A New Partition
At the height of the 1968 revolt in Ireland a major theoretical dispute arose between the "new left" Peoples Democracy organisation, of which I was a member, and the Communist Party.
Peoples Democracy argued the irreformability of the Northern state. It was not a state that was inhabited by sectarianism, but a state structured on sectarianism. Unionism, with the support of the British, had stepped back from a political programme arguing that Ireland should remain attached to Britain. At the time of partition it endorsed a sectarian all class alliance based on Protestant privilege and that was the basis of the state.
In response to the civil rights movement the British could, and did, institute many reforms. However, an overall reform that negated sectarianism would prove to be impossible. If brought forward, it would inevitably mean the dissolution of the state.
This theory drew an angry response from the Communist Party and their supporters, who in many ways provided the political foundations for the moderate civil rights leadership. The CP applied a Stalinist “Stages theory''. The immediate aim would be a democratic Northern Ireland, with equal rights. When this was stable, we could advance arguments for a United Ireland. In a stable United Ireland, we could eventually put forward the case for a socialist society.
With the British repression of the Civil Rights movement at Bloody Sunday the reformists left the field, leaving a substantial and militant mass movement to be led by a revolutionary nationalist current, for a United Ireland but agnostic on the programme for workers (Labour must wait) and led by a culture imbued with militarism.
The eventual defeat of the Provisionals represented an opportunity for Irish capitalism. The Southern state had a more generally popular support base than their northern counterparts. Despite the counterrevolution, the end of the British occupation was a cornerstone of society and a step towards democracy. This did not overcome an inherent instability. The government operated a state of emergency for much of modern Irish history and special judicial measures remain in place today, but some stability rested with the populist myth of a nation united in the struggle for Irish unity, reinforced by a regular deployment of the Green card of nationalist rhetoric and fulsome expression of that goal by Irish capitalists.
The hunger strikes had convinced Dublin that this card was too dangerous and must be expunged from Irish politics. Through the Catholic church they had won a commitment from the republican leaders to join the negotiations as a component of the constitutional nationalist team. A key element of the proposals was the elimination of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution asserting Irish sovereignty. In return Dublin was granted a Secretariat in Belfast, but this was purely advisory and the overall agreement was an amendment of the government of Ireland Act that asserted British sovereignty. The claim of national unity was replaced by all sorts of North South, East West, Irish British councils, most of which have fallen into disuse. The overall theme was of a shared island and respect for unionist culture. In reality the new proposals were a graveyard for the democratic aspirations of the Irish people.
Dublin's proposals were amplified by the US. US imperialism had adopted a policy of resolving outstanding national struggles through a peace process mechanism and an ideology of conflict resolution. That process had failed in Palestine and they were keen to rehabilitate it. In addition, the right wing of Irish America had embraced the new compliant IRA and the full force of US power was applied to force agreement.
The collapse of revolutionary nationalism was complete. The leadership waged a campaign of disinformation and intimidation against internal critics. Cyril Ramaphosa of the African National Congress, now president of South Africa and defender of the Marikana massacre which saw the killing of 34 miners by the South African Police, toured Ireland to assure republicans that the ideology of conflict resolution would bring peace and justice.
The republicans recommended support for the Good Friday Agreement. A poll held in the North gave 71.1% voting in favour. A simultaneous referendum held in the Republic of Ireland produced an even larger majority (94.4%) in favour.
This result led to different processes on each side of the border. In the South we saw a triumph of revisionism. Pro-British elements were able to let their hair down, especially following a royal visit. The new ideology of cultural division, conflict resolution and an acceptance of the progressive role of British, European and US imperialism led to accelerated rewriting of history and suggestions on the right that Dublin re-join the commonwealth. Attempts to commemorate the Black and Tan forces who led the reign of terror during the War of Independence led to popular revolt but generally ideas of the North as a fourth nation have gained currency. There is however sharp division between young and old, the middle and working classes and between East and West coasts on acceptance of a future as a shared island with permanent partition.
The Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement had seen the British step forward with their own reform. Ulster must say yes to something. The absolute veto would be overruled and they must accept the inclusion of the nationalist minority in government.
The project of nationalist inclusion had been an early reform suggested by the British and a power sharing parliament in the North and a Council of Ireland had in fact been implemented through the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973. However, that agreement had at its foundation an assumption of unionist acceptance and when, after a few months, the unionists organised a mass lockout (the so-called Ulster Workers Council strike), the British immediately capitulated and wound up the Sunningdale structures.
The major difference this time was that the British had new experiences of the level of support in Dublin and their willingness to resolve the issue on British terms. As one British minister grimly remarked; “this time the unionists must say yes to something” (a reference to an earlier "Ulster says No" campaign led by Paisley).
