Brexit and the Six Counties: for a federal united Ireland

Submitted by martin on 16 March, 2021 - 4:49 Author: Micheál MacEoin
Border protest

This year marks the unhappy centenary of the foundation of the state of Northern Ireland, which was born amid sectarian violence in 1921.

The Brexit debacle and, most recently, the hastily withdrawn threat from the European Commission to trigger ‘Article 16’ of the Northern Ireland Protocol, have brought into sharp relief the dysfunctional nature of the Six Counties, and the underlying weaknesses of the post-1998 ‘peace process’.

Amid growing calls for a ‘border poll’ on a United Ireland, socialists must address the situation head on, if an entrenchment of sectarian politics and growing division in the working class is to be avoided.

Protestant State for a Protestant People

Northern Ireland was, as its first premier James Craig said, a Protestant state for a Protestant people. Its borders were drawn not to any democratic criteria but to guarantee the largest territory compatible with a Protestant majority in the new partitioned state.

The Catholic minority was discriminated against, and largely withdrew from engagement with the state. The Irish Nationalist Party famously had one achievement to its name in the old Stormont, the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1931.

When the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s raised demands which included equal votes and an end to discrimination in the provision of social housing, it brought into question the fundamentals of the Orange State. Sectarian discrimination flowed naturally from the underlying denial of the national rights of the Irish Catholic minority, thus raising the national question, which became the central focus of political life.

With a ready-made answer, and bolstered by the repression first of the RUC and, after 1969, by the British Army, the Provisional IRA launched an armed campaign for British withdrawal.

While the IRA campaign justly blamed British imperialism for the situation in Ireland, at the same time it misdiagnosed another underlying issue, which was one of competing national rights between the Irish Catholic majority on the island and the Protestant minority in the north east of Ireland.

The IRA campaign, in attempting to force the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland into a united Ireland, had a sectarian dynamic, and set back the causes of Irish unity and socialism.

Good Friday Agreement

That conflict lasted 1969 to 1998. In one sense it was ended by the Good Friday Agreement. But in another way, politics is war by other means. Workers’ Liberty was glad that the armed conflict came to an end, seeing in the possibility of peace the promise of better conditions for the development of working-class politics.

Nevertheless, we were critical of the Agreement and did not call for a vote for it. The Northern Ireland Assembly, which followed the Agreement, is based on a complex system of power-sharing. All parties have to designate Unionist, Nationalist or Other, and the Unionists and Nationalists are in a privileged position because their votes count for more in votes on key cross-community issues.

Power-sharing freezes communal identities. It reinforces and seeks to manage a sectarian dynamic without providing an ultimate route out.

The way to ‘win’ politically in the post-1998 system is to pose as the best defender of ‘your community’. That is why since the early 2000s, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been successful as the two largest parties, each one mobilising its base partially on the basis of outpolling the other.

It has been very difficult, in this context, to carve out an independent working-class politics in Northern Ireland because the national question, which has dominated at least since the Second Home Rule crisis in the 1890s, is still the main determinant of political identity.


Turning to the present, Brexit has shaken up politics in Ireland, making national and constitutional questions all the more pressing.

It could be, and was, plausibly argued that common EU membership between Ireland and Britain made the UK-Irish border less contentious.

Brexit has reminded us that the Border matters. With Ireland in the EU and Northern Ireland outside the bloc, Brexit conjured up the spectre of physical border checks and infrastructure, which was unacceptable to nationalists, to the Irish government, the EU and the United States.

A soft Brexit, while still reactionary, would have been the neatest solution from the narrow perspective of border in Ireland. If the whole of the UK was in the single market and customs union, there would be no need for border checks, either in Ireland or between Ireland and Great Britain.

Unwilling to sign up to that, the May government proposed a ‘backstop’; that if no problem to the hard border was found, the whole of the UK would remain in the customs territory.

That was rejected both by the DUP and the Brexiteers because it would have meant a softer Brexit.

Now we are left with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is proving so contentious at the moment.

The Protocol was a huge sell-out of the DUP by the Tories. The DUP, having sided with the Brexiteers to make a softer Brexit impossible, have now been left with a border not on the island of Ireland but in the sea between Northern Ireland and the UK.

History is repeating itself again. In 1921, the then leader of the Unionists, Sir Edward Carson, reflected on how the Tories had used Unionist opposition to Home Rule as a battering ram against the Liberals said: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative party into power.”

For Carson, put Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson; for the Conservative party, put the Johnson wing of the Tories.

The DUP are suffering in the polls, with their support draining to the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). In a recent opinion poll, SF are the largest party with 24% and, if replicated in an election, would take the First Minister position.

The DUP have fallen to 19%, just one point ahead of Alliance, with the SDLP and Ulster Unionists at 13% and 12% respectively, and TUV up at 10%.

What, then, about unity?

