Belfast: still divided by ‘peace walls’

What sort of unity?

Review of Kevin Meagher's 'A united Ireland: why unification is inevitable and how it will come about'. Biteback Publishing, 2016, pp237, £12.99

The last temptation was the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
TS Eliot Murder in the cathedral

The current Brexit process has had the effect of reminding citizens of ‘mainland’ Britain of the existence of the ‘sister isle’ next door and its capacity for making an impact on the larger island. Fortuitously, a book has appeared which revisits the ‘Irish question’ and its Northern Irish corollary, the Good Friday agreement of 1998.

Kevin Meagher was special advisor to Sean Woodward when the latter was secretary of state for Northern Ireland (2007-09). Meagher writes in the belief that Irish unity is “the most logical end-point”, adding: “This is not, per se, to echo Irish republican arguments: merely to articulate the most obvious destination of the current direction of travel” (pxii).

The author sums up his case towards the end of the book:

If we accept that Northern Ireland is in an antechamber; that Britain has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in remaining; that the economic logic of a single Irish state is compelling; that demographic changes are tilting the balance, making consent for unity more likely in the future; that southern Irish voters are less reluctant to take on their once-problematic northern siblings; then all it takes is for British and Irish political elites to accelerate these trends and begin to articulate that Irish unity is the most probable and plausible long-term settlement. Indeed, the best outcome for the British people.

But then it always has been. Northern Ireland is an artificial construct. A territory founded as a political compromise, not for its inherent economic logic. And formed by the worst sort of compromise there is: the threat of violence. The [1912] Ulster Covenant, signed [by some] in blood, was a rather unsubtle prompt. (pp176-77).

Meagher argues that, historically - in practice since 1922 - British administrations have tended to leave the Six County statelet alone to run its own affairs, charging that setting up Northern Ireland was, in fact “the most ambitious example of devolution ever allowed by the centralising 20th century British state” (p43).

The default position is one of dignified indifference - except as regards the violent activities of paramilitaries.1 Meagher asserts: “No-one in British politics seems to care about making the case that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK, come what may” (p65). He declares:

The Good Friday agreement effectively placed Northern Ireland in an antechamber. If there is a majority that opts for Irish unity at some stage, then change will take place (p66).

He also highlights the cost of inertia - “The £9 billion a year the British exchequer pumps into Northern Ireland is equivalent to £170 million a day” (p73) - and the inflated Six Counties bureaucracy, which employs “27,000 civil servants managing the affairs of 1.8 million people, while the European Commission has 33,000 officials dealing with the EU’s 743 million people” (p79).2

All-Ireland view

However, while it is arguably economically advantageous for the UK capitalist state to let the Six Counties go, that does not mean that they can be got rid of so easily - which brings us to what Kevin Meagher has to say about current attitudes in the Irish Republic - views which are obviously affected by economic conditions prevailing in that part of Ireland which is outside the UK. Admittedly, the looming spectre of Brexit complicates matters. Meagher’s main line of intervention in this debate is to ask, inter alia:

How will the resolve of the unionist-led executive fare when presented with a loss of EU funding, agricultural subsidies and regeneration cash, as well as the economic shock of leaving the EU and a flight of capital to the Irish republic, where single market access is guaranteed? (p104).

This conjures up an intriguing picture, but surely the right response to this prospect is to echo Chou En-Lai’s famous comment on the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell”.

However, on current attitudes to Irish unification in the republic Meagher may be on firmer ground, even though it must, from what he writes, be conceded that there is some uncertainty on the topic. What does appear clear from the relatively sparse opinion polls on the issue is that there exists a level of basic support for the proposition:

with 36% of people saying that they want a united Ireland in the short to medium term (mirroring the 38% of the vote overtly republican Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin managed in the 2016 Irish general election). This increases to 66% of people when Irish unity is again framed as a longer-term [eg, ‘in my lifetime’] issue (p129).3

Meagher gives some interesting details of current cross-border economic coordination, overseen, following the Good Friday agreement, by the North-South Ministerial Council, which emerged from it (see pp98-99). Returning to attitudes ‘on the ground’, so to speak, Meagher states:

... interpreting Irish public opinion vis-à-vis the unification of the country is an inexact science. But how much greater would support for unification be if it were a live issue, openly discussed on both parts of the island - and on both sides of the Irish Sea? What if the prospect of unification was wrested from republicans and became a mainstream position, embraced by all quarters of the Irish political class? (pp135-36).

