This year marks the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Northern Ireland (NI) state. It comes after a rare period of relative peace in the territory, and Unionists might have hoped that the celebrations could have been less contentious than previously.
In fact the stability of both NI and Unionism have been thrown into question by the emerging impact of Brexit.
The imposition of a customs border in the sea between Britain and NI, in flat contradiction to explicit promises made by Boris Johnson, has become a flashpoint for loyalist insecurity and anger. Street rioting returned to the streets of loyalist East Belfast recently in protest at this “Irish Protocol”.
The street violence was limited in scale and duration, but unrest has been sufficient to create a crisis in the main Unionist party, the DUP.
In May, leader Arlene Foster was defeated in a confidence vote to be replaced by the (even) more hard-line Edwin Poots. Poots lasted only 21 days before he was also forced to resign. The only candidate to be nominated to succeed him, Jeffrey Donaldson, was declared leader on 22 June. Until this year the DUP had had three leaders in 50 years; this year they have had three leaders in 50 days.
The political system in NI for the last 23 years has been based on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The GFA established a local NI assembly which requires cross community support to function and has limited power. Political leadership is via a power sharing government with a First and Deputy First Minister. These posts are allocated based on electoral support from each of the two main sectarian-national blocs.
The system has many weaknesses, yet is easily the most consensual, democratic system of government in the history of the state. It was approved by 71% of voters in NI and 94% in the South.
Previously NI was a one-party sectarian state ruled by the Unionist Party (until 1972), and then under direct rule from London (until 1998). The arrangements established by the GFA and endorsed in referenda were linked to ceasefires by the IRA and later other paramilitary groups, and marked the end of 30 years of very bloody military conflict. Remaining paramilitaries have been marginalised.
The Agreement allowed for a united Ireland by a referendum, with no power for the British government to block a majority vote by the people of NI.
Despite many crises the GFA system has held so far, though power-sharing administration was suspended from 2017-20. The evidence suggests that the people of NI still think the alternatives are all worse.
Yet the GFA political system does not represent a real and long-term political settlement. Its strength is wide cross-community desire to avoid something worse: a return to military conflict. It doesn’t settle the fundamental issue, the “constitutional question” of whether the future of Ireland’s historically-rooted communal divide lies in continuing partition or some new version of a unified Irish political entity. It only postpones a settlement of that issue.
Sectarian division remains at the heart of NI politics, and that’s inevitable given its origins as a political unit. The GFA manages that by prescribing local administration which has at least a grudging consent from both communities. The requirement to have cross community consent for any significant measure creates a pressure on political representatives to declare an identity to one communal side or other. It also makes the system vulnerable to any political crisis (flags, cash-for-ash, Brexit). Either of the two main communal parties can bring down the NI Assembly since the support of both is required for the First and Deputy First Ministers to be appointed.
What has Brexit done?
In the 2015 referendum the people of NI voted against Brexit (56%-44%). The central issue there was the likely impact on the border and relations with the Republic. The main unionist party (DUP) advocated a vote for Brexit (mainly because they believed it would solidify the divide between North and South), but Unionist voters were less ideological than that and much more divided than usual. It seems that the DUP underestimated concerns within their own community about the impact on the economy and peace.
Nationalism, on the contrary, was unified politically, economically and culturally on the issue. Brexit would take the North out of a trading and political relationship with the Republic which had existed since both joined the European Community in 1973 and risk reintroducing a hated hard border.
Despite previously calling for Ireland to leave the EU, Sinn Fein called for a vote to remain. Polling suggests that 85% of Catholics/Nationalists voted Remain and 40% of Protestants/Unionists.
In the Brexit negotiations the EU refused to consider a deal which damaged the GFA and imposed a hard border. Yet an open border would undermine the EU’s internal market by continuing to allow free movement of goods between the EU and a non-member state committed to moving away from EU regulations.
