Political Crisis in Northern Ireland: Workers Movement must take Independent Stance

Ciaran Muholland

October 27th 2022

In the weeks before his resignation as Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought forward legislation designed to overturn aspects of the “Northern Ireland Protocol”-the clause in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement which allows for Northern Ireland to remain tied into the EU single market and customs union with the rest of the UK outside. Leading EU politicians reacted with anger, declaring that the legislation is “a breach of international law” and threatens the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (the agreement which brought to an end the most intense years of violence known as “The Troubles”). The crisis centred on the Protocol rumbled on through the brief tenure of Liz Truss and is one of the first issues on the table for new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.  

The crisis has sharpened as the last day on which “shadow” ministers who can exercise some powers in Northern Ireland approaches. From October 28th onwards civil servants take over and in law an election must be called. The stated position of the British government is that an election will indeed be called, most likely on December 15th. There are other options- elections have been indefinitely postponed before, but either way this crisis throws down a challenge to the workers movement. 

The Independent Role of the Workers’ Movement

If it is vitally important for the workers movement to adopt a programme which is independent from the ruling-class and is based firmly on the interests of working-class people. This is especially important when the working-class is divided on issues of identity and nationality, as it is in Ireland. The workers movement in Ireland, North and South, and in Britain, has failed to take independent, class-based positions on the difficult issues thrown up by the UK-wide vote for Brexit in 2016. Its failure to do so is risking the unity of the working class and its organisations. 

In a joint statement, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (which covers all the island of Ireland) and the Trade Union Congress (which covers England, Scotland and Wales) condemned the legislation tabled by Johnson. It warned that the “UK government’s ‘reckless’ decision to unilaterally suspend its obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol… will threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland and lead to a potentially damaging trade war” (NIC-ICTU & TUC Joint statement on decision to suspend protocol arrangements, June 14, 2022).

ICTU Assistant General Secretary Owen Reidy was quoted saying “We all accept that there are practical issues with the protocol that must be addressed in the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland”.  There was no specific mention however of the widespread opposition from people from a Protestant background to the Protocol. This results not just from concern about “practical issues” but because it has created a new border in the Irish Sea-between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK- and thus threatens their identity. 

Most of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, including the large majority of working-class Protestants, are opposed to the Protocol. The ICTU and the TUC are simply ignoring their concerns, and thus are ignoring many of their own members. They do not seem to recognise this, or worse do realise that their position is divisive and one-sided, but do not care. This is as unacceptable as would be the case if the unions were ignoring the concerns of the Catholic population (and their Catholic members) on a key issue. 

The unions must act in the interests of all working-class people, and a balanced and class-based position on a divisive issue can only be achieved by proposing a way forward which advances the cause of the working-class as a single, united whole. If the unions do not retain this balance, they will not be able to continue to play the historic role of defending working-class unity, and of acting as a check on those sectarian forces which seek to drag the North of Ireland back to conflict. 

Collapse of the Power-sharing Executive 

The Protocol was the issue which caused the collapse of devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland in February. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party representing the Protestant community, resigned from the governing Executive, which then immediately ceased to function as it can only do so with the involvement of both the largest party from the Catholic community and the largest party from the Protestant community. A scheduled election to the Northern Ireland Assembly took place on May 5th and the DUP lost its position as the largest single party overall. Sinn Fein, which wins votes from the Catholic community, is now the largest party in the Assembly and is therefore entitled to the First Minister position when an Executive is eventually formed. To date this has not happened as the DUP are refusing to go back into government until the Protocol is either removed or significantly changed. 

The DUP have been widely attacked for their stance, not just by nationalist parties in Ireland, North and South, but by the Labour Party in Britain and leading political figures in the US. The venom and stridency of attacks from leading European and US politicians is striking. The DUP is an easy target, as it stands on the right of the political spectrum on social and economic issues and is widely seen as belligerent and “unreasonable” outside its voting base. It is the largest party representing working-class Protestants despite its policies, not because of them, however. Polls show that there is little difference between Protestant and Catholic voters on economic and social issues. Indeed, for many years the Protestant community held more progressive positions on issues such as abortion and divorce rights than the Catholic community.  

