Irish unity is now “within touching distance”

Michelle O'Neill - Northern Ireland's First Minister

By Steve Bell

The re-establishment of the Stormont Assembly has brought Irish unity closer, or, in the words of Mary Lou McDonald, “within touching distance”. The new Assembly features Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, Sinn Féin as the largest party, and the unionist parties as a minority amongst the body of MLAs.

Such a composition is unique in the hundred years history of the six-county state. This, after all, is an institution that was set up to guarantee a permanent unionist majority, and a bulwark against the Irish nationalist movement. In her opening address to the new Assembly, Michelle O’Neill captured this with: “That such a day would ever come was unimaginable to my parents and grandparents’ generations.” With Sinn Féin outpolling both of the Coalition government parties in the south of Ireland, there is a real prospect of a Sinn Féin led government on the other side of the border. Touching distance indeed!

The breakthrough and the inertia

The breakthrough came when the British government secured the agreement of the DUP for its command paper, “Safeguarding the Union”. The DUP had motivated its withdrawal from the Assembly in 2022 because of concerns about post-Brexit arrangements for the north of Ireland.

Having campaigned for Brexit, the DUP discovered that maintaining open land borders on the island of Ireland created trading obstacles with Britain for the north. None of the attempts of the British government and the EU to maintain the north’s access to the EU’s single market seemed acceptable. Of necessity, there would be different trading arrangements, and thus legal arrangements, with Britain which was not retaining a place in the EU’s single market. The DUP believed this threatened the constitutional position of the north in the UK.

The Windsor Framework, agreed between the EU and British government in February 2023 reduced most of the trading frictions created by Brexit. However, the DUP was severely split on the issue, and sought further negotiations with the British government outside of the Assembly. It wanted more safeguards concerning the supposed weakened position of the north in the union of the UK. These ended with the agreement in Safeguarding the Union.

In general, this document accepts both the Good Friday Agreement and the Windsor Framework. The proposals for trading arrangements further reduce bureaucratic obstacles in trade between the North and Britain. What the DUP has yet to explain is why these could not have been negotiated, and much more quickly too, by an Assembly Executive that they were part of.

As for the constitutional proposals, there is nothing in them that changes the actual status of the North. In line with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, if a majority of the population in the north votes for Irish reunification in a border poll then reunification will take place. There are no new constitutional “safeguards” which alter this.

What there is, however, is a great deal of pro-union flannel aimed at convincing DUP voters that the British government defends the union, and cares strongly about it. And this window dressing, to hide the Tories’ and DUP’s embarrassment, is the inertia.

It’s an attempt to block historical development by insisting on the permanence of the present. For both the Tories and the DUP are internally divided on the nature of Brexit, and their part in it. The “permanence” of the union is apparently the one thing that both parties can, internally and externally, agree upon.

Further unionist grumbles

At the moment, the DUP internal opposition, including Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley, Carla Lockhart and Jim Shannon among the MPs, will await further developments. The external loyalist opposition, led by Jim Allister, Baroness Hoey, Ben Habib and James Bryson are mounting yet another legal challenge – likely to match their previous unsuccessful attempts to raise the ghost of the 1800-1801 Acts of Union.

It should be noted that the leader of the DUP, Jeffrey Donaldson, has chosen to lead the DUP from Westminster rather than Stormont. When first elected to leader, in 2021, he stated his intention to leave Westminster and become first minister at Stormont. The delay in this move was due to the vulnerability of his Lagan Valley constituency in a by-election, as the DUP was losing votes at the time. When the DUP withdrew from the Assembly, in February 2022, the plan was for the DUP to return as largest party with Donaldson then to return as First Minister.

The gamble failed, as Sinn Féin became the largest party and became entitled to the first minister post. Now first minister and deputy first minister have equal status. But perhaps the symbolic difference in title is too demeaning for Donaldson to accept being deputy first minister to a republican woman. Or perhaps he genuinely believes the DUP’s impasse is best resolved from Westminster. Whatever the reason, Emma Little-Pengelly, who had been co-opted into Donaldson’s previously held MLA seat, is now Deputy First Minister for the DUP.

