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A new Brexit deal in Ireland

From "equality of the two traditions" to “Safeguarding the Union”

17 February 2024

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly

Before discussing the latest attempt to cobble together another local administration, it is worth reminding ourselves of the formal basis of the Good Friday Agreement when it was first introduced 25 years ago.

That principle was "equality of the two traditions".

The new agreement does not restore the GFA. It represents its abandonment by the British.

Right away we see that equality is no longer a reference point. The British government has spent two years constructing new legal formulations to resolve a factional dispute between currents in a single party which is not even the largest party. No-one else has any real role in persuading the Democratic Unionist Party to return to the administration or to continue without them.

Yet a change in the Good Friday rules would at any time have allowed a nationalist/unionist coalition without a DUP veto. The British concern was not a new administration, but the participation of the far-right DUP and the continuation of its veto power over local society.

Concessions to the DUP do not disguise their subordinate position

The DUP were enthusiastic supporters of the Brexit separation because they believed that it would weaken the Good Friday Agreement but reacted with horror when a fudge by Boris Johnson left a customs division between the North and Britain and European law applying there while Britain diverged from European rules. They demanded that this border be removed and that steps be taken to reinforce British law and restate the area’s Britishness.

Of course, the agreement with Europe cannot be substantially changed, so the new regime, “Safeguarding the Union,” is yet another fudge. However, it goes far to dismantling many elements of an already decayed system.

The fundamental problem is the chaos caused by the victory of the British far right and their policy of Brexit. The Tories pressed ahead with a programme that would lead to a weakening economy, and in order to move forward, used the Northern Ireland Protocol to match up their demands with European and US insistence that the Good Friday Agreement be preserved. Many argued yet again that the British had lost interest in their presence in Ireland.  Safeguarding the Union proves that idea wrong.

Now the British insist that the Protocol has been set aside. This is not true; the rules have been relaxed considerably but they remain and mark a rallying point for the ultra-right.

The command paper promises a stronger "Stormont Brake" to offer a veto over arrangements with Europe that appear to weaken the union with Britain and also suggests that mechanisms have been found to ensure that British law will remain supreme over European law in the North. If that were true it would reduce Brexit to the limited proposal that led to the ousting of Theresa May as British prime minister and a coming revolt by Brexiteers for whom
the whole point is to demolish workers’ legal protections.

If false it will lead to future conflict with Europe, which will not allow Britain to assert privileges that it gave up on its departure from the EU.

Safeguarding the Union

However, the command paper goes much further than stretching the Brexit agreement.  As can be guessed from the title, “Safeguarding the Union,” it is a 180? degree turn on many of the structures of the Good Friday Agreement.  That agreement illustrated a supposed neutrality on Irish unity by building North/South and East/West institutions.  These have largely fallen by the wayside. Many internal elements, such as no amnesty for British soldiers, have been set aside.  Now the new proposals erect a suite of new East-West institutions to cement the North's supposed Britishness.

On the economic front, the body set up to encourage all Ireland trade, Intertrade Ireland, is now to be matched by a new body, Intertrade UK. In fact, the paper goes out of its way to dismiss trade across the border as lacking real economic substance.

In their constitutional arguments the British are right. The Good Friday Agreement was based on the Government of Ireland Act, which retains British sovereignty. The difficulty with their economic arguments is identical to the general problems of Brexit.   Economic growth declines, with the belief being that over time deregulation and privatisation will force down workers’ living standards and increase productivity and profits. Now Brexit has arrived in the North of Ireland. Again, the belief is, that ignoring immediate growth through the links to Europe through the South will allow sharp austerity and a Singapore on the Lagan.

A strategic shift by the DUP

In terms of winning over the DUP there was a hidden debate that also had to be tackled. Many loyalists believed that their sectarian privileges would be best preserved by ending the power sharing system and returning to direct rule. The majority however, are pragmatists who see no alternative to sharing out patronage with Sinn Féin.

The issue here was best summed up by noted bigot Gregory Campbell. Asked about a Sinn Féin First Minister, he said;

 "Every dog has its day. This is Sinn Féin's day. I do not believe it will be a long one".

