Ireland under Brexit: crushed between the millstones of imperialism

Brexit is only a month old. But already, Ireland has been caught in the crossfire as the UK and EU clash. The menace of Protestant sectarianism is rising once again. Only united class struggle can offer a way forward.


On 1 January 2021, Boris’ Brexit deal came into effect, and with it the ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’. The Brexit deal has set Britain and the EU up for a multitude of future collisions.

Ireland is caught between these two clashing imperialist powers like grain between two millstones. In little more than a month since the Brexit deal was signed, we have been provided with ample proof that neither of these powers cares about the interests of the Irish working class. Both are more than capable however of using Ireland as a pawn to further their own interests.

And in this clash of imperialist rivalries, the Frankenstein's monster of Protestant sectarianism is rearing its head.

The sea border

In order for the European capitalists to protect their markets from goods entering the common market via Britain, they were always going to need some kind of border. That border could have been either a land border between the South and North of Ireland; or a sea border between Britain and the North of Ireland. The NI Protocol has erected that border at the coast.

It has left the North of Ireland in quite a unique situation. It is in one union when it comes to the movement of goods and people: a union with the rest of Ireland and the EU. Legally, politically, monetarily, and fiscally, however, it is part of another union – a union that looks more tattered and frayed by the day – with the United Kingdom. From the point of view of customs and tariffs, it is in both.

This is the Brexit ‘settlement’. To say it has settled nothing would be understating things. After barely a month it has unsettled a great deal!

Tariffs and empty shelves

The impact of the new sea border has been felt from day one in the North and South of Ireland. Hauliers have reported that checks that were supposed to take three minutes now take 12 hours in some cases.

Whilst goods simply exported one way from the EU to Britain or vice versa are not subject to tariffs, those which are imported into Britain only to be re-exported to the EU again are subject to tariffs.

This has serious implications for Ireland. Britain forms an important over-the-road ‘landbridge’ for trade between Ireland and other EU nations. According to the Institute for Government, goods that are transported from mainland Europe to Ireland that use this landbridge take around 20 hours to reach their destination. Goods transported directly by the sea route can take 40 to 60 hours. For some perishable goods, there is literally no circumventing the issue.

This year, in the ports in the North, freight traffic was 20% of its usual volume at New Year. Things were little better in the South, with similar scenes of disruption at the port in Dublin.

Things are set to get worse. The Brexit deal also allows the EU and Britain to engage in ‘rebalancing’ trade tariffs as the two diverge. Each new tariff will be felt as a further blow in Ireland.

All this is before the end of the grace period on checks for animal produce. The supermarket giants are in a panic. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Iceland, the Co-Op and Marks & Spencer have all been sufficiently alarmed to pen a joint letter to Michael Gove, pleading for him to intervene, lest utter chaos descend on their stores in the North come April.

Over time, the new rules – if they remain in place – will force the redirection of many supply chains; ramp up costs of existing supply chains; or else sever them entirely. This is already apparent as the Irish economy begins to rewire itself.

Some companies that previously operated across the UK have decided it’s cheaper to end their operations in the North of Ireland entirely. The couriers DPD and Hermes have opted for this course. Sainsbury’s have tried to mitigate their problems by supplying their stores with products sourced from Spar warehouses which supply the South, cutting out Britain entirely. Others have withdrawn product ranges.

To the sight of empty supermarket shelves resulting from the pandemic, we can now add empty supermarket shelves resulting from Brexit!

Who will pick up the tab? In the North and South of Ireland, it will be working-class people who are made to pay for the disruption in trade by both higher prices and job losses.

The DUP humiliated

DUP COVID Image Socialist AppealIt is hard to imagine a more humiliating Brexit endgame for the DUP / Image: Socialist Appeal

It is hard to imagine a more humiliating Brexit endgame for the DUP. First they campaigned for Brexit and won. Then, at the 2017 election, a hung parliament handed the party unprecedented influence. They were kingmakers for a day.

Having rejected May’s Brexit deal, the party feted Boris Johnson at its 2019 party conference. Now Boris is Tory leader, but he no longer has any use for the DUP. As such, they were served a border down the Irish Sea!

DUP leader, Arlene Foster, has tried to put a smile on things. It’s a “gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for Northern Ireland,” she said. But whilst she committed her party to ‘making the best of it’ and ‘mitigating’ the situation, others in the DUP were not inclined to be so sanguine about what the new protocol means.

On 8 January, the NI Executive’s Minister for Agriculture, Edwin Poots, suggested, instead of mitigation and compromise, that we might detonate a nuke under the Brexit agreement instead.

“I have met senior members of Her Majesty's Government, to highlight the scale of the problem and urged them to take steps up to and including invoking Article 16 as it is evident that the Protocol is damaging Northern Ireland at the economic and societal level,” Poots tweeted.

