Monday, 16 May 2022

How Loyalism is Hastening Unification

One of the unalloyed goods of last week's elections is what happened just over the water. Thanks to a fracturing unionism, the DUP vote was gouged by their would-be successors in biblical-tinged extremism, Traditional Unionist Voice. And more of their natural vote went to the cross-community (in actual fact, post-unionist) Alliance party. This left Sinn Fein the largest party and Michelle O'Neill the First Minister-in-waiting. A remarkable result. As night followed day, the DUP showed the 'democratic' in their name was mere window dressing as they refused to take their places on the Northern Ireland Executive. Their excuse? The continuation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

We have been here before. It offers a convenient excuse for the DUP to grandstand, and affords the Tories much the same opportunity. We have Liz Truss, for example, talking loudly about dumping the protocol and sponsoring legislation to undo it. The problem, as they see it, is the European Union are proving too zealous in its enforcement. You see, when Boris Johnson tore up Theresa May's Brexit deal ... only to reintroduce it, no one was meant to take it seriously. Despite saying there would be a border down the Irish Sea "over my dead body" after already signing up to this arrangement, for Johnson erecting a customs barrier was a stop gap, a ruse to make the seemingly intractable Brexit problems disappear for a future Johnson to deal with. The Tories never accepted the protocol they formulated, negotiated, and fought an election on in good faith, so it's jolly unsporting that the EU do. This is the rub.

The victory of Sinn Fein and the crisis of unionism means Johnson has to take it seriously now, simply because it's putting the union under intolerable strain - and Johnson doesn't want to be the Prime Minister known for overseeing the UK's break up. But these real reasons for wanting to wind back the protocol can't be stated publicly by any government minister, so instead we get waffle about standing up for the Good Friday Agreement(!) and the imposition of intolerable barriers to trade, barriers Johnson denied would be necessary if the electorate backed him and his Brexit deal.

What Johnson got through with bombast in 2019, he now pushes with charm. In his lengthy essay for the Belfast Telegraph, the government's intervention to restore power sharing imposes settlements on issues that have divided the Stormont parties - the languages package, which the DUP have vehemently opposed, safe access to abortion (ditto), and an end to blanket amnesties for past deeds. But his remarks on the protocol itself is coded with Delphic tones about a community feeling ill-at-ease with its place. Its "aspirations and identity are threatened by the protocol." He's right, up to a point.

Last year, loyalist mobs took to the streets to protest the economic disruption caused by the Johnson protocol. As Northern Ireland was in the EU custom's area, goods entering it from the rest of the UK had to jump through expensive bureaucratic hoops to square the Brexit circle of ensuring no hard land border reappeared in contravention of Good Friday. The political parties of unionism were on the chopping block too, because they campaigned for Brexit and pushed the same lies as Vote Leave and the Prime Minister during the referendum. The disruption, such as the supermarket shortages, were as much the responsibility of official loyalism as they were the Tories. But a year on and things have changed. Embarrassingly, the north is now economically outperforming the rest of the UK. Manufacturing jobs are growing four times as fast, food is eight per cent cheaper, and while trade with the UK has shrank thanks to the red tape Johnson imposed it has grown with the Republic and the rest of the EU. In a development that could be seen coming a mile off, economic integration across the border has deepened to the general benefit.

And this is a problem for unionism. Its traditional material base among the loyalist community were the marginal benefits it offered around housing, access to jobs, and wages versus the nationalist minority. Its tie to the UK, as per the Scottish base of unionism originally lay in empire and after the war, the industrial compact between labour, capital, and the state. Once deindustrialisation got under way, its foundations began sublimating. All that was tangible were the cultural divides, but because their root was shrivelling the trappings of unionism, its Orange Order bigotry and anti-Catholic zealotry found its grip slipping. It's still slipping. Hence the 50-year rise of the Alliance Party, which grew out of and mainly appeals to unionist communities for whom the old sectarian divisions are past embarrassments. This was the case before Brexit, and now loyalism is in a race against time. The people of the north, republican and unionist alike, are beneficiaries of closer economic ties to the Republic and EU. There is an economic rationale for leaving the protocol unchanged. To protect itself and its political standing, the DUP have gone on strike to make the people of the province poorer - a position of political pain that might stymie the TUV's support, but is guaranteed to lose more to the Alliance and, horror of horrors, Sinn Fein.

