An open letter on Brexit to Irish people in Britain

Submitted by AWL on 9 October, 2019 - 8:40 Author: Sean Matgamna
irish in britain

Brexit means the xenophobic and reactionary unravelling of the European unity that has taken many decades to knit together.

And for Ireland, Brexit threatens nothing less than the catastrophe of a new partition.

Isn’t it time that the Irish population of Britain raised a collective voice against Brexit?

There are 430,000 Irish immigrants in Britain, and millions of people of recent Irish descent. Yet there has been no outcry from this potential power in British politics against the wrong being done to Ireland by Britain.

In Britain Brexit has led to the creation of a government under a buffoon-Mussolini, school bully-boy Johnson, that is undermining parliamentary government. That threatens to rule in defiance of the will of Parliament.

That claims to act on the authority of a referendum now more than three years old, and refuses to hold a “people’s vote” on the realities of Brexit — now that those realities are known to the voters as they were not known three years ago.

Brexit has produced to the biggest constitutional crisis since the Home Rule crisis of 1912-4.

The unification of Europe has been a great achievement. Tariffs have come down. Restrictions on movement by people between the component states have been abolished. A degree of political unification has been achieved.

Of course there is a lot wrong with the EU. Bureaucracy clogs the elements of Europe-wide democracy. Even so, Europe is more united now than it has been since the 5th century and the collapse of the western Roman Empire.

Europe has been knitting itself together, slowly, over seven decades since the end of the Second World War. Within that, Ireland, North and South, has been knitting together over the decades since the end of the IRA military campaign.

For the decades of the Provo war, while borders between European states almost disappeared, the border between Ireland’s Six and Twenty-Six counties remained strong and stifling because of the military conflict. After the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, the border as a physical thing, as a real impediment to movement across it, came down quickly, catching up after the decades in which it had lagged behind the rest of Europe.

Ireland has now a more integrated all-island economy than ever before. Outside of British and Irish membership of the EU, that would not have happened.

The conflict between Ireland’s nationalist and Unionist peoples that, with Britain’s malign help, tore Ireland apart a hundred years ago, was sometimes expressed as an argument about the proper politico-geographic unit of which Ireland was seen to be part.

Nationalists said that the island of Ireland is the unit. Unionists said: the UK is the unit.

British and Irish membership of the EU, from January 1973, changed that irresoluble dispute by placing both the UK and the 26 counties as parts of a much broader unit — Europe itself. That has drawn much of the poison out of the old dispute.

Brexit reignites the old dispute, and with the prospect of a hard border across the island. It removes Britain from the broader European framework within which the 26 Counties remains, and within which, in the 2016 referendum, a clear majority of the Six Counties people voted to remain too.

Brexit is the recreation of tariffs and borders between the UK and the rest of Europe. In Ireland a hard or no-deal Brexit means restoring a hard border and tariffs between the six UK counties and the 26 EU counties. The land border between the EU and the UK will run across the island of Ireland. The partition border will be restored and strengthened, this time against the will of the majorities both in the Six and in the 26 Counties.

A majority of the people in the Six Counties voted against Brexit. No matter! Northern Ireland is riveted to England. Where England goes, the Six Counties must go too.

The EU’s insistence on a guarantee against that — the “backstop” — has been the main obstacle to an agreement between the UK and the EU. The decadence of British politics has now produced a situation in which British government have talked vaguely about high-tech “alternatives to the backstop” to avoid a hard intra-Irish border, when experts on such things deny that such alternatives are workable.

Johnson’s new “alternative” is a piece of obvious jiggery-pokery. Checkpoints, he suggests, are to be not along the border but a few miles back from it. That can only mean two borders, and a no-man’s-land bounded by hard borders marking it off from both the Six and 26 Counties.

And that is avoiding a “hard” border? It would be a joke were it not that this piece of irresponsible charlatan patter conjures up, as it does, the memory of the horrors that went with the old hard border.

The Johnson “alternative” would give the Belfast Assembly — which hasn’t met for two and a half years — a four-yearly option to withdraw from single-market and agri-regulation agreements covering Ireland. That is to give, or risk giving, the DUP, the biggest voting bloc in the Six Counties, a veto over the whole island.

In the Home Rule crisis on the eve of World War 1 (1912-4), the Protestant Unionist minority concentrated in north-east Ulster won a veto over all-Ireland Home Rule. They won it by organising and drilling a private army — the Ulster Volunteers — which, with the active support of the Tory party, threatened armed rebellion against any Home Rule government in Dublin and against a British government which dared set it up.

In 1972-73, the Catholic-nationalist minority in the Six Counties won a veto within the Six Counties on Protestant-Unionist sectarian majority rule. They won it by peaceful politics and by armed rebellion against the Unionist sub-state and against Britain.

Johnson proposes to give the DUP, the major Northern Ireland party as of now, a four-yearly right to withdraw from the “alternative” to the backstop — that is, a delayed veto over matters that concern the whole island. To give such power to the minority in the Brexit referendum is a recipe for political conflict and chaos. It makes neither democratic nor realpolitik sense.

Ireland has experienced tremendous progress in the last half-century (quarter-century in the North).

The older generations of Irish settlers in Britain left an Ireland economically paralysed, socially backward, a virtual theocracy, in the grip of a clerical repression stronger than that of fascist Spain and Portugal.

Today the 26 Counties, with its openly gay Taoiseach, is one of the most liberal places in Europe. Now it is the DUP part of the Six Counties that is backward and unenlightened.

The exigencies of British politics now threaten all the progress that has been made. Brexit and the restoration of a glowering, strong border across the island should be resisted for that reason by everyone who wishes Ireland (and Britain too, of course) well.

We, the Irish settled in Britain, are strong in British society. We are no longer the throng of undereducated people we were in the past. We are strong in the UK labour movement.

Organise against Brexit! Make Irish voices heard, in the interests of both Ireland and Britain. Demonstrate outside Parliament.

Mobilise to strengthen a Labour Party which — too timidly and uncertainly, I agree — wants a second. “people’s”, vote on Brexit.

Talk about the issue with English people who, sometimes for good but confused reasons like feeling disempowered, are for Brexit.

Organise an Irish voice in a “people’s vote”, if it comes to that.

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