A recent article in the Irish Times reported retired Irish diplomat Sean Ó hUigínn quoting Edmund Burke’s remark that the English have only one ambition in relation to Ireland, which is to hear no more about it. Undoubtedly, with the Brexit backstop causing turmoil in the House of Commons, senior members of the Conservative party would very likely secretly share that view. Many in Ireland might well suggest that had the English acted on Edmund Burke’s observation and left Ireland way back then, they might be experiencing fewer problems at the moment. However, we can’t change the past and the Irish question has returned to torment Westminster.
Whatever about history, the Brexit debate does not follow the same line of argument in Northern Ireland, as it does in Britain. Local protagonists make different, although paradoxically related, calculations when deciding their position on this issue. Moreover, London and Dublin are also playing the Ulster card, yet more often than not they both conceal the entirety of their reasoning for doing so.
Underlying every political issue in Northern Ireland is the constitutional question of whether the area should continue to be governed from London or have sovereignty transferred to Dublin. Magnifying the importance of this now are two crucial facts. In the first instance there is the perennial fixation on changing demographics, which are indicating the inevitability within the coming decades of a majority in favour of ending the union. This is compounded by the obvious failure of the Six Counties to function as a normal political entity.
It is not that people in Northern Ireland are unaware or indifferent to Brexit. It is however the case, that for the most part, they see it as secondary. A contributory factor to this outlook is the attitude of the British and Irish governments with the former speaking of the need to preserve the precious union and the latter raising alarm over a hard border. Unsurprisingly therefore, the two major local political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein have focussed on the constitutional impact of Brexit.
The DUP favours the hardest of withdrawal options in the hope that it will result in creating maximum divergence between north and south and thereby reinforce the partition of Ireland. While this position wins favour in Unionist heartlands (and among the European Research Group), it has caused concern among some middle-class Unionist supporters who fear economic disruption. Nevertheless, the party’s greatest fear is losing its niche as the principal defender of ‘Protestant Ulster’ and therefore feels obliged to persist with its policy.
Disappointingly for those on the left who wish to rupture with the EU, Sinn Finn has changed its long-time opposition to the EU. Instead of highlighting the neo-liberal threat from Brussels it now takes the flawed ‘Remain and Reform’ position. With a 55% majority in the Six Counties in favour of remaining, Sinn Fein is making the obvious case that London disregards the will of the Northern Irish. The party has also led a campaign that focuses on the possible, albeit greatly exaggerated, difficulties posed by a hard border.
Meanwhile the British and Irish governments are spinning their own self-serving tales around Brexit.
British Prime Minister Johnson rejects the backstop option claiming this is because of his deep and abiding affection for the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In reality, this love affair is based firmly on Commons arithmetic. To stay in office and fend off a general election, the Tory party has had to retain DUP support. Nor is the Irish government completely frank either with its statements about the impact of Britain leaving the European Union. Dublin has focused greatly on the threat that this poses to the Good Friday Agreement in general and to the maintenance of peace in particular.
Alarmist claims about a return to the pre-1994 ‘Troubles’ are overdone. In spite of the recent death of journalist Lyra McKee, there is little evidence of any real appetite for a return to the widespread conflict of previous decades. If anything, the tragedy illustrated the depth of opposition to armed groups. Moreover, it should also be born in mind that Britain leaving the European Union will not, in itself, alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK whether there is a withdrawal deal or not.
Let’s not forget either that both the British and Irish governments have stated categorically that they will not create infrastructure along the border. Boris Johnson has repeated on several occasions that the UK it will not impose tariffs on goods moving northwards. This means that any checks that may arise from a no-deal Brexit would be carried out in the Republic and there is every indication that these will take place well away from the frontier. Incidentally, since the island was partitioned almost a century ago there is no record of republicans ever attacking a southern Irish customs post.
In a nutshell, the Brexit debate in Ireland, North and South, has largely missed the essential elements of the argument. Northern Ireland is one of the poorest regions of the United Kingdom. Average income is 8.5% less than in Britain and average disposable income is less than 40% of that in London and the economy is in ongoing decline as evidenced by the difficulties faced by the once iconic Harland & Wolff shipyard. The economic situation in the Republic appears to be infinitely better. However, this disguises an increasingly unequal society with tens of thousands homeless, a two-tier health service leaving the less well-off at a major disadvantage and increasing number of workers in either low-paid or precarious employment.
On both sides of the border the answer to this lies in breaking with free-market capitalist economies, whether controlled by neoliberals sitting in London or in charge of the European Union. This in essence is the left wing case in relation to Brexit and applies to Ireland as much as it does to Britain. Instead of working people discussing the necessity of having democratic socialist control of the economy, the powers that be have diverted attention towards a highly unlikely resumption of armed conflict, export delays and possible traffic jams at border crossings.
Above all else, clarity and transparency around this issue are essential here in Ireland as well as in Britain. The LeFT campaign is therefore not just timely but very necessary and is entitled to all the support we can give it.
Tommy McKearney (@Tommymckearney) is an Irish socialist republican, political activist and writer.