North of Ireland: Brexit and the Irish border

One phone call from Arlene Foster to the British Prime Minister Theresa May was enough to halt a deal between the European Union and British government, already agreed on Monday 4 December. Arlene Foster is the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland: a right-wing party with its roots in the anti-Catholicism of its former leader Ian Paisley. It is also pro-life, anti-gay and deeply reactionary.

DUP leader Arlene Foster presided over the ‘Ash for Cash’ scandal. Currently there is a public enquiry into how that fiasco came about. It was also her actions that led to Sinn Fein walking away from the power-sharing executive, now in limbo for nearly a year (but with the members still receiving their salaries).

Arlene Foster leader of the DUP Image Northern Ireland OfficeArlene Foster, leader of the DUP / Image: Northern Ireland Office

With no executive in place, Arlene Foster is a leader with little or no power. Her deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, unlike Foster, is one of the 10 DUP members of the Westminster Parliament. Because of their agreement with the Tories he is the real power within the DUP. Having negotiated for nearly three weeks last summer, the DUP managed to squeeze one billion pounds out of the Tories (and the British Tax payers) in return for supporting the weakened Tories after last summer’s British General Election.

After four more days of negotiations and pressure on the DUP, eventually, on early Friday morning, 8 December, the British and European negotiators agreed a joint communique. Mrs. May signed (or shook hands on it) despite the fact that Arlene Foster advised her not to. That agreement has now allowed Britain to enter trade talks with the EU, which was what they really wanted all along.

Unfortunately for the British government, however, there was the little matter of the Irish Border. The Brexiteers in their haste to leave the European Union, restrict immigration and lower the living standards of the working class, had done little preparation and were unprepared for the resistance to their Brexit plans from the Irish government.

The veto

That the Irish Government would have the full endorsement of the EU shocked the British side. The EU effectively gave Ireland a veto over the issue of the border. Partially that was a reward to the Irish ruling class for their slavish adherence to the policies of the IMF, the World Bank and the EU in the years following the banking crisis of 2008. Then the Irish Government bankrolled the bond holders and imposed severe austerity measures on the working class to fund the bankers. So why wouldn’t Europe back the Irish? After all, they do their masters’ bidding.

DUP and Theresa Mays conundrum Image own workThe Tory-DUP deal / Image: own work

Capitalism is in crisis in Britain, in Europe and globally. Out of that crisis, two distinct tendencies have emerged. The one represented by the emergence of Trump backed by the alt-right and bourgeois elitists in the USA, and by the rise of hard-right populism in Holland, Austria, Hungary and other parts of Europe, is best expressed in Britain by the Brexit wing of the Tory Party backed by their allies on the far right and by the DUP. It is anti-immigrant, for lower taxes for the rich, and the unfettered sway of capital. It tends to be racist, militaristic, nationalistic and pro-imperialist.

The other tendency, while it is also reactionary and pro-capitalist, recognizes the importance of keeping a lid on the anger of the working class at a time when the rate of exploitation of labour has to be increased. It is best represented in Europe by the EU itself. The inclusion of Social Democratic parties within their consensus is aimed at keeping the working class in check as also are the social programmes of the EU.

The experience of Syriza in Greece and the Irish Labour Party’s participation in the implementation of austerity shows how successful that strategy has been. It has the added advantage of causing disillusionment within the working class towards so-called socialist parties. They are in reality reformist parties that pose no real challenge to capitalism. At the same time, the emergence of Sanders in the USA and Corbyn in Britain has popularized the idea of socialism among new layers of the working class, particularly among the youth. But the established leaders of the left in the reformist parties and in the trade unions caution against revolutionary ideas and have lost the will to carry on a class struggle. They prefer words like ‘consensus,' ‘partnership’, ‘conciliation’, ‘accommodation’ and ‘coalition’.

