The Six Counties of Northern Ireland will leave the European Union on 29 March if the UK does.
Yet a 56%-44% majority in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit.
Those who had been brought up Protestant voted 60%-40% for Brexit, those brought up Catholic 85%-15% against. There is a clear democratic majority in both Irelands for the whole island remaining in the EU.
Brexit, with the Northern Ireland electorate a political prisoner of the UK, is likely to do serious damage to Northern Ireland and to Ireland as a whole. It will be yet another brutally anti-democratic imposition on Ireland by Britain, backed now only by a minority even in the Northern Ireland sub-state.
Inescapably, Britain leaving the EU in anything but the ″softest″ (″Norway Plus″) way will mean a restoration and strengthening of the border between Northern Ireland and the 26 Counties, a border which has become almost invisible over the last 15 or so years.
The 26 Counties will remain in the EU. Brexit is likely to involved something like a new partition of Ireland, or partitioning Ireland all over again.
Many who are Protestants and Unionists fear bad consequences for themselves from Brexit. Northern Ireland farmers gain no less than 78% of their income from EU grants. Northern Ireland′s Protestant capitalists and farmers mostly support the EU′s ″backstop″ requirement to harmonise economically across the border, and disapprove of the DUP′s stand against the backstop.
The “backstop” is a legally binding guarantee by Britain not to reimpose a hard border on what will be the only land frontier between Britain and the EU.
But Brexit also brings both pro-EU Irelands more into alignment with each other as part of Europe than either with Britain.
The people of the Six Counties face the choice of having economic borders erected either with the 26 Counties or with Britain. Which? The partition of Ireland and the union of the Six Counties with Britain implies an answer to that question that a big majority in the Six Counties fear and do not want. A big minority of DUP voters do not want it.
How would Northern Ireland vote in a referendum on some variant of a united Ireland within the EU?
You can no longer read the answers off from a headcount of Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists. Many once all-determining factors have changed in the last twenty or so years, not only in the Six but also in the Twenty-Six Counties.
A poll in June 2018 had 42% for a united Ireland, 45% for staying with the UK. Another poll in December 2017 had a majority for a united Ireland in the event of “hard” Brexit.
In its insistence on a legally-guaranteed backstop, the Dublin government has the backing of the EU. The EU insists that a withdrawal agreement will have the backstop - or Britain will leave without an agreement.
For centuries Britain′s rulers feared that their European rivals would use Ireland against Britain, as Spain and France did in the distant past and Germany threatened to in World War 2. Now all of mainland Europe stands solidly with Ireland against Britain.
In the years of the Provo war in Northern Ireland, from 1971 to 1994, the border was what the military struggle against the Provisional IRA required it to be. It was fortified and militarised.
For that reason, although both Britain and the 26 Counties had joined the EU in 1973, the border within Ireland lagged way behind the weakening and near-abolition of borders between countries elsewhere in the EU.
Since the late 1990s Ireland has caught up with the rest of Europe, spectacularly. All the British Army checkpoints on the border were dismantled by 2005. The partition of Ireland has been softened and weakened, losing much of its overt brutality.
Attitudes and identifications have evolved, even though “peace walls” continue to divide the cities of Northern Ireland and electoral politics mostly remains polarised between communally-based Nationalist and Unionist parties.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said recently, in a significant shift from old Sinn Fein attitudes: “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”.
The exigencies of British politics now threaten to undo and dramatically reverse that progress. And worse than that.
Not only the North has changed. In the 26 Counties, there has been a tremendous cultural revolution in the last 25 years. The people of the old priest-ridden Catholic backwater have shattered the power of the Catholic Church.
It is Ireland’s third revolution in the last 150 years. The first was the revolution in land ownership from the 1880s through to the 1920s. The second was the political revolution between 1916 and 1922. Now, the cultural revolution. It might be called the end of the Roman occupation.
The 26 Counties is now a remarkably liberal place. In 1983 a ban on abortion was put into the constitution of the state, in a referendum. In a new referendum in May 2018, 66% voted to remove that ban from the constitution, and thus to bring women’s rights in the 26 Counties into line with Britain and the rest of Europe.
The current Taoiseach is openly gay.
In the past, honest people could not deny the truth in the Orange cry against Irish self-government: “Home Rule is Rome Rule”. It is no longer true.