Article 16 is that clause in the NI Protocol which allows either party to unilaterally suspend any part of its operation whenever its implementation causes “serious” problems for that party. The article makes no mention of what “serious” means. It could be applied in such a way as to suspend checks at the sea border entirely, blasting a hole right through the EU’s border.

However, it also allows for the other side to apply “rebalancing” measures to recoup the losses incurred as a result. In other words, it could become a nuclear bomb under the whole Brexit agreement, just waiting for a twitchy finger willing to press the big red button.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, knowing the Prime Minister’s tendency towards bluster and his love of giving any old hornet’s nest a good poke, Boris was happy to verbally indulge the DUP hardliners

The PM told the Commons Liaison Committee that whilst he’s sure the NI Protocol is just experiencing “teething issues”, “If there are further problems...if the EU or our partners insist on an interpretation of the protocol which we think is unfair or unnecessary, then Article 16 exists to address that.” And he would have “no hesitation” in triggering it, the Tory leader assured.

Boris first promised unionists there would be no sea border. He then agreed to a sea border with the EU. And now, ever the opportunist, he sees the disruption it has caused as a chance to rattle sabres at the EU and win a few political points!

Today’s unionists might nod along ruefully to Carson's complaint of a century ago: “What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.”

The EU gets trigger happy

Vaccine Image PixinoThe profits of the capitalists and the ‘national interest’ make it impossible to implement a planned, international vaccination effort / Image: Pixino

Boris’ threats to trigger Article 16 only underline the hypocrisy of his reaction to what came next.

With the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca coming into increasingly sharp conflict with the EU, the European commissioners came to believe that the company was secretly exporting vaccine doses out of the EU trade zone.

Without even so much as a courtesy call to the South’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin, on 31 January EU commissioners triggered Article 16 to stop AstraZeneca exporting vaccines to the UK via the land border in Ireland.

The whole episode is a disgusting spectacle that brings home the rottenness of capitalism. Under this system, the profits of the capitalists and the ‘national interest’ of gangs of capitalists make it impossible to implement a planned, international vaccination effort to resolve a global health emergency. Instead we have an unsightly scramble for doses.

Triggering Article 16 however was a political blunder on the part of the EU. The EU quickly realised their mistake and reversed it minutes later. But they had already delivered Boris Johnson a wonderful political gift. The UK Prime Minister feigned horror (and concealed his delight) at a move that “threatened the Good Friday Agreement”.

Far from being a bulwark of peace and stability, the EU is a free trade zone and a capitalist club, with German imperialism at its core. The imperious attitude of the EU – trampling a small European nation underfoot to defend the national interests of its most powerful members – is reminiscent of the sovereign debt crisis of a decade ago.

Back then, the likes of Ireland, Greece, and Portugal were squeezed for all they had at the behest of the German banks, without a thought for the severe social consequences. The same German imperialists have shown again that they would throw Ireland under the bus without so much as a ‘heads up’, if it would give them an advantage over other imperialist rivals.

Neither British or EU imperialism can be trusted. Few economies in the world are as dependent upon foreign trade as the South of Ireland. As the capitalist crisis deepens and sharpens the tensions between imperialist powers, a capitalist Ireland will find itself crushed between two millstones.

Unionism in crisis

Loyalists have found themselves feeling bitterly aggrieved by the NI Protocol. They claim that the protocol bypasses the “cross-community mechanisms” of the Good Friday Agreement. In practice these mechanisms are a unionist veto.

Despite unionism losing its majority in the Stormont Assembly, the DUP have used this veto with reckless abandon for years as a sectarian ‘wild card’.

The British and EU negotiators knew that requiring majority assent from both nationalist and unionist politicians on retaining the NI Protocol would allow unionists to kibosh it. So they opted for a simple majority vote.

Loyalists have reacted with outrage. Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which is linked to the loyalist paramilitary groups, the UVF and Red Hand Commando, threatened to withdraw his party’s support for the Good Friday Agreement entirely on the back of the Brexit deal.

As well as being torn internally regarding how to approach the new sea border, the DUP is facing pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, as well as from other unionist parties to their right, such as Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

Indeed, opinion polls have suggested that the DUP could haemorrhage support as the UUP did before it did.

On the right, the TUV is snatching votes from the DUP. The TUV has emerged seemingly from nowhere, representing the mad dogs of unionism: the most bitterly sectarian bigots who see the DUP as traitors to the union.

The TUV’s Jim Allister has demanded a serious struggle against the NI Protocol and a campaign to disrupt its working entirely. The party has jumped from 2.6% of the vote in the 2017 Assembly elections to a projected 10% today.

