Tories stoke sectarian instability in Northern Ireland

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

The government of Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game of high wire diplomacy with the EU. The threat the British Prime Minister seeks to employ is the threat of a return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland with the aim of forcing the EU to retreat from requiring hard sea border checks. Such checks being necessary to avoid the need for a hard land border between north and south as a result of the hard Brexit the Tory party under Johnson pursued.

In doing so he is attempting to repeat what his political opponents in Dublin and Brussels did to great effect when they raised the threat of Republican violence attendant on the imposition of a hard land border in Brexit negotiations over previous years. As part of the EU’s effort to use Northern Ireland to better tie in the UK into their trading area, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney developed a sudden and profound concern for northern Catholics and an unheard of awareness – for Fine Gael politicians – of the impact of partition on the north.

Playing the Orange card

Of course, for his part, Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to seek to ‘play the Orange card’. Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston, of whom Johnson is a biographer, used the tactic in opposing Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill in the 1890s, coining the phrase that continues to echo today that ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’. The risk then as now, with deploying the ‘orange card’ is that it involves playing upon deep-seated divisions which remain unresolved, and indeed unresolvable under capitalism. 

Johnson’s forays, talking up the threat of civil unrest, only make such unrest a more likely prospect. The fact that he set the ‘Twelfth of July’, the central date in the Loyalist marching calendar, as the target date for resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol appears another move to only further exacerbate tensions.

Riots on the streets

In early April, the mounting tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol which came into force but has not been fully implemented to date became visible on the streets as Loyalist rioters torched buses and threatened port workers. The potential for the riots to roll out of control was exhibited as rioters gathered from both sides of the Belfast peace walls to attack each other. While the leaders of Unionism and Loyalism used the death of British Royal Prince Philip to cut across that upsurge and reassert their control, the potential is there for it to return – a fact exhibited by periodic and illegal mobilisations of loyalists in unionist strongholds such as Portadown. 

Removal of Arlene Foster and the hand of Loyalism

Apparent DUP complicity with the erection of a hard sea border was the main driver for the removal of party leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, who despite her record as a hard-line unionist leader, was deemed to be out of step with the grassroots. Her ousting as leader was only part of a wider cull of the broader leadership of the DUP, replaced with a new and even more hard-line generation built around the leadership of the highly conservative Edwin Poots. 

It was also significant that Edwin Poots’ opponent in the close DUP leadership run-off which followed the vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, alleged at the party meeting to confirm her successor that his team had been threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries of the UDA in the course of the election process. 

It goes without saying that this exemplifies the extent to which Northern Ireland is neither a stable or normal bourgeois democratic society.

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Rioting and escalating tensions in Northern Ireland

Loyalist banners against ‘sea border’

Images of young people rioting in Belfast and elsewhere, countered by police using water cannon, conjured up scenes from the period of the ‘Troubles’. From the point of view of international audiences, Northern Ireland appears to have moved overnight from stability to imminent disintegration.

Of course, this is not a true reflection of reality on the ground. But the very fact of an appearance of such a rapid transition from one extreme to another belies the truth that political arrangements established under the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequently, have not resolved and cannot resolve the national question.

Tensions in Northern Ireland reflect the underlying change in demography that appears to be moving to a tipping point when Protestants will become a minority, and therefore threatens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Alongside this, the continued failure of the Northern Ireland Assembly to deliver any real improvements in the economic and social conditions of the population has created an explosive mix. Social deprivation among the working class in both unionist and nationalist areas remains stubbornly high.

Hard sea border

While demographic changes underpin the latest crisis, the imposition of the ‘hard sea border’ and the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, which in effect separates Northern Ireland from the UK, is the trigger for the latest street confrontations.

To avoid an immediate ‘sea border’ crisis, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston negotiated a delay of three months on the imposition of ‘sanitary and phytosanitary controls’ (public health inspections) and a six-month delay on extensive customs declarations. But even these were not enough to avoid a political crisis.

