It is now one month till the UK goes to the polls in what will be the biggest general election in a generation. Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal sits in cold storage, with the Prime Minister searching for that elusive majority. Talk of a return to violence in Northern Ireland meanwhile continues to fill newspaper columns. Here Tommy McKearney, a lifelong socialist republican activist, and Trademark’s Mel Corry offer a considered view of Brexit and the Irish question from the border.
As an organisation dedicated to moving this place beyond conflict Trademark has for the last number of years been working in a supporting role with marginalised communities in the border region. These groups have otherwise been described as ‘dissidents’ due to their divergence from Sinn Fein political orthodoxy. This characterisation is often misplaced and a lazy stereotype, evoking images of armed masked men primed to bring about a resumption of Troubles-era violence at the earliest opportunity.
The reality is much more nuanced. Among the republican constituencies that are active in political and community life along the border there are myriad different views on Brexit, hard borders, soft borders or no borders and everything in between, but the likelihood of a violent upsurge is remote.
Playing the Ulster card
A recent article in the Irish Times reported retired Irish diplomat Sean Ó hUigínn quoting Edmund Burke’s remark that the English have only one ambition in relation to Ireland, which is to hear no more about it. Undoubtedly, with the Brexit backstop causing turmoil in the House of Commons, senior members of the Conservative Party would very likely secretly share that view. Many in Ireland might well suggest that had the English acted on Edmund Burke’s observation and left Ireland way back then, they might be experiencing fewer problems at the moment. However, we can’t change the past and the Irish question has returned to torment Westminster.
Whatever about history, the Brexit debate does not follow the same line of argument in Northern Ireland, as it does in Britain. Local protagonists make different, although paradoxically related, calculations when deciding their position on this issue. Moreover, London and Dublin are also playing the Ulster card, yet more often than not they both conceal the entirety of their reasoning for doing so.
Underlying every political issue in Northern Ireland is the constitutional question of whether the area should continue to be governed from London or have sovereignty transferred to Dublin. Magnifying the importance of this now are two crucial facts. In the first instance there is the perennial fixation on changing demographics, which are indicating the inevitability within the coming decades of a majority in favour of ending the Union. This is compounded by the obvious failure of the Six Counties (of Northern Ireland) to function as a normal political entity.
It is not that people in Northern Ireland are unaware or indifferent to Brexit. It is however the case, that for the most part, they see it as secondary. A contributory factor to this outlook is the attitude of the British and Irish governments with the former speaking of the need to preserve the precious union and the latter raising alarm over a hard border. Unsurprisingly therefore, the two major local political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein have focussed on the constitutional impact of Brexit.
The DUP and Sinn Féin
The DUP favours the hardest of withdrawal options in the hope that it will result in creating maximum divergence between north and south and thereby reinforce the partition of Ireland. While this position wins favour in Unionist heartlands (and among the European Research Group), it has caused concern among some middle-class Unionist supporters who fear economic disruption. Nevertheless, the party’s greatest fear is losing its niche as the principal defender of ‘Protestant Ulster’ and therefore feels obliged to persist with its policy. Having been thrown under the bus they now find themselves at odds with Boris Johnson, the man they once hailed as the only one capable of delivering Brexit.
Disappointingly for supporters of a left-wing exit, Sinn Féin has changed its long-time opposition to the EU. Instead of highlighting the neo-liberal threat from Brussels it now takes the flawed ‘Remain and Reform’ position. With a 55% majority in the Six Counties in favour of remaining, Sinn Féin is making the obvious case that London disregards the will of the Northern Irish. The party has also led a campaign that focuses on the possible albeit greatly exaggerated difficulties posed by a hard border.
Meanwhile the British and Irish governments are spinning their own self-serving tales around Brexit.
British Prime Minister Johnson rejected the backstop option claiming this was because of his deep and abiding affection for the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In reality, this love affair was based firmly on Commons arithmetic. Things have moved on considerably and we now face a general election, with the prospect of a border down the Irish Sea, which in the north is shaping up to be a re-run of the referendum with parties moving into loose pacts to maximise the leave or remain position. The Irish government is not completely frank either with its statements about the impact of Britain leaving the European Union. Dublin has focused greatly on the threat that this poses to the Good Friday Agreement in general and to the maintenance of peace in particular.
Alarmist claims about a return to the pre-1994 ‘Troubles’ are overdone. In spite of the recent death of journalist Lyra McKee, there is little evidence of any real appetite for a return to the widespread conflict of previous decades. If anything, the tragedy illustrated the depth of opposition to armed groups in working-class republican communities.
Moreover, it should also be born in mind that Britain leaving the European Union will not, in itself, alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK whether there is a withdrawal deal or not. Hundreds of loyalists, including the leaders of various rival paramilitary groups, recently gathered at the Con Club in East Belfast to discuss the implications of Boris Johnson’s ‘Betrayal Act’ and their potential response to it. Buoyed by their fruitful relationship with the DUP, talk of loyalist ‘resistance’ and the possibility of violence abounded. Others within the community, however, condemned such rhetoric as ‘irresponsible rabble rousing’ and unrepresentative of the wider views of working-class Unionists – not least those who directly experienced the Northern Ireland conflict. Thus while the capacity of armed loyalist factions to draw marginalised young people into orchestrated acts of violence remains, it is doubtful that these actions would attract mass support.
In a nutshell, the Brexit debate in Ireland, north and south, has largely missed the essential elements of the argument. Northern Ireland is one of the poorest regions of the United Kingdom. Average income is 8.5% less than in Britain and average disposable income is less than 40% of that in London. The economy is in ongoing decline as evidenced by the difficulties faced by the once iconic Harland & Wolff shipyard, Wright Bus and the continued decline of the north’s manufacturing sector. The economic situation in the Republic appears to be infinitely better. However, this disguises an increasingly unequal society with tens of thousands homeless, a two-tier health service leaving the less well-off at a major disadvantage and increasing number of workers in either low-paid or precarious employment.
The answer to these challenges, from a socialist republican perspective, this lies in breaking with free-market capitalist economies, whether controlled by neo-liberals sitting in London or in charge of the European Union. This in essence is the left-wing case in relation to Brexit and applies to Ireland as much as it does to Britain. Instead of working people discussing the necessity of having democratic socialist control of the economy, the powers that be have diverted attention towards a highly unlikely resumption of armed conflict, export delays and possible traffic jams at border crossings.
Marginalised republican constituencies along the border naturally have many concerns about the arrangements that may be put in place post-Brexit and the level of disruption they may cause for communities that were once divided but have gradually become reintegrated. However they have for the most part responded, not with a threat of violence, but by engaging in positive discussions and debates around the economy, workers’ rights, housing, health and education, and the peaceful transition to a new Ireland. Led by groups such as the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, these types of discussions are gaining momentum and proving to be infinitely more attractive to border communities than the prospect of a return to violence, and we will continue working to ensure that this remains the case.
by Tommy McKearney and Mel Corry
Originally published on 11 November 2019 at brexitblog-rosalux.eu as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.
Tommy McKearney is an author and lifelong socialist republican activist. Mel Corry works for Trademark and has primary responsibility for the organisation’s community relations programmes in the border region and across Northern Ireland more broadly.