In his enthusiasm, Meagher asks: “What is holding us back? It is time for politics to be as rational as economics” (p107).

This begs more than one question, but leads straight on to the current stalemate in the Six Counties, with the suspension of the power-sharing administration thanks to an outbreak of what might be called ‘culture wars’ (see pp139-68). Unfortunately Meagher’s treatment of this topic is patchy.4 He makes the wholly valid point that, for Northern Irish unionists, as UK citizens, “theirs is more of an associate membership, benefiting from British taxpayers’ largesse and attaching themselves to parts of British identity they like, while elevating their own identity and cultural associations to greater importance” (p148).

Two nations

Clearly this harks back to British ancestry. There are two nations in Ireland that dominate Irish history overall, the ‘Irish Irish’ and the British-Irish, and the latter - inter alia as a defence mechanism - have asserted their right to fundamental political control.5 This is what has caused, and continues to cause, friction. Meagher gives a number of historical examples, but recently, under the Good Friday agreement’s ‘power-sharing’ arrangements, a further issue has become prominent - it has been around for a long time, but Meagher should have discussed it, not only for its topicality, but because it encapsulates so much of the imperialist nationalism from which we still suffer in these islands.

The issue is the Irish language. Power-sharing arrangements in the north have broken down. Initially this was over first minister Arlene Foster’s refusal to resign in deference to the so-called ‘cash for ash’ inquiry.6 Sinn Féin then added a series of fresh demands as the price of renewing power-sharing, which was then gradually reduced until their demand for a special ‘Irish Language Act’ was the only remaining red-line issue. As Siobhán Fenton points out, northern Irish nationalists, by the second decade of the present century, had become more and more fed up with the Democratic Unionist Party’s attitude to Irish.

An illuminating incident occurred in the debating chamber at Stormont in November 2014, when a DUP politician, Gregory Campbell, made an insulting reference to the language. He began an address to the chamber by saying, “Curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer” - a crude parody of the term, ‘Go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle’, which means ‘Thank you, Speaker’ and is often used by nationalist politicians as a term of courtesy during debates at Stormont. Campbell refused to apologise for his parody.

This may seem comparatively trivial, but in fact it goes to the heart of the ‘great nation’ imperialist superiority complex displayed by various kinds of reactionary UK politicians. Lenin would have condemned it out of hand.7

How, then, does Kevin Meagher expect the Six Counties to leave the UK under favourable conditions? He writes at times as if the engine of change is some impersonal economic process: eg, in asserting: “Capitalism is succeeding where politics has failed in modernising and redefining the relationship between the Irish and British states” (p97). He states: “As memories of the troubled Irish 20th century fade, so too should unionism’s siege mentality. It simply has no justification in the 21st century” (p204).


Clearly the Good Friday agreement’s promotion of power-sharing, together with greater involvement of the republic’s government and possible off-stage influence of the EU, has had a positive effect, but this does not mean that there are not some formidable obstacles still in the way of Meagher’s ‘Softly, softly, catchee Irish unity’ tactic.

In terms of living conditions in the Six Counties before ‘the troubles’, we have seen rapprochements before, courtesy of economic developments. We should remember the post-World War II long boom and the relative prosperity it brought. Remember 1964: tensions were easing and, reportedly, there were instances of Catholics in Belfast helping to decorate Orange arches. But then the civil rights agitation began, and the old animosities resurfaced. Meagher is aware of their persistence when he writes:

The Good Friday agreement settlement - devolved, cross-community power-sharing, the consent principle and the two governments acting as guarantors - is fraying at the edges. The decision of the smaller parties to forego their place in the multi-party executive following assembly elections in May 2016 and set themselves up as an opposition party is symptomatic of this (pp210-11).

But he is convinced that sweet reason will win out:

So how hard is it, politically, to unify the island of Ireland? What are the necessary ingredients? Clearly, agreement between the British and Irish states is a basic requirement, as is the consent of the populations of both current jurisdictions. But more fundamental than this is the intellectual assumption that the move is necessary. The belief in the inevitability of eventual unification needs to frame the thinking of political elites and people alike.

