The politics of Irish unity and a social Europe – Part 2

by Declan Kearney

Today we bring you the second of a two-part guest post by Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin National Chairperson and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for South Antrim. Here he sets out the case for a new Ireland within a social Europe, arguing that the current political and economic crisis demands progressive interventions by the Irish labour movement and the political unity of broad left forces across the Continent.

The dawning political and economic reality is that Brexit has changed everything. It has exposed the negative role that partition continues to play in Irish affairs, and the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the union with Britain. At the same time the British state has been pushed into an unprecedented, existential political crisis.

Brexit has created a defining moment for these islands. All of the established constitutional, political and economic assumptions about the status quo in Ireland have been swept away. International attention has been refocused upon the democratic case for Irish unity. New political discussions have begun about the future of Ireland, north and south, and the relationship between Britain and Ireland.

Significantly a seismic shift has also occurred in the ambition and expectations of republican, nationalist and other progressive minded citizens in the north of Ireland. A new generation is questioning partition. Many within society north and south are looking beyond Brexit and towards the prospect of accelerated Irish reunification.

Europe at a cross road

The fallout from Brexit has also significantly influenced political discourse within the EU itself. Britain’s border in Ireland has now become an EU issue. The level of interest in, and support for constitutional change in Ireland is now at an all-time high across the EU.

The European Parliament and EU institutions have become strategically important arenas within which to promote the democratic aim of a united Ireland and to encourage international support for a unity referendum.

Sinn Féin will continue lobbying and influencing to make the objective of Irish reunification a priority for the progressive left and other strands of democratic opinion represented in the European Parliament.

All this comes at a time when Europe itself is at a cross road. The political direction, policy orientation and increasing need for reform of the EU, paralleled with, and often fuelling the rise of extreme right wing forces, present a serious threat to the principles of the progressive left. Social democracy has all but collapsed both politically and electorally across Europe.

There is an urgent need to build a progressive left alternative throughout Europe and to popularise a new political narrative, or common sense, based upon the vision of a social Europe. To include the following key principles:

• That economies must serve the many not the few.

• That human rights are inalienable.

• That the global environment is protected.

• That Europe should act as a force for international peace and solidarity.

• That racism, sectarianism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia are rejected.

These positions should be central to a common platform upon which to expand the political strength of the progressive left.

The need for left unity

However, such strength will not be realised without unity and cohesion among parties and democratic forces on the left in Europe. Unity needs to be expanded, whilst respecting and recognising the unique national characteristics which distinguish various parties and movements.

Unanimity is not required on all issues, all of the time, but progressives cannot afford to be disunited.

Political sectarianism undermines political strength, solidarity and fraternity on the progressive left. The collective strength of the progressive left in Europe stems from the domestic relevance and political strength of its constituent parts.

The left will only be as strong across Europe and in the European Parliament as progressive left and republican parties are relevant and strong in their national contexts. The success of a real progressive left alternative depends upon securing strategic beachheads of political strength and influence. That is why the resilience of the left-wing government in Greece in the face of huge adversity is so politically important.

And while progressives need to be in a hurry to make change and in pursuit of a social and more democratic Europe, we also need to be realistic and pragmatic. The distinction between strategy and tactical positions need to be understood. Alliances with others are indispensable to changing the overall balance of forces. Rigid or dogmatic ideological positions can prevent agreement upon shared objectives and securing unity among the widest cross section of progressive and democratic opinion.

The political discussion and focus upon an emergent European ‘Progressive Caucus’ embracing the left, social democrats, and environmentalists is such an innovative and welcome initiative. A strategic consensus among the progressive left and others should be based upon support for national independence, social emancipation, citizen’s rights, and democratic economic control.

Campaigning for a new Europe

The fact is that beyond Brexit, the EU will continue to exist and the strategic challenge will be to shift the balance of influence in the direction of securing a new Europe based on equality, rights and solidarity.

Irish unity is integral to the vision of a new Europe.

In the coming months the progressive left needs to focus its collective efforts upon maximising representation and influence in the next European Parliament. In an era where economic models across Europe serve the interests of the few, the European Parliament should be a site of political struggle within which to raise the need for democratic control of economies; collective bargaining rights; tax justice; equal pay for equal work; proper trades union recognition; and the eradication of precarious working conditions.

Sinn Féin will contest the European elections this year on a platform supporting the development of a social Europe. In the next European Parliament mandate we will campaign for, and highlight the protection of rural and fishing communities; the promotion of economic democracy; enhanced environmental policy, human rights and social justice; as well as defence of the Irish peace process and seek to maximise support for Irish unity.

Towards a new Ireland

The debate on Irish unity and the timing of a unity referendum have now moved centre stage.  In Ireland reunification is the defining issue for our generation. Brexit means that change in the political relations between Britain and Ireland is now unavoidable, and, while partition never had any democratic legitimacy, its continued imposition is no longer sustainable.

Partition has run out of road. British government policy towards Ireland must change. Negative mismanagement of the Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) by successive British governments, and the particular pro-Unionist bias of the Tory government since 2010, must be replaced with a recognition that the transition towards Irish unity should begin. Initially that should take the form of preparing for a unity referendum and by engaging in a new political discussion with the Irish government and all political parties on the island of Ireland in relation to reunification.

For many in the British establishment this will be an anathema. For those in the Tory Party leadership who have tied their electoral survival to an alliance with the DUP, this prospect may be unthinkable. However, it is time for historic, decisive and brave leadership to be shown by the British state.

In parallel, the Irish government needs to begin to prepare for the constitutional, political and economic transition towards Irish unity. A Green Paper on Irish unity should be published detailing the constitutional, political, fiscal and economic measures for a successful transition to a united Ireland.

A joint Oireachtas (i.e., the two houses of the Irish parliament) all party committee on Irish unity should be established. The Irish government should commence a discussion with the EU Commission and institutions to explore their practical role and support in facilitating an efficient process of reunification. It should facilitate an open and inclusive national conversation on Irish unity involving all citizens, political parties, social partners and civic society.

That is a dialogue about our collective future on the island of Ireland which addresses all the concerns, accommodations and compromises relevant to negotiating a new, all Ireland, pluralist, constitutional democracy.

Labour should not wait

Today this new focus upon Irish unity provides Irish trade unionists and workers with an opportunity to influence the debate about future constitutional and political change. Previous moments of political change have required that labour should wait. The emerging challenge for the Irish labour movement north and south is to engage with this new discussion. The labour movement will only successfully put its mark on the Irish unity debate by arguing for the primacy of economic democracy, and making the case for a rights-based society in a new Ireland.

That will require Irish trade unionists to take strategic positions on supporting an Irish unity referendum and then to campaign positively for constitutional change. Of course, this will be a challenging discussion for the Irish labour movement, and for some others on the Irish left and within progressive opinion. But it should not be feared or avoided.

Today in modern Ireland and Europe there is a battle for hearts and minds about how society is organised. The old order has failed. A united Ireland and a new Europe which serves the interests of the many instead of the few will not be wished into existence.

In Ireland, Labour should not wait again. The Irish labour movement needs to assert itself on the Irish unity debate by introducing a progressive labour agenda to the unfolding discourse on future constitutional and political change.

Across Europe the progressive left has to unite within itself, and develop the breadth of political and social alliances which can change the balance of forces, and popularise a new vision for a social Europe based on democracy, equality and solidarity.

Originally published on 27 February 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.