Ireland is a strong reason for Labour to oppose Brexit

By Mordechai Ryan

The consequences in Ireland of Britain leaving the European Union are among the many strong reasons why Labour should oppose Brexit and demand a second referendum before Britain actually leaves the EU.

For Britain, the consequences of Brexit will be dire as well as being reactionary. For Ireland they may be catastrophic.

Brexit means recreating a full-scale border between the two Irish states, Six Counties and 26 Counties. The independent Irish state will remain in the EU. The Northern state, despite the vote of the majority there to stay in the EU, will leave the EU as part of the UK. A physical barrier and possibly a tariff wall will be re-erected between EU Ireland and Brexit Northern Ireland.

British government talk about somehow avoiding a new “hard” border is probably in large part wish-thinking.

In the quarter-century since the IRA ceasefire, the internal Border across Ireland, like all EU internal borders, has come to have less and less meaning.

Its economic meaning had been shrinking since Britain and Ireland joined the EU on 1 January 1973. The Provisional IRA war kept it a “hard” military border. After the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement the Border dramatically lost function, and intra-Irish politics caught up with the evolution of the rest of the EU.

UK Brexit, a Six Counties majority against it, will re-sharpen old divisions in Northern Ireland, where most Protestant Unionists voted for Brexit, and most Nationalists and others voted against it. Brexit and anti-Brexit raised, in renewed sharpness, the relationship between the two Irelands and between Northern Ireland and Britain.

In March 1973, a few months after Britain and Ireland joined the EU, a referendum was held in the Six Counties on unity with the 26 Counties, or with Britain. Nationalists abstained, and the referendum showed a big majority for union with Britain.

Before World War 1 the Protestant-Unionists had won a veto on a united Ireland. The first year of the Provo war won the abolition of the Belfast parliament (March 1972) and a veto over Protestant-Unionist majority rule in the Six Counties. From then on, Britain decided, there would be power-sharing government in Belfast, or none.

The EU was peculiarly apt for dealing with, or neutralising, Ireland’s peculiar inter-communal problems. Why?

The Orange Unionist reaction to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill, in 1886, made plain what had long been known: that the nationalist goals of a united Ireland and a Home Rule Ireland were incompatible. (A Home Rule Ireland, not an independent one: Home Rule meant something closer to the Greater London Authority than to independence). A big majority in north-east Ulster (which is not the same as the Six Counties) would make the unity of a Home Rule Ireland impossible.

“Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right”, became the central Unionist slogan. In dispute between Unionists and Nationalists (and between Unionist-allied Tories and Nationalist-allied Labour) was: what was the proper political unit within which the constitutional status of Ireland, and of Ireland’s relation to Britain, would be decided.

For Irish Unionists and the Tory-Unionist party, it was the UK; for Nationalists and Liberals it was the island of Ireland.

Each camp in Ireland, Unionist or Nationalist, rejected the other’s identity. “British-Irish” or “Irish-Irish” (the term Irish-Irelander was in use then) indicated which identity was more important to each camp, British or Irish. That is how such national-communal conflicts work.

Such a division can be regulated either by a democratic apportionment of rights, in accord as far as possible with the wishes of all those involved, or by conflict. In Ireland both camps looked to British allies to use the British state to coerce the other Ireland – the Nationalists to the Liberals, the Unionists to the Tories.

The Tory Party threatened and prepared for armed rebellion if Home Rule was imposed on the northern Unionist-majority areas. Tory leader Bonar Law insisted: “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities”. On the very eve of World War 1, they imported guns from Germany. It was the Tories and the Unionists who brought the gun into modern Irish politics.

They succeeded in excluding north-east Ulster from the plans for a Dublin-ruled Home Rule Ireland. War broke out, and the Home Rule question was frozen in Parliament for the duration.

Following the Unionist lead, Irish Republicans rose in rebellion at Easter 1916. They were defeated. 15 of the leaders were immediately shot, and one hanged three months later.

In the 1918 General Election a big Irish majority voted for the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916. For 30 months the Republicans fought a guerrilla war against British occupation forces.

They won Dominion status, a qualified independence, for 26 Counties, enormously more than the Home Rule proposed earlier. A separate Parliament, with its own Home Rule powers, was set up in Belfast to rule a Six Counties state.

The Six Counties was to be a “Protestant state for a Protestant people”, as a Unionist leader put it. But the bordes were drawn to include in the Six Counties a big swathe of territory, mainly along the border with the 26 Counties, in which the Catholic-Nationalists were a majority. In Derry City, for a crass example, two miles from the inter-Irish border, the Nationalists had a two-to-one majority. (It is now 3-to-1). The Nationalist minority was a larger proportion of the population of the Six Counties than Unionists were in the whole of Ireland.

The Six Counties Catholics were, and were treated as, a conquered hostile people. For 50 years the Six Counties was a Protestant-sectarian state (and the 26 Counties was a Catholic-sectarian state).

The borders of the Six Counties were so drawn that the national minority had no possible constitutional way to change their situation. Here too the political-geographical unit – the Six Counties – predetermined the outcome. The result was that armed rebellion against the state made the only political sense to a lot of serious people.

The fact is that, despite the IRA and its 23-year-long war, British and Irish EU membership from 1973 restored large elements of a reunification of Britain and Ireland by putting both in the common political-economic framework of an emerging European federal state. A British-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965 had already begun to remove the aggressive British-Irish tariffs in place since the 1930s.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave the 26 Counties government a big say about what happened in the Six Counties, though Britain kept executive control. In the same year a British-Irish parliamentary committee of MPs and Dail deputies was created. The economic border was vanishing even as the military border loomed very large.

Now, Brexit. And neither the Six nor the 26 Counties are what they used to be.

In the 20th century both Irish states were sectarian, but in different ways. In the North, it was mainly political sectarianism – discrimination against Catholics in jobs and housing, police harassment and bullying, and fiddling electoral borders in local government. The Northern Ireland state as such, subject to the overall laws of Britain, did not discriminate against Catholics as Catholics. Ranting Protestant priests and preachers were prominent, but they did not make the basic law. Segregation in the schools was not imposed by the state, but insisted on by the Catholic Church.

In the South it was religious sectarianism. The bishops dictated the laws – for instance, abolishing divorce in 1925, discriminating against Protestants and Jews, forcing Catholic rules on them, forbidding a rudimentary health service for mothers and infants in the early 1950s.

Bishops could tell ministers of state what to do and not do, and sometimes did not even deign to give reasons. The Church directly controlled the schools. It was a theocracy within a glove-puppet parliamentary democracy. It was the old Unionist nightmare made real – Home Rule was Rome rule, for eight decades.

Tremendous cultural changes have taken place in the 26 Counties in the last couple of decades. An exploding series of sex scandals has massively discredited the Catholic Church: priests raping children in their care, sadistic nuns beating children. Mass unmarked graves of infants and small children have been uncovered where convents once stood. There will be other such discoveries.

The 26 Counties is not the old independent Ireland any more! Nor is the Six Counties what it was.

The IRA ended its war because it had been defeated and knew it could not win. It won what it finally settled for – an end to Unionist-Protestant rule in the Six Counties, and a