Shared island or democratic republic?
Sinn Féin is relying on demographics and opposition to Brexit. James Harvey gives his take on the reunification debate
Brexit and the possible abrogation by the British government of sections of the Northern Ireland Protocol has once again brought the issue of Irish reunification to centre stage in political debate - on both sides of the Irish border, as well as in Britain.1 However, whilst the apparently destabilising impact of Brexit on the peace process and on the power-sharing institutions of the Good Friday agreement has been exhaustively rehearsed by all sides, the precise nature of that ‘unity’ and how it will be brought about still remain open and unanswered questions.2
What appears not to be on offer from either the Dublin government or nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland is a democratic resolution of the national question. Instead what they have offered in place of a democratic sovereign republic is the rather nebulous form of a ‘shared island’, in which all cultural traditions and identities are recognised as legitimate.3 Drawing on the discourse of the peace process and the ‘flexible constitutional geometry’ of the Good Friday agreement, these proposals use a language of transition, outreach and open-ended possibility rather than the much clearer political demands of self-determination and democratic rights, which are associated historically with Irish republicanism and its national project.
Although Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has spoken of Brexit “causing the tectonic plates of Irish politics to move” and suggested that “support for Irish unity is growing”, the current taoiseach, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, was much closer to the truth when he criticised such “grandstanding” and argued that Dublin’s policy was to focus on making Stormont work, not destabilise the status quo by careless talk about border polls or a united Ireland.4 All that Martin was doing, albeit in the contemporary language of a ‘shared island’, was to restate the settled position of the Irish capitalists since the 1920s: in simple terms they accepted partition and wanted to get on with building their own state and economy in the 26 Counties.
In the hundred years since, partition has sunk deep roots, as both parts of Ireland have developed their own distinctively different societies and politics.5 The cost of reunification - could the southern economy sustain the levels of British subvention that support the benefits system and welfare state in Northern Ireland? - and the recognition of strong unionist hostility to any form of Irish unity have been objections to reunification widely voiced by Dublin politicians and commentators, especially during ‘the Troubles’.6
This commitment to the status quo was evident from the late 1960s, when Dublin governments cooperated closely with London to suppress the IRA’s armed struggle and maintain British rule in the Six Counties. This close working partnership was also a key factor in the defeat of militant republicanism and the incorporation of the Provisionals into the new dispensation, the culminating political success of the peace process.7 Given this record, if there is any pressure for Irish reunification it certainly is not coming from Dublin’s political establishment. Nor is it coming from its political clients north of the border, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which likewise has rejected a border poll and remains committed to making the Good Friday agreement work.8
The economic and political uncertainties caused by Brexit for both Belfast and Dublin have been some of the main reasons why reunification has become such an important issue in both jurisdictions. Polls seem to suggest that Brexit has shifted even unionist opinion on the possibilities of reunification and - combined with the emergence of groups like Ireland’s Future, made up of middle class northern nationalists - much of the political and media commentary plays up the idea that there is a growing momentum for Irish unity in the short term.9
The party that has most benefitted from these developments has been Sinn Féin: it has traded on its historical name and identification with the republican struggle for self-determination to seemingly place itself at the head of demands for Irish unity. Its electoral success in February’s Irish general election, its continuing lead in the opinion polls and its dominant position amongst the nationalist electorate north of the border reflect both the strength of these moods throughout Ireland and the ability of Sinn Féin to capitalise on them.10
However, Sinn Féin does not lead, nor does it seek to build, a militant mass movement campaigning for Irish unity. Despite positioning itself as an anti-establishment party on the left south of the border, its role in the Stormont executive shows its real commitment is to both the constitutional and economic status quo. Thus, Sinn Féin’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, argues:
Our immediate task is preparation for constitutional change. That needs to commence. In my view it would be reckless not to begin planning now. We want a referendum on unity, and we want to carry the day and we want to win it well. We want it to be orderly and peaceful and successful.11
These demands on ‘Irish unity’ focus on a border poll in Northern Ireland as stipulated in the Good Friday agreement. The mechanism for calling such a referendum is in the hands of the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who must decide whether it is ‘likely’ that a majority for reunification would result. The evidence that needs to be considered in making such an assessment is not defined in the legislation, and clearly the power of initiative remains firmly in the hands of a British government.