The circle of irreformability was to be squared by allocating the major share of patronage to the Unionist majority. The major contradiction was that the Unionists wanted to continue with absolute control of the state apparatus. The British, having pressed them once, were willing to indulge further demands and these cumulatively began to erode the settlement. Success in shifting the goalposts meant that the DUP moved steadily to the right and with each cycle an even more bigoted and reactionary clique took power. The programme of unionism was, and to a large extent still is, the suppression of nationalism. A figure of over 94% voting for the GFA in the South basically wiped out any opposition. When we examine the 71% vote in the North and take into account that the nationalist vote was likely over 90%, the unionist yes vote was quite slim. Immense pressure had to be applied to David Trimble to force acceptance and Tony Blair issued a letter of confidence to unionists in advance of the vote, assuring them that their position was secure. Even then the unionist right in the Democratic Unionist Party were able to unseat Trimble and demand a major shift in the settlement (The St Andrew's Agreement) before they would sit with Sinn Fein.
The outcome was that the state became even more structurally sectarian. The routine fact of apartheid in housing is never mentioned, nor is the loyalist intimidation, supported by state impunity, that maintains it. The administration collapsed frequently and each time major concessions to unionism were needed to restore order. The price of these concessions had to be paid by nationalists and this has led to a growing apathy towards the new institutions and a corruption and decay of the Sinn Fein organization.
However, growing sectarianism does not mean collapse. The partition settlement of the 1920s lasted 70 years before facing a serious challenge and there are many class interests in support of the current setup. The most visible one is the self-satisfaction of the Catholic middle class. Their substantial demand in the civil rights period was for a share of political power and patronage and that they have achieved. Job and business opportunities have expanded and the middle class benefited from a flood of patronage. A new grantocracy has formed in unionist and nationalist communities in receipt of government subvention.
The impact of Brexit and DUP bigotry and incompetence have launched a new crisis and unionism has celebrated its centenary in chaos, with both major parties seeking a new leadership. There is a great deal more de facto unionist acceptance of the situation than is supposed. In Stormont they cannot afford to be seen working with Sinn Fein and for their part the Shinners have to appear slightly radical in some of their statements. At the council level there is a quiet and business-like sharing out of funds and moves to exclude the smaller parties from decision making, alongside economic policy which sees public resources transferred to private hands. Sections of both northern and southern nationalism, including the government parties, have made it clear that a majority vote for Irish unity in the North would be far from sufficient and would be an oppression of unionist culture. Sinn Fein echoes the need to reach out to unionist culture but reassure their supporters with happy clappy stories of a border poll, organized willingly by the British government, that will see a sweeping majority for unity and immediate agreement to a United Ireland.
Internally Sinn Fein argue for electoral victory in both states. They are in government under British dispensation in the North, with the largest share of the vote as opposed to a divided unionism. They now have the largest vote share in polls for the Dáil. The theory is that this multiple majority will force a British withdrawal. It’s not clear why the 1918 all-Ireland majority was not sufficient at the time. Of more importance however are the concessions that Sinn Fein have made today to smooth their road to power. In the North this involved unconditional support for the police and judicial elements in the British zone. More recently the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis moved towards acceptance of the Special Criminal Court and emergency laws, rules that underline the limited nature of the 26-county democracy. In the background the party has close link s to both local and international capital. It’s no accident that the passive aspiration for a United Ireland has replaced the active struggle for an Irish democracy.
That's probably the main point. Identity has replaced democratic rights, self-determination and opposition to imperialism as the narrative through which Irish politics is defined. The language of the peace process justifies sectarianism today, can be used to block unification and could even provide a fake unity (a shared Island) with a continued veto by a unionist enclave supported by the British.
The fundamental issue is British interest. The GFA defines the issue of partition as based on unionist culture, but it is the material support from Britain that maintains the separate state. Again, the narrative assumes a benign role for Britain, but there is no evidence to support that. The British fought a 30-year dirty war, engaged in mass repression and poured in hundreds of millions of pounds each year to keep a foothold in Ireland. When it came time to frame the peace it was in the context of the Government of Ireland Act, with the retention of partition and sectarian division. In the period since the content of the Good Friday Agreement has been constantly redefined in the interests of Britain and the Unionists. Brexit has seen a reckless playing of the Orange card, alliances with paramilitaries and open threats of violence.
The British reform of partition has failed in terms of democratic rights and succeeded in terms of embedding reaction and support for partition across the island. It has not succeeded in stabilising unionism, the base of its occupation. In addition, the shift to the right in Britain itself and the Brexit campaign has led to instability and decline in the UK and weakened its structures.
However even the most decayed structures will not fall without a push. One local professor of Peace Studies explained brightly that the central secret of conflict resolution is to include everyone. The British government and local administration sat up a network of grants, payments, and community organisations that included many of the nonelected elements of civic society. Former paramilitaries fill community organisations and NGOs and vie for peace grants. The trade union leaderships so fervently support the political settlement that they agreed to accept austerity proposals and there have been no significant union protests for almost a decade.
The violence and sectarianism of the partition of the 1920s, turned out not to be a solution but it buried the Irish question for 70 years. The current settlement has held for 3 decades but has managed only fleeting moments of stability.
The motor forces of the impasse in Irish politics are apathy and disillusionment, aided by the retreat of traditional workers organisations in many areas of the globe. Breaking this mould involves presenting a new political alternative, a revolutionary break from today's more or less universal corruption in favour of renewed calls for a workers’ republic.