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The limits of left unionism

Comment on the Socialist Party statement on a possible border poll

27 September 2017

Even among Irish socialists and republicans, well used to the reactionary unionism of the Socialist Party, the latest position paper on a border poll in the North of Ireland ( drew sharp intakes of breath. The text could easily have been by one of the front groups for loyalist paramilitaries.

The position paper argues that the Westminster election revealed a fundamental and insurmountable sectarian division in the North. The majority of Catholics voted Sinn Fein and 70% of Protestants voted for the Democratic Unionist Party after Arlene Foster issued a call to defend the union and built an election alliance that included the active participation of the loyalist paramilitaries.

However the SP writer argues that the demographic balance may shift towards a Catholic majority and they might call for, and win, a poll to bring about Irish unity. The Socialist Party opposes such a poll because it is a form of coercion. They are against coercion of Catholics into Britain or Protestants into a united Ireland. Given that Catholics are already in a British state and we don't want to look too closely at how they got there, it is the coercion of Protestants that we must focus on.

The coercion of Protestants by having a vote should be avoided because they might not accept the outcome and use force. The best thing to do is not to vote!

A socialist critique of a border poll, contained within the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, is that it already contains a unionist veto. Workers across Ireland would be affected by an outcome which at the moment is determined by a far-right party run by Orange bigots.

The Socialist Party want to make the veto absolute and oppose even the limited amount of democracy involved in having a local poll. They show no similar concern for Scottish loyalists or for Spanish loyalists in Catalonia. Apparently Ireland is different!

Clearly the SP position paper is a farrago of nonsense and utterly contradictory. This organization claims to be Marxist and applies a materialist and class analysis in some situations. However in Ireland this is replaced by the politics of identity. Not just any identity, but the utterly reactionary and sectarian identity summed up by the loyalist con-trick of PUL - Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist – running identity and politics together in this way is exactly the same trick that Zionists are pulling their attempt to prevent the British Labour party moving left when they claim that condemnation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine is anti-semitism.

This position is utterly sectarian. By accepting the PUL argument the Socialist Party write off the role of the British state in fostering sectarianism and write off contradictions within unionism on which socialists should focus. What about the 30% of the unionist population who didn't vote DUP? What about the contradiction between young people and unionist reaction? What about the contrast between that reaction and the trade union membership that the majority of Protestant workers hold? The Socialist Party position, transferred to the US, would involve placating Trump supporters rather than mobilising the opposition.

However it is worth digging deeper into the Socialist Party position. If it does not obey the laws of formal logic what logic does it follow? The answer is quite simple. The logic is the logic of adaptation. The SP are the hermit crabs of the socialist ecosystem, most comfortable inside Labour parties or, when expelled, at the bottom rungs of the trade union bureaucracy. Their accommodation to loyalism simply mirrors the long-standing capitulation of Irish trade unionism and is one factor in willingness of the bureaucracy to partner the Stormont Assembly and operate austerity regimes in the North.

The pro-partitionist logic of Socialist Party politics acts as a limit on the small socialist currents that already exist in Ireland. The SP will not be able to develop beyond the gas and water municipal socialism that it offers on both sides of the border. The ad-hoc alliance with the Socialist Workers Party in the Dail suffers similar limits, where the SWP’s light-hearted pale green republicanism is never an issue and where the alliance stops at the border where they agree to disagree.

The latest attempt by capitalism to stabilise partition is in decay. A socialist alternative is not yet prepared.

A starting point for the Socialist Party would be to read Sam Thompson’s "Over the Bridge." Thompson, himself from a unionist background, criticised loyalist sectarianism, its parasitism on the workers and the failure of the trade unions to confront it. The Ulster Group theatre's board of directors headed by J. Ritchie McKee refused to produce the play, criticising it in the Belfast Telegraph as;

"full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public"
Is the Socialist Party position today not very similar?

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