In the 2011 census, 45.1% of the population specified that they were Catholic or brought up Catholic and 48.4% were from a Protestant or other Christian background.

On national identity 39.9% considered themselves British only, 25.3% Irish only, 20.9% Northern Irish only, with others specifying multiple national identities.

Belfast now has a Catholic majority and, as of the December 2019 general election, three out of the four Belfast Westminster seats were won by nationalists or republicans.

The Northern Ireland census will be collected on 21 March, with results due in the summer.

Of course, demography is not politics, but it does point a direction of travel. If, as some expect, the 2021 census indicates that Northern Ireland has a higher proportion of Catholics than Protestants, the pressure will continue to rise for a Border Poll.

A poll carried out for the Sunday Times in January 2021 found that 51 per cent of people surveyed in Northern Ireland would support such a referendum in the next five years, with 44 per cent opposed and 5 per cent not having an opinion.

It also found that Northern Irish voters by a margin of 48 per cent to 44 per cent think there will be a united Ireland within 10 years.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a Border poll can be called by the Northern Secretary “if at any time it appears likely to him/her that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

Any border poll would in fact be two polls; one in the Republic of Ireland and one in Northern Ireland.

The latest poll found that 47 per cent was in favour of maintaining the North’s link with Britain with 42 per cent in favour of a united Ireland.

This is short of the criterion required to call a Border poll at the moment but it should begin conversations in the labour movement about how to respond to the growing salience of national and constitutional issues.

What the left says

The debate on the left has, so far, become polarised around the question of a Border Poll: for or against?

The Socialist Party is opposed to a border poll, arguing in 2017 that “whatever the outcome, such a poll will result in a qualitative increase in sectarianism, and potentially could reignite armed conflict.”

More recently, the SP writes that “a border poll would not be a solution and, in reality, would be a sectarian headcount. The binary choice that would be offered – maintenance of the Union or a capitalist united Ireland – is not a basis to reconcile the two communities here with opposing national identities and aspirations.”

Ultimately: “There can be no solution to the sectarian conflict on the basis of capitalism or sectarian coercion”, and the SP “argues for a socialist Ireland where the rights of all communities are guaranteed, free from coercion, as part of a democratic, voluntary and socialist federation with Scotland, England and Wales.”

People Before Profit, which is dominated by the Socialist Workers Network (SWN) meanwhile, argue simply that: “People have every right to aspire to a United Ireland and they should be able to put their case before the people of the North – and the South.”

In response to concerns that a Border Poll would be divisive, PBP write that: “The same argument was deployed to stop a referendum on gay marriage and on Repeal. Every referendum divides opinion. Every call for change divides opinion. But this is not a reason to hold up democracy.”

“Only by linking an end to partition with real economic change can we win a vote, argues PBP. “This will ensure that a United Ireland benefits all workers, whatever their background” and, rather optimistically, “we can all live in peace and harmony and without having one tradition dictate to another.”

If the SP position overstates the dangers of a Border Poll and, in effect, grants Protestants a veto on holding one, the PBP position falls into the opposite trap of down-playing Protestant fears of a united Ireland and the consequent need for socialists to address them.

Both SP and PBP unite in their common avoidance of a democratic programme that could unite workers across the sectarian divide; the SP, because unity around economic demands is sufficient to generate momentum towards a Socialist Ireland (as presumably solving the question of the border is more difficult than overthrowing capitalism!) and PBP because it is a simple question of majoritarianism, and Protestants are in the minority.

Neither of these positions, we would argue, is sufficient.

Former SP member and Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, whose new grouping RISE has recently joined People Before Profit (PBP), recently published a long article (‘Unifying a divided working class’) in the RISE journal Rupture.

RISE has been re-thinking its positions, including on the national question. In the article, Murphy argues, reasonably, that the SP positions amounts to saying “to Catholics, who from a position of minority are set to become a majority, you must accept this status quo until the struggle for socialism is ready to resolve the national question.”

Murphy argues that though the Border Poll “is not our response to the national question, just as the Good Friday Agreement was not our response to the sectarian conflict in the North,” it nevertheless “exists both legally, and, as a consequent of that legal existence, politically as a reference point for people form Catholic communities seeking to end their national oppression.”

Therefore, though the sectarian dangers of a Border Poll are real, “for socialists, who are in a small minority at this stage, to answer that they ‘oppose’ a border poll is the equivalent of blowing back at a hurricane to try to get it to go away. This is coming whether we like it or not, and socialists have to engage with it.”

As for how socialists should engage, Murphy recommends support for a Border Poll and a ‘Yes’ vote for Irish unity.

However, this should be part of an “anti-sectarian campaign based on Catholic and Protestant working-class communities” independent of nationalist parties such as Sinn Fein.

