The politics of Irish unity and a social Europe – Part 1

by Declan Kearney

This week’s guest post, the first of two parts, is penned by Declan KearneySinn Féin National Chairperson and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for South Antrim. Here he sketches out the historical, economic and political context in which Brexit has brought the question of Irish unification to the fore. Tomorrow, we will bring you his thoughts on the political realignments, alliances, interventions that will be required to build a new Ireland and a social Europe.

The only certainty about Brexit is that it is a product of an ideological civil war within the British Tory Party, which has destabilised that party since the British state joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

Theresa May’s approach to handling the Brexit negotiations since she became British Prime Minister has been governed by how she manages those divisions in order to maintain her leadership and a Tory government in power.

Outwardly the British government’s conduct of negotiations with the EU has been chaotic. It is impossible to predict what may happen next, as developments unfold.

However, in practice all of the vacillation has been about playing for time. In the context of the looming 29 March withdrawal date set by triggering Article 50, it seems the clock is being run down. Ultimately, Theresa May appears to be attempting brinkmanship with the Tory Brexit extremists, and the Tory government’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), by presenting a zero sum scenario, that the only alternative to supporting her Brexit option is potentially no agreement with the EU.

Brexit ‘a catastrophe’

All the economic forecasts suggest that Brexit will be bad for Britain. However, its imposition will be a catastrophe for Ireland’s island economy, and the regional economic system in the north of Ireland.

The entire political thrust of Brexit runs counter to the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which represents the architecture of the Irish peace process. The GFA put in place a power-sharing system requiring cooperation between the biggest parties representing the north’s two main communities – currently Sinn Féin and the DUP. The Agreement also includes strong all-island provisions in addition to protections for those who have an Irish national identity and aspire to the reunification of Ireland. The DUP’s support for Brexit however threatens to further weaken the already fragile political process in the northern state, while guaranteeing a new border and more division in Ireland.

The imposition of Brexit by the British Tory government on the north of Ireland is inherently undemocratic in nature. It is contrary to the will of the majority in the north of Ireland who voted to remain in the EU.

But it is also a direct by product of Ireland’s undemocratic and continued partition, enforced by British colonial policy. Partition is the central fault line at the heart of Irish society and politics. One key historical consequence of British colonial policy in Ireland and its consequences for Irish society has been to divide Irish workers along communal lines. That has paralysed the labour movement from effectively challenging partition and championing the strategic aim of Irish unity.

Labour, partition and counter revolution

The fact is Labour was indeed told to wait when the resurgent struggle for national independence grew in momentum just over 100 years ago. However, rather than securing national independence, that phase of struggle culminated in partition and the emergence of two conservative states in the north and south of the island.

The counter revolution which took place after partition represented a strategic setback for labour and working-class interests in the new southern ‘free state’. It eclipsed the seminal influence which socialist republicanism had on the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.

The rights of workers became subservient to the conservative elites, north and south. Sections of the labour movement were also compliant with British policy in Ireland and the imposition of partition. These tendencies opposed the core position championed by James Connolly, Ireland’s most prominent socialist republican revolutionary leader that “the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, were not antagonistic but complementary”.

This division reflects key a contradiction within the Irish labour movement and its relationship with the Irish national liberation struggle, and anti-imperialism generally; and which has endured since the beginning of the twentieth century. As a result, the Irish labour movement, particularly in the north of Ireland, has failed to challenge partition and modern British state policy towards Ireland.

Political Unionism and crisis in the north of Ireland

Partition has been an abject failure. It was never designed to make the northern state a political or economic success. From the beginning this state has carried within it the conditions of inherent instability. It was built upon institutionalised and structural sectarianism which ensured that a substantial minority – specifically the Irish nationalist population – was destined never to be treated as equals.

The Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago exposed the inability of the Unionist state to treat the minority as equals. That belligerent opposition from powerful sections within political Unionism against reform of the northern state persists today. Unionism is a political position that seeks to maintain the north of Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK, and it comes in different strains, including that of a broad-based civic Unionism. However, the DUP represents the dominant force within Unionism – and it is they who have remained hostile towards implementation of the GFA since 1998.