There were two options: a hard border, or NI remaining in the EU Single Market and customs union and, consequently, a NI/GB customs border in the Irish Sea. The Brexit negotiating process was made more complex by the bewildering attempt by the UK government, especially under Johnson, to achieve a deal which avoided both those options.
In the end Johnson used the big majority he won in the 2019 General Election to abandon his promises to the DUP and agree a deal which included what is known as “the Northern Ireland protocol”, with checks on goods entering NI from GB. NI is part of the UK customs area, but applies EU Single Market regulations on goods, so it’s fine for goods produced there to be transported to the Republic.
For goods originating in Britain, NI is treated as an entry point to the EU. Hence there must be checks on goods moving from GB to NI which are deemed “at risk” of being transported to and sold in the Republic.
This protocol is a major problem for unionism. It creates a border between GB and NI while the border with the Republic remains “soft”. And yet it is the result of the DUP’s own policy and their strategic alliance with the hard Brexiteers of the European Reform Group (ERG) and Johnson. On three occasions the DUP voted to defeat Teresa May’s alternative, the “Irish backstop”, which kept the UK in a customs union with the EU and could hope to finesse away the need for either border.
The traditional Unionist option of blaming Republicans or traitors for undermining the Union is not so easily available this time. Arlene Foster, the architect of the alliance with the ERG and the leader who invited Johnson to the DUP’s Conference lost her job mainly because of this disastrous strategy.
The Brexit process has underlined and increased the Unionist fear that the relationship between the two parts of Ireland is now widely regarded as equally important as the relationship between NI and GB, or even more important.
Changes in NI politics and society since 1998
The Brexit crisis arrived at a time when broader and potentially decisive shifts in NI were already well under way. Those shifts also create existential challenges to Unionism.
For decades NI had a stable two-thirds Protestant-Unionist majority. By the 2011 census that had shifted to 42% Protestant, 41% Catholic, and 18% “no religion” or “other”.
The 2019 EU elections saw Sinn Fein (SF) top the poll (22%), followed by DUP and Alliance. At the last NI Assembly elections, the SF and DUP vote shares were almost equal (28.1 vs 27.9%). The total unionist and nationalist votes were also very close. It seems inevitable that at some point in the next 5-10 years SF will be the largest party and occupy the First Minister post.
There has also been a significant growth in support for non-sectarian parties. This appears to be happening mainly in middle class areas, and the chief beneficiary has been the Alliance Party. Roughly analogous to the Liberal Democrats in Britain, Alliance had a Westminster MP and an MEP elected in 2019.
In recent elections to the NI Assembly both the Greens and the socialist group People Before Profit have also won seats. Beyond electoral politics there is an increasing interest in non-sectarian issues — abortion rights, LGBT and race equality, climate change. The party most under threat from these developments is the DUP. They have been losing votes to both the hard-line unionist right and the centrist Alliance.
Their historic default response has been to play to hard-line loyalism. Hence their ambiguity on the recent riots in protest at the Protocol and the replacement of Foster by Edwin Poots. The fact that Poots lasted only 21 days as leader shows the crisis of political leadership within Unionism.
Changes in the Irish Republic
Meanwhile the Republic of Ireland is also a very different place socially and politically from the “Catholic state for a Catholic people” which emerged after Partition.
Economically, the 26 Counties were markedly poorer and more rural than Northern Ireland at the time of Partition. Now they are more prosperous.
The influence of the Catholic Church has been undermined decisively by the exposure of its role in systematic abuse and exploitation of women and children over many decades. The Republic is, demographically, a very young society, and the political concerns of its young people are more like those elsewhere in Europe than the “traditional” focus of 26 Counties politics. Abortion rights and gay marriage have been approved overwhelmingly in referenda, with a degree of consensus between urban and rural areas which would have been unimaginable not so long ago.
Sinn Fein are emerging as a major force in the Republic. Until 2002 they were at less than 3% of the vote there, but in 2020 they won a larger share of first preference votes than any other party.
