Stormont is still down, Westminster is in crisis, and questions are being asked about the future of the Union. The National Question, assumed to have been buried, is now back with force. But how do we ensure those at the bottom of society gain from this crisis? Brian Kelly takes a look.
Anyone who has not slept through the last six months will be aware that the ground has shifted dramatically underneath the power-sharing arrangements ushered in by the 1998 Belfast Agreement. North, South and across the water, for the past two decades the British and Irish governments have taken comfort in their conviction that the border problem could be set aside for the foreseeable future. Pundits on all sides declared the birth of a dynamic and forward-looking, ‘new Northern Ireland’ that, according to its most enthusiastic proponents, would shake off the grim hand of history, establish itself as an emerging economic powerhouse and, over time, develop closer links with the newly flourishing state to its south. Prosperity and peace would go hand in hand in a ‘shared future’.
Fintan O’Toole’s gushing celebration of the “dignified, decent, democratic settlement that allowed the natural warmth of a neighbourly relationship to come fully to the surface” typified the infectious tone emanating from Dublin liberals, an optimism that resonated in elite circles at London and Washington. The trade union movement had tread a cautious path through decades of conflict, issuing vague denunciations of sectarianism but almost never challenging the state itself: falling in behind Clinton and Blair, it welcomed the Belfast Agreement but never managed to put forward a coherent vision of its own. Having paid the heaviest price, ordinary people in working-class communities on both sides of the sectarian divide in the North were relieved at the cessation of violence, though many remained (sensibly) sceptical of extravagant prophecies about the coming transformation. So entrenched was this optimism that even veteran left republicans harshly critical of Sinn Féin’s manoeuvring accepted that the national question had been ‘parked’, and that the question of partition was, for a time at least, off the agenda.
All that now seems very long ago and far away. While it would be extremely unwise to declare the Belfast Agreement beyond resuscitation, clearly the arrangements that have been in place for twenty years are now in deep, possibly terminal crisis. The question of the border is squarely back on the agenda – not only among republicans in and outside of Sinn Féin but in wider circles, and in mainstream discourse North and South. Forecasts that Irish unity is now inevitable, or that a border poll will deliver a new mandate for ending partition, are based more on wishful thinking than a sober assessment of dynamics on the ground, but there can be no question that we are in a new context, and one in which debate over the border is likely to become more commonplace.
Socialists hoping to build an effective movement for fundamental change on this island have to put themselves at the centre of this emerging discussion. This article attempts to provide activists with a clear outline of the origins of the present crisis, an assessment of the main forces involved in the debate as it moves forward, and some analysis of the possibilities and the dangers that now present themselves. Any attempt to tamper with or overturn partition which does not move simultaneously toward social transformation on both sides of the border is bound to fail; our greatest hope for building a new Ireland lies in deepening and extending the push for change and against growing inequality that has scored such important gains over recent years – in building a movement in the here and now that transcends the border by holding out a vision of an Ireland run by and for its working class majority.
Background to the Crisis
While the immediate sources of the seismic shift on the border question are the intractable crisis wracking Theresa May’s Conservative Party over Brexit and the sordid outworkings of her ‘confidence-and-supply’ arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, it should not be forgotten that the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont had collapsed six months earlier – in January 2017 – under a cloud of scandal, and had been lurching from one crisis to the next over the whole of the previous four years, and arguably for its entire existence.
In Britain and internationally Theresa May’s squalid deal with the DUP was criticised mainly for having elevated the standing of a reactionary party committed to blocking abortion rights and LGBTQ equality in the North. While both of these are significant, they miss the defining feature of the DUP: founded by the sectarian rabble-rouser Ian Paisley, the DUP has been one of the main bastions of sectarian division in the North, with a long history of links to loyalist paramilitaries and a clear record of formal opposition to the power-sharing enshrined in the Belfast Agreement. Stormont’s collapse was partly down to the stench of corruption arising out of Arlene Foster’s involvement at the centre of the RHI scandal, but it also marked the frustration of many in and beyond the nationalist community that the system allowed a minority, right-wing party to regularly block progress not only on women’s rights and marriage equality, but on dealing with the legacy of state violence and around measures aimed at giving nominal space for cultural expression – as with their attacks on Irish medium education, their punitive axing of the Líofa bursary and their opposition to an Irish Language Act. Leaders of the two ruling parties in the south of Ireland have been keen to blame Sinn Féin for collapsing the Assembly, but the reality is that they were forced – against their instincts and their deep investment in managing Stormont – to choose between walking out or seeing their vote slip away, as constituents tired of the power-sharing charade and grew increasingly outraged over the savage cuts being imposed from Stormont.
