In the third instalment of Kieran Allen’s Brexit pamphlet, he discusses the implications for partition, the possibility of a hard border an the impact of capitalism in decay.
Part 2 is available here.
Partition and a Hard Border
Who wants a hard border in Ireland? Not even Arlene Foster, apparently. In August 2016, she penned a letter to Theresa May, with then Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness and asked that Brexit not become ‘an impediment to the movement of people, goods or services’.
Her concern was economic dislocation because tariffs would make it more difficult to sell goods manufactured in the North in the South. 83% of all exports from the North are goods, and 36% of these go to the Republic of Ireland, with a further 20% going to the rest of the EU. Some are made by small businesses that support the DUP.
But there are many more reasons to oppose a hard border than purely economic ones.
For the past twenty years, most people have travelled between Belfast and Dublin without any stop or hindrance. If they want, they can cross the border once or twice a day without the slightest obstruction. Nobody even has to take a back road when they are buying alcohol or electrical goods. There is an important exception, however. Despite all the talk of a seamless border, migrants in Ireland have faced a ‘hard border’ for many years. One only has to take the Belfast to Dublin bus, which is stopped regularly by the Gardaí to check the nationality of those on board, to get a sense of this. Aside from this, the experience of most people is that the border barely exists, and its absence is perceived as a very good thing.
But the Irish border is not any old border. It is a British-imposed border that was used to partition Ireland. As a result, its very existence has been associated with sectarianism. A Fermanagh worker explained what happened in the past:
‘I had to cross the border twice a day for work. And every time, a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment stopped my car and asked me to produce identification. Every single day this happened on two occasions. The UDR man was my own neighbour but he just did it to show he could.’
The sectarian nature of the border was apparent from the very start. In the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 parliamentary seats on a platform of declaring independence. When Britain refused to concede, a national and social revolution broke out that involved armed struggle, land seizures and mass boycotts of British institutions. The response of the Empire was to move toward the partition of Ireland.
Prior to World War 1, the British parliament had been debating Home Rule for the whole of Ireland. Unionists had opposed the measure because they only wanted an imperial parliament in Westminster, and there was no talk of a separate parliament in Stormont until the outbreak of the war. After the Unionists lost the 1918 election, the British moved rapidly towards partition. A special commission was established under the leadership of Walter Long, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, and it recommended the establishment of a Northern parliament for the nine counties of Ulster. But other Unionists were more attuned to the brutal sectarian realities. They saw that the inclusion of three counties with Catholic majorities would destabilise a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. ‘We quite frankly admit that we cannot hold onto nine counties’ declared Charles Craig MP.
While moves towards partition were being discussed at Westminster, a ground war broke out in the North in 1920. The Unionist leader Edward Carson wrote to his Tory counterpart, Bonar Law, to request that loyalists be enlisted into an auxiliary force to suppress the IRA and to keep a minority population in check. Whole units of the illegal UVF were then recruited into the Ulster Special Constabulary and integrated into the state apparatus.
The Government of Ireland Act in 1920 established the Irish border around the present six counties. But it was preceded by systematic violence designed to intimidate the minority Catholic population into submission. After nationalists achieved victory in elections to Derry City Council, riots broke out, and the UVF were left to patrol the city centre. The British army imposed a curfew, and six Catholics were shot dead. In July, Carson urged loyalists to take matters into their own hands, and shortly afterwards, a meeting was held in Belfast shipyards to drive out Catholics and ‘rotten prods’. In Lisburn, Catholics were driven out of the town after the IRA killed a local police officer.
The border was created through violence and was designed to establish an exclusive Protestant state for a Protestant people. In the fifty years of its existence, only one opposition bill was ever passed at Stormont – the Wild Birds Conservation Act. It was a testimony to the total domination of the Unionist Party. Historically, this was led by big landowners like Craig and Brookeborough, but industrialists were also well represented in its leadership. It was a deeply right wing party that maintained a base among Protestant workers by systematic discrimination against Catholics.
Partition also helped create two sectarian states – one in the North and its mirror image state in the South. Catholic fundamentalism was embedded into the legal order of the 26-county state, and control of many public services was handed over to the Bishops. A debased Fianna Fáil version of republicanism invited the population to give their primary loyalty to the 26-county state. Despite occasional verbal attacks on the border, the political elite in the South became its ardent defenders. It suited them that the island was dominated by right-wing parties that could hide behind the Green and Orange and suppress left-wing politics.
These political arrangements were eventually challenged in two great movements that have shaken Ireland in recent decades.
The movements that shook Ireland
The first was the civil rights movement that started in 6 in the North and led eventually to the overthrow of one-party Unionist rule in the North. Attempts to crush that movement by internment and murders on Bloody Sunday failed. Instead, state violence led to substantial support for an IRA campaign and the eventual rise of Sinn Fein. However, the republicans were not able to gain support from either Protestant workers or the active mobilisation of Southern workers. The result, as exemplified in the Belfast agreement, was the ending of one-party Unionist rule but also the modernisation rather than elimination of sectarianism. Henceforth, politics was organised on communal lines whereby Sinn Fein and the DUP emerged as the hardest representatives of their own communities. Together in government, they co-operated on austerity policies while maintaining communal competition through fights over symbols and legacies of the Troubles.
