What for long appeared unimaginable has seemingly now become inevitable. The Northern state, created with a built-in unionist majority and uncompromising regime, once seemed as permanent a fixture as its grandiose parliament building at Stormont.
Not any longer, though. Britain’s Tory prime minister has voiced her doubts about its future as part of the United Kingdom; and the views of the leader of Britain’s Labour Party on this matter are well known.¹ Though Theresa May’s comments were made during a spat with her party critics, they clearly reflect thinking within governing circles in London. The point now is to understand that this presents socialist republicanism with challenges as well as an invitation to make progress.
In the first instance, it is important to dispense with fanciful speculation. Circumstances leading to the Six Counties leaving the United Kingdom are more likely to come about over the next couple of decades than in the very near future. This time frame will provide an opportunity for measured discussion and negotiation, but it also risks raising alarm within sections of the unionist community.
A major problem in relation to unionist concerns is that they are exacerbated by an incredible capacity for outright denial, as displayed by many of its elected representatives. When asked to comment on Theresa May’s statement, for example, Sammy Wilson of the DUP ignored clear indications of changing reality; instead, he airily claimed, there is “no evidence” that the public mood in Northern Ireland has shifted over the issue of reunification.
More questionable still were claims made recently by the former first minister, Arlene Foster, when addressing the conference on “Union and Unionism” in London. She said that citizenship and rights are essentially unionist issues, and that unionism stands for pluralism and multiculturalism, is inclusive, and welcomes all.² To put it mildly, there are many who might beg to differ with Foster’s interpretation of Northern Irish unionism.
At the same time, unionism is not a monolith. In the event of a new constitutional dispensation in the whole of Ireland, some within that community might easily find common cause with their class allies in southern Ireland. A former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt, alluded to this in a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, where he was reported as saying, “Some of my Unionist friends are saying for the first time to me: ‘Exactly how would I be worse off in a united Ireland (compared to Britain after Brexit)?’ The answer is they wouldn’t be worse off.”³
To be fair to Mike, he wisely “clarified” this statement when it was reported by the News Letter in Belfast. Nevertheless, the message was clear enough.
By refusing to consider any alteration to the status quo, one section of unionism is missing an opportunity to contribute to modelling the new society that will surely emerge in the not-too-distant future. However, that is all the more reason why socialist republicanism should set out its analysis of the present and its vision for the future.
In this regard, it is crucially important to take action to ensure that we don’t wave goodbye to one empire merely to embed ourselves within a different but equally restrictive and exploitative imperialist world order.
Of course there are some unionists who will not be persuaded by any argument that involves a nationwide republic of whatever nature. Nevertheless, change is coming, and it must be dealt with. Avoiding this reality, or opting for a neo-liberal settlement, will guarantee neither a peaceful outcome nor a settlement beneficial to the Irish working class, of whatever background. Connolly famously said that partition would create a carnival of reaction. It’s imperative to ensure that its removal does not reinforce conservatism and privilege, embedded in a new neo-liberal state.
With this in mind, it is necessary to identify and counter the seductive blandishments from the Irish version of Macronisme. Like the practice of the French president, this political trend claims to be fresh, pragmatic, and free from the “dogmas” of the past. On the contrary, in fact, its adherents offer nothing more than a sharpened version of neo-liberalism practised within a reinforced and increasingly centralised EU.
Should anybody think that this type of political duplicity would not deceive many they should reflect on the silky performance of the Fine Gael posh boys Varadkar, Harris and Murphy as they basked in the afterglow of having supported the winning side in the recent referendum. This posture of simultaneously being socially liberal and economically reactionary is a classic position adopted by neo-cons in both the United States and western Europe.
However, while the broad left in Ireland is aware of the threat posed by neo-liberalism in its various manifestations, it is more difficult to contain enthusiasm among some for trendy social democracy. Without resorting to crude reductionism, it remains important to recognise that control of the economy is the ultimate determinant. Socialists wholeheartedly welcome the success of the Yes campaign but also understand the limitations of progressive social legislation without also having thoroughgoing economic democracy.
To accept this is no more than an acknowledgement of an enduring Marxist canon that the working class cannot simply take over the bourgeois state but must instead replace it with a new and different workers’ state. In the Irish context, where an end to partition is now being talked about as a realistic prospect, this surely means that we have to insist upon the discourse not being confined to a demand for a united Ireland but that reunification has also to be part of building a workers’ republic.
In response to those who claim that such a demand is over-ambitious or might prove counter-productive, we can now refer them to the outcome of recent referendums in the Republic. Ground-breaking social changes, such as recognition of same-sex marriage and abolition of the 8th Amendment, were not brought about by the ruling elite and the establishment: these progressive measures were grass-roots initiatives, forced upon the state apparatus by the people.
Equally important is the fact that these issues were won through rational debate and by demonstrating the merits of the case. This in turn gives us cause to believe, for example, that a campaign advocating a basic programme of state-financed public housing, an end to the privatisation of health and social services, public ownership of natural resources and nationalisation of the banking system could win popular approval and support.
And should the EU object to such a programme, the people would surely brush aside Brussels’ neo-liberal dictates.
Whatever about a new world being in birth at present, a different Ireland is certainly in the making. For this to be an improvement on the status quo and also to offer the possibility of ultimately winning support among the unionist working class, the course must be set for a workers’ republic.
- “Theresa May and Jacob Rees-Mogg clash over Brexit deal,” Times (London), 15 May 2018.
- Mark Davenport (BBC News NI political editor), “‘Unionism must reclaim rights agenda,’ says Arlene Foster,” 21 May 2018.
- Nick Miller, “More peaceful but facing uncertainty: Northern Ireland 20 years on,” Sydney Morning Herald, 9 April 2018 (https://bit.ly/2IQJ8qy).