So, all along there was a majority for a return to Stormont. The issue was: would it split the DUP and weaken unionism?

This issue has yet to be decided. Even with maximum pressure from the British government Donaldson's majority in the leadership committee was 7 to 5 and in the Executive Council 60% to 40%. What has held back the opposition is that they have no real alternative to the Donaldson plan.

A new support for partition: Sinn Féin's compliance

Sinn Féin reacted with joy to the DUP decision. The party is truly remarkable in having sat for two years with no demands other than the return of Stormont. Now it proclaims victory and, yet again, a united Ireland within a decade.

One reporter did ask Michelle O'Neill how a policy of "Sustaining the Union" led to a united Ireland. The somewhat incoherent reply was that her position as first minister ensured that an end to partition is on the way. The Social Democratic and Labour Party were much more circumspect and opted to remain in opposition. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was also cautious, saying that he was accepting the document despite concerns around some of the formulations. Later Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin suggested it was now time to reform the Stormont system to remove the Sinn Féin/DUP monopoly.

Sustaining the Union means savage cuts for the workers

The Trade Unions were conducting strikes as the deal was announced.  The British policy of withholding funds has led to a decline in public sector wages. The unions, long committed to partition, had swung their attention to the British.  They will swing back towards Stormont and there will be a short rush of satisfaction as back pay is delivered. However, previous settlements have involved substantial austerity and this one has mass austerity built in. Stormont has been asked to produce plans for revenue that will involve social service cuts and new charges.

A local commentator, reporting suspected corruption and secret deals at Belfast City Council, said that we should be more worried about Sinn Féin and the DUP cooperating than them disagreeing.

After a short holiday period when both parties blame the British for the falling standard of living, traditional rivalries will reassert themselves. The DUP return does not mean that they welcome power sharing. They have a substantial revolt to deal with and one way to do this is to dominate Sinn Féin.  The first step is the nomination of Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy first minister. She was appointed rather than elected. Everyone ignores the massive conflict of interest in her husband's position as a senior civil servant.  The use of the double-barrelled name is to remind unionist voters of her father, a loyalist gun-runner.

The DUP have not contested for the major departments. They clearly intend to use Stormont as a circus and work in civic society.

Sinn Féin hold the poisoned chalice of the economic departments. There will a short boom when back pay is disbursed, but the money available will soon run out. Britain have lined up a few surprises. There will be the ability to change corporation tax and new deregulated enterprise zones and there are proposals for water charges and a raft of privatisation proposals.

Sinn Féin are not a left-wing party, but they like to pretend that they are. The idea is that by succeeding as a capitalist party in the North and with a vague populism in the South they will achieve government positions in both parts of Ireland. Their vote is falling in the South and will come under severe pressure as they Institute the mini-Brexit in the North, contained within the latest command paper. The cover is a First Minister for all meaning that Sinn Féin will capitulate to unionist and British demands in the name of diversity and equality.

A similar problem faces the trade unions. Privatisation and cutbacks in workers conditions are the order of the day. Can they present hand shaking with Michelle O'Neill as an adequate response?

All the attention is on the DUP return to Stormont, but the real mechanism for stability is the willingness of the former Republicans and the trade unions to accept whatever is thrown at them.

The normalisation of identity politics rules over all

Behind all this is a collapse in class consciousness. Any major analysis that included ideas of imperialism and class were abandoned in the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement. Young voters of that time are now in their mid to late 40s and have lived their whole lives in a fog of identity politics and equality of the two traditions.

We are 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement. The outcome was a collapse of militant republicanism and an absorption of militant trade unionists and socialists into the communal mechanisms of government that exist all over Ireland.

Yet capitalism is in a different place also. Joe Biden is not Clinton. Rishi Sunak is not Tony Blair. Leo Varadkar is not Bertie Ahern. The capitalist leaders are diminished and under their rule capitalism is rushing towards penury at home and global war abroad.
In Ireland the alternative to sectarianism, oppression and imperialism is, as it has always been, the Workers’ Republic. It is the duty of socialists to raise this flag. If they do not, a racist far right, sponsored by the capitalist parties and with a terrorist wing already organising, is waiting in the wings.

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