For their part, the Tories are emboldened into a new season of crowing about their commitment to the union. This was on full display in the Commons, on 31st January, in the debate on the “Northern Ireland Executive Formation”. No less a figure than the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, illustrated the pitfalls of retread unionism. The quoted text is as printed in Hansard.

Tory MP, Richrad Drax, ended his contribution by questioning the Secretary of State thus: “Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but, as we have heard, it will still be subject to EU laws, so that axe is still grinding away and we must get rid of it. What is unhelpful is Sinn Féin’s whispering about unification at this highly emotive time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me, the House and this country that Northern Ireland will always be part of the United Kingdom?”

Heaton-Harris began cautiously: “I have to tread slightly more carefully on that particular issue, because as Secretary of State I am responsible for making an independent assessment of the conditions that might lead to the border poll to which my hon. Friend alludes.” But now in his stride, caution abates: “I have to be very careful, but I am comfortable suggesting that, certainly in my lifetime, Northern Ireland will be a strong and wonderfully prosperous part of the United Kingdom.” If this refers to his lifetime as Secretary of State, likely only months more in duration, then this is true (apart from the ‘strong and wonderfully prosperous’ stuff). If this refers to his natural lifetime then we should be skeptical, as he has yet to demonstrate the gift of prophecy.

Worse was to follow: “However, it is very important to outline the parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that allow for all these things to happen…” Certainly! “and any change would absolutely depend on the consent of both communities at the time.” Ouch! Has the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm for the union led him to forget that a border poll will be decided by a simple majority of the electorate as a single community?

Denying reality

If the Minister most responsible for the North makes such errors, then the “Safeguarding the Union” document continues the theme. Standing valiantly against the evidence of reality, the major denial of the document is the decision “to remove the legal duties to have regard to the ‘all-island economy’ in section 10 (1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.” Further legislation will be brought forward to remove the obligation of British ministers or competent authorities to take into account the existence of the all-island economy.

The motivation for this flight of fancy is breathtaking. “Whilst access to the EU market has broad support amongst business and consumers, the creation of a new political construct of the ‘all-island economy’ is clearly more divisive in nature and has been rejected by the current Government.” After hundreds of years of British governments forcibly dividing and coercing the Irish people, the Tory government has awarded itself the role of measuring social unity in Ireland.

As for the all-island economy being a “construct”, it is sufficient to travel the Belfast to Dublin road, in either direction, to see the constant flow of goods, livestock, and workers across the border. A flow which has increased after Brexit, due to the privileged access of the north to the EU single market.

The Economic and Social Research Institute reported, in July 2023, that 53% of the north’s exports went south (some to be forwarded to continental EU states); while 35% of the north’s imports came from the south. These processes will continue, and expand, to the benefit of the population either side of the border, regardless of the denial of unionist politicians, of whatever stripe.

Alongside this, the document places great emphasis on “UK East-West” relations. To allow such relations to flourish in the “UK Internal Market”, the government is to establish a “UK East-West Council” in early 2024. This will have government and business representatives from “the constituent parts of the UK”, and will do all sorts of busy things to promote economic activity, investment, connectivity, etc. And, under the auspices of this Council, the government will establish “Intertrade UK” in early 2024 to be equally busy in enabling, promoting, researching, etc., internal trade.

It is impossible to take seriously a government which has stumbled upon such preoccupations a century after the establishment of the six counties state. Especially so as there is an immediate funding crisis of that state. Outside of the “Safeguarding” deal, and negotiated by all of the Stormont parties, the government has authorised a £3.3 billion supplementary funding package for the immediate needs of the Assembly.

But all the Stormont parties regard this as insufficient to address public sector pay awards, public services and infrastructure needs. Amongst the first decisions of the reconvened Assembly were decisions demanding additional resources from the British government, costed plans with ministers for immediate priorities, and an independent commission to examine a fiscal framework for the north. The Department of Health has registered a 15% increase in hospital waiting lists since the collapse of power sharing in 2022. Such deterioration can be perceived across social services. This is the real challenge to be met – not setting up new talking shops in Britain.