The second challenge has been a series of mass movements in the South that have radicalised many and forced significant change. These began with the big water charges movement which inflicted a major defeat on the political establishment. Then there were major movements around marriage equality and abortion rights. So powerful were these that politicians like Varadkar, who had previously opposed change, did an about-turn. Today, the shackles that the Catholic Church has had over Southern Irish society are being broken. The mirror has been cracked.
This is the context in which Brexit is reopening the question of partition.
We are living in an era of capitalist decay. An earthquake is occurring in the global order as different states seek to gain advantage over each other as their system declines. As the turmoil deepens, the cracks spread far and wide, reopening questions that apparently had long been settled.
In the early part of the century, the Irish question appeared to be solved when John Redmond’s Home Rule Party settled for both local autonomy and integration within the British empire. But the growing clash between the imperial powers which ultimately led to World War 1 imposed such strains on Irish society that republicanism was reborn and the battle for an independent Ireland commenced. In more recent years, the austerity that followed the crash of 2008 has produced similar cracks. In Spain, a movement against austerity dovetailed into one for national rights in Catalonia. In Scotland, disgust at austerity and Tory rule fed into a referendum campaign that, although defeated, has made Scottish independence a real prospect in the future.
In both these cases, the EU showed no interest in or respect for the right to self-determination. It stood behind the Spanish state, for example, when they locked up Catalan politicians and refused to condemn blatant political repression. However, this does not preclude the EU taking tactical positions on a temporary basis. As Britain leaves, the EU wants, for reasons of its own, to pile on the pressure by hitting the fault lines of the United Kingdom. One writer has suggested that the current mood in the Elysee Palace in Paris is that Brexit should lead to ‘blood on the floor’. This explains the current tactic of squeezing the Tories until they accept some sort of backstop for Northern Ireland. But this is by no means a principled position that seeks an end to partition. As soon as the EU secures a deal that suits its interests, it is likely to drop talk of opposing a hard border like a hot potato. Alternatively, should no deal be agreed, it will be insisting on a hard border between the North and South of Ireland to protect its single market.
Austerity, welfare reforms, sheer ignorance and the lack of respect for the wishes of people in the North are deepening the alienation of large numbers of people from Westminster. But at the same time, Brexit is also pushing the DUP into ever more extreme positions that serve, ironically, to reopen the issue of partition. The DUP is a party with policies that position it somewhere to the right of Donald Trump. It opposes gay marriage and abortion rights and thinks that climate change is not happening. Sammy Wilson, for example, has declared that ‘I don’t care about CO2 emissions to be quite truthful…I still think climate change is a man-made con’, while Ian Paisley Jnr has said that ‘I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong’. The fundamental basis for the party has been a celebration of empire and British military might. Its natural affinity is, therefore, with the right wing Brexiteers of the Tory party. As a split develops inside the Tory Party, the DUP is being drawn ever closer to the more fanatical Brexit elements.
But there are other factors that are pushing the DUP to champion a hard border. After an initial recognition of some economic realities – exemplified in Arlene Foster’s early statement against impediments – the DUP has reverted to type and declared that Brexit has become ‘a battle for the Union itself’. By this, they mean that any difference in the treatment of the North compared to the rest of the UK is a slippery slope to Irish unity. The DUP trumpet this line when there is any talk of placing regulatory checks down the Irish Sea, rather than on the North/South border.
The political psychology of Unionism has always been to foment a sense of fear among Protestants. The message is that they are under siege from republican hordes and even the slightest lack of vigilance will result in their being engulfed in an Ireland run by the Bishops. The politics of fear have been augmented rather than lessened in recent years. This is because the DUP no longer have an absolute majority in any Northern Assembly and are only the largest party by a whisker. In the last Assembly election in 2017, the DUP scored 28.1 % of the vote compared to Sinn Féin’s 27.9%. They do not have a majority for their bigoted positions on LGBT rights or the Irish language. They lost the vote on Remain in the North, too.
In addition, their bid to shore up their active small business and upper middle class base through patronage has come unstuck. The Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme was overseen by DUP leader Arlene Foster and was used to dispense money to supporters and others. In all, up to £600 million of public money was squandered in a blatant scam because Foster did not impose any cost controls.
Even though a hard border would damage some of their own business supporters, politics trumps economics. The DUP is constructed around an alliance of evangelicals and neoliberals who unite in nostalgia for empire. But all the apparent privileges that loyalty to the Queen are supposed to bestow on Protestant workers are slipping away. Earnings in the North, for example, are 9% below the UK average – even though the North has more than its share of millionaires. Low wages, precarious employment and harassment of social welfare recipients have become the only rewards of empire.
In this context, the DUP has no option but to continually beat the Orange drum to keep its base. Just as the Tory grassroots have radicalised to the right – even if this is sometimes against the wishes of big capital – so too the DUP is pushing for a hard border. The rightward rhetoric of both parties – including May’s patriotic stands, for example, about protecting the UK from ‘dismemberment’ – are riling up loyalist paramilitaries.
But the more they turn Brexit into a battle for the Union, the more they weaken their own cause. This is all the more reason for implacable opposition to a hard border. And the more we resist it, the more the debate about partition and a United Ireland will reopen.