The DUP wins votes as the strongest defender of the union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). Similarly, Sinn Fein wins votes as the strongest advocate of the rights of Catholics and of a united Ireland. This was the case when it was an anti-EU and anti-abortion rights party a few short years ago, as it is now after two about-turns transformed it into a pro-EU and pro-abortion rights party. For these parties only one policy ultimately matters: their stance for or against a border in Ireland. They stoke the flames of division every day to ensure that sectarian politics retain dominance. Bot parties are alert to the need to retain their working-class base and will make empty promises to do so, but both are pro-capitalist parties. 

New Border in the Irish Sea

If the workers movement is to challenge the dominance of sectarian politics and sectarian parties, it must at all costs avoid falling into one or other sectarian camp. If it does not maintain independence, disaster lies ahead. A clear analysis of the concrete situation should always be the starting point. Today, there are two borders in Ireland: the North-South border, and the East-West border. The North-South border is the result of the enforced partition of Ireland in 1921. Six of the 32 counties were separated out on the basis that within the borders of the new “state” of Northern Ireland there would be a two-thirds majority (of Protestants) who supported remaining with England, Scotland and Wales in the United Kingdom. 

One hundred years on, demographic change means that the Protestant community is no longer an absolute majority of the population, and a clear pro-UK majority is no longer guaranteed. There is no absolute majority for the Catholic community and for Irish reunification either.  Whilst this has created a highly unstable situation, Northern Ireland has never been a stable entity. For most Catholics, and especially for the Catholic working-class, it has always been a prison-house to which they offer little or no allegiance. The existence of the North-South border is an affront to their sense of identity as Irish. Since the early 1990s, the border between the North and the Republic of Ireland has become much less visible, but it has not disappeared. Crossing the border is immediately visible through for example, changes in road signage, speed limits, and currency. What has changed is that the repressive apparatus of military watchtowers and checkpoints is long gone, as this was taken away in the years following the second IRA ceasefire in 1996. Customs checks had already disappeared by then, as the UK and the Republic of Ireland had become fully integrated into the EU customs union and the single market.  

The second border lies in the Irish Sea between the North of Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales (Great Britain or GB). Since the establishment of Northern Ireland, there have been health checks on agricultural goods passing between Northern Ireland and GB, but these were almost invisible, and people were allowed to move freely, apart from during World War 2. 

When the Brexit vote took place, the UK and the EU entered prolonged negotiations about post-Brexit arrangements and the unique situation of Northern Ireland immediately came into focus. In December 2019, when the Withdrawal Agreement was finally signed, the Northern Ireland Protocol was inserted, to “protect the Good Friday Agreement”. It was argued that any “hardening” of the border between the North and the South was ruled out because of the risk of the Good Friday Agreement collapsing and the return of politically motivated violence, and thus there was “no choice” but to harden the border in the Irish Sea, with new, cumbersome checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and GB. The Protocol arrangements mean that Northern Ireland is formally outside the EU single market, but EU free movement of goods and customs rules still apply. Over time there will be further divergence between Northern Ireland and GB as any new rules from the EU will apply in Northern Ireland only. 

Protestant Opposition to the Protocol

There has been a slow burning but ever deepening political crisis in Northern Ireland since the Protocol was agreed. This is despite the fact only some of the new arrangements have actually been implemented. Implementation immediately created problems, especially with the importation of medicines from GB to Northern Ireland. This was so clearly an example of an unnecessary, EU-imposed bureaucratic disadvantage for ordinary people that it was quickly resolved. There has been less EU appetite for any further changes in the Protocol, and the turmoil of the last days of the Johnson government magnified and distorted the crisis. Boris Johnson, a populist with few political principles, originally agreed the Protocol, but pulled back under pressure from hard-line Brexiteers within his own party and from the DUP. The right-wing of the Tory party are outraged by the idea of a border within the United Kingdom and by ongoing jurisdiction of the EU over any part of the territory of the UK. The position of the Rishi Sunak lead government is less clear: it has suggested that it is open to compromise but for now this amounts to warm words only.

The stridency of the DUP and right-wing Tories has been met by an equal and opposite force: a stubborn opposition to change from European bourgeois politicians, and the Southern government, in particular Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs. In public they have been belligerent in tone and dismiss the concerns of the Protestant community with sneers and insults. They state that there is no alternative to the Protocol and argue that in fact it means that Northern Ireland “can have the best of both worlds”. In every interview they add that in any case the DUP have brought these problems upon themselves by supporting Brexit. Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, has countered that the EU is “tone deaf” when it comes to the concerns of the Protestant community.