Hard-line voices within unionism put pressure on the Tory government to suspend the protocol unilaterally. But the Tory government was not for turning. However, it was the AstraZeneca vaccine shortage which led to the European Union (EU) threatening to prevent EU-produced vaccines entering Northern Ireland. While EU ministers quickly retreated, the threat raised tensions further and exposed the duplicity of EU concerns for the region.

Tensions continued to mount. Posters, murals and graffiti went up across unionist areas against the hard sea border. Scrambling to recover authority the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, the main unionist political party led by Arlene Foster), which had initially welcomed the NI Protocol as an opportunity for business – met with the Loyalist Community Council, representing Loyalist paramilitaries, to agree a common campaign against the protocol.

The spark for riots was the investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the attendance of senior Sinn Féin politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and executive ministers, at the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey, during Covid lockdown restrictions. The announcement that the Public Prosecution Service would not prosecute these politicians deepened unionist anger.

The event became totemic among unionists as exposing the willingness of the police to turn a blind eye to Republicans breaking Covid safety laws that were strictly enforced on everyone else.

Sectarian football

The reality is that Covid has become a sectarian football with both sides feeling aggrieved; nationalists demanded action when hundreds of Glasgow Rangers football supporters celebrated on the streets of Belfast earlier this year, apparently breaching Covid restrictions, while unionists were largely silent.

The initial riots were restricted to areas controlled by Loyalist paramilitary groups more openly associated with criminality and drug-dealing but quickly spread. Riots reached a height on 7 April as rioters exchanged stones and petrol bombs over ‘peace walls’ in West Belfast.

As the situation began to spin out of control the nationalist and unionist political parties and paramilitary organisations sought to put a cap on the riots. Unionists used the death of Prince Philip to call for people to come off the streets. Their appeals clearly impacted, and while there were still some riots, they were markedly less extensive.

For socialists, the recent events should act as a warning. Neither capitalist nationalism or unionism offer a way forward to workers. On the contrary, both camps threaten a return to division, violence and even the prospect of repartition.

An alternative must be built. A glimpse of what is possible has been shown by the action taken by Metro bus drivers and port workers who, united across sectarian lines, walked off the job when they and their colleagues were threatened.

The fact that attacks had targeted essential workers who had worked throughout the lockdown, increased wider working-class support against sectarianism and cut through the tensions, striking a chord for class unity with many across the board.

Yet again, recent events have confirmed that, even with small forces, principled socialists putting forward a platform of workers’ unity can rally workers and cut across the rise of reaction.

To profoundly change the situation would require action from the trade union movement and the building of a mass party for socialist change.

Northern Ireland: Irish sea borders leaves Unionism under siege on the centenary of the northern state

The new year heralded additional checks and customs duties being imposed on goods as they transit into Northern Ireland on the Irish sea. The move was conceded in negotiations with the EU by the Tory government of Prime Minister Theresa May who committed the UK to take actions necessary to avoid Brexit imposing a border on the island of Ireland.

At this stage it is impossible to determine whether the current dislocation is a longer-term feature or simply reflects difficulties in businesses learning to navigate the new regime. Whatever the case, the undeniable fact of a ‘hard sea border’ between Britain and Northern Ireland has been met with jubilation by Irish nationalists and British liberals opposing Brexit as well as giving rise to much concern among unionists.

The first weeks of January have witnessed a number of UK-based retailers struggling with continuity of supply – meaning in cases, bare shelves greeting shoppers. To avoid this risk, Sainsbury’s, one of the largest multiples operating in the North has offered contracts to the local multiple, Costcutter, to ensure supply of basics such as milk. Ironically, and reflecting the illogical market mechanisms which dominate under capitalism, this now means that Sainsbury’s will sell Northern Ireland-sourced milk in its Northern Ireland stores for the first time.

In the last week, the prospect has been raised by none other than DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots that sea border checks and customs, set to be enforced more strictly in April, could result in schools and hospitals running out of food. While this warning appears overblown and may reflect more on internal DUP tensions, it does reflect the economic dependency of much of Northern Ireland’s retail and wholesale sectors on British supply chains. 