Such a campaign should raise “awareness about Protestant fears about being an oppressed minority within a unified state, explaining the concerns they have to lose not only their identity, but also public services superior to those in the South.” Socialists, he argues, “need to emphasise the need to protect the rights of the Protestant minority, as well as other minorities” within a united Ireland.

Murphy is correct, too, that any campaign for a united Ireland must be linked to the “building of a democratic socialist Europe, which would include close co-operation and relations with working-class people across the continent.”

Unlike Murphy, who supported Brexit at the time, we would argue that Brexit makes this task more difficult. Brexit increased the divisions in the working class and raised additional borders, making it more difficult to build international working-class unity.

Overall, however, Murphy’s position on the Border Poll seems closer to the mark than both the SP and PBP positions.

For a federal united Ireland

The fixation on a Border Poll – for or against – is an unhelpful framing.

Rather than campaigning positively for or explicitly against a Border Poll before it is clear whether the conditions exist for one to be called, socialists and the labour movement should start pro-actively setting out their vision of what a united Ireland should look like now.

That way, if the conditions do make a Border Poll inevitable, socialists will have already built up a head of steam for an independent working-class campaign and can intervene sharply in the ensuing debates.

Indeed, in so far as it can reassure Protestant workers in the North, such a working-class campaign then makes it more likely that a referendum would result in Irish unity and less likely that it would lead to increased sectarian violence.

Of course, if the conditions specified in the Good Friday Agreement are met, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to call a Border Poll, socialists must of course argue for that democratic right and against any attempts of the British government to refuse to hold a poll. At the same time, socialists should continue to warn of the dangers.

While a referendum is a binary choice between unity or not, another demand to raise is that elections are held after any referendum to a Constituent Assembly, which we would write a constitution for a new Ireland.

The key question is the programmatic content of any campaign.

Murphy is right to foreground the question of Protestant minority rights. In his article, he stresses the need, following Lenin, to “utilise the fundamental method underlying the ‘right to self-determination’ concept” and seek “a way to unite the working class, despite its real divisions, and point a way forward for it to take power, whereby it could resolve the national question.”

One absolutely crucial innovation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks was their approach to regional autonomy and local devolution within divided states. As a 1913 resolution of the Bolshevik Party Central Committee expressed it:

“In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit making and strife; it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government . . . the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority”.

“This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.”

In an Irish context, Workers’ Liberty’s predecessors argued in 1984 that:

“Within Ireland our slogan for the Protestant community is maximum autonomy and local self-government of that community’s own affairs compatible with the democratic rights of the majority of the Irish people.

Such a proposal for a united, independent Ireland, with within it a measure of self-government for regions, and within those regions maximum local autonomy for towns, districts, etc., can offer both majority and minority the maximum of democratic guarantees possible without infringing on the rights of the other community.

The Catholic majority of Ireland would have the rights of a majority within all-Ireland politics. Catholic minorities in mainly Protestant regions would have the protection of local government (town / district) autonomy, plus the constitutional guarantees (courts, bills of rights, appeal procedures, inspectorates, penalties against sectarian practices) of the federal government. Likewise Protestant minorities in mainly Catholic regions. The concentrated Protestant minority in the North East would have the safeguard of regional institutions.”

We believe this approach could help shape the programme of an independent working-class campaign in any future Irish Border Poll.

In the debate prior to and during any poll, and in any constituent assembly election, the labour movement, north and south, should be raising the demand for a federal united Ireland, with minority protections for the Unionist minority in the north-east; and for the full separation of church and state.

That would be a way to reassure Protestant workers that their rights will be respected. Just as the Northern Ireland Assembly exists in a devolved form within the United Kingdom, an Assembly could exist as part of a united Ireland.

Any Northern Assembly should be based not on the boundaries of the existing Northern Ireland, as they do not genuinely reflect national differences, but perhaps on the four Protestant north-eastern counties, with greater devolution down to a local authority level and state-wide protections against discrimination.

Just as people in Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish citizenship, Protestants should be entitled to retain British citizenship as part of a system of dual Irish-British citizenship in a new Ireland.

Of course, none of these constitutional demands are sufficient in themselves.

The main point of raising them is to try and point to a democratic resolution of the national question, to drain the poison away, and create a shift in working-class consciousness towards greater unity of workers from all backgrounds.

Short of a resolution of the national question, any working-class unity will be brittle. There is here an opportunity, amidst the dangers, to build it on a more enduring basis. But only if socialist forces can shape the debate around what Irish unity should look like.

Any democratic programme, such as this, should not be raised in the abstract. It must be fused with common struggle.

That is why our banner should not be for just joining the two existing right-wing states together but a new Ireland: at a minimum for the extension of free health care and good public services to the whole island, for trade union rights and abortion rights.

In short, our programme is for working-class unity, a democratic resolution to the national question, paving the way to a socialist Ireland and a socialist United States of Europe.

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