The real dynamics

Of course, the unionist rhetoric dripping from the DUP/Tory deal did not go unnoticed by Nationalists and Republicans. However, its importance diminishes the more that the real dynamics of Stormont’s re-establishment assert themselves.

Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, gave a response, on January 31st, which was probably generally felt among nationalists. He noted the “…negative language about the all-island economy and I think it very much puts the British government in the place of being advocates of the Union, whereas in the past they signed up to rigorous impartiality.” He noted that there would be no land border in Ireland, there would be no diminution of the EU’s single market, and no changes to the Windsor Framework.

Three days later, Micheál Martin, Ireland’s Tanaiste, drove home the point: “I look forward to an early meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. The NSMC will play a key role in the period ahead in making sure that we make the most of shared opportunities, including supporting the all-island economy, which continues to be a source of prosperity, growth and livelihoods for many from all communities across this island. Northern Ireland’s unique position as part of the UK internal market while, at the same time, having unique access to the EU’s single market of nearly 450 million people provides a solid opportunity for growth.”

The Tories and the DUP will continue to congratulate themselves on solving problems that they created. But the “achievements” they are trumpeting have not changed the growing social and economic shifts inside Ireland on both sides of the border.

Irish nationalists and republicans don’t wish to diminish a large pleasure for minor irritations. Yet it is important for labour movement activists in Britain to understand the manoeuvres of the Tory government.

The revolting atmosphere of racism and belligerent chauvinism that the Tories have created since 2010 also encompasses their attitude towards Ireland and the Irish. This is directly expressed in the Tories’ determination to proceed with the Troubles Legacy Bill, despite the opposition of the Irish government and all the Assembly parties.

A more indirect expression is the publication by the Policy Exchange of its report “Closing the Back Door”. This document is a direct attack upon Irish neutrality, which is supposedly undermining Britain’s security. It proposes to remilitarise the north and establish a NATO naval base in Derry. It reeks of neo-colonial nostalgia and supremacist attitudes towards the Irish people.

Ireland is presented as part of “The British Isles”, and its independence a quirk and threat to British interests. It is reminiscent of the uninterrupted bullying deployed by the British government during the Second World War in an attempt to end Irish neutrality. Robert Fisk’s excellent book, “In Time Of War” reviews that whole sorry episode.

Defining Ireland as Britain’s “back door” reduces the island to part of Britain’s estate. The document trots out routine NATO talking points, with extra “intelligence” – “There is already strong evidence of a subversive and illegal Russian, Chinese and Iranian presence across Irish society and sensitive institutions.”

Now there are two things that these countries have in common which the report does not refer to. Russia, China and Iran have never attempted to invade or occupy Britain. Russia, China and Iran have all been invaded and occupied by Britain. In Policy Exchange’s version of history, the occupied countries are the aggressors, and the invader is the peacemaker.

“As it stands, Sinn Féin is expected to win the ROI’s next election in 2025, a party which will be no friend to British interests. Sinn Féin’s long history of Anglophobia, and conflict with the British state and security services – as well as its opposition to NATO, Russian sympathies, and general anti-Western sympathies – will obstruct any meaningful re-calibration of security arrangements with the UK.” Alongside the absorption of the north into NATO’s expansion, this aims to prevent any constructive development of diplomacy between Britain and a Sinn Féin led government. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Donaldson has called for the report to be adopted by the Tories. Such a policy will be opposed on both sides of the Irish border. It is crucial that the labour movement in Britain joins in opposing such noxious war-mongering.

In both the North and South of Ireland, we see the growth of republicanism; the growth of progressive social attitudes among the rising generation; the increase in cross border economics and commerce; and a fragmentation of unionism in the north and ‘civil war’ politics in the south. Stormont’s revival is another sign that the remaking of Ireland is underway.

The above article was originally published here on Labour Outlook.

Image: Michelle O’Neill – Northern Ireland’s First Minister; Photo by Sinn Féin; Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.