A border between north and south ... and a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain

Politics of two borders

With Brexit negotiations going to the wire, the future in Ireland remains uncertain. This is an edited version of the talk given by James Harvey to Online Communist Forum

As we enter the final stages of the Brexit negotiations, ‘Ireland’s borders’ continue to be a live issue in both Irish and British politics.

I say ‘borders’ because under the terms of last year’s withdrawal agreement between Britain and the European Union there would be, in effect, two ‘borders’: one state boundary between Northern Ireland and a member-state of the EU - the Republic of Ireland; and another economic dividing line between Northern Ireland, which will be subject in some form to EU single-market and customs regulations, and the rest of the United Kingdom, which will not.1 Unionist critics of these aspects of the agreement - essentially a product of the talks between the then Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and British prime minister Boris Johnson last October - are correct when they argue that Northern Ireland will be treated very differently from other parts of the UK after the final withdrawal, scheduled for December 31 this year.

The political objections of unionists to this ‘border in the Irish Sea’, and its implication that Northern Ireland is part of an all-Ireland economy rather than a simply British one, are only to be expected.2 However, their opposition was given added weight by concerns from business interests that cross-channel trade and the flow of goods, especially foodstuffs, between Northern Ireland and Britain could be seriously disrupted following Brexit.3 Boris Johnson’s government ostensibly addresses these concerns in its Internal Markets Bill, although it is clear that, in openly declaring that the bill flouts “international law in a very specific and limited way”, it also has an eye on both its negotiating stance with the EU and securing its pro-Brexit political base.4 The inevitable reaction at home and abroad to this explicit admission shows how this matter of Ireland’s borders goes beyond simply internal British politics and the strained dynamics of Anglo-Irish relations.5 The precise economic and political form of these borders remains, of course, a key issue in British negotiations with the EU, but the possible impact of the ‘border question’ can now be seen much further afield in future Anglo-American relations - especially if Trump is defeated in this November’s presidential election.6

The intrusion of the Irish border back into mainstream British politics is only partly a by-product of the May government’s parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party following the 2017 general election.7 It is clear that, as a result of Northern Ireland’s position as the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU member-state, any form of Brexit would raise questions about how that border would function.

However, given the nature of the Good Friday agreement and the new dispensation in Northern Ireland that has emerged since 1998, these apparently purely technical, economic issues have assumed a much greater political significance - both for supporters and opponents of Brexit in Britain. Whilst Johnson and other Tories such as Michael Gove have waved the flag and loudly played up their support for the union (in both Northern Ireland and Scotland) over the years, the underlying dynamics of British policy in the Six Counties remain unaltered in substance.8 Although in his heart Gove might want a return to Stormont and the good old days of one-party unionist rule and Orange supremacy, he knows, like the rest of the British ruling class, that the ancien régime can never return.9

The policy of the British state in Northern Ireland has been one of stabilisation since the introduction of direct rule following the suspension of Stormont in 1972. Although this policy has taken different political and institutional forms since the 1973 Sunningdale agreement, the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement and the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the essential elements have remained in place throughout this period: namely, power-sharing to draw sections of the nationalist population into the government of the region, balanced by an acceptance of ‘unionist consent’ and a de facto veto over the future of Northern Ireland.10

An important aspect of this strategy was the ‘Irish dimension’: the vital partnership between London and Dublin that not only contained the war and defeated militant republicanism in the Six Counties, but was also decisive in negotiating the Good Friday agreement and consolidating the new status quo.11 These reconfigured forms of British rule and sovereignty over the Six Counties not only reflected direct British strategic interests in the region, but also reveal the importance of political stabilisation and the common interests shared by both London and Dublin throughout ‘the Troubles’.12

Fundamental shift

These shared and historically determined interests are unlikely to be seriously shaken by the stresses and strains of Brexit. However, the continued uncertainties surrounding the economic status of Northern Ireland following the final British withdrawal from the EU have kept the border as a live political issue throughout Ireland.

For Dublin, the economic dynamics are the most immediately important question. Although much of the political attention has focused on the impact of Brexit on the all-Ireland economy and cross-border trade flows, especially in the agri-business and food industries, the key issue for Irish capitalism is the ‘land bridge’ - that is, Britain - that links Ireland with the rest of the EU.13 It is this border in the Irish Sea which matters most to Irish exporters and hauliers, as Brexit approaches.14

This reflects the fundamental shift that has occurred in the Irish economy since the 1960s.15 In line with British capitalism’s decline as an economic power since 1945, the Irish economy has become much less dependent and much less dominated by its neighbour. Put simply, in an attempt to develop its own economy, the Irish capitalist class made a strategic decision in the 1960s to both orientate towards Europe and to court investment from international capitalism, especially the US.16 However, this shift does not represent any real independence, but simply a change of patron in a world dominated by powerful economic blocs.

The Irish economy is one of the most globalised in the world: it is now dominated by transnational enterprises and financial services, which use Ireland as a base because it is a good entry point into EU markets and has an advantageous taxation regime.17 Recent export figures illustrate how Irish capitalism’s focus has shifted since its 1973 entry into the forerunner of the EU, the European Economic Community: by July 2020 the EU accounted for 38% of Irish goods exports and the US 33%, leaving the UK far behind with 13%.18 Whilst agri-business is still a significant sector of the Irish economy and Britain still remains the single most important market for its food and livestock exports, the sector only accounts for 9.5% of total Irish exports.19 Irish capitalism today now faces towards Europe and the world, not just to its former colonial rulers across the Irish Sea.

