No reliance on Good Friday

As shown by the resignation of Arlene Foster, unionism is in profound crisis. But can the left take the lead and build working class unity? Anne McShane reports on the Conference for an Alternative United Ireland

An online conference took place on April 24 to discuss the question of winning a united Ireland. There were no official organisers of the event. The Facebook page stated only that “Trade unionists, socialists and activists have come together to organise a ‘Conference for an Alternative United Ireland’, to discuss the possibilities of eradicating the border and shaping a different Ireland in the interests of the majority.”

However, a quick glance at the speakers left you in no doubt that the forces behind the event were the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and specifically its majority faction, the Socialist Worker Network (SWN).

A reported 700 people registered and both the plenary and smaller sessions had several hundred participants. There was plenty of time for debate at the smaller sessions and a surprisingly open atmosphere. All the usual leading SWN members were there, but did not seem quite as motivated as usual to quash criticism. However, there was one issue on which they were firm - support for a border poll. They argued that, no matter how problematic the Good Friday agreement is, it has provided a pathway to unity for Ireland which must be taken up by the left. A petition calling for a border poll was circulated, with regular reminders to sign it throughout the day. We were told we should do so despite misgivings - and in order to be kept posted about future events and involvement. If, like me, you did not sign, then presumably you are automatically deleted.

It definitely does seem that holding a border poll has become a serious possibility for the first time since 1998. An Irish Times survey of voters in the republic in February 2020 reported that 57% support a poll.1 A recent BBC survey revealed that a small majority in the south would vote for a united Ireland, while just under half of those in the Six Counties wanted unity.2 Sinn Féin has been leading demands for one since the 2016 Brexit referendum, and it is most commonly seen as their policy. However, conference organisers argued that it was possible to build a campaign to the left of SF, for a radical and progressive Ireland leading to the creation of a ‘socialist republic’. Interestingly I heard little criticism of SF in the sessions I attended, with the majority of attacks reserved for the Democratic Unionist Party, the British government and the Fianna Fáil (FF), Fine Gael (FG), Green Party government in Dublin.

The SWN evidently wants to orient towards this growing support for national reunification. Its leading members are right to say that attitudes towards the status quo have shifted on both sides of the border, particularly among the young. Brexit has had a major impact in the north, where the electorate voted by 56% to remain and instead finds itself bearing the brunt of many of the problems of new border controls. The DUP, which campaigned for a ‘leave’ vote, is in deep crisis, with its own representatives in bitter conflict over the handling of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

DUP leader, Arlene Foster, first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, has just announced that she will be stepping down from both positions in the face of 75% of her MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) signing a no confidence letter. The leadership election will be interesting.

Under Foster the DUP found itself mired in controversy - not least the Cash for Ash scandal, which led to the collapse of the Stormont government in 2017. For three years SF refused to re-enter a power-sharing arrangement with Foster as leader. There have also been crises over abortion and same-sex marriage - with the DUP in battle with Westminster over the extension of social and legal rights to Northern Ireland. It has refused to implement the legislation on abortion.

The issue which led to calls for Foster’s resignation was an amendment moved by the Ulster Unionist Party, calling for a ban on ‘gay conversion therapy’. The DUP put forward its own amendment protecting “legitimate religious activities, such as preaching, prayer and pastoral activity”, from any ban.3 In other words, allowing for conversion therapy only in the name of religious freedom. The amendment failed, but the argument has not gone away.


None of this has gone down well with younger Protestant voters. The DUP has the smallest proportion of young voters of all parties, with only 11% of 18-29-year-olds. The majority have moved to the Alliance party - along with a not insignificant number of SF voters. There is most certainly a rejection of the hard-line religious and social views of traditional loyalism. A 2019 University of Liverpool survey highlights a growth of enlightened attitudes, with both younger Catholics and Protestants supporting abortion, same-sex marriage and other progressive demands. It also shows far less identification with loyalism among younger Protestants.4

Meanwhile, society south of the border has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last 25 years. Before 1993 same-sex activity was a criminal offence, and many gay men and women fled the country or concealed their sexuality. Just over 20 years later Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote in a referendum. Divorce was banned before 1995 and women with children outside marriage were social outcasts. Now divorce is available after two years apart, secular marriage is just as popular as traditional church services, single-parent families make up 25% of all family units, and cohabiting families form more than 10%. No-one bats an eyelid.

Before 2019 abortion in 99% of cases was a criminal offence, prosecutions took place of people importing abortion pills, and thousands of women travelled abroad in secrecy for terminations. Now abortion pills are prescribed to women by their GPs, and abortion is freely available before 12 weeks and later on grounds of health. It has become a normal part of life and is discussed little. Of course, these rights are still inadequate and many reactionary attitudes continue to exist. But the changes reflect a very profound shift in outlook and in particular a break with the politics and social attitudes upheld by the post-partition state of 1921.

There is also increasing cynicism towards the mainstream parties, which are seen as propping up an outdated system and being incompetent and corrupt. As revelations continue about the abuse of women and children by state-funded religious institutions right up to the late 1980s, the government is constantly engaged in damage limitation exercises. The church and state have to be protected. FF has always been intimately connected to the Catholic hierarchy, and taoiseach Micheál Martin is seen as the hypocrite he is, when making mealy-mouthed, half-hearted official apologies. While it would be an overstatement to say that the theocratic state is crumbling, it most certainly is under unprecedented pressure. Alongside that, the government is seen to have mishandled the pandemic and both FF and FG ratings continue to fall. FF, the party of post-partition republicanism founded by Éamon De Valera, is being punished the most.