Economic relations between North and South have also changed. At the time of Partition, in 1920-2, two-thirds of all Ireland’s industrial production was in the North-East. The 26 Counties are now more economically dynamic than the Six.
The dispute over Brexit and a restoration of the border is paralleled by a pulling-apart of power-sharing within Northern Ireland, and a weakening of the will of both the DUP and Sinn Fein to sustain power-sharing. There has been no Northern Ireland government in Belfast for more than two years, and there is no progress towards one.
That is an urgent argument for abandoning the Northern Ireland framework, which is artificial, creating a Catholic-Nationalist minority which was proportionately bigger than the Protestant minority in all Ireland at the time of Partition. In the 2011 census, 45% of Northern Ireland’s population was Catholic or brought up Catholic, as again 48% Protestant.
The power-sharing Belfast government collapsed in January 2017, when Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned as deputy First Minister. London has run the Six Counties since then.
The breakdown in Belfast is almost as farcical as it is irresponsible. There are two issues,and a difference in social philosophy between the DUP and, it seems, the majority of Six Counties people.
The First Minister before January 2017, Arlene Foster of the DUP, had been running the Department of Enterprise when things went wrong with a “Renewable Heat Incentive” scheme, resulting in the loss to the Northern Ireland government of millions of pounds.
Sinn Fein suggested that Foster should ″withdraw″ as First Minister while the affair was investigated. Backed by the DUP, she refused.
The second issue is the Gaelic language in Northern Ireland. The DUP Communities Minister scrapped a fund of £55,000 that provided bursaries for poor people wanting to attend Gaelic language classes in the small Gaelic-speaking Donegal ″Gaeltacht″ (just across the border from Derry). That was petty harassment, and a piece of childish nose-thumbing at the nationalists.
The ″language question″ has a special place in the minds and hearts of nationalists. It is not a matter of the rights of people whose first language is Gaelic. There aren′t any in the Six Counties, and very few in the 26.
It is a question of ″reviving″ Gaelic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 promised to treat the Gaelic language as ″part of the cultural wealth of Northern Ireland″. Sinn Fein talked about giving it “parity of esteem” with English. To balance that, and perhaps to prove that someone had a sense of humour, the Agreement also contains a promise to treat ″Ulster-Scots″ as ″part of the cultural wealth″.
There is no-one in the Six Counties whose first language is ″Ulster-Scots″, and very few who speak it at all, though some people will have had distant ancestors speaking it. It has had no equivalent importance among Unionists to that of Gaelic among Nationalists.
On the same level of nonsense is a “Gaelic or English” conflict about the name of a fisheries protection ship. It has been renamed in English, the Queen of Ulster. It had been called, in Gaelic, the Beanriadh Uladh. Both names mean the same thing.
There are more serious and more fundamental differences between the former power-sharing Executive partners, the DUP and Sinn Fein, on social questions such as abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Sinn Fein, like 26 Counties society, and much of the Six Counties, is socially far more liberal than the DUP, whose outlook is something like the mindset in the US Bible Belt, with which Ulster Protestants have many direct links.
The March 2017 Northern Ireland election did not shift the elements of the stalemate between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Sinn Fein made gains, winning just one seat fewer than the DUP. The prospect of losing its place as the biggest party, entitled to provide the First Minister, will not have made the DUP more amenable.
The collapse of the Executive registers a collapse of the DUP′s and Sinn Fein’s will to operate it. That is the most important thing about it.
On the other side, so the Irish Times reports, is some Sinn Fein recoil from the extremes of kow-towing to the British Establishment by the Republican leaders, as when Martin McGuinness, who died in March 2017, ran over to London for the unveiling of a portrait of the Queen by an Ulster artist.
In truth, the old picture of DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein′s Martin McGuinness (both now dead) doing their laughing-and-joking ″chuckle brothers″ act, and the picture of Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein bowing to Elizabeth II and hobnobbing with her son Charles have seemed surreal.
In short, Northern Ireland affairs seem to be ebbing back into the old channels. Republican militarists are comparatively weak, but they are active.
The explosion of justified Nationalist-Catholic discontent in Northern Ireland that led to the Provo war will not be repeated. Things are vastly different now. But the space for militarism will increase with a regeneration of a hard border.
A united Ireland, with special rights for the British-Irish minority in the north-east, is the only democratic way forward now. It is possible because of the shifts in Northern Ireland opinion and the economic and cultural changes in the 26 Counties.
Socialists should advocate it.