The Tory government promises that it can find a fudge to solve the Irish border riddle, or at least to push it a safe distance into the future. Somehow they think they can combine: • Northern Ireland being sufficiently integrated into the EU Single Market and Customs Union to allow the Border within Ireland to remain almost invisible • Britain being sufficiently outside the EU Single Market and Customs Union to satisfy Tory nationalists • no economic barrier between the Northern Ireland which is “almost in” the EU and a Britain which is definitely out. How long, and how well, they can fudge, we don’t know.
What concerns us is what the labour movement, Irish and British, says and does about this. Owen Reidy, assistant general secretary of the (all-island) Irish Congress of Trade Unions, wrote in an Irish Times op-ed (22 October): “The possibility of a no-deal Brexit and a hard border on the island is unacceptable to us...
“Equally we argue that a border in the Irish Sea within the UK between Britain and Northern Ireland is also unacceptable.
“An economic border within the UK will damage workers’ interests in Derry, Newry and Belfast irrespective of those workers’ views on the constitutional issue...
“The only possible Brexit that can emerge is the softest possible...
“The UK as a whole should be in a customs union with the EU. This would generally negate the need for a hard border, facilitate a free-trade agreement and address unionist concerns regarding Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK”.
Jeremy Corbyn, on a visit to Northern Ireland in May 2018, said: “Labour will not support any Brexit deal that includes the return of a hard border to this island... We are also clear there must be no effective border created in the Irish Sea”. He also said that “the UK government should be neutral in a border poll”: this was reported (and Corbyn didn’t contest it) as indicating that Labour should be neutral in a border poll.
Declan Kearney of Sinn Fein spoke recently at an ICTU event, saying: “The labour movement will only successfully put its mark on the Irish unity debate by asserting the primacy of economic democracy, and 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”.
For decades Sinn Fein were quasi-autarkic nationalists, and in 1982 they dropped their previous policy of a federal united Ireland, designed (though clumsily in detail) as “a hand of friendship to unionists”. They thought they could instead push the British government into “persuading” (coercing) the British-Irish of the north-east into a united Ireland. Since the late 1990s they have shifted into relying instead on EU integration and the demographic changes in Northern Ireland (Belfast now has a Catholic majority) to nudge towards a united Ireland.
In 1971, the Sinn Fein programme called for a “campaign to revoke the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement” and declared: “Should Ireland be forced into the [EU] on England’s heels, Sinn Fein will resist and oppose Brussels domination just as the Irish people have resisted British domination for centuries”. Now Sinn Fein talk of “promoting a United Ireland as a location for investment and access to the Single European Market”. Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald also says: “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”.
Up to the middle of 2018, Sinn Fein said that the question of a Border poll in the North should be put to one side while uncertainty about Brexit remained. Since then they have insisted that they will campaign for a new referendum in Northern Ireland on Irish unity if there is a “no deal” or “hard” Brexit.
The language of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the biggest party of the British-Irish in Northern Ireland, has changed too. On 15 October DUP leader Arlene Foster went to Dublin to seek common ground with the Dublin government on Brexit, and spoke of Northern Ireland and the South as “‘two semi-detached houses’ with different interiors but in the same community”. The communal divisions and the “Peace Walls” in Northern Ireland remain, but the new ferment around the Border finds an Ireland which, mostly thanks to the slow processes of EU economic integration, is more open and fluid on the issues than before.
The labour movement, Irish and British, should not only oppose the hardening or erection of borders, but also positively campaign for a federal united Ireland, allowing local autonomy to the British-Irish-majority north east, and closely linked with Britain through Britain remaining in the EU. More than at any time before, perhaps, there is a possibility of uniting the Irish working class, north and south, around a policy like that, combined with unifying social and economic demands.
The Brexit plan isn’t working
Prime minister Theresa May told Parliament on 22 October that her Brexit deal is “95% complete”. This was like saying that a boat has 95% of the construction necessary to stop it sinking. Call it 95% or call it 99%, the boat will still sink.
Probably the Tories will still do some sort of deal eventually. The bulk of the ruling class both in Britain and in the EU wants a deal, and a fairly “soft” deal, and the odds must be that they will find negotiators able to pull it off. Probably, though, only at the 11th or the 13th hour. In the nature of such negotiations, neither side will want to settle a deal until they are sure that they have squeezed the maximum concessions by pushing the talks as near breakdown as they dare.
The problem of the Irish border remains unresolved. The Tories’ current plans for remaining partially in, or “almost” in, the Customs Union and the Single Market, remain unclarified. The Tories talk of abolishing free movement across European borders in favour of a regime where migrant workers from wherever have to show they are “high-skilled”, by commanding a high salary, to get in. (So a young quantum-physics researcher, or a carpenter, is “unskilled”, and a banker is “skilled”).
That remains to be tested, though, on how it fits with what the Tories will want on approximation to Single Market access and on ability for British people to move to the continent. The “missing 5%” is huge. Even if the Tories eventually get a deal, it will probably include blurs and fudges, and leave issues to be worked through and disputed for years to come. It may get a “well, not so bad after all” reaction from some people, but it will surely also evoke a new right-wing mobilisation from strongly nationalist Brexit supporters who will feel that they have been cheated. The question is, what will the labour movement do?
Labour Party conference on 23-26 September was railroaded into rejecting debate in favour of a session organised around a single, heavily-fudged, composite motion, with no alternatives on the table. Everything in Labour Party policy remains unclear other than rejection of free movement, a promise to vote against more or less any Tory deal, and a promise somehow to negotiate better than the Tories.
Public opinion is moving against Brexit. A 46%-42% majority now says that Brexit is wrong (though a chunk of the 46% say Brexit should still go ahead because of the June 2016 referendum). Opinion is divided about 50/50 on a new “people’s vote”.
Although Workers’ Liberty was there with stalls, banners, placards, and red flags, at the 700,000 strong march on 20 October for a “People’s Vote” on any Brexit deal the visible Labour Party presence was minimal. Labour had nothing to say about the march. Only 37% of Labour voters say they think Labour policy on Brexit is clear. 48% of Labour voters (and 68% of all voters) say Labour policy is unclear or confusing. Only 48% of Labour voters say they back the Labour leadership’s approach on Brexit. Even amid the Tories’ current turmoil, and with only 16% of people saying that the Brexit talks are going well, 61% of Tory voters say they back May’s.
The Tories’ Brexit plans aren’t working well, and Labour’s equivocation is not working well. Whatever Labour people may have thought about Brexit in 2016, we now have the evidence that any even halfway likely Brexit deal, though not necessarily “hard”, will be a mess, damaging in Ireland, and regressive.
After 20 October, socialists should step up efforts to win Labour to: • defending the free movement which already exists across European borders, and committing to extend free movement beyond that • opposing Brexit • positively advocating a democratic and socialist united Europe • saying that no Brexit deal should be allowed to go through without a new “people’s vote”, and committing to oppose Brexit in such a vote.