However, if Irish capitalism’s concerns about Brexit are primarily economic, it is the politics of the border that have moved centre-stage south of the border. This partly reflects developments in Northern Ireland and political shifts in Dublin following the general election in February 2020.20 If the war in the Six Counties has been over since the 1990s, that does not mean that the national question in Ireland has simply faded away into history: partition still determines the dynamics and structures of politics in Northern Ireland, whilst the incomplete national revolution still continues to haunt politics and society south of the border. As the hundred years since the Government of Ireland Act 1920 have shown, the carnival of reaction that James Connolly predicted did indeed come to pass - with disastrous results for the Irish people on both sides of the border.21 For the Irish working class, politically, economically and socially, they have both proved to be failed states.

In the current moment it is the independent voice of the Irish working class that is missing, as it has been throughout much of Irish history since 1920. During the war for independence, the Sinn Féin leader, Éamon de Valera, told the working class, ‘Labour must wait’. It has remained waiting ever since. However, the questions raised by Brexit about reunification and the future of Ireland demand an independent working class response, not a mere tailing behind capitalist politicians or petty bourgeois nationalists, no matter how radical they sound.

Similarly, arguments that a Labourist party campaigning on ‘class issues’, but accepting the partitionist status quo, can unite the divided Irish working class in the Six Counties must be rejected. The experience of parties, such as the Northern Ireland Labour Party, shows that this type of politics avoids the central cause of the problem: the state and political structures that perpetuate sectarianism through partition can be no foundation for a democratic solution to the Irish question.

Instead, the task for Irish Marxists is to build a party that can give the working class not just a voice, but a sense of its own agency and potential as a political actor across the island. Such a party must completely reject the two failed states that have offered only division and poverty, and instead commit itself to the minimum programme: the democratic task of reuniting Ireland. What more fitting way to mark the centenary of partition than by continuing the struggle for the Irish workers’ republic began by Connolly and the pioneers of Irish socialism?

  1. independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-news-live-today-brexit-latest-deal-barnier-eu-proposal-a9156161.html.↩︎

  2. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-54003483.↩︎

  3. belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/brexit/fears-some-supermarket-chains-could-leave-northern-ireland-if-brexit-talks-fail-39523885.html.↩︎

  4. belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/what-does-the-uk-internal-market-bill-mean-for-northern-ireland-39518382.html. See also independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/internal-market-bill-boris-johnson-theresa-may-northern-ireland-good-friday-agreement-b700263.html.↩︎

  5. irishnews.com/news/brexit/2020/09/08/news/brandon-lewis-admits-plans-to-change-brexit-deal-break-international-law--2060091.↩︎

  6. independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/pelosi-brexit-good-friday-agreement-us-uk-trade-deal-boris-johnson-b421632.html.↩︎

  7. telegraph.co.uk/politics/0/tory-dup-deal-agreement-full.↩︎

  8. uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-nireland/johnson-to-talk-up-uk-unity-on-northern-ireland-visit-idUKKCN2582UC.↩︎

  9. irishnews.com/news/northernirelandnews/2019/06/11/news/michael-gove-has-long-held-orange-affiliation-1638896. See also his 2002 pamphlet comparing the Good Friday agreement to appeasement in the 1930s: finfacts.ie/MichaelGove.pdf. For other assessments of his influence on Tory policy in Ireland see irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/michael-gove-a-fanatic-who-would-damage-peace-process-1.2710224.↩︎

  10. For a summary of how this policy developed see E O’Kane Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland since 1980; the totality of relationships London 2007.↩︎

  11. irishtimes.com/opinion/simon-hoare-i-hope-uk-and-ireland-have-not-gone-past-the-point-of-no-return-1.4376540. For a detailed account of Dublin’s role throughout this period see G Spencer Inside accounts Vol 1 and 2, Manchester 2019.↩︎

  12. P Neumann Britain’s long war: British strategy in the Northern Ireland conflict 1969-98 London 2003.↩︎

  13. irishtimes.com/news/politics/uk-could-renege-on-ireland-s-truck-land-bridge-to-eu-td-warns-1.4356489.↩︎

  14. irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/brexit-irish-hauliers-seek-state-help-to-bypass-uk-land-bridge-1.4359886.↩︎

  15. irishtimes.com/business/economy/brexit-to-hurt-irish-imports-from-uk-more-than-exports-1.3719797.↩︎

  16. For an overview of these developments see D McAlesse The Celtic tiger: origins and prospects: tcd.ie/Economics/staff/dmcleese/Web/mcaleese.pdf.↩︎

  17. For further discussion on these historical developments see K Bean, ‘More than the border? Looking at Brexit through Irish eyes’ in M Guderjan, H Mackay and G Stedman (eds) Contested Britain: Brexit, austerity and agency Bristol 2020.↩︎

  18. cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/gei/goodsexportsandimportsjuly2020.↩︎

  19. rte.ie/news/business/2020/1012/1171004-department-of-agriculture-and-marine-report.↩︎

  20. ‘Shared island or democratic republic?’ Weekly Worker September 24 2020. See also ‘Brexit and reunification’, July 18 2019. For the implications of the general election, see ‘Holding the fort’, July 2 2020 and ‘Rise to the challenge’, March 26 2020.↩︎

  21. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 established ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ home-rule parliaments under British jurisdiction. Following a struggle for national independence between 1919 and 1921, the treaty established the Irish Free State in the 26 ‘southern’ counties, whilst ‘Northern Ireland’ remained part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Free State remained part of the British empire and its government recognised the British monarch as head of state. Although by 1948 the southern state had left the Commonwealth, economically and politically it continued to be dominated by Britain - a client relationship heightened by the struggle in the north after 1968.↩︎