The Border

The Irish border has now been in existence for nearly 100 years and has been a running sore for nationalists in the North since it was established. When Ireland was partitioned, in order to ensure a Protestant majority for (pro-British) Unionism, the new Northern Ireland State was composed of six counties with most of the Unionist support in the East counties of Down, Antrim, Armagh and Eastern parts of County Derry. The areas along the border were mainly nationalist, particularly in the West.

Southern Unionists, particularly in County Donegal were abandoned to the New Free State much to the anger of Lord Carson who led the opposition to Home Rule and who in later life admitted that Unionism had simply been used by the Tory Party to achieve power.

During the struggle for Irish independence the vast majority of Northern Nationalists supported the old moderate nationalist party under Redmond and there was comparatively little support for De Valera’s Sinn Fein, which rejected the partition. Indeed there was a bitter rivalry between Northern Irish nationalism (which is well represented by the slogan ‘For Faith and Fatherland’) and Irish Republicanism, a rivalry which sometimes exploded into violence.

Northern Ireland customs border 1968 Image Flickr HenrikjonNorthern Ireland customs border 1968 / Image: Flickr, Henrikjon

But with partition and the failure of the Boundary Commission to make changes so that some nationalists could join the Irish Free State (Southern Ireland) the nationalist population in the North became sullen and resentful at their exclusion from the Free State. They felt abandoned and left to suffer discrimination, pogroms, unemployment and second class citizenship under the reactionary Unionist government.

That resentment and bitterness was passed on to succeeding generations and eventually exploded in the late sixties, first with the rise of the Civil Rights movement and then the Provisional IRA, which eventually metamorphosed into an ordinary bourgeois nationalist party, Sinn Fein, with some social democratic tendencies.

They fought electorally with the SDLP to win the support of the middle-class sections of northern nationalism, advancing the astounding proposition that the armed struggle had only been about equality, not the fight for Irish unification! They won that electoral struggle, and for 10 ten years Sinn Fein actually administered the Northern statelet in tandem with the DUP – a party whose members refused to talk socially with members of Sinn Fein and mocked and insulted Irish culture.

However, these bitter enemies both collaborated in the implementation of Tory austerity policies in Northern Ireland. The leaders of Sinn Fein were happy with this arrangement. However, the arrogance of the DUP and their reactionary outlook eventually sapped the will of northern nationalists to accommodate bigotry, and Sinn Fein were forced to bring down the power sharing executive in January 2017.

The peace process had effectively dismantled the military border and the joint membership of the European Union meant that there were no real economic or custom borders between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. People along the border no longer had 30 or 40 mile diversions to cross the border, nor were there huge delays at checkpoints any longer. Many worked in one jurisdiction while living in the other. But Brexit changed everything. The referendum on Brexit saw a clear division, with England and Wales voting for, and Scotland and Northern Ireland voting against.

The Catholic middle class was doing very nicely from the Peace Process. Towns like Newry, Strabane and Derry City, all within six miles of the border, and all with very high historical unemployment and emigration, are currently areas of high economic activity and attract many cross-border shoppers.

Also politically, nationalism is currently close to catching up numbers-wise to unionism. Sadly the numbers game has been ruthlessly exploited by nationalists and unionists expressed locally as “us-ones against them-ones”.

The funding from the EU to Peace programmes to cement the whole Peace Process has, from 1998, amounted to billions, which was paid to to ex-political prisoners across the range, marginalized groups, peace line communities, the farming community and businesses.

For example, during the current Peace programmes for the period 2014 to 2020 the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation is €229.1million. Europe has, it could be argued, done more to cement the Peace Process than either the British or Irish governments. Indeed, both seemed to think that it was all settled in the North. But that was far from the case.

Ian Paisley Image BarryobIan Paisley / Image: Barryob

The British Tory government has worked in tandem with Unionism for the last 10 years at least and abandoned any pretence of neutrality on the question of nationalism and unionism. On practically every issue it has sided with the DUP.

