Analysis: Micro-politics isn’t enough – we must address the partition of Ireland

Ben Wray

Debates around the UK border in Ireland and the so called ‘backstop’ bring the crisis elements of the British state into sharper focus

AMONG the many hurdles facing the Brexit process and the British Government, perhaps the most intractable so far has proven to be the plans for a backstop plan covering a ‘open border’ on the island of Ireland – movement of people and goods across the UK state’s border in Ireland.

Against this backdrop, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has re-opened the question of Irish Unity through a border poll. An issue expected by many to be in some kind of permanent hibernation has now returned as a real force.

The renewed debate around unification reminds us that bold solutions speak more directly to the legacy of unjust conditions and regressive forces in modern British society than the micro-political wrangling of different wings of the UK establishment which has come to define Brexit.

The backstop

The partition of the island by the British state almost a hundred years ago means that two separate regimes exist either side of the artificial border, regimes that will divert further after Brexit.

Ireland will remain in EU institutions like the Customs Union and under Tory Brexit plans, Northern Ireland would not. 

The backstop plan is an attempt to reconcile Britain being outside the EU with the lived reality and common history of those on both sides of the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border which means that Customs checks and border posts would create real challenges. The backstop would keep both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland effectively within the Customs Union if no new trade relationship is agreed by 2021 between the UK and the EU, but this would leave Northern Ireland as a third country – inside the UK but with a much closer relationship to the EU – something which the Tories and the DUP in Northern Ireland could not accept.

To make matters more delicate still, as in Scotland, only a minority in Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in 2016.

Many on both sides of the border fear the return of a hard border after Brexit, and the implications this would have for trade people in moving across the island. The return of a hard border would also re-establish a potent symbol of British state authority in a country where it has traditionally been reviled.

Partition doesn’t work

There is a potent symbolism in the fact that such a major part of the Brexit debate now revolves around the British state’s relationship to Ireland.

Almost a hundred years ago, in 1921, the country was partitioned as part of a response by the British state (and allied Northern landowners and industrialists) to the Irish Revolution from 1916.

The borders of the new six county statelet were specifically tailored to exclude the largely Catholic Irish nationalist population – who were also subjected to brutal pogroms upon the founding of the new Northern Irish entity.

With the establishment of a Protestant supremacist ‘Orange State’ Catholics faced exclusion from housing, jobs and many civil and democratic rights. 

Partition was one of an arsenal of weapons deployed by British and other imperialisms around the world, from India to Africa and the Middle East. There are few examples which could be described as anything short of calamitous. Prevalent features include ethnic, confessional and national tensions that span generations and provoke repeated conflict, economic underdevelopment and wider regional destabilisation.

Though much of the worst supremacist aspects of the Orange State are now gone, the country remains hobbled by the very conditions under which it was founded.

The Good Friday Agreement, whilst it ended the worst of the bloodshed from the war that had engulfed the six counties from the late 1960s, also institutionalised communal divisions in the country through the creation of power sharing executives.

This dysfunctional mode of governance has left a generation of both Catholic and Protestant people behind. It has led to democratic and economic dysfunction. And it left largely unresolved the scars from years of discrimination and war.

Incredibly, and in the midst of the Brexit crisis, the Northern Irish Stormont executive has not met for over two years.

Micro-politics vs structural analysis

As has often been the case during the Brexit debate, opposition to the pro-Brexit right has taken on the form of support for the status quo.

Much of the commentary around the ‘backstop’ impasse treats it as a wholly unnecessary national embarrassment, the only meaning of which is that the Tory Brexiteers are arrogant, nationalistic fools.

This is simply implausible. The whole bloody history of British suppression in Ireland is linked to its economic and geopolitical development as a power.

Both the plantation of Ireland by Scottish and English settlers, and Oliver Cromwell’s invasion in the 1600s, reflected the interests of the burgeoning new British order. The Battle of the Boyne accompanied the consolidation of that order in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

in the 1700 and 1800’s, the suppression of Irish movements represented the expansion of the British Empire as a global power, and British resistance to radical liberal and democratic movements that were sweeping Europe in these decades.

Irish nationalism’s pro-Home Rule stance at the start of the 20th century was shattered by the British Empire’s entry into the catastrophe of WW1. What emerged from the ruins was a new republican generation and the Irish Revolution.

In each and every turn, Irish national events were inevitably impacted by developments in British society and those which reverbrated across Europe. Until the early part of the 20th century, Ireland was impacted by British state ascendancy. From then on, through revolution, war in the north and now Brexit, by British state decline.

At each historical turn, the British ruling class could be identified as variously shrewd, bungling, racist, arrogant and worse. But this was never the fundamental reason for the crisis.

Irish Unity today

No one can pretend that the Brexit process is not dangerous for Northern Irish society. Nor can anyone deny the gravity of organising a border poll or even simply agitating for Irish reunification. There are, of course, forces utterly opposed to the idea of Irish reunification.

But it would be naive and historically ignorant to imagine that micro-politics, defending the constitutional status quo, or other tinkering that maintains the fundamental reality of partition, is an adequate response to a crisis that threatens to engulf Irish as well as British society.

It is not adequate either to imagine that reunification would simply solve the crisis, North or South of the border.

The creation of the six county state also produced a mirror image in the republic, where church and state were intertwined. In recent decades, and under the tutelage of the EU (which far too many also see as an uncomplicated boon for Irish stability), Ireland has become a model of a European financialised economy, with disastrous consequences which have only exasperated its history as an underdeveloped economy preyed upon by British imperialism (the tragic persistence of massive migrations of labour from the island is one such tragic legacy).

A new movement towards Irish reunification should therefore be the basis for a re-organisation of society, meeting the problems of historical reaction with social and economic justice.