In the absence of a working class alternative, the aspiration for change has found its way into a significant growth in support for SF. The party won 37 Dáil seats in the 2020 general election - an increase of 14 and just one less than FF. This was in a situation where SF had only stood 42 candidates, as against FF’s 84 and FG’s 82. SF’s Mary Lou McDonald will not make the mistake of standing so few next time around. Her party continues to ride high in the polls, and she has been named most popular party leader. She leads a party which has never been in a Dublin government, has no responsibility for clerical abuse and no involvement in corruption. It is the inheritor of the republican movement which fought partition.

She and her party are determined to achieve the dream of a united Ireland - though this time by constitutional means. And she has made it clear that a border poll will be a precondition of forming that government.

Left agenda

In his speech to the conference, leading SWN member and TD Richard Boyd-Barrett argued that “we have a very exciting and unprecedented opportunity, with a border poll very seriously on the agenda”. He demanded that “socialists put themselves at the centre of the fight for this poll” and pointed to the crisis of unionism as providing the chance to build unity across traditional political lines.

In the most interesting session of the day, on the history of Protestant radicalism, his comrade, Sean Mitchell, spoke of the need to recover this radical history and differentiate it from radical loyalism, which is “not only anti-Catholic, but also against Protestant radicalism”. He believed we need to “put forward a radical social vision, to discard nationalism and build unity”.

Des Bell, academic and film-maker, who was one of a number of non-aligned speakers in the same debate, argued that the centenary of partition in 2021 has been a strange affair. Celebrations have been very muted, with acceptance by politicians north and south that this is too problematic an anniversary to put too much effort into. He also insisted that the Good Friday agreement (GFA) must be seen as simply the latest of divide-and-rule policies in Ireland. It has led to horse-trading between the DUP and SF, with other political parties not getting a look in, and to the institutionalisation of divisions within the working class, on the basis of defending ‘community interests’. He cautioned against idealising traditions and said all history needed to be considered in a non-sentimental way, while prioritising campaigns for progressive demands. The latter was also a point made by journalist Susan McKay, who urged the left to look to the events of today, rather than lingering on the past.

I argued that the border poll on the terms of the GFA would be profoundly undemocratic. The agreement states that the UK secretary of state should call a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”. We do not know what will satisfy the secretary of state. It could be a consistent majority in opinion polls, a Catholic majority in a census or a nationalist majority in the assembly. However, it is up to the secretary of state to decide whether his - or her - conditions have been met.5 If the UK government is satisfied, two separate referendums would be held - north and south - but it is unclear on what terms and what the question would be. Following a positive vote it is unknown what would happen next, with the likelihood of a protracted holding period.

Since 1998 the GFA has cemented and worsened existing divisions. Moreover, any move towards demanding a border poll will trigger Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist mobilisations. Some SWN members argued that a border poll is a “democratic right”, but that is evidently not true, as things stand. It is totally at the discretion of the UK government as to whether it allows a referendum to take place, and on what basis. The same goes with the republic.

It was encouraging that all conference participants from the north responded to my point with a robust condemnation of the GFA. Experienced political activists argued that it has institutionalised sectarianism and slanted the political process. Contentious motions need a ‘cross-community vote’, with a majority in the unionist/loyalist and nationalist/republican blocs. This veto has been used again and again to block progressive demands. There is also a divvying out of plum positions between the two blocs. Others stressed that the GFA meant major obstacles in building a struggle across the traditional divides. It is clear therefore that the Good Friday agreement must be challenged - and ended - not relied upon as the avenue to progress.

In contrast to the SWN’s Kieran Allen and his call for a “popular movement” for a united Ireland, what we need is a working class solution. We need to build a struggle to end the rule of the GFA and demand all-Ireland unity on a democratic basis, with immediate demands for British withdrawal and guaranteed rights for Protestants in the north. Jumping on the border poll bandwagon will not transform the GFA - it will transform the left. The SWN will be doing the work of SF and taking socialists even further towards green nationalism.

It was instructive that one of the invited speakers was former East Lothian Scottish National Party MP, George Kerevan. He described himself as a Marxist (he is a former member of the International Marxist Group). Kerevan left the SNP in March along with Alex Salmond to set up the Alba Party. He commended the manifesto of his new party as an example of what to do in order to “hasten the break-up of the UK state”. A cursory glance at Alba’s website makes clear that it is an aggressively nationalist party, which makes no mention of socialism, never mind the working class.

  1. irishtimes.com/news/politics/more-than-half-of-voters-want-border-polls-north-and-south-1.4167428.↩︎

  2. irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/narrow-majority-of-ni-voters-support-remaining-in-uk-poll-1.4542944.↩︎

  3. belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/jim-wells-claims-dup-pressure-overgay-conversion-therapy-vote-amid-party-mass-rebellion-40357155.html.↩︎

  4. liverpool.ac.uk/media/livacuk/research/heroimages/The-University-of-Liverpool-NI-General-Election-Survey-2019-March-20.pdf.↩︎

  5. instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/irish-reunification.↩︎