For a politician who spends so much taxpayers’ money on a “Strategic Communications Unit,” Leo Varadkar managed to deliver an extraordinarily ill-considered and dangerous message on his trip to the North last month.
In an interview with the BBC he said: “I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50 per cent plus 1 basis.” His words were immediately seized upon by the right-wing Unionist John Taylor, who then told the News Letter, “You cannot force Northern Ireland out of the UK by a 1 per cent majority. Can you imagine the loyalists in Belfast taking it quietly?”
We may discount Taylor’s belligerent comments as unremarkable for a curmudgeonly old imperialist; but Varadkar’s comment undermines a fundamental principle of normal democratic process in an area not known for holding the concept in high regard.
Worse, his words were tantamount to inviting violence in the event of changing voting patterns. Ideally, of course, there would be overwhelming support and uncontested agreement for the ending of partition; in reality, there is no prospect of unanimity on this contentious issue, and the ending of partition has to be dealt with in this light.
We should recognise—as Varadkar obviously does—that this is no longer a matter of academic interest. The demographic and political make-up of Northern Ireland is changing, and probably more rapidly than many people realise. This was evident during the recent elections for the British Parliament, when mainstream unionism lost an absolute majority in the Assembly and Sinn Féin candidates made significant gains.
Moreover, following the passing of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act (2011), it is anticipated that under this new arrangement Sinn Féin (or other non-unionists) will secure an equal, if not the greater, number of Westminster seats in the Six Counties.¹
Therefore, unless we are prepared to endure a repeat of the events of 1912, with all the problems flowing from that period in our history, it is important that changing realities are addressed honestly and openly. It is vital to this process that governments in Dublin take a lead, and do so now, when there is time to have rational, non-hysterical discussion to prepare the way for negotiated change. The alternative is to invite the most backward element within unionism to stage a putsch and risk having the carnival of reaction trundle on for decades to come.
A sceptic might suggest, however, that this is what Fine Gael and pro-imperialist elements of Ireland’s ruling class want. In certain circumstances it suits the powerful elite to sidestep or recalibrate the wishes of the majority. Think how the electorate’s initial decision to reject the Lisbon Treaty was overturned. More recently there was the devious shilly-shallying in relation to water charges. A disingenuous and deliberately ambiguous “excessive use” clause is undoubtedly designed to facilitate the reintroduction of charges in a few years’ time.
There is little new in this. The South’s ruling elite is skilled in the use of underhand practices. The most notorious rearranging of the popular will occurred at the very foundation of the 26-County state when Leo Varadkar’s predecessors in Cumann na nGaedheal put paid to the Democratic Programme published and approved by the first Dáil Éireann on the day its deputies declared an Irish Republic. Indeed it can reasonably be argued that overturning the Democratic Programme, which stated that “all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare . . .”² was one of the motivating factors behind the outbreak of civil war in 1922.
All of which might well be dismissed as history were it not for the fact that the centenary of the Democratic Programme is fast approaching, and undoubtedly with renewed interest in its contents and message. And while the document remains of value in its entirety, some sections are of immediate contemporary relevance.
The programme’s last paragraph calls upon the national government to seek co-operation with other countries to guarantee a standard of social and industrial legislation that would ensure a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which workers live and labour. In the light of the prevailing neo-liberal and anti-worker dictates of Brussels, that particular demand certainly challenges supporters of the EU sitting in the present-day Dáil.
Ireland’s ruling elite has become so adept at manipulating the present system that many working people feel unable to correct flaws in the status quo. Look at the do-little fussing in response to Garda misconduct. Look too at the recent charade surrounding the banks and the tracker mortgage scandal.
It’s not surprising that so many people feel helpless in the face of powerful vested interests. Well, we might ask, has anything changed since Lenin said that bourgeois democracy allows working people to decide every few years which particular representatives of the elite will represent and repress them in parliament?³
While not advocating an ultra-leftist type of total rejection of parliamentary democracy, it is obvious that working people require an additional vehicle through which our voice can be heard and our needs addressed. To succeed, it is necessary to have a structured input from organised labour as well as from dedicated community and political activists. The Right2Change trade unions have organised a worthwhile project, under the banner of “Another Ireland is possible,” that has the potential to act as a catalyst for the construction of such a vehicle.
To add to Right2Change’s momentum, the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum has planned a conference for Saturday 26 January 2019 in Liberty Hall, Dublin. The Forum intends that this occasion, designed to commemorate and celebrate the convening of the first Dáil and its adoption of the Democratic Programme, will be the culmination of a series of similar, albeit smaller events throughout Ireland. The aim of this undertaking is to assist with the task of building a broad workers’ movement that could be co-ordinated through a workers’ assembly (or, in deference to the centenary, Dáil na nOibrithe?).
The forum is very clear that it is not acting in competition with other initiatives, such as that organised by the Right2Change movement. The Forum sees its role as facilitating discussion among socialist republicans and encouraging those committed to building a workers’ republic. Ultimately, it has to be understood that one of the keys to creating a workers’ state is breaking the connection with imperialism, whether it originates in Britain or the European Union, while simultaneously sidelining imperialism’s Irish placemen and women. Acting on this insight will allow us to avoid the type of error perpetrated, whether accidentally or deliberately, by Leo Varadkar in Belfast.
1. Martin Baxter, “New constituency boundaries for Britain, 2018,” at www.electoralcalculus.co.uk.
2. Dáil Éireann, Democratic Programme (21 January 1919), at http://oireachtasdebates.oireachtas.ie.
3. V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917).