Unionism redefined—but partition remains

The “Republican Party” of Fianna Fáil is back in government. Its leader has laid out a pragmatic approach to the national question that rules out a border poll, meaning that a united Ireland is out of the question. How very republican indeed!

Instead Micheál Martin has advocated a policy “much more rooted in the Good Friday Agreement . . . a consensus approach.”[1] Confusingly, a border poll is rooted in the agreement; but that democratic exercise would not produce the kind of consensus the Taoiseach desires.

But consensus with whom? This is a mischievous little term that works in conjunction with the word “divisive.” A border poll, you see, is divisive. It is all part of a strategy that the Irish state has pursued for decades but which has been intensified since Brexit brought the question of Irish unity to the fore. The Taoiseach’s plan tries to circumvent the central, unresolved issue of partition. Republicanism and unionism are irreconcilable. Dodging the constitutional issue is simply default unionism.

We are being coerced into accepting the British-imposed border as the normal state of things, rather than questioning the reactionary status quo built on partition. For those hostile to a united Ireland, one must deny the legitimacy of a border poll. The Dublin media portray unionists as a persecuted minority. Curtailing “divisive discussions” means that unionists will be allowed to hold us to ransom.

The very same idea is at play with the SDLP’s “New Ireland Commission,” launched by the party leader, Colum Eastwood, in July. The SDLP was set up to undermine republicanism and reconcile middle-class Catholics to British rule. Their latest initiative recognises that they need to make an intervention on the constitutional issue, given how changing material conditions since Brexit and the covid-19 pandemic have left them playing catch-up.

The New Ireland Commission’s “shared island” slogan is meaningless rhetoric.[2] Giving unionists a say on a united Ireland is a futile exercise: their opposition to such an outcome is patently obvious.

Fianna Fáil’s opposition to a border poll and therefore a united Ireland shows that the “two-nations theory” is the official policy of the ruling class in the 26 Counties. This is not a recent development, but it is worth noting that during the hunger strikes, despite the Irish government disowning the republicans’ demands, it would have been heresy to suggest that the ending of partition was not a worthy goal.

The amendment of the Irish state’s constitution to allow for ratification of the Belfast Agreement meant that its claim to the Six Counties was removed. As has been stated on many occasions in Socialist Voice, the most dependable ally of British imperialism in Ireland is the Southern ruling class. Northern unionists carry less and less importance in London’s calculations for advancing its interests in Ireland. The privatisation of the National Health Service and other public services, the ending of discriminatory employment and housing allocation, as well as political compromises resulting from Brexit, have undermined the material basis of unionism.

On the other hand the Irish state, imbued with hostility to republicanism, its comprador ruling class wedded to the imperialist powers, does not want a united Ireland. Its institutions would not absorb those of the Six Counties easily. We wouldn’t see a situation as in 1989, when West Germany in effect annexed the GDR. Our ruling class fears that their cherished stability would be profoundly damaged. An Irish working class freed from partition would be a much more formidable adversary. The institutions of state and the civil service have no plan in the event of unification and cannot allow the national question to give republicans a strong political initiative.

The central narrative from the SDLP and the main parties down south posits unionism as an ethnicity, which would necessitate special protections for unionists. Of course unionism is not an ethnicity: it is a reactionary political ideology. Pledging allegiance to the British monarch is a political stance—a royalist one! Orange marches have been repackaged as family fun days, but that doesn’t alter the triumphalism and sectarianism inherent in such displays; and what Twelfth would be complete without the burning of Tricolours on a bonfire? It wouldn’t be inconceivable that Micheál Martin or Colum Eastwood would defend the Orange Order as a cultural organisation that can be reformed, despite its raison d’être as a supremacist, discriminatory organisation with an intensely political message.

These manifestations of unionism are defined by their hostility to republicans and Catholics and are not something to be accommodated by those of us it excludes. Contrast this chauvinism with traditional Irish culture, which belongs to all Irish people, regardless of religion. Whether it be Protestants learning Irish or the founding of the East Belfast GAA club last month, one’s religious or political beliefs are not a barrier to participation. Cries from unionists that the Twelfth commemorations reflect their “heritage” is similar logic to that of Lost Cause adherents in the United States while they defend Confederate statues.

Calling people “nationalists” is the flip side of the narrative that insists that unionism is a culture. Only the Irish can be nationalists, never the Brits. It is a meaningless term that harks back to descriptions of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the nineteenth century. But the principal aim of viewing the national question in terms of “nationalists” and unionists is to obscure the issue of British imperialism and to frame the debate as one of “warring tribes,” the favoured prism of the ruling class. It is how the bourgeois media depicted the counter-revolution in Yugoslavia, and how at present it depicts the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The political questions (sovereignty, national democracy) are obscured: we are left with technocratic solutions that aim to get opposing “tribes” to live in harmony—such was the approach of George Mitchell and other figures during the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement.

As republicans, we need to approach the Protestant working class and win them over to our position. However, Protestants and unionists are not the same thing. It is ridiculous to suggest that demands for a united Ireland pander to those whose political outlook is defined in opposition to those very demands. The Taoiseach’s hollow refrain of holding fast to the methods of consensus that the Belfast Agreement supposedly embodies is instructive all the same. Through the mechanism of a border poll, the agreement provides for a route to a united Ireland, but only with British consent: it is at the sole discretion of the British secretary of state to call it. The Belfast Agreement is a method for managing the problems caused by partition, in the interests of the British and Irish states, not for solving them.

The Stormont institutions have been suspended for almost eight years in total since their inception in 1999—hardly a success by any measure. Then again it is impossible to establish democratic rule in the Six Counties while under the British state. They are just as isolated from political power in London as they are from power in Dublin.

A border poll is the only way to escape this quagmire and invigorate the working class of this country. Unification has always had wide support, but the tribulations of the British state in recent years have emphasised the urgent need for Irish sovereignty. There will never be socialism in a partitioned Ireland.


  1. Irish Times, 8 July 2020, p. 1.
  2. Irish Times, 20 July 2020, Home News.