National reunification: Entering new and uncharted waters

After listening to Olivia O’Leary speaking about a united Ireland on “Drivetime” (RTE) last month, a Dublin republican remarked that something significant must be happening when this subject was being aired on the national broadcaster by one of its more cautious commentators.

Curious, I downloaded the podcast. It was indeed interesting, firstly in reflecting a view long held by the Southern establishment about the national question. Blame the Provos for preventing unity, and promote Project Fear by emphasising unionism’s determination to use force in the event of any change to the constitutional status quo.

Yet along with this standard fare O’Leary asked a probing question: “Are the tectonic plates already shifting so fast that within a decade we’ll hardly recognise the territorial outlines of the states we know today?” In this respect she was articulating a matter of deep concern to the Republic’s ruling class: that their status quo may change.

So what are we to make, then, of Jeffrey Donaldson’s weekend with Leo Varadkar and his well-heeled colleagues? The widely reported reference to participation in the Commonwealth was warmly applauded by the assembled Blueshirts and, not surprisingly, became the focus of the presentation.

In reality, that particular episode was symbolic rather than significant. The Commonwealth is now essentially a talking shop and wields hardly any international influence. Apart from confirming what we already knew—that the Fine Gael set still retain affection for British institutions—it hardly matters; and anyhow, two senior ministers, Coveney and Donohoe, quickly dismissed the idea.

Of greater significance was the fact that the Republic’s governing party invited the DUP’s House of Commons chief whip to a conference at which Fine Gael repeated and reinforced the party’s right-wing credentials and agenda. Varadkar announced a nebulous five-point plan, including such inane drivel as “putting Ireland at the centre of the world”—all the while pointedly failing to address any of the burning issues, such as homelessness, health, or education. But he was quite explicit when promising generous tax benefits for the wealthy, and clearly indicated his determination to maintain a harsh free-market economy.

Varadkar’s insensitive address was complemented by a callous speech from his minister for housing (yes, that’s his title), Eoghan Murphy. Murphy reassured his landlord friends that “the problem of homelessness will never be eradicated completely.” Thereafter he described a promise made some years ago by the Labour Party to end homelessness as “very irresponsible” (not to mention hypocritical, coming from a party supporting swingeing austerity).

This attitude has to be viewed against the scandalous situation that more than 10,000 people, including more than 3,000 children, are now in emergency accommodation.

Fine Gael’s economic policy would certainly have met with the approval of the member for Lagan Valley; but apart from that fairly obvious fact, the question remains, Why was he there?

Notwithstanding the applause for his Commonwealth remarks, Donaldson’s party is at odds with the Republic’s government and opposition on a raft of important issues, including Brexit. Nor is there any perceptible softening of the DUP’s position on partition, or its long-standing antipathy to the 26-County state.

The reality is that Fine Gael finds itself in a dilemma as it frantically tries to cope with two issues that it fears. In the first instance there is the fall-out from Brexit. Secondly, as shown by the O’Leary broadcast, there is the question of partition, which is having an increasing impact on the national conscience.

By very visibly playing the DUP card, Fine Gael is covering several of its own narrow objectives. Presenting the hard-line unionist party to a Southern television audience helps promote Project Fear, emphasising the difficulties rather than the opportunities offered by reunification. Moreover, the DUP is closely allied with the most reactionary wing of the Tory party and, along with Fine Gael, shares its fundamentalist neo-liberal philosophy. In spite of its ostensible hostility to the Republic, it may be viewed as a bridge to like-minded elements in Britain and the North of Ireland after Brexit.

Britain leaving the EU presents the 26-County state with more than a purely economic quandary. In spite of slick media spin and a leadership seemingly oozing confidence, Varadkar’s party has no ideas about how to cope with the prospect of losing one of its two principal overseas anchors.

Over the past four decades Government policy has been based on a relationship of dependence with Britain and the rest of the European Union. From the point of view of those governing the Republic, this afforded them a twofold advantage. Staying close to the United Kingdom provided Dublin with an ally when in negotiation with Brussels, while the EU connection prevented an over-dependence on Britain.

It was a cosy situation, which allowed governments the luxury of not having to exercise the responsibilities that go with sovereignty and independence. More importantly, it also facilitated the implementation of economic policies that have exacerbated income inequality while increasing the wealth of the privileged minority.

Then there is the issue that never really goes away: the national question. While Brexit per se will not alter the constitutional position of the two jurisdictions in Ireland, it has raised the issue to a level not experienced in decades. Even during the most recent IRA campaign, when the demand for unity was being made in arms, there was a conviction in the South that this was a position held only by diehard republicans, a group who were routinely demonised and dismissed by the state broadcasting network and the mainstream press.

Now, however, conditions and circumstances have changed. Whether it’s a “hard” or a “soft” Brexit, Britain is leaving the EU. Thanks also to changing demographics, a fractured British body politic, and a dysfunctional Six-County political entity, the demand for a referendum on partition can only grow louder and increasingly difficult to resist.

Taken together, these two factors create a scenario that is causing deep concern within Fine Gael and among its fellow-travellers: that the status quo, with which they are so comfortable, cannot hold indefinitely.

On that final point at least, they are correct. We are entering new and uncharted waters in both jurisdictions. Consequently, Fine Gael is retreating into old but failing certainties; and meanwhile its Fianna Fáil partners are incapable of offering anything better, or different. It hardly needs stating that the DUP offers even less than its Southern counterparts.

Rarely has there been a greater need for clarity of thinking and action from the left. Rarely has the CPI made a more timely appeal than in its recent statement in which it calls for “the unity of all those forces that oppose imperialist domination and calls on them to work together to build the forces necessary to take advantage of the crisis within the British ruling class and a bankrupt Irish establishment to push forward the demand for ending division and partition, to articulate the possibilities of what a new Ireland would hold for the working class of Ireland.”

An important appeal that merits adoption by all serious working-class activists.