On the other hand, in the same period, the Irish government has taken a hands-off position towards the North. So much so that 200 northern nationalists, from the cultural, legal and sporting fields, penned an open letter to the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) on Monday 11 December. That was unprecedented, since most public figures in the North refrain from making any political statements.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Taoiseach replied the next day reassuring them that his commitment to the Good Friday Agreement was total. Then his Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney won more concessions from the EU in the sense that the Republic would have a distinct strance in phase two of the Brexit negotiations - the all-important trade talks.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was only elected last summer and has raised the profile of his right-wing Fine Gael party so much so that it now has a big lead over the rival Fianna Fail party. The perception is that he stood up to the British over the Border issue and won commitments that there would be no hard border. However, Britain has not followed through on its commitments following both the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement.

Was it not Lord Palmerston in the 19th century who said something like “Britain has no friends, only interests”? Irish nationalism has always remembered this and never forgets. Ulster Unionism for its part never remembers. British governments always betray. So it is not at all clear that the EU in the end will hold Britain to its commitments.

The consequences of a Hard Border

The fact that the right-wing, pro-business, and traditionally pro-British, Fine Gael party would ‘stand up’ to Britain is a reflection of how fearful they are of the political and economic consequences of a hard border. What are these?

The Central Bank of the Republic has just released a report, 2017 Macro Financial Review (2nd ed.), on the economic implications. Brexit would hit exports and disrupt the supply chain. Particularly vulnerable are the agri-food sector and the manufacturing sector. Both of these are highly dependent on the UK for trade.

Hard Brexit Image Flickr Jonathan RolandeHard Brexit / Image: Flickr, Jonathan Rolande

Delays at borders would mean a knock-on increase in prices for Irish shoppers. Many Irish firms have high levels of indebtedness and could be deterred from investment. Also Irish retail banks have significant exposure in the UK market and a slowdown in the UK’s economy would hit them hard. If foreign firms decided to relocate from Britain to Ireland to access the EU market, then the impact on house prices in Dublin would heap further pressure on the property market, both residential and commercial.

The residential market in Dublin is currently out of reach for most people. Dubliners are now forced to relocate more than 50 miles from their work or live with their parents and in-laws in cramped conditions. Those who do have mortgages are increasingly at risk of debt and rising interest rates. There have been numerous evictions in the Dublin area with homelessness at its highest ever level in decades.

In the UK itself inflation has now crept up to 3.1 percent – far above the official target of 2 percent. This is increasing pressure on working people and the relative fall in migration now means that areas like health and the agri-food sectors face acute shortages of labour. Brexit will exacerbate these pressures in both countries.

Brexit has opened up sharp divisions between sections of the British and Irish ruling class. It has exacerbated the division between Unionism (for) and nationalism (against). It has seen a sharp increase in racist attacks across the British Isles and led to growing fears within migrant populations.

A rise in either British or Irish nationalism is never a good thing. In Britain it finds its most extreme manifestations in UKIP and Britain First, who spread hatred and fear to divide workers and play to the interests of sections of British capitalism. Within Ireland, apart from creating even more divisions between Catholic and Protestant workers, it plays into the hands of armed militant nationalist groups who have learnt little from history. A hard border would see the renewal of armed attacks on all symbols associated with that border and elicit sympathy and support from sections of the nationalists at a time when there is little enthusiasm for the armed dissidents.

Neither Brexit nor the EU

The alternative to nationalism is internationalism. Neither Brexit nor remaining within the EU can solve the current crisis of capitalism. There is enough food in the world to feed everyone and still have much left over, but capitalism accumulates and puts wealth into the hands of a few while the many starve. Both sides of the Brexit argument believe in and advocate capitalism. But it is that very capitalism that causes war, famine racism and slavery. For socialists the fight against capitalism begins in their own country for “The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.” (The Communist Manifesto)

If we are ever to overcome all the manifestations of capitalism, we need to patiently explain to workers that neither Brexit nor any other alternatives will solve the problems of the world. We all live in this world and what affects workers anywhere affects workers everywhere.

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Workers of All Countries, Unite!

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