Partition grinding to a close

Once again the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have failed to elect a first minister and deputy first minister and have now been mothballed pending the ability of the British secretary of state for “Northern Ireland” to pull a rabbit out of the hat regarding the Protocols, or to persuade the DUP to allow an Executive to be formed. If not, another election will take place, possibly in December.

The institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement of 1998 have simply staggered from one crisis to another. The British state had hoped that these institutions would stabilise the situation and secure Britain’s continued interests and control.

As always in regard to an imperial power such as Britain, and all other imperial powers, such as the United States, there is no such thing as a benign imperialism. Imperialism only has interests to protect or pursue: it is never a bystander nor a benign influence. History should teach us that.

Two main factors have contributed to current events. The Northern Ireland Protocol has made a big play in bringing down or getting significant changes to render them useless and ineffectual. Unionists understand well that the border down the Irish Sea has weakened the east–west relationship. They have built their power base on “Not an inch.” It has created a psychosis that any concession that might weaken the “union” is a step towards a united Ireland. This has been a core ideological play since the founding of that gerrymandered entity.

This approach is their political comfort blanket. They simply don’t have to do anything: they don’t have to find any accommodation with their neighbours or with the rest of the people who live and work in this country.

The British state at this time wishes to establish as close a relationship as the framework of Brexit will allow regarding trade and movements of capital between the British state and the EU. The situation in the North is of little value to the London government. In particular, the Conservative Party—the long-term close ally of unionism—has used unionists and dropped them when it suited the domestic political agenda and the needs of imperialism.

The Protocols were simply a pawn on the chessboard of an inter-imperialist clash of interests and contradictions between two contending centres, the EU and Britain, flowing from Brexit. Unionists know that when it suits Britain they will be pushed aside.

The interests of unionism do not matter, nor the interests of the nationalist/republican communities, nor the wider needs and interests of the whole of Ireland, when it comes to deciding what is in the best interests of big corporations and finance houses, what is in the interests of capital and imperial hegemony.

The recent and continuing crisis within the Conservative Party and the needs of finance capital are a reflection of this. To them the protocols did not feature in the debates. They were simply a lever for manoeuvring the complex ground as the future relationship with the EU gradually emerges.

Unionists know that they are relevant to London only in so far as they may be needed as voting fodder in the House of Commons.

The second factor shaping unionist thinking is the deep psychological blow dealt to unionism by the outcome of the last Assembly elections, which resulted in Sinn Féin narrowly becoming the largest party in the Assembly and thereby entitled to elect the first minister. Unionists’ nightmare for a century has come to pass: the internal enemy has become the majority party.

With the possibility of new elections on the horizon, it remains to be seen if Sinn Féin can hold that position and further undermine the political base of their main rivals, the SDLP. The DUP will be seeking to stop any further growth in the TUV, and we may well see a further decline in support for the UUP and possible growth and consolidation for the Alliance Party.

But from a working-class viewpoint, going on past experience, nothing fundamentally will change. The political balance will remain roughly the same.

The British government, like unionism, has ruled out joint authority with the Irish government—not that the Irish government was champing at the bit in demanding joint authority. They are terrified of such a prospect, just as they are terrified of a united Irish democracy. The cosy cartel of revolving establishment parties forming governments could well collapse under the democratic renewal that would flow from a united democracy.

And in the Six Counties poverty will grow, the health service will get worse, the housing crisis will deepen. The economic material base of the Northern economy will further decline.

The hundred years of partition are grinding to their inevitable close. All attempts at bolstering it have failed and will fail. The fault line laid down a century ago continues to erupt and shatter the political landscape. Stability is impossible in such unstable and contested terrain.

Partition has failed. It’s time to reassert the democratic demand for Britain to withdraw. Democracy is the only permanent and lasting solution—an all-Ireland national democratic state.