It was inevitable that Theresa May’s deal with the DUP would aggravate the crisis in the North. Through it she threw a lifeline to a party mired in corruption and sectarianism, bolstering their role as powerbrokers over Brexit at a time when their standing at home was being called into question, even among long-time supporters. While it is impossible to know precisely the terms of the Conservatives accommodation with the DUP, there can be little doubt that Karen Bradley’s outrageous remarks on the very eve of the decision over whether to prosecute British solders for murder in relation to Bloody Sunday – and coinciding with a long-overdue inquest into the 1971 massacre carried out by the Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy – were served up deliberately as a sop to the DUP. May’s blundering disregard for the Belfast Agreement, outshone only by the staggering ignorance emanating from Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and the buffoon element on the imperial wing of the Conservative Party, shows clearly that the DUP’s aim to exploit the crisis in order to roll back the Belfast Agreement has support across the Tory establishment. It has to be said, as well, that Labour under Corbyn has failed miserably in seizing the opportunity to set out a distinctive approach on Ireland for the British electorate. This represents a serious strategic failure and another worrying sign of the limits of Corbyn’s reformist project.
Why No Clamour for a Revival of Stormont?
Given that Northern Ireland has over the past six months established a new world record for the longest period without a functioning government, one might expect to find a sense of panic and desperation among ordinary citizens. The reality is that almost no one cares. Partly this reflects deep cynicism about whether a new Assembly could produce anything beyond the seemingly permanent cycle of crisis and communal horse-trading that has marked its functioning ever since 1998. But the indifference is also rooted in an awareness that Stormont under a DUP/Sinn Féin coalition has served as the organising centre for a neoliberal regime that, far from delivering a ‘peace dividend’, has instead overseen a regime of savage austerity – with cuts felt most acutely in those areas that previously bore the brunt of conflict.
For the DUP their role in imposing austerity presents no great political challenge. They present themselves openly as staunch conservatives and until now, at least, face no significant competition from within the most impoverished Protestant working class areas. The fleeting challenge posed by ‘progressive’ unionists grouped around the PUP was handicapped from the outset by its commitment to ‘country before party’, and on the main political issues so-called ‘working-class loyalism’ is indistinguishable from any other strand of unionism. On the Shankill Road, for example, where the 11 plus hinders young people from access to university, organised loyalists came out unapologetically in support of the DUP –the most determined defenders of academic selection and maintenance of the elite grammar schools. The district now faces closure of its only publicly-owned local leisure facility, a direct result of the privatisation campaign pushed most aggressively through Belfast City Council by none other than the DUP. Nevertheless, at the height of the RHI crisis, which exposed the DUP’s open theft of public funds for distribution among well-heeled supporters, local UDA ‘commander’ Jackie MacDonald and the whole of the loyalist political apparatus came out squarely in support of Arlene Foster.
Sinn Féin at Stormont: Riding Two Horses
Stormont’s role in overseeing neoliberal austerity presents a more serious challenge for Sinn Féin, which has attempted in recent years to displace the SDLP as the party of the Catholic middle class, but whose core support has for many years been based among the nationalist urban and rural working class. Increasingly they find it impossible to hold onto a onetime reputation as fighters against the northern establishment while sitting as partners in a government thoroughly committed to neoliberalism. Dan Finn recalls the party’s early enthusiasm for privatisation:
Martin McGuiness, [Sinn Féin’s] Deputy First Minister, embraced New Labour’s Private Finance Initiative – a boon for private investors, but a fiasco for public services – during his stint as Education Minister: “It is now clear that PFI does offer real potential for value for money solutions to the pressing capital investment needs of our schools.” McGuiness went on to call for a cut in Northern Ireland’s corporate tax rate, describing this ill-conceived proposal [as] “an exciting opportunity for the regional economy”.