Any deal which removes some of the bureaucratic red tape around the Protocol only will not solve the impasse. The main concern of most Protestants is not a relatively modest impact on trade, but the perceived threat to their identity as British. Authoritative opinion polls have shown that a majority of the Protestant community support the DUP stance of not going back into government until the issue is resolved. All unionist MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) returned on May 5th are against the Protocol. Opposition has also been expressed in a series of demonstrations which have been organised by a broad coalition of forces, including all the Unionist political parties, until the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party withdrew after threats and an attack on a party office. In many instances the demonstrations have been militaristic in character, with repeated references to the Home Rule crisis of 1912, when 100,000 were mobilised into an armed Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, in preparation for conflict. There have also been references to the more recent periods, including the early 1970s when the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association brought tens of thousands onto the streets in shows of strength. Some of the demonstrations have ended in rioting, but for the most part, they have been peaceful, as was a march involving 120,000 people in Belfast on May 28th which both marked the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Northern Ireland, and clearly demonstrated mass opposition to the Protocol.

Elections, opinion polls and demonstrations together illustrate the scale of opposition to the Protocol in the Protestant community. Against this backdrop, the ICTU organised a demonstration at Stormont (the building which houses the Northern Ireland Assembly) on June 25th, which called for the politicians to form a government, “get back to work” and deal with the cost-of-living crisis. This demonstration took a pro-Protocol and anti-DUP position, as well as giving credence to the idea that other parties in the Executive act in the interest of working people. Sinn Fein politicians were prominent, holding banners alongside senior trade unionists. There was no acknowledgement from the ICTU that Protestants, including Protestant working-class people who are trade union members, had legitimate concerns. A layer of working-class Protestants will have noted the stance of the ICTU, and this event will help to reinforce a sense that some unions and some union leaders are one-sided when to questions of national identity.

European Union’s False Choices  

It is vitally important that the trade union movement adopts an independent position on the Protocol, and this must be based on opposition to the hardening of all borders. The first step is to reject the EU’s false choice between a hardening of either the North-South border or the East-West border. To those who say that this is not possible we should point out that the EU exists in the interests of the capitalist class of each European state, and the shared interests of these classes. Its rules and regulations are not immutable but exist to promote the interests of the ruling class. 

The ruling class of each state sets aside or ignores rules and regulations when it suits them. There are many examples of this. In the period before the financial crisis of 2007-2008, several European states were breaking the supposedly sacrosanct fiscal rules of the EU and were allowed to get away with it without sanctions. When the refugee crisis broke out in 2015, some EU countries closed borders, whilst Germany admitted one million refugees almost overnight. Both approaches broke EU rules on the movement of peoples. The starkest example is the tolerance shown to the hard-right nationalist Polish and Hungarian governments, which have moved far away from “European standards” on multiple issues, including the rights of women. The bureaucracy of the EU wrings its hand but does nothing else. 

The EU and the capitalist class is flexible and creative in response to crises, such as the financial crash, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis. The EU has taken a hard position on Northern Ireland for entirely political reasons. Firstly, elements of the EU bureaucracy are concerned that a weakening of the internal market will result if it allows the free flow of goods to and from Northern Ireland. Secondly, there are some who are keen to punish the British state and the British people for the temerity of stepping away from the EU- they do not want to make it “too easy” to leave in case other countries consider going down the same road. And third, the majority of European politicians have been captured by the idea that peace in Northern Ireland can only be maintained by safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement, and that this means it must pay careful attention to the views of the Catholic community.

The EU is wrong on all three counts. There is no significant threat to the integrity of the single market given the small size and geographical location of Northern Ireland on the periphery of Europe. Punishing Britain for decisions taken in a referendum is anti-democratic, and ultimately will backfire in future crises as it becomes more apparent to the working-class of other European states that the EU does not act in their interests. Most importantly, peace depends on considering the concerns of both communities in the North. 