The political responsibility for this outcome in Northern Ireland rests quite squarely with the DUP. The party accepted hundreds of thousands of ‘dark money’ from unknown right-wing sources to promote the Brexit vote in British papers, effectively circumventing referendum expenditure controls. At the same time, the intervention of DUP MPs in parliament was instrumental in bringing down the May government and enabling the Boris Johnson to pursue the most extreme form of Tory Brexit – one in which the North was left behind. 

Recent death threats by elements of Loyalism directed at the leadership of the DUP are rooted in the pervasive fear that the Protestant community have been let down by their political leadership. It is undoubted that the DUP have prevailed over one of the most significant strategic defeats for unionism in the last century – neatly falling into place on the centenary of their state.

A road to British disengagement?

Despite the promises of Johnson and the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories to political unionism, British capitalism was only too willing to ‘sacrifice’ the North in negotiations. They prioritised gaining a looser trading arrangement with Europe, allowing them a free hand to pursue a more aggressive beggar-thy-neighbour race to the bottom on workers’ rights, environmental and consumer protections.

The hard sea border, then, was the concession made by British imperialism to European imperial powers in negotiating its exit from the EU. For its part, and despite its pretence at concern for the Irish peace process or even the Irish economy, the EU powers were only ever interested in leveraging Northern Ireland in negotiations. Their aim was to attempt to squeeze the Tories to the point that they would agree to abide by the EU rules – and denying their British rivals any possible advantage through a race to the bottom. 

For all parties, the interests of working-class people in Northern Ireland, and indeed any genuine consideration for our peace process did not genuinely play any role in these negotiations.

Impact on the working class in Northern Ireland

A hard sea border threatens jobs and is very likely to result in a further erosion of the standard of living in Northern Ireland. The diversion of retail supply routes to the south and the breakdown of supply east-west can only result in a raising of price inflation as the much higher costs are imported from the south. Meanwhile wage levels in the north, which are among the lowest in the UK, are likely to remain at the bottom of the league. Much greater numbers in Northern Ireland are dependent on fixed social welfare payments. All of which mean consumers, and workers, find themselves facing the prospect of a cost of living squeeze.

The wider strategic implications of a hard sea border are also clear. Every move to impose sea checks and duties will give rise to an increasing tendency for the capitalist class in Northern Ireland to look southwards rather than eastwards. It erodes the economics of partition. 

The consequences of such wrenching change has the potential to be severe. It is relatively easy and quick to break trading relations but it can take years to rebuild them – if ever. Already in the North, there are indications that manufacturers are factoring in duties and additional red tape over decisions to withdraw investment – raising the prospect of further job losses. 

British imperial agendas

The British capitalist class are only too aware that this is the significance of what they have negotiated. Today’s article by former Tory Chancellor George Osborne openly welcomes the prospect that Northern Ireland may leave the UK as a result but expresses greater concern at the prospect that it may be followed, or preceded, by Scotland. 

The reality is, as the Committee for a Workers’ International has stated for more than 50 years, British capitalism has long sought a means to withdraw from Northern Ireland but have largely been unable to do so because of the poisonous legacy of their divide and conquer tactics in Ireland over the centuries. 

Northern Ireland costs Britain more than £10 billion a year in public sector subventions. While it represents a colossal component of the northern economy, it is not in itself an unsustainable sum for British capitalism, and indeed represents some return in terms of their ability to exert indirect influence on politics in the island of Ireland, but no doubt capitalists could think of better ways to spend such money than funding services, infrastructure or social benefits in Northern Ireland.

For the wing of British capitalism reflected by the Tory government, leaving Northern Ireland in the single European market for goods was a price worth paying in order to pursue a naked, merchantile economic policy. The fringe benefit was that it offered a decisive opportunity to advance British economic disengagement from the north.

Complication not resolution

The problem for both British capitalism, and indeed for Irish bourgeois nationalism, is that facts on the ground mean it is almost impossible to see how this will lead to a simple or passive resolution to the centuries’ old national question in Ireland.

The possibility of a peaceful resolution to the national question in Ireland is almost precluded by the nature of political reality in the north.