Refusal by the DUP to embrace a rights-based society and equality, culminated in the collapse of the GFA political institutions – the north’s regional government – in January 2017, and the associated political crisis which has continued since then. As was clearly spelt out by Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness, who had held the position of Joint First Minister in the regional government since 2007, in his resignation letter:

“The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP.

Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry.”

In addition, during the preceding months it emerged that an ill-conceived green energy Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was seriously mismanaged by departments within the regional government held by DUP ministers, including the DUP leader Arlene Foster. This was the latest in a string of financial scandals implicating the DUP, following Red Sky and NAMA, and thus represented the last straw for many republicans.

As a consequence of RHI, £500 million may be lost to the north’s budget and vital public services. Serious allegations that the scheme was open to abuse and corruption are now the subject of a public inquiry established by the former Sinn Féin Minister for Finance. The scandal threatens to destabilise for decades the financial basis of regional public services due to serious mismanagement and the parallel allegations of insider trading, aggressive commercial exploitation and corruption.

Between March 2017 and February 2018 five phases of consecutive negotiations occurred to try and re-establish the political institutions. On 9 February 2018, Sinn Féin and the DUP arrived at an advanced draft agreement which provided the basis for restoration of the regional government. Five days later the DUP unilaterally stepped away from that agreement and have refused to engage in meaningful negotiations ever since.

It is clear those currently in charge of the DUP do not support proper power-sharing. The party brand has become indistinguishable from financial scandal and sharp practice in government. As a party, the DUP is permanently in conflict with all accepted democratic reforms, social modernity, and standards in public office. Its project is negative and tactical, and entirely focused upon slowing down and blocking progressive change, while maintaining hegemony within the Unionist constituency.

The DUP is in denial about how society in Ireland, and even Britain, views its sectarian, homophobic and toxic pact with the Tories. The overwhelming majority of republicans, nationalists and many others, including sections of civic Unionism, have concluded that the DUP has had its chance and cannot now be trusted in government. They will not be giving the DUP permission to get back into power at the risk of allowing it to continue practicing discrimination, intimidation, bigotry, or sharp practice.

Brexit and Tory austerity

This deepening political crisis is further accentuated by systemic structural weaknesses in the regional economy of the north. The required investment in local public services and protection of workers’ rights are denied by a combination of Tory austerity and imposition of Brexit. Pressures on public services are intensifying. The regional block grant, or public expenditure settlement allocated by the British government exchequer has been reduced by 10.2%.

Real term cuts to public funding are now factored into future budget profiles alongside:

• Actual net cuts in take home pay for public and private sector workers;

• Welfare cuts;

• Higher inflation and living costs.

Moreover, 108,600 adults in working families are living in relative poverty. Average wages in the north remain lower than ten years ago. Precarious working conditions, zero hours’ contracts, and the scam of bogus self-employment used by some employers are in common practice. Workers’ rights and protections are being systematically reversed.

So, the onset of Brexit is set to deepen an existing race to the bottom by further undermining the potential for economic growth, and new investment. The Brexit agenda, twinned with Tory austerity threaten jobs across all economic sectors, workers’ terms and conditions, and, any potential for sustainable public services in the north.

All island threats

The twin challenges of Brexit and austerity extend into the south of Ireland, where the inequality divide continues to deepen notwithstanding its supposed recovery since the financial crash destroyed the southern economy. Huge pay disparities, precarious working conditions, and labour unrest all sit alongside a lack of investment and resultant, endemic crises in health and housing. Four thousand children are made to sleep in temporary accommodation each week due to the lack of affordable housing in the southern state.

In addition, the all island economic activity which has greatly expanded as a result of the peace process and has become a key driver for trade, investment and employment creation within the south is now directly jeopardised by Brexit.

Ireland north and south faces a perfect storm of adversity, which can be weathered only by strengthening the all-Irish labour movement and by pursuing Irish unity within a social Europe.

Originally published on 26 February 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.