This is only one side of the story, however. At the same time, support for the Alliance Party (a liberal Remain party) has almost doubled from 9% in 2017 to 18% now. Distorted through the lens of Stormont politics, which is divided by sectarianism and Brexit, the rise of this liberal party really represents a growing disgust at sectarianism and status quo politicians among a broad layer of Protestant youth.

As these opinion polls stand, the DUP is barely a hair’s breadth ahead of Alliance on no more than 19%. At the next election the DUP could be fighting not to slip into third position!

That election is coming this year or next; and on current projections, it could produce a Sinn Féin First Minister, amplifying demands for a border poll. This will further madden and panic the extreme unionist and loyalist groups.

Loyalist paramilitaries

Border ImageLoyalist paramilitaries are playing an alarming role in the unfolding debacle / Image: CC

Ever since the Brexit vote in 2016, the establishment have screamed blue murder about the possibility of dissident Republicans targeting customs checkpoints should a land border between the North and South of Ireland materialise.

Yet no one ever stopped to ask what threat the far better armed and organised loyalist paramilitaries would play in the event that Brexit negotiations resulted in a sea border between the North of Ireland and Britain.

Who can honestly say they are surprised that no one asked this question? For decades, Sinn Féin have been made to crawl on their bellies on account of their IRA past in order to ‘earn’ even a secondary seat at the table in Northern Ireland’s political system. Yet the DUP have been asked to perform no such acts of self-humiliation on account of their past (and ongoing!) associations.

Indeed, the loyalist paramilitaries – who never agreed to disarm – are treated with regular indulgence by the British state and have a cosy relationship to this day with the DUP. The paramilitary groups have formed a useful auxiliary for the DUP on a number of occasions. In the 2019 general election, they were used to strong-arm the UUP into standing aside in key seats, giving the DUP a clear run.

Loyalist paramilitaries are now playing an alarming role in the unfolding debacle.

In the week beginning 15 January, representatives of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) met with the Loyalist Community Council (LCC), an umbrella group for the various loyalist paramilitary organisations. The topic of discussion: Brexit and the sea border.

What was discussed there? What, if anything, was agreed? We may never know, but it is no mere detail that the British state recognises illegal paramilitary groups as legitimate negotiating partners in its ongoing border dispute.

On 1 February, graffiti appeared around Larne Port with a not so subtle message to port staff. “ALL BORDER POST STAFF ARE TARGETS,” it declared. With a click of his finger, Edwin Poots removed staff from the ports in Larne and Belfast on safety grounds and physical goods checks were suspended.

The PSNI quickly reassured us that there is “absolutely no information” to substantiate claims that loyalist paramilitaries were involved. Presumably, there’s no information to suggest paramilitaries weren’t involved either!

Even if there were, we can rest assured that the PSNI would not investigate them anyway. The same week, the police were seen peacefully escorting a group of masked UVF men through East Belfast without in the least attempting to interfere with their business.

“Such tactics have no place in a democracy,” said DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr. But in expressing tactical differences with those issuing public death threats against port workers, he was quick to make sure that the graffiti artists know that, at heart, he and his DUP colleagues are fully with them:

“The protocol was bound to cause these problems given the triumphant approach by republicans and nationalists and the wilful ignorance that 50% of the population was opposed to the protocol. It’s time for the Government to step up and invoke Article 16, set it aside and let’s get back to proper trade without restrictions.”

Pressure from loyalist paramilitaries, the TUV, and her own hardliners has now brought Arlene Foster into line. From promising to make the NI Protocol work, she has now vowed to help bring it down.

A Frankenstein’s monster

Boris and the Tories are happy to light-mindedly add oil to the flames as far as the situation in Ireland goes, if it helps to elevate him politically. We’ve had a taste of this light-mindedness before back in 2016 with Brexit.

But if Brexit got out of control, loyalist sectarianism is a Frankenstein’s monster that long ago slipped out of the control of the British ruling class. The product of centuries of divide and rule, the more far-sighted representatives of British capital are aware of the dangers that raising it to its feet poses. Boris, in all likelihood, doesn’t care.

The British ruling class would have gladly rid itself of the North of Ireland, but for the obstacle this monster of their own creation represents. Loyalist demagogues feed off feelings of bitterness and anger that exist among working-class Protestants. But this anger is generated under the same conditions that also bear down on working-class Catholics. It has the same solution.

Under the impact of the crisis of capitalism, millions feel like what little they had in the past is slipping away from them, along with all stability and certainty for the future.

The only way to cut across those who seek to mould these feelings into a siege mentality in working-class Protestant communities, is to begin the work of building a clear, revolutionary leadership of the working class.

Originally published 4 Feb at socialist.net |