In turmoil over Brexit

The economy is set for a hammering, but the left seems determined to learn nothing, writes Anne McShane.

As shown by the Brexit crisis, British imperialism continues to loom large over its oldest colony. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in the forefront of those urging an extension to Boris Johnson’s withdrawal date of January 31. Varadkar and his government - along with all the main parties - want to avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs. But in reality the Irish state has little control over what happens next.

The weakness of Irish capitalism is evident. While the emphasis is on the dangers of no deal, it is clear that any UK exit will place enormous strain on an already fragile economy. A report prepared for the department of business in February 2018 warned that “Irish trade is going to be negatively affected in all exit scenarios”. It goes on to state that “Ireland’s unique exposure to Brexit is a result of the deep integration between the Irish and British economies over generations”.1 The UK and Ireland share a land border, an all-island economy, a common travel area, a common-law legal system, and a significant number of joint commercial enterprises. Britain is Ireland’s primary market for the agri-food sector - 50% of all Irish dairy and beef exports go to Britain. Nor will the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the customs union and common market overcome the problem of trade for the republic, because of its dependence on the British market. And the fact that two thirds of Irish goods are exported to Europe via Britain is another huge problem.

Added to this is the serious fear that transnational companies may decide to up sticks and leave because of Brexit. The Irish economy has always been heavily dependent on such firms and there is an institutionalised practice of making slavish concessions to ensure that they do not go elsewhere. Foreign companies employ 25% of the workforce and are often described as the “backbone of the Irish economy”. Corporation tax was reduced from 40% to 12.5% in the days of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, making it the lowest in Europe after Bulgaria and Hungary. Successive governments have flatly refused to increase corporation tax and indeed the tendency is to offer more perks to international capital. A free trade zone in Shannon offers even more attractive deals to the 100 companies, including zero VAT and huge capital gains tax relief. The present government has even fought an EU court decision that Apple should repay €14.3 billion in unpaid tax to the state - spending €7.1 million on legal fees.

As well as all of the tax breaks, the majority of the workforce in these plants are non-unionised and there has been little effort on the part of trade union leaders to change that situation. Successive ‘social partnership’ deals between employers, unions and the government have consciously avoided anything that will discourage foreign investment. But even these manifold attractions are losing their appeal in the face of Brexit. There were reports earlier this year that transnationals had begun to make rationalisation plans to deal with the problems over access to markets post-Brexit and the imposition of tariffs on manufacturing parts imported from Britain. This week saw the announcement of the closure of Molex, an international technical company based in Shannon, with the loss of 500 jobs. Another transnational, the Swiss pharma company, Novartis, announced that 320 jobs were to go in Cork. It is almost certain that there will be many more.

And, to cap it all, it seems that there is also a serious threat to tourism. Tourism Ireland has just produced a report stating that an estimated 17% fewer Germans and 13% fewer French tourists will travel to Ireland next year. There is also uncertainty about the US tourist market. The general perception is that Brexit will mean a lot of hassle for travellers, despite the fact that Ireland’s status within the EU is unchanged.

A sense of siege has led to the emergence of decidedly ugly nationalist tendencies. Protests have been taking place against the creation of ‘direct provision’ centres (residential units) for those seeking asylum. The policy of establishing these centres in remote parts of the country was, of course, a disaster. Refugees are unable to access amenities and find it almost impossible to travel and find work. ‘Direct provision’ itself is a way of ghettoising and isolating asylum-seekers, often for many years. It is Ireland’s latest form of institutional abuse. And now, with fears of unemployment resulting from Brexit and a major homelessness crisis, migrants are increasingly being perceived as a threat to resources and jobs or even as dangerous criminals. None of the claims stand up to scrutiny, of course, but rational arguments unfortunately do not prevent the rise of xenophobia when there is an atmosphere of fear.


For those who stand for a working class solution it is urgent that we take a stand in arguing for internationalism and solidarity. We need to demand unity across borders and reject the notion that there is a progressive side in the Brexit debate. The 2016 referendum was an anti-democratic device aimed at addressing the crisis within the Tory Party. It has led to vicious nationalism and caused endless frustration and anger. Far worse is to come.

I argued in this paper two weeks ago that there could be no progressive ‘leave’ campaign.2 I pointed to the fact that the People Before Profit Alliance (a front of the Socialist Workers Network, sister group of the SWP in Britain) has paid a heavy price for its advocacy of the ‘leave’ option in the 2016 referendum in the north of Ireland. Today the PBPA leadership tries to deny its previous support for ‘leave’ and now campaigns against a hard border. But, rather than presenting a case for working class unity, PBPA representatives focus on what they term the importance of maintaining “security and peace” throughout Ireland. TD Brid Smith has even warned of the dangers of Brexit reigniting a military struggle on the border. I very much doubt that we are facing the rearming of the IRA. But, more importantly, her argument conceals the reasons behind the military struggle in the north - the presence of British imperialism and its suppression of the Catholic/republican population. Instead of acknowledging the legitimacy of this struggle for national self-determination, Smith presents it a ‘bad thing’. She and her organisation are instead advocates for the “security and peace” bestowed on Ireland by the Good Friday agreement.

In 2016 Brid Smith said she was against a border poll on a united Ireland, but now the PBPA has decided that it will campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in any referendum. It is committed to a united Ireland by constitutional means as part of establishing a “modern republic”, a “society for the many”. On October 17 the PDPA published a statement which confirmed it was opposed to a no-deal Brexit, but would “look through the detail of the latest deal between the British government and the EU”. It added: “We are concerned that the deal will strengthen efforts by the Tories to enact a race to the bottom, and potentially open doors to a regressive agreement between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson that could lead to the erosion of public services.”3 In a radio discussion, another PBPA TD, Richard Boyd Barrett, said of the Boris deal that “its one saving grace is that it does not include a hard border”. It is extraordinary how far to the right the comrades are moving in their pursuit of a bourgeois united Ireland.

In contrast, the TDs of Solidarity (the Socialist Party election front) have been far less forthcoming on their views on Brexit in recent months. Mick Barry has stated that his organisation will fight against any attempt to make the working class the scapegoat, but there is no more mention of the SP’s support for Lexit. And, while Mick Barry’s militancy is to be welcomed, especially in contrast to the PBPA’s opportunism, it is still a very limited and defensive strategy. We need to say more than simply declaring opposition to the inevitable hardship produced by Brexit. We need to counter the idea that there was only a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ side in the 2016 referendum. Neither of these options provided an answer for the working class on either side of the Irish border.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in 2008, the EU agreed a bailout of the Irish banks on the basis of an austerity package struck up with the Fine Gael-Labour government. This package meant a whole range of cuts to jobs, wages and social welfare and the introduction of service charges, including the (now defeated) water charge. This experience is just one more example of the EU not being some benign force. Europe today is a fortress united on the basis of advancing the interests of its ruling classes. A working class Europe cannot be built by supporting that agenda in any way.

The only tactic that made any sense in the 2016 referendum was a boycott. It was the only one capable of advancing an independent working class programme.

  1. https://dbei.gov.ie/en/Publications/Publication-files/Ireland-and-the-Impacts-of-Brexit.pdf.↩︎

  2. ‘Time to reassess’, October 10.↩︎

  3. www.pbp.ie/people-before-profit-responds-to-brexit-deal.↩︎