Peace is not safeguarded by political parties in Northern Ireland which thrive on sectarian division. It is not safeguarded by the Irish or British governments, the EU, or the United States. The only real guarantor of peace is the working-class. The Good Friday Agreement came about at a particular point in history for a number of reasons, including important international factors. The single most important reason for the Agreement however was the widespread desire for peace in working-class communities. This sentiment was expressed in a series of mass demonstrations and local and regional strikes organised by the trade unions in the late 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the organised working-class have safeguarded peace through mass mobilisations at times of increased tension and when violence erupted on to the streets. 

The underlying problems which give rise to the Troubles have not been removed however, and there is a risk of violence returning in the future. A long-term solution will only be found through the united movement of working-class people acting through their trade unions, community campaigns, movements of young people, and ultimately through a united political voice. A mass working-class party which acts in the interests of both communities, and which is based on or closely linked to the trade union movement, must be built. Marxists and other working-class activists have a vital role to play developing a mass political alternative. It is necessary now to warn against the dangers posed by the current position adopted by the ICTU. We must defend working-class unity, fight for socialist policies in the movement, and argue for the development of a mass working-class party.  

Dangerous Stance of People Before Profit 

Many genuine activists, from various political traditions, are rising to the task. The most prominent political force on the left in Ireland, People Before Profit (PBP), is not. PBP has elected members in both the southern Parliament (Dail) and the Northern Ireland Assembly and is the most visible left force. PBP has adopted a dangerously one-sided position on the Protocol. In a statement (“Stop Playing Games with The Protocol”, November 29th, 2021) it talks of “right-wing Brexiter Unionists”, points to “the majority of people in the North” voting to remain in the EU and drew attention to “recent polls…. indicate that the majority of people here do not oppose the protocol”. It is explicit in its promise to “stand firmly against these dangerous games… (of the Tories and the DUP) …which could lead to the intensification of the border between the North and South of Ireland”. PBP material published during the Assembly election continued in the same vein, repeatedly attacking the DUP but saying almost nothing about the other parties in the Executive, especially Sinn Fein. In effect, PBP equates opposition to the Protocol with the opposition of the DUP, dismisses the DUP as a right-wing sectarian party (which is true), and thereby dismisses Protestant concerns. PBP is not tone-deaf to the Protestant community, it is stone-deaf. 

It has adopted a nationalist position. Its position is de facto pro-Protocol, and in the current dispute between the Tory government and the EU bureaucracy, de facto pro-EU. There is nothing in its statements which suggests a Marxist understanding of the issues: there is no mention of the Irish Sea border, no mention of Protestant working-class people, and no mention of the interests of the working-class as a whole. It is an anti-Protestant, sectarian position which represents a danger to the workers movement if it gains support. 

A New United Mass Party of the Working Class

Many trade union activists are uneasy about the position of ICTU and are looking for an alternative. Community activists who see the need to build united campaigns are seeking ways in which to enter the political arena. Left activists from several traditions are very aware of the dangerous times ahead. Young people who have joined movements for the rights of women and of LBGTQ+ people, or who are engaged in the struggle to protect the environment against capitalist despoilation, know that only the unity of Catholic and Protestant delivers gains. Many recognise the need for a political alternative but cannot always see how this will be achieved. The experience of contesting elections, with modest expectations to begin with, will help to show the road ahead.

The first steps are being taken to build a broad, anti-sectarian, left party. The focus is on the local elections in May 2023, which will provide an opportunity for an alliance of candidates across a number of local council areas, standing together on a common platform. If a broad coalition of candidates emerges, even if the number of candidates is small at this point, it will be an important step forward. An early Assembly election will be a fierce contest between the sectarian parties and will be much more difficult terrain for anti-sectarian left activists, but candidates may go forward after careful discussion. 

Left activists who agree on the tasks which are posed have a duty to work together and to co-operate to the maximum degree possible. The workers movement and the left will only succeed in building a real alternative to the sectarian parties if it adopts independent class positions on the difficult issues, including the Protocol. Discussions on an agreed election platform should begin now, based on the best traditions of the movement. The exact programme should be decided democratically, but the necessary outline emerges from the needs of the hour:   

  • Against austerity and the rule of the 1% 
  • For a new society based on public ownership, solidarity and co-operation and genuine democracy
  • No faith in parties based on sectarian division 
  • For a united working-class struggle for a better life for all 
  • For the free movement of people, services and goods across Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales 
  • For compromise and agreement on the issues which divide working people, with full democratic rights for all communities 
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