Whatever happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s famed sympathy for Irish republicanism?
One has to look through old newsreels to remember a time when borders in Ireland made headlines without the single market and customs union having anything to do with it. These days, Gerry Adams insists he does not see Brexit as “something which can be exploited”. It is difficult to take him seriously. Like the Scottish National party, Sinn Féin have seized on quite different referendum results in England and in Northern Ireland as evidence of the latter’s distance from Britain, a happy chance to raise again the question of secession.
In the Irish case there is of course the added urgency that Ireland’s two states could find themselves dragged further apart by the institution of a European border running across the island. The Democratic Unionists are aggressive supporters of Brexit, surely on this cynical basis. In a familiar battle of opportunisms, Sinn Féin privately hope to turn Brexit into a bid for reuniting Ireland while the DUP covertly hope it will only drag Ireland’s states further from one another. Last year Sinn Féin targeted and crushed an incipient non-sectarian, left-wing political challenge to their domination within the Catholic working class by highlighting on every doorstep the principled scepticism of their socialist competitors towards the EU. In Europe’s deep blue flag they now see a stepping stone to the Irish tricolour.
Things were not always so. Republicans once recognised Brussels, as well as London, as a threat to Irish sovereignty. It seems strange that they should now crave independence from one foreign power in order to alienate it to another. Whatever one thinks of the EU and of the Eurosceptic rhetoric of sovereignty, erstwhile warriors for national liberation are unlikely champions of a project to diminish the nation-state.
In truth, this transformation is unsurprising. Sinn Féin’s 1998 historic compromise in signing up to the institutions of British rule in Ireland was premised on a tough evaluation: amid stalling international funding for war, and with military victory looking supremely unlikely, the hope was that a new mechanism for a referendum on Irish unity, built into the Good Friday Agreement, might eventually offer a long march to victory – a long march through the institutions in place of old models of insurrection. Sinn Féin swiftly converted to the ‘principle of consent’ they had long opposed on principled grounds. Under those conditions any moment of British faltering must be seized as an electoral opportunity, a chance to raise the prospect of a border poll on Irish unification; this has become Sinn Féin’s only hope after the abandonment of arms. Now some see hope in Brexit.
It can at least be said today that Sinn Féin has a clear answer to the question plaguing British politicians: ‘how to deliver Brexit and avoid a hard border in Ireland?’ Theirs might be the only answer capable of really squaring the circle, and it says something about their imperial worldview that the most ardent Brexiteers cannot embrace Irish reunification to save a hard Brexit. Should he find himself in Downing Street, Corbyn should consider offering an Irish unity referendum if the EU insists on imposing border controls in Ireland when Britain leaves the single market – which we must do if Brexit is to open up any new possibilities at all for assertive left-wing economic policy. Giving the Irish people a choice between Europe’s hard border and national reunification would not just clear a negotiating impasse under those circumstances; it would be a democratic necessity. But Brexit is not the basis upon which to construct a principled opposition to the partition of Ireland, except insofar as it highlights afresh the absurdity of partition given the practical integration of the economies of Ireland’s two polities.
How, then, should the case for abolishing the border in Ireland proceed? It must begin by recognising the need to reimagine itself in the light of a referendum – not 2016’s Brexit vote but 1998’s endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the war in Ireland.
At best, the Troubles were characterised in the British press as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, or a battle between rival unsavoury nationalisms. Often the problem was presented in even more retrograde terms, as terrorism arriving from nowhere to disturb British serenity. Little surprise, then, that recent celebrations of the centenary of popular suffrage in Britain never mentioned the year 1969, not 1918 or 1928, as the moment when proletarian Catholics were given the vote in local elections in Northern Ireland. For the first four and a half decades of its existence, the Northern Irish statelet took an unashamedly apartheid form – and the appalling inequalities in housing, employment and education that reflected this political stitch-up persisted in the years after 1969. The marchers shot by British soldiers in 1972 were not separatist guerrillas but civil rights protesters inspired by Martin Luther King’s example; the possibility of that transnational conversation is missed by a British narrative that forgets the sectarian nature of the governing institutions Britain established for the descendants of its settlers in Ireland.
