicians dancing on the head of a pin in denying there had been a deal with Sinn Fein, one subsequently sunk by the DUP and its grassroots.  The British Broadcasting Corporation has danced on the same pin in the gyrations required to deny openly reporting that there was a deal and the DUP had killed it.  Impartiality and balance for it are the same as fairness and truth, so the good ship was sunk by the DUP was and was not sunk; it is both simultaneously dead and still breathing – everyone just needs to take a rest, and then go back to breathe new life into the stinking corpse.

But it is now widely accepted that the deal collapsed not because of the leadership of the DUP, who were willing to endorse it, but was collapsed because the rest of the DUP political class and its grass roots were opposed to it, including the unionist ‘NewsLetter’ newspaper – reflecting wider opposition to the Irish Language among the unionist population.  What sank the deal was the sectarianism expected to simultaneously deliver a settlement and also somehow be undermined by it.

The myth peddled by the media, British Government, certain politicians and by the most naïve sections of the population – that only a small minority oppose agreement – ignores the obvious fact that the vast majority of people mean very different things when they say they are for an agreement.

By its very nature, how sectarianism is to be shared is not something that can ever actually be agreed. By its nature, it identifies differences that must be maintained and defended; it identifies separate interests that are mutually exclusive and antagonistic, and it compels its expression through privileges that must be continually asserted.

There is therefore no such thing as the common good.  At most it can exist as the fair division of exclusive and opposing rights based on a division that, because it does not express the deepest interests of either section of the people concerned, can never be settled in a fashion that meets either’s deepest needs. Since sectarianism cannot ultimately meet the requirements of Protestant and Catholic workers there is potentially no end to the struggle to make it otherwise.

The current extreme of false sectarian rights is the demand for equality with Irish for the non-language that is Ulster Scots, which has become a totem for Protestant rights in general, and which a lot of Protestants regard as something of a joke.  However, such claims are true to the unionist tradition, a tradition that claims to stand for civil and religious liberty but which is less about claiming rights than denying those of others.

A rational recognition of interest would produce unity and not division, a unity based on the class interests common to both Protestant and Catholic workers.  However, the structure of society, including the most powerful political forces, presents sectarian answers, even when wrapped up in non-sectarian garb. So, resources must be ‘shared’ separately on a sectarian basis and sectarian interests are not to be eradicated but respected.

This prescription approaches absurdity when individuals must be assigned a sectarian identity even when they reject it, all in the name of equality.  For employment purposes what matters is what “community background” you come from.  As the old saying goes, or rather to paraphrase, you can take a man out of the Shankill but the state will not allow you to take the Shankill out of the man – your sectarian ‘community’ background will eternally define you.

That the latest deal was sunk by sectarianism is obvious.  Opposition to a ‘stand-alone’ or separate Irish Language Act was the declared reason for unionist opposition, but the ‘justification’ given for this shows that the language is but the latest hook on which to hang sectarian hostility.

You will look in vain for any rationale why the Irish language must be opposed.  Opposition to the Act, given what appears its modest objectives, might be seen to be opposition to the language itself, but the vehement opposition that has been expressed is such that it prevents agreement on  everything else.  It can therefore only denote opposition to something other than the language.

Arlene Foster’s walk-away statement said that “I respect the Irish language and those who speak it, but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.”  In other words, I can’t say what is wrong with the Irish language, or an Act to give it some recognition, but I’m going to oppose it anyway.  Since the Irish language must be a sectarian attribute of the Catholic population, Protestants must get something in return, something that isn’t defined but which is needed in order to accept something which otherwise there is no reason to oppose.

The DUP’s Nelson McCausland opposes an Irish language Act because it is simply a part of republicanism’s “cultural warfare”.  So he can’t say what is offensive about the language or an Act to promote it either.  The rationale for opposing it is simply that the other side want it, and that’s not only a necessary but also a sufficient reason to oppose it.

The real opposition to an Irish language Act is best expressed by DUP MP Gregory Campbell who replaced the Irish greeting in the Assembly “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the English words approximately sounding like it – “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”.

This of course is not an insult to the Irish language and it is not even an insult to those who speak it, it is a sectarian insult that manages to even be offensive to some not otherwise disposed to be sympathetic to Irish language rights.  While no one has the right not to be offended most recognise a deliberate offense based on bigotry when they see one.