The DUP can carry on with their sulk, and Johnson can fiddle with the protocol some more, but the behaviour of both are bringing forward the day when a majority shakes off the six county statelet and unifies with the republic. If the hard Tory Brexit has a silver lining, this is it.

Image Credit


Richard said...

I have a number of friends who live and work in the north of Ireland who are republican, one comes from Cork, and all of catholic heritage. They support People Before Profit. They are as much "the left" as anyone in the north. But, in their cups, when no one else is around, they will ask how it could possibly be in working class people’s interests to give up the NHS for the costly and inaccessible health system in the Republic:

It's not as though there might be some trade off with other social provision in the Republic. Look at housing. Rents are considerably higher than in the north:

They can see the appeal of an escape from the maw of Tory Westminster, and the republican dream of finally driving the Brits out, but it' clear that there is no liberation for the working class via nationalism, is there?

Jim Denham said...

It is wrong to argue, as some republicans and their more uncritical supporters in the socialist movement often do, that divisions within Ireland are simply the artificial creations of imperialism and that any recognition of the deeply-felt identity of the Irish Protestant minority (for instance, in a federal united Ireland) is inconceivable.

That does not mean, however, that the partition of Ireland was a genuine effort to reflect the demographics in a democratic manner. It was much more an attempt to create the largest possible contiguous territory for the Six Counties compatible with a stable Unionist majority.

Now, with Brexit established (against the will of the majority in the Six Counties) and the protocol quite likely to be scrapped, this century is set to bring its own complexities.

A federal united Ireland, with recognition of the rights of minorities, within the European Union, provides the best basis on which to unite the working-class to fight for a socialist Ireland and a Socialist United States of Europe.

Robert Dyson said...

I do wonder what the DUP will do as the six months is getting near its end and another election looms with the Alliance Party polling showing big gains. Could the DUP become the 3rd Party? I assume there would be some noble excuse for forming the executive, and then as much resistance to its working as possible to show how the DUP is battling for the people. As Richard suggests, there are many difficulties to be worked through before any unification. I wonder myself how keen the South will be on getting DUP voters as part of the country.

dermot said...

Richard, agreed on NHS. Which is why the only hope for the 26 counties to get health care is a SF govt in the south. The larger trad parties, FF/FG/Labour have had plenty of time and cash to fix the problem if they wanted to. They don't.

SF, unlike those careerist / capitalist parties, has to deliver on Health & Housing - only that way can they coax a maj. in the 6 counties away from the UK. FF/FG/LB can fail on both and still enjoy fat ministerial pensions. SF, i it fails to deliver those, knows that Unification is dead. They have skin in the game, a very sharp incentive to do what it takes. Business as usual won't cut it. SF is a party with member who, until very recently, were in prison, or who risked death / torture for UI; I don't think they'll look kindly if a SF Minister for Health starts acting like the former ILP/Stickies in their disastrous austerity coalition.

PBP is too small and fractious to deliver, stuck on 3%, SF on 36% in latest poll. Whether they do get close enough in 2025 to form a stable govt. is another question, but all signs point to a close on then. To go from 37 seats to 80ish is a tall order, but 60 - 70 might be in sight. Then, indies and small left parties can make up the gap.

JN said...


"....there is no liberation for the working class via nationalism, is there?"

Especially not in British nationalism, with it's inescapable imperial nostalgia and 'Great Power' delusions.

I really recommend Lenin's writings on nationalism. Sure, it's old and focused on Russia but the general ideas remain relevant to countries like the UK today. English socialists in particular would do well to consider them before denouncing Irish, Scottish, or Welsh nationalism.

To be in favour of Irish reunification (or Scottish or Welsh independence, etc) is not necessarily to claim that it would be a panacea. Of course it wouldn't be.

But that said, a peaceful breakup of the UK would open up a lot of opportunity for at least questioning the constitutional arrangements, and perhaps replacing them with something a bit less antiquated and undemocratic (that goes for England as much as the rest of the UK). Proportional representation, for example. Again, not a panacea, but it would offer an opportunity for small or new parties to build a significant popular base.

Obviously, the calculation might be very different if there was currently, or in the foreseeable future, any hope in the Labour Party or any other section of the British left, but there isn't. Labour is fully back in the hands of its right-wing and the rest of the left is weak, fractured, directionless and shows no signs of getting its shit together any time soon.