Addressing his partners at the Fianna Fáil ard-fheis last month, the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, drew inspiration from the president of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, and told the audience that “there will be a special place reserved in Hell for those who call for a border poll in Ireland with no plan and idea on how to actually deliver it . . .”
He offered his listeners this pearl of wisdom after saying that a new Ireland will only come by first providing definition and detail of its workings. The delegates roared their approval.
Maybe we have missed something. Perhaps Colum Eastwood has identified aspects of Fianna Fáil that have eluded the rest of us over the past decades, qualities that might make the party of brown envelopes, dodgy developers, blatant clientelism and endemic “cute-hoorism” suitable advisers on defining a new Ireland.
Can we envisage this pair defining a new republic capable of winning support from the country’s working class, a creation different from the failing state built by Fianna Fáil and its Fine Gael coalition partner? Difficult to imagine Mícheál Martin’s party in that role, most would say.
Eastwood nevertheless is echoing the thinking and wishes of southern Ireland’s ruling class as well as elements within the North’s nationalist bourgeoisie. They are concerned that any fundamental change to the existing constitutional arrangement might challenge their hold on power and privilege. Moreover, by attempting to ensure that change can happen only within the EU, as the SDLP and Fianna Fail leaders are suggesting with their “five demands,”* they are negating any prospect of meaningful change.
The six-county state is a failed political and economic entity. The local Assembly has not sat for more than two years, and few believe that were it to reconvene it would or indeed could make any significant difference. Local political institutions have limited fiscal authority and are dependent on the questionable generosity of the British Parliament, which determines the size of the block grant.
Moreover, and in spite of the often rosy picture painted of a social safety-net available in the North, the welfare state has been eroded, bit by bit, by governments in London. Privatisation is steadily undermining the National Health Service, and the latest effort to reduce welfare benefits has resulted in the disastrous application of universal credit and the infamous bedroom tax.
Whatever temporary measures were introduced to mitigate the worst of these cut-backs in the six counties will very probably end in April 2020.
Against this unpromising backdrop there is also the relentless pressure of changing demographics in an area fixated on sectarian head-counting. By any reasonable analysis, Northern Ireland is a zombie state.
If we have learnt anything over the past century it is that difficulties in the North cannot be resolved either internally or by intervention from London.
Partition, let’s not forget, has not only failed the North but, by dividing Ireland’s working class, has impeded any real prospect of positive development on both sides of the border. There is now a political imperative to recognise this fact and work towards ending partition rather than endeavouring to prolong it.
Of course this should come about without violence. However, being open and frank about existing reality should not threaten a peaceful outcome.
Yet while hiding behind a screen of bogus reasonableness and a supposed reluctance to risk violence, the southern establishment and its allies are in effect putting at risk the prospect of a peaceful transformation. Refusing to have the issues discussed, and adding conditions such as increasing the threshold for ending partition, they are discouraging hard-line unionists in the DUP and elsewhere from facing the realities of a changing Northern Ireland, and indeed a very different Britain.
Ignoring the constitutional status of the Six Counties within the United Kingdom will not mollify DUP hardliners. Their objective is to create the deepest division possible between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is a strategy arising out of desperation on the part of an insecure party fearing abandonment by London as their fiefdom is being steadily eroded.
Undoubtedly no effort should be spared to engage with all sections of the unionist community; but it is counter-productive to weigh every proposal and each initiative against the hope of winning agreement from a truculent and unreasonable section of society.
It is time to face reality, examine the situation as dispassionately as possible, and draw conclusions in the light of available evidence. For reasons outlined above, the political entity that is Northern Ireland has failed. Britain no longer views it as a strategic asset. Changing demographics mean that within the next few decades unionism will lose its majority in the region. The question for the left then becomes one of how to deal with changing circumstances not only in the North but also throughout the country.
It is crucial that a positive and progressive narrative emerges not only to challenge DUP obscurantism but also to prevent the right-wing axis in the South dictating the future make-up of society in Ireland. Nor can this be a narrative of airy platitudes. It is important to initiate a detailed and informative discourse that has the potential to reassure working people north and south and thereafter win their support.
It is essential to emphasise that a new and very different republic must emerge from the two failed states that now exist in Ireland—a republic that addresses the housing crisis through a programme of state-financed public housing; a republic that creates a national health service for all its citizens by abolishing private health facilities; a republic that protects the young and the elderly, and all between, through guaranteeing the social wage. In other words, a workers’ state.
To do so it is necessary to recognise the conditions required for bringing a workers’ republic into being, and the obstacles in its path. A workers’ republic cannot exist within the neo-liberal European Union, regardless of whether there is a hard or a soft border. Nor will it come about if discussion is confined to simply speaking of a united Ireland. Campaigning for an end to partition and supporting the call for Irish unity are perfectly legitimate objectives for the Irish left. It goes without saying, however, that any such campaign must make it clear that these objectives are neither an end in themselves nor a substitute for the struggle to build a workers’ republic.
Whatever about Colum Eastwood’s place in Hell for border pollsters, a different type of hell will be inevitable if the future is left in the hands of his Irish allies and their right-wing EU mentors. The only good alternative is a workers’ republic; so let’s get the discussion started and a strategy for its implementation identified.
*“Newly-partnered Fianna Fáil and SDLP release joint statement on Brexit,” Irish Examiner, 21 February 2019.