This enthusiasm for market forces as a panacea for endemic poverty and inequality in the North was ubiquitous for a time, and it shaped Sinn Féin’s attempt to move toward the political centre in the South during the same period. In the weeks leading up to the 2007 southern elections, for example, party leaders dropped their long-standing commitment to raising corporate tax rates in the South and went out of their way to project a ‘business-friendly’ image, hoping that it would allay fears among corporate elites and perhaps position them to enter coalition government with Fianna Fáil. Despite – or perhaps because of – this scramble for the centre ground, the party was unable to tap into developing anger, posting a disappointing election result.
The task of reconciling its role as a respectable partner in government at Stormont with extending its influence among a broad electorate dissatisfied with the status quo in the South was a simpler task in the boom years immediately following the Belfast Agreement, when Sinn Féin could point to the Celtic Tiger economy to bolster the case for increasing cross-border cooperation leading eventually, perhaps, to a withering away of the border. But the 2008 crash imposed a new contradiction, and one that their political opponents in the bourgeois parties in Dublin were not slow to grasp. In the South, Sinn Féin hoped to translate deep anger over harsh cuts and inequality into electoral gains, but at Stormont they were party to implementing a nearly identical programme of government.
This contradiction came to a head in the fallout over the so-called Fresh Start Agreement in November 2015, when the party signed up to Tory-imposed welfare reform, including devastating reductions in disability support (PIP) and the imposition of the Conservatives’ punitive system of Universal Credit. When pushed to explain their support for cutting corporate tax rates, party leaders insisted that their only aim was to claim back regional ‘sovereignty’ over tax policy from Westminster, but when an opportunity arose in late 2015 to give Stormont authority to direct welfare policy, Sinn Féin combined with the DUP and the Alliance Party in a ‘legislative consent motion’ that handed authority back to Conservatives at Westminster. A series of promises followed about mitigating the worst effects of the cuts that would follow, with assurances that the most obnoxious ‘reforms’ – like the notorious ‘bedroom tax’ – would never be implemented in the North, but these have since been exposed as empty promises, and are nowhere felt more painfully than in the so-called Sinn Féin heartlands.
Fresh Start committed Stormont to shedding 20,000 jobs in the public sector. Partly because of this the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) vowed to resist, placing full-page ads in major newspapers across the North. There were grounds for expecting that a strong campaign could be organised: well-supported public sector strikes the previous spring had shown the depths of anger across the North and the possibilities for linking widespread public outrage over service cutbacks with workers’ fury over pay cuts and redundancies. In the end, however, NIC-ICTU capitulated without a fight, with then General Secretary Peter Bunting insisting on the need for a ‘pragmatic’ approach to cuts and lauding the main parties for their ‘acknowledgement that we’ll all have to work together to make Northern Ireland a better place’ – weak words uttered, ironically, just as the ground was being prepared for yet another collapse of Stormont. With the support of the NIC, Bunting explained that the trade union movement had “looked into an abyss [and] withdrew” rather than face the prospect of launching “a major oppositional campaign against our own politicians”. Yet this was precisely what was needed at the time, and NIC-ICTU’s capitulation has only postponed a necessary challenge to Stormont’s priorities. Arguably not only trade union members but those communities suffering under punitive welfare ‘reform’ and the gutting of public services would be in a much better position if the trade union bureaucracy had been forced into resistance rather than capitulation in 2015 and 2016.
After years of managing austerity and implementing welfare reform as the DUP’s partners in government, Sinn Féin has seized upon the crisis caused, first, by the collapse of the Assembly and then aggravated by Brexit to reinvent itself as a party of opposition. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson has suggested, plausibly, that Sinn Féin was compelled to walk out of the Assembly in the face of growing public outrage because they feared losing votes to challengers from the left. Sinn Féin were “not prepared to [sign off on cuts in 2016],” Wilson insisted recently, “because it was looking over its shoulder at People Before Profit, which had taken votes off it in its heartlands in West Belfast and [D]erry”. In any case a temporary return to an oppositional stance suits Sinn Féin, though it may not do the trick. The irony of seeing a party that used its authority to push through Fresh Start now setting up election stalls under placards that read ‘Fight Tory Cuts’ is not lost on the electorate: it may convince some to come back to the fold but in the medium and long term there are limits to this kind of political double-dealing.