Even if opinion polls continued to point to growing support for Irish unity and Sinn Féin became the largest single party in the assembly, there is no legislative imperative for the secretary of state to accede to demands to call a referendum. Given the Johnson government’s hostility to another referendum on Scottish independence and fears about the break-up of the UK, the possibilities for such a border poll look exceedingly remote.
As well as relying on the good offices of the secretary of state, Sinn Féin’s ‘strategy’ for reunification talks up the “historic, inevitable momentum” towards Irish unity, resulting from “the rapid changes wrought by Brexit”, and the political implications of the shifting demographic balance between Catholics and Protestants in the Six Counties.12 These assumptions about how the growth of the Catholic population will translate ‘automatically’ into votes for reunification have been rightly questioned in the light of recent assembly and Westminster election results, and evidence that many middle class Catholics have come to terms with their secure position as a recognised part of Northern Ireland’s ‘new dispensation’.13
Such demographic determinism and reliance on blind economic forces is far removed from the political subjectivity and agency of the militant Irish republican tradition or the promise of revolutionary transformation contained in the demand for self-determination and the democratic resolution of the national question. So too are the Sinn Féin leadership’s ideas of the gradual evolution of the structures of the Good Friday agreement towards reunification, with the British government acting as persuaders for peaceful orderly change.14
However, if Sinn Féin’s line on reunification is a triumph of hope over experience - a utopian wish list in place of a strategy - then the Irish left in general does little better in its approach to the national question and the new possibilities opened up by Brexit.
As I discussed in my last article, many on the Irish left sidestep reunification as a political issue by counterposing demands for socialism and class politics to the national question. The Socialist Party, for example, makes “workers’ unity between Protestants and Catholics against sectarianism and capitalist exploitation” a precondition for the ending of partition through the common struggle for socialist change and a “socialist Ireland”.15 Similar thinking can be found amongst the comrades from Solidarity and Rise, who variously argue for a “socialist Ireland with no coercion and the rights of minorities guaranteed” on the basis that “there is no just or democratic solution to the national question on the basis of capitalism”. Rounding off these demands with an internationalist flavour, they call for a “free, equal and voluntary socialist confederation of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales as part of a democratic, socialist Europe”.16
A critique of these positions is necessary if we are to understand the national question and campaign for a Marxist party in Ireland. It is clear that Brexit, whether in hard or soft form, will have a serious economic and political impact on Ireland, north and south, but, at this stage, the exact pattern of events and future outcome remains uncertain. Our central democratic demand must remain the reunification of Ireland as a republic, but the nature of the republic, federal or otherwise, and the basis on which rights would be accorded to the ‘British-Irish’ population still need to be defined.
Marxists need to understand the political, economic and social changes that have occurred across the island following the defeat of the Provisionals and the reconfiguration of the British state in the Six Counties, alongside similarly fundamental political and economic changes in the south. Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar, Mary Lou McDonald, Fintan O’Toole and the rest of the Irish political and media establishment are correct when they argue that Brexit has the potential to destabilise Ireland.17
As Marxists we can agree up to a point with this interpretation, but, as ever, understanding the world is only the beginning for our politics: the point remains, as ever, how to change it.
‘Class struggle and reunification’ Weekly Worker September 17.↩︎
See ‘What sort of unity?’ Weekly Worker July 5 2018.↩︎
ft.com/content/86cc29f6-05a5-11ea-9afa-d9e2401fa7ca. For a pessimistic account on the economic impact of a possible reunification, see irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/09/17/news/united-ireland-would-cost-up-to-30-billion-a-year-and-collapse-north-s-economy--1714127. Typical assessments of unionist reaction and opposition to Irish unity can be found in these two recent articles: irishtimes.com/news/politics/can-the-republic-afford-a-united-ireland-these-unionists-don-t-think-so-1.4348744; and irishtimes.com/news/politics/unionists-are-not-deluded-irishmen-loyalist-says-1.4348780.↩︎
L Ó Ruairc Peace or pacification? Northern Ireland after the defeat of the IRA Winchester 2019.↩︎
thejournal.ie/lord-ashcroft-irish-unification-poll-4804372-Sep2019/ For some examples of these views see https://irelandsfuture.com/about-us.↩︎
solidarity.ie/principles and letusrise.ie/what-we-stand-for.↩︎