From a socialist point of view, we are in favour of Irish language rights and the real capacity of its speakers to practice their language, and without insult or intimidation.  The key question is not that it furthers division, as some unionists hypocritically claim, but that its recognition would be an acknowledgment of what is now a minority cultural practice. In this way, a tolerance might be built up to such differences, not that these differences may be held up as the end objective in themselves, but that they become less and less important as markers or carriers of division.

The real gain would not be the bureaucratisation of the Irish language and its movement, which will not in the end help it but will place the dead hand of the capitalist state upon its shoulders, suffocating the voluntary impulses that make it so attractive to many.  Rather its free expression would help demonstrate that the language is but one facet of existence and that real freedom and human flourishing is not synonymous with language rights.  I remember listening to a young political and language rights activist, who thought the language was the most important issue and was the central element of liberation.  I would have been happy to tell him that you can be exploited and oppressed in any language.

However, responsibility for the failure to have a language Act lies more widely than with the narrow bigotry of the DUP.  The commitment to introduce one was given by the British Government, and the responsibility to ensure this commitment was delivered has rested with Sinn Fein.  That one does not exist is their failure.  Ian Paisley junior has claimed that republicans never pushed for one, and this is one unionist claim that has a bit more credibility.

Foster has now stated that there is currently no basis for a return to Stormont and both the DUP and Sinn Fein have said this round of talks are over.  For the DUP this means direct rule by Westminster in all but name.  For Sinn Fein it means that the input from the Irish Government must be increased.  Otherwise it becomes obvious that the North of Ireland remains completely under British rule, without any Irish input whatsoever, making any claims to have made progress in weakening this rule obviously hollow.

In the past socialists have dismissed nationalist claims that the Irish Government has either any separate interest or the power to enforce any separate interest on the British in relation to the North.  Brexit changes this, or rather modifies it.

The DUP have claimed they want a soft Brexit with no return to a hard border but they wanted Brexit and they want a hard border – in the same way that some Tories want Brexit in the manner of having your cake and eating it.  Unionists are very keen on an identifiable border that has real meaning, while the more intelligent understand that the conveniences of the current internal EU arrangements are important.  It’s doubtful they have any more clue about how these conflicting wishes can be accommodated than the Tory Brexit ejects now in Government.

The Irish Government however has strong reason for seeking as soft a Brexit as possible, and in this case have not only a separate interest but have potentially European Union support for this objective, as it is one that the EU shares, if not to the same degree.  For both, an arrangement whereby trade between North and South continued to be carried out under current rules would be preferable.  However, the EU can also accept strict border controls inside the island in order to defend the integrity of the Single Market in a way that the Irish State would find more damaging.

The unionist pursuit of Brexit, alongside the reactionary support for it in Britain, is a response to decline and a misguided attempt to reverse history in order to return to a past glory that has gone and is not coming back.  Like unionist intransigence and bigotry, it denotes a movement that has no other understanding of the way forward because it does not want to go forward.  It wants the past, but the past, as they say, is another country.

Unionist demands for untrammelled sectarian supremacy are not sustainable.  The Catholic population is too large, and although it is not politically active in the sense of any mass political movement, it is not completely passive and brow-beaten either.  The demands of unionism are ultimately too extreme, and if given freedom to implement them would provoke reaction.  The current impasse is the result – the British Sate cannot allow unionism the freedom to do what it wants, even while it continues to conciliate its more amenable demands.  And this is the case whether the DUP props up a Tory administration or not.

The impasse is however obviously unstable, and as nothing continues forever it is especially true that this instability will not last forever.

Remembering or forgetting the Kingsmill massacre?

News in the North of Ireland for over a week has been dominated by the controversy created by Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff, who posted a tweet of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill sliced bread on his head in the shop at a service station.  He’s regarded as the Sinn Fein clown but nobody was laughing, at least not publicly, as he posted his video at 5 minutes past midnight on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of ten Protestant workmen by the IRA, at Kingsmill in Armagh.

He was roundly condemned and Sinn Fein suspended him from his post for three months, which was generally regarded as a weak admonition.  Unionists roundly condemned the photo and the punishment and contrasted one republican’s behaviour and the party’s mild rebuke with the recent Sinn Fein demand for equality and respect.

McElduff complained that he had not been aware that there would be any link between his tomfoolery and the massacre but some argued that it was too much of a coincidence.  My own view was that it was crass but couldn’t see the point of a republican drawing attention to something Sinn Fein would wish forgotten and which the IRA at the time would not admit.