This was a Protestant state with plenty of Catholics in it, and ‘unionism’ always was an awkward, inappropriate name for a political programme whose real goal was the defence of Protestant privilege. The maintenance of British sovereignty was only ever an instrument to that end, hence longstanding ‘unionist’ opposition to British law over questions of abortion and now gay marriage. ‘Unionists’ have even occasionally sought the independence of their statelet when they have doubted Britain’s commitment to their sectional interests. Abolishing a state founded as a sectarian fortress seemed for many years like the cleverly structural response to a structural problem, radical in Marx’s sense (‘getting to the root’). Civil rights protestors lined up to join the IRA after Bloody Sunday because British bullets had stolen their hopes of reforming Northern Ireland, and so they turned instead to demanding its abolition by revolution. None of this will be news to Irish readers but – as is so often the case with the truths of empire – Britons develop amnesia. Indeed, when academics supporting Brexit ‘from the left’ propose that Britain should “reassert its sovereignty over Northern Ireland”, we have truly lost our way.
The egalitarian-democratic argument for dumping partition had its appeal seriously undermined by the peace process. Reforming the state turned out to be possible after all. But the Good Friday Agreement only turned a sectarian monopoly into a sectarian duopoly. Catholics were guaranteed a place at the table. The text of the Agreement first defines all of Northern Irish politics under the rubric unionist/nationalist/other, and then that last category all but vanishes from the document; the governing institutions of Stormont are all to be arranged, it insists, along sectarian lines. Sectarianism is presupposed, and so sectarianism is frozen in place. Elections are sectarian head-counts. Two decades into peace and amid paralysis over basic recognition for the Irish language, hopes that this reality would disappear look more distant than ever.
The challenge for all who favour the current constitutional form is as follows: given the deeply inscribed domineering politics of Protestant sectarianism, artificially afforded the status of a demographic majority by the borders of the Northern Irish statelet, simple majority rule would mean the return of discrimination and the only firm safeguard against that involves the perpetuation of sectarian divisions by reproducing them through mandated coalitions. Long ago, James Connolly claimed that removing the ‘national question’ via British withdrawal was a necessary precondition for socialism, for the very possibility of class politics. Today the hardy guards of Britain’s nearest desert fortress, the DUP, make headlines in London and the British public is baffled by the revelation that sectarian states breed sectarian politics.
Here, then, is the paradox. Abolishing the Northern Irish state would infuriate plenty along sectarian lines, but it is the only path to eventually overcoming sectarian politics – finishing off Sinn Féin as well as the DUP and freeing people to vote on issues other than flags. That would take time, and the transition from 1998’s institutions may be a tough one (the only answer to the paradox is that it should be treated with great care, in the knowledge that today’s peace was hard-won), but the prize is significant. There are other reasons to favour Irish unity, not least because regional underdevelopment is an especially aggravated problem in the political economy of the British state, so the complex neglect of Northern Ireland would likely be lessened by its political integration with the rest of Ireland. But the jointly principled and pragmatic opposition to sectarian state structures should be the preeminent argument for change.
There are plenty of urgent challenges facing people in the north of Ireland, not least the austerity enforced by green and orange politicians alike. The argument that ending partition should be the only immediate concern, and that those shocked by the idea should be pushed into it, falls back into the traditional comforts of sectarian rallying cries. Constitutional questions are not the only things that matter. But they can set the terms for politics more generally. Northern Irish institutions are too rarely analysed in Britain as the eventual, winding outcome of settler-colonial histories. Facing up to the corruptions long ago wrought by empire and addressing their remote echoes in the present – these are the duties carried out everywhere by an internationalist left worthy of the name. It may not be a problem we can solve, and it may not be a problem solved soon by anybody, but ‘Northern Ireland’ is the problem.