Referendum magic for Ireland?

Submitted by martin on 11 December, 2018 - 11:04 Author: Micheál MacEoin
Irish border

At the Another Europe is Possible conference on 8 December 2018, Workers' Liberty moved an amendment on Ireland.

The strategy document wanted to "support the self-determination of the... Irish people, by supporting their right to a referendum on...unification...", presenting that as analogous to supporting the right to a referendum in Scotland on separation.

We proposed: "To support democratic self-determination for Ireland, believing that a United Ireland with constitutional safeguards to accommodate the rights of the British-Irish minority provides the best terrain to overcome national division and further progressive movements."

The amendment, after not very much debate, was defeated, leaving in place the original text.

The very idea of constitutional safeguards, or reference to "British-Irish" as a shorthand for those Irish people who maintain a sense of British identity, was deprecated as a "colonial" position by a comrade from Left Unity.

Far from being a "colonial" position, it is indicative of how the debate on Irish unity is shifting. In August of this year, for instance, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou MacDonald stated that "British identity can and must be accommodated in a united Ireland, and I believe nationalist Ireland is open to constitutional and political safeguards to ensure this".

In the AEIP debate, a comrade from Socialist Resistance implored delegates at a "British" meeting to vote against the amendment so as not to tell the "Irish people" how to exercise their self-determination.

But the original formulation, that the Irish national question be solved by an all-Ireland referendum on unification, is itself a demand which is not being raised in Ireland itself, and possibly never has been.

Pre-1998, the republican demand was simply for British withdrawal; post-Good Friday Agreement, and very recently, Sinn Fein has raised the demand for a "border poll", a separate vote in each of the 6 and 26 Counties.

The referendum proposed by AEIP would have to be organised jointly by the 6 and 26 Counties governments, or jointly by the British and Dublin governments, so it's hardly a "leave to the Irish" solution. In effect, an appeal to Irish identity politics was mobilised to defeat a position the comrade did not like, disguising the fact that initial formulation was rather more "prescriptive" as the amendment.

As it stands now, the AEIP strategy document makes little sense. Treating an all-Ireland referendum on Irish unity as simply analogous to a referendum in Scotland on separation essentially assumes that the problem of partition has already been solved - i.e. that it is already agreed on all sides Ireland should be treated as one unit for the purposes of a referendum, just as it is agreed on all sides what "Scotland" is for the purposes of a referendum.

But that is the very issue under dispute. The proposed referendum could not resolve the dispute, but could only be organised after the dispute had already been resolved.

It could not possibly solve the problem of how to reconcile the Unionist minority to a United Ireland, something which is a necessary part of breaking pro-Unionist workers from sectarian parties such as the DUP. It could only happen if that problem had already been solved.

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