What was more important was that the killings had actually taken place and had not been politically accounted for by those who carried it out and who are now claiming the mantle of reconciliation.

The sectarian slaughter was so appalling there was no admission of responsibility and, despite years of demands by republicans for a truth process, they still haven’t done so and aren’t going to.  Six members of two Catholic families had been murdered by loyalists the day before the Kingsmill massacre, and Kingsmill was carried out and widely seen as retaliation.  A classical tit-for-tat killing designed to deliver a message that we can also do what you can.

I remember that, perhaps five years later, a republican supporter defended the massacre to me on the grounds that it stopped the sectarian tit-for-tat killings.  This was the view of republicans at the time and no doubt still the view of most of those old enough to remember it now.

A also remember a comrade of mine once saying that the IRA fought a campaign that sometimes involved sectarian killing while loyalists fought a campaign that was sectarian killing. That many of the unionist politicians today complaining about the behaviour of McElduff are still today collaborating with loyalist paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality and with a record of sectarianism no republican could match makes their protest and grievance easy for many to dismiss.

The media controversy didn’t die, partly because it suited unionist purposes, and partly because it really does put a big pall over the republican ‘equality and respect’ agenda, with the video conjuring up the view that sectarian killing is a joke.  In the North the controversy will not significantly dent Sinn Fein support, but it just adds to the cynicism and/or calculated ignorance required to continue that support.  While always stating their republicanism could not be compared to loyalism, the retreat to what-about loyalist hypocrisy admits of such comparison. It is a defence, but only at the expense of embracing your enemy and sharing the same unwanted spotlight.

In the South, things are different.  It is now being argued that the resignation of McElduff after the mild rebuke of suspension has not been voluntary but demanded by Sinn Fein, especially Sinn Fein in the South, for whom association with the past deeds of the IRA really is a shackle they seek to escape.

This might seem the worst of all options for republicans – refusing to take strong action that might demonstrate they have changed and recognising  their responsibilities, while losing their colleague anyway.  But this is not how it works.  He’s gone; they can welcome his decision and move on.  Just like the original massacre – admit nothing, while sending a message, and hope to move on.

Like seemingly every major atrocity during the ‘Troubles’ the spectre of the British state’s involvement has also been raised by the controversy and as usual relegated in importance.

Police failure, seeming incompetence in investigating the case and suspicions of collusion, with no one charged over the killing, has raised again the issue that the IRA and loyalists seemed often to be almost puppets of agents working in the bowels of the British State.  That this was the case for much of loyalism can hardly have been doubted, though seldom admitted, but the state penetration of republicanism has been much more surprising.

In truth, there is little new in the episode because nothing has been revealed that we didn’t know already.  It will not affect the current political stalemate in the North and in the South every step away from its past renders the new Sinn Fein closer to a pale imitation of the rest of staid Irish nationalism.  Those coming from a republican tradition are devout in their remembrance and commemoration of the past but they seem incapable of learning from it.

Far from facing its history and learning its lessons they forget nothing and learn nothing because they either seek to repeat the same strategy today or defend the strategy applied yesterday. In any circumstance it would be a failure today as it was before.

The episode is seen as showing the barriers to reconciliation existing in the North but the columnist Brian Feeney of the Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ is right when he says that reconciliation is a religious notion that is a chimera, one that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t exist.  What is actually being demanded is reconciliation of incompatible claims coming from different sides while the respective validity of these different sides is also paradoxically affirmed.  The complete incoherence of the equality of sectarianism that passes for political progress here is on show once more.

What is required is not reconciliation of two sectarian sides but unity across sectarian division that through this unity dissolves it.  Irish republicanism has failed this task, which it once set itself over two hundred years ago, and no one really expects it to have much to do with achieving it now.

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

See also here

The decay of Stormont and Sinn Fein

martin-mcguinness-resigns-2_-lewisWhen a dreadfully ill-looking Martin McGuinness appeared on television to announce his resignation as Deputy First Minister he perfectly personified the alarming state of Sinn Fein strategy.  Whatever about the nature of his illness there is nothing secret about the utter failure of the latter  The repeated response of Sinn Fein to republican critics that these detractors had no strategy to bring about their goals has itself been exposed, as their own policy has become a self-declared failure.