This exceeded anyone’s expectations, including their own. In fact, they would have won significantly more seats if they hadn’t withdrawn a number of candidates at a time when polls underestimated their support and they feared splitting their vote.
They fought the election on issues like housing, jobs, inequality, not the national question. The swing to SF was part of a broader trend to leftish opposition to the two major bourgeois parties (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael). Parliamentary seats were gained by Solidarity People Before Profit (5), Labour (6), Social Democrats (6) and Greens (12). There is now a general expectation that SF will be in government after next election, probably as the largest party.
Is a United Ireland now on the cards?
So, Unionism is less monolithic than at any time since Partition. The picture of the Republic of Ireland as a confessional Catholic state is out-of-date. There are likely to be Sinn Fein-led governments in both states, with the Taoiseach in the Republic and the First Minister in the North, within the next few years. Does this make a united Ireland inevitable?
There is provision for a referendum on Irish unity (“a border poll”) in the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein calls for a date to be set for a border poll as soon as possible, though it has also revived the ideas about federal arrangements within Ireland which it dropped in the early 1980s (“British identity can and must be accommodated in a united Ireland and... nationalist Ireland is open to constitutional and political safeguards to ensure this”). But it is for the British Secretary of State for NI to call a border poll, and the only criterion is that it appears likely that a majority would vote yes.
Polls give differing results. A BBC NI Spotlight poll in April 2019 showed a narrow majority for status quo (49-43%). The same poll found that a majority in the Republic supported a united Ireland, but only 51% (with 27% saying no).
At least two trends that are stand out from all polls though. The gap in support between the status quo and a united Ireland has reduced sharply since 2017; and support for unity reduces significantly when people are asked if they would give up access to NHS-style free health care and other social provision to get it.
There is a growing constituency, spanning the communal divide, willing to consider this issue in social context, rather than just on a sectarian, identity-driven basis.
The partition of Ireland was an undemocratic imposition. It created what the great Irish socialist James Connolly predicted it would, “a carnival of reaction north and south”. It does not represent self-determination.
The democratic answer is a united Ireland, but a democratically-arranged united Ireland. The communal conflict has deep roots which can easily erupt into civil war again. A simple majority vote will not resolve that division. A demographic shift that sees Catholics overtake Protestants in NI is not a political settlement. It’s a continuation of sectarian headcount politics but with someone else winning.
There’s also no reason to be sure a demographic shift would lead to a vote for reunification in any case. The polls are more ambiguous on that. More people from a Unionist background are prepared to contemplate a united Ireland, but many in the nationalist community can see a case to remain within the UK, especially if the border within Ireland can be kept “soft”.
The project for socialists is to build support across the communities for a settlement that is consistently democratic and that addresses the legitimate concerns of both communities and both traditions. We see our own class, the working class, as the agency for change. Our programme is concerned with proposing a democratic settlement that can unite our class and set a very different agenda.
Workers’ Liberty has long advocated a federal united Ireland, with self-determination for the Irish majority but the maximum autonomy, rights and protections for the Irish minority compatible with that.
It isn’t for us to draw up detailed constitutional plans. The socialist objective on the national question isn’t revanchism or to pick the good guys. It is to end divisions in our class based on nationalism, to draw the poison from communalism and sectarianism and to develop at every turn the unity of the only agency or social force which can create socialism — the working class.
That remains a huge task in NI, a society still dominated by the divisions that led to its creation. But it seems to me more likely now that at any time since Partition. The space in the middle has grown, the case for accommodation not conquest is widely understood, and old positions are less entrenched.
An immediate or early border poll would be likely to lead to a retreat into tribal loyalties and even civil war. Bringing a socialist voice to the discussion about what kind of Ireland we want and how the rights of both traditions can be respected is much more likely to seize the opportunities we have now.
A militant labour movement armed with a serious democratic programme can take us closer to the Irish Workers’ Republic that Connolly counterposed to the carnival of reaction delivered by Partition.