While demography is playing strongly against unionism, it is still far from clear whether any future border poll would result in a majority for reunification. Advocates for a capitalist United Ireland are increasingly pushing the idea that ending partition will deliver huge ‘savings’ through the cuts to ‘duplication’ of provision. In real terms this means potentially hundreds of thousands of job losses and the widespread privatisation of public services. That prospect and the loss of the likes of the NHS remain strong obstacles to unity.

Such outcomes would be unavoidable outside the UK. Northern Ireland’s economy is too small, too peripheral and too dependent on British consumption and supply-chains to survive independently. It would become the poor relation to that of the Republic. The reality would be that Northern Ireland’s absorption by the south would follow similar lines to that of East Germany by the West. There would be a long-lasting legacy from the economic destruction that would follow.

Many nationalists are aware of these considerations and it is these that pose the greatest obstacles to nationalism in any border poll. They studiously avoid any open consideration of them – but such considerations would be continuous ahead of a border poll.

What is more, it is obvious that any border poll with a realistic prospect of reunification being achieved would be quite likely the most sectarian and divisive event in the one hundred year history of Northern Ireland. Polarisation would build to an unbelievable extent as both unionism and nationalism sought to corral their communities. This process alone would lead to a dramatic building up of community tensions and risk of conflict rebuilding.

The risk of repartition?

That said, the bigger unspoken truth is that should unionism be defeated in a border poll – it is almost impossible to see how this would translate into a peaceful transition in to a united Ireland where say An Garda Siochana was able to freely police all parts of the North. Anyone remotely conversant with the realities of Northern Ireland would know that this is nothing short of a fairy tale.

The realities of a society where 12,500 loyalists remain under arms, where almost half of all unionists have a military or police background, with more than 100,000 legally held weapons and where there has been an increasing geographical segregation make it all but impossible for a nationalist victory in a referendum to translate simply and directly into a United Ireland. 

Such realities would be the immediate concerns for any Irish government post-referendum and are already driving consideration of the need for the retention of some form of self-government, potentially including a northern assembly in Stormont in a post-United Ireland.

This then too brings into question how Northern nationalists would feel about continued rule by Stormont or a Unionist majority in a united Ireland. Few feel loyalty or affiliation to the government as it is. The likelihood would be that it would be a very unstable arrangement.

A more serious consideration would be posed by the likely moves to seek a repartition to reflect the new demographic boundaries. Realpolitik might lead to some such arrangements gaining credibility. The more the prospect of partition arises, the more the tensions over land ownership would mount.

The prospect of repartition is innately fraught and inherent with the risk of inter-communal conflict. 

It is likely that any moves to repartition the north would result in worse carnival of reaction than partition did itself one hundred years ago. It would represent an even more profound defeat for the Irish working-class.

Workers’ unity not division!

As both unionists and nationalists seek to leverage Brexit, the Irish sea border and the threat of a border poll to advantage, it is more important than ever that Socialists stand against them clear and set forward the imperative of the unity and independence of the working-class. 

While partition was, and remains, a historic crime against the Irish people and Irish working-class, in particular; but a border poll offers nothing by way of resolution. The choice between being a peripheral region within the UK imperialist state or a peripheral region within a capitalist Ireland and part of an imperialist EU bloc is no choice at all. It would be the equivalent of ‘raising the green flag’ as Connolly warned. Imperialists and capitalists would continue to rule in any case.

Instead of dividing workers, Socialists seek to unite them behind our clear opposition to imperialism, capitalism and based on our classes’ internationalist perspective. In the era of the modern, globalised economy, capitalism is incapable of resolving the national question, just as with any democratic task. Only through uniting workers can we build a social movement capable of delivering real change and sublating the national question. 

Militant Left seeks to build workers’ unity in the North, north and south, and east and west – to win a Socialist Ireland, without coercion, in a free and voluntary federation with a Socialist Scotland, a Socialist England, a Socialist Wales and a Socialist Europe. Such a platform offers the common ground needed for working-class people from all parts of these islands to unite and build the movement for Socialism needed to defeat both imperialism and bourgeois nationalism.