The resignation letter of McGuinness put a poor gloss on a hasty decision that was forced on the party and which it dearly sought to avoid.  Recent actions betrayed a desperation to save its position in the Stormont regime and thereby the regime itself.  It opposed a public inquiry into a scandalous Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme, designed to protect the climate by giving participants £160 for every £100 they spent on burning wooden pellets.  Unlike the British scheme no limit was set on how much was to be spent on the incentive to burn as much as one could.  It was indefensible and in any other liberal democracy, such as Northern Ireland pretends to be, it would have led to a resignation.

Sinn Fein opposed a vote of no confidence in the First Minister Arlene Foster, responsible for the scheme, explicitly stating it was because it wished to save the Stormont institutions.  It also opposed a public inquiry into the scheme because it knew that the Democratic Unionist Party would not wear it.  It hoped instead that a call for Foster to merely step aside for a few weeks, while some fig-leaf of an investigation did the needful in calming the political waters, would be agreeable.  However, the DUP advanced the age-old ‘not an inch’ approach of unionism to reject its request for the pathetic.

To rub salt into the wounds, just before Christmas the DUP Culture Minister withdrew the small bursary scheme, costing only £50,000, for children to attend the Gaeltacht to learn Irish.  The widespread suspicion that millions were being given to well-connected DUP supporters through the RHI scheme sat beside the vindictive insult to Irish language enthusiasts who are overwhelmingly Catholic.

McGuinness has accused the DUP of arrogance, to which it might be tempting to say that it takes one to know one, where the DUP not in a league of their own. Nevertheless, they made for a workable double act for 10 years and the DUP has not recently changed its spots.

The personal arrogance or otherwise of Arlene Foster (she hardly hides it) confuted the media-attempted creation of yet another new ‘moderate’ Unionist leader and is hardly the point.  Expecting a Unionist leader to show humility ignores the laager supremacist ideology with which unionism is inseparably entwined, summed up in its primitive slogans of ‘not an inch’, ‘this we will maintain’, ‘we can do no other’, ‘no surrender’ and ‘we are the people’, all testament to an utterly reactionary movement.

Sinn Fein sat for ten years promising and not delivering, promising equality while delivering sectarian division; promising to oppose austerity while imposing it; promising opposition to welfare reform while handing powers to Westminster to ensure it was implemented, and within the last year promising a ‘Fresh Start’ and a ‘united Executive’, which produced the old, stale smell of bigotry and bitter animosity.

It failed and its complaint about the failure of the Good Friday Agreement is its own failure – the DUP are not complaining about any such failure.  So sewn up has Sinn Fein been that when McGuinness resigned over the RHI scheme the DUP straight away cynically announced its support for a judicial inquiry, leaving Sinn Fein as the only party not to support one.

It promises no return to the status quo following the resignation.  But how is it going to convince anyone that it can go back into office with the DUP and deliver anything different from the last decade of failure?

We should be clear.  It was not RHI that forced Sinn Fein out.  As we have seen it was prepared to give the DUP a way out.  It has known about this scandal for a year and did nothing.  It put up with unionist arrogance and sectarianism for 10 years on the basis that it too had its own sectarian spoils to dispense.  It hasn’t all of a sudden become remorseful at broken promises: once it abandoned armed struggle against the British state the Provisionals had no principles left.

McGuinness resigned because Sinn Fein’s humiliation was so comprehensive its base were leaving it – through increased Catholic abstention and grumblings even from the membership.  The election of two People before Profit candidates in West Belfast and Derry was a warning that it could face an alternative.  DUP arrogance was a factor to the extent that it knew its predicament wasn’t going to change – Foster and the DUP were openly flouting the rules that both parties were deemed to be equal and could only act together.

Some will see these events as proof that the Northern State is irreformable.  McGuinness’s statement was careful to include the British in the cast of those to blame.  A local Stormont regime steeped in sectarianism has never been unpalatable for the British and Sinn Fein is not now presenting them as the necessary factor in making unionism more amenable to equality of sectarian division.  The final proof of the irreformability of the Northern State, in the sense of its inherent sectarian nature, is that it is more than likely that any election will return the same two forces as the largest parties.

The Stormont regime provides evidence of the instability of a sectarian carve-up.  While almost all commentators and political parties have lamented the loss of credibility of the political settlement through the RHI scandal, this is its only progressive outcome.  Stormont is destroying itself.  What matters for socialists is that some steps are taken by workers to build an alternative.