So what drives these assumptions? How is a big idea generated and spread? Usually, it is down to long-term historical trends being all too apparent (p212).

Meagher gives two illustrative examples: German unification in the 20th century, and the retreat of the UK from Hong Kong. But these are not exact parallels to the Irish situation. The Hong Kong case is just another retreat from empire on the part of Britain, and the German example is a clear case of a divided nation reunited, whereas the Irish case is still one of the desirability of uniting ‘Catholics, Protestants and dissenters’ under the common name of “Irishmen”, to adopt Wolfe Tone’s language.

Cases of European nationals wishing to change their nationality en masse are extremely rare: the only instance I can think of is the French Revolution of 1789, when the populations of the whole left bank of the Rhine, from Belgium to Alsace, expressed a desire to join France as a result of the latter’s overthrow of the feudal aristocracy. But Meagher seems to put inordinate emphasis on the potential for change emerging at the top of the social pyramid: “It is up to the British and Irish states and their respective political classes to manufacture a consensus about change” (p229).

It hardly needs saying that such an approach is not socialist: on the contrary, ordinary people need to be invited onto the political stage, being won to support the necessary solutions of their problems in the process, in full cognisance of economic and political realities.

If Meagher’s scenario should win out, however, no fair-minded observer could possibly object. As Terry Eagleton explained back in 1999, the best argument against the continued existence of Northern Ireland is the historical nature of the state itself.8 James Connolly’s comment on partition retains all its force:

Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction north and south, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.9

Given that, socialists can hardly object to Irish unity - even on the basis of the capitalist mode of production. But we need to go further. As Siobhán Fenton’s book on the Good Friday agreement admirably shows, large problems remain in the Six Counties area. Likewise the republic is in its current form dangerously exposed to the vicissitudes of the international economy. As Connolly might have put it, if you get a united Ireland tomorrow, the transnationals will still rule you.

Above all, the Irish question in contemporary form needs to be seen in full awareness of its European context. Currently much of the news focusses on the new Italian government and its intransigent attitude to asylum-seekers, Roma et al. In relation to the European populist right, the DUP in the north of Ireland represents a forerunner, whose political rise dates from opposition to Irish home rule in the last century and from subsequent political developments in Ireland.

The DUP is clearly part of the current European political problem and to fight it effectively, along with its international allies, we need a pan-European socialist movement armed with a coherent strategy and programme operating throughout the EU and beyond.

Martin Carroll


1. “State papers released in December 2015 under the 30-year rule reveal that in 1985 Margaret Thatcher suggested to her Irish counterpart, Garret Fitzgerald, that the town of Dundalk, over the border in the Irish Republic, could be bombed in a bid to stymie fleeing republicans who sought sanctuary there. The reports do not appear to capture Fitzgerald’s reaction to this suggestion of state-sponsored terrorism, but Thatcher’s mindset is instructive” (p47).

2. Actually Meagher’s EU figure is wrong: the EU population figure is 511.5 million as of January 1 2017, whereas the figure for the European continent as a whole was 741.4 million in 2016.

3. See also p132.

4. For a much fuller analysis, comrades should consult Siobhán Fenton‘s The Good Friday agreement (London 2018).

5. It should be emphasised that the British-Irish nation, locked in a colonial relationship with the ‘Irish Irish’ natives, should not have been given the right to establish its continued rule over Six Ulster counties to the detriment of the Irish national revolution.

6. “Called the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme, but dubbed locally ‘cash for ash’, the scheme was designed to give businesses a financial reward for using renewable rather than non-renewable heat sources. However, the scheme appears to have been badly flawed and it later emerged that it was in fact giving out subsidies for higher than the price of the fuel, meaning that people were being paid to burn fuel pointlessly ... It is estimated that the scheme will have cost the taxpayer close to £1 billion due to the flawed implementation - a considerable sum, considering Northern Ireland has only 1.8 million inhabitants.” (S Fenton op cit p280).

7. “A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation ... In respect of the second kind of nationalism we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it ...”.

8. T Eagleton, ‘United Ireland: a non-nationalist caseNew Left Review No234, March-April 1999.

9. ‘Labour and the proposed partition of Ireland’ (Irish Worker March 14 1914) in J Connolly Socialism and nationalism Dublin 1948, p111.