Sinn Féin’s changing position on the EU is less obvious (and less tangible) to voters who can see for themselves the scale of the debacle being overseen by Theresa May and the arrogance of the DUP in claiming to speak for Northern Ireland where, after all, a majority voted Remain. For electoral purposes, Sinn Féin has invested a great deal in hyping the prospect of a ‘hard border’, but ordinary people are not wrong to be concerned that the Tories and the DUP are happy to see things move backward. In areas where they face a challenge from PBP, Sinn Féin go out of their way to link us with the Tories and the DUP as supporters of a ‘hard border’, but the reality is that PBP upholds the same principled opposition to the EU as Sinn Féin did just a few years ago, when party leaders insisted that its “economic and fiscal policies…have had catastrophic effects on the lives of many of its citizens” and that under its neoliberal regime “the gap between the rich and poor in the EU is constantly increasing, social rights are being dismantled, unemployment remains at high levels and [people] are being subordinated to poverty and stagnation.” Far from welcoming a hard border, PBP has committed to throwing itself into a mass civil disobedience campaign in the face of such a threat from any quarter, including Varadkar’s government in the South. Today, after its shameful role in suppressing the Catalan movement for national self-determination alongside a right-wing Spanish government, Sinn Féin spokesman Declan Kearney declares that the EU ‘has a central role to play in developing the transition to Irish unity’. To be clear: this is the politics of pure fantasy.
The Way Forward: Transformation North and South
While socialists need to be fully aware of the scale of the shift underway, and must do what they can to place themselves at the centre of the emerging debate on the border, we should be wary of the magical thinking in some quarters that an end to partition is now inevitable, or that the fallout from Brexit on its own will break significant numbers of northern Protestants from unionism. Above all, we need to be clear that the only united Ireland worth pursuing is one that overturns the deeply entrenched inequalities that prevail on both sides of the border and places power in the hands of working people. And that the crucial first steps in building that kind of an alternative Ireland cannot be postponed until some future border poll, but need to be embedded in the way we work today.
PBP has been doing that now in a conscious and deliberate way for the past five years. Alongside the tens of thousands of public sector workers who marched to mass rallies in Belfast during the 2015 strikes was a large contingent from Dublin, organised by PBP to demonstrate practical solidarity in the fight against austerity North and South. During the more recent campaigns for Marriage Equality and the Repeal of the 8th amendment PBP made it central to our work to bring contingents back and forth both ways across the border to link the fights against two repressive states. These examples, carried out on a small scale by an organisation with limited resources, have to become completely embedded in the way the trade unions and movements for social justice operate on both sides of the border.
As socialists with a proud tradition of organising in the North we are under no illusions about the difficulty of winning Protestant workers in significant numbers to the project of dismantling partition. But we are certain of two things. First, that the strategy of ‘unionist outreach’ pursued by Sinn Féin over recent years is not only a dead end, but one that reinforces division. We look for allies in the Protestant community not to the upper ranks of the DUP or among the big employers whose wealth has been put at risk by Brexit, but to working class communities on the Shankill and Waterside and East Belfast that confront the same hardships as their counterparts on the Falls and the Bogside. Secondly, we are aware that the only alternative that can possibly light a fire under the hopes of working class Protestants in the North is one that redistributes wealth and power to those who have none under the present system on either side of the border. In our ‘wee country’ the granddaughters and grandsons of men who once made a decent living in the shipyards or engineering works now face a future of poverty-level wages in retail shops and call centres, with a once-thriving National Health Service brought to its knees by privatisation and cuts. The DUP, far from ‘protecting the interests’ of northern Protestants, has driven this decline at every level, with politicians like Ian Paisley Jr. pilfering shamelessly from public funds to finance his globe-trotting adventures. Loyalism has done nothing to lift Protestant workers and we would rather state our opposition openly and unapologetically than attempt to cut deals at elaborate quangos organised over the bones of young workers cut down at the Somme.
PBP has been clear since its very formation that we take part in elections in order to spread socialist ideas among a wider audience, to help shape a new movement based on working class solidarity, and not because we stand in awe of the ‘institutions’ at Stormont or Dublin. The Ireland we want is one that puts working people in the saddle on both sides of the border, and the only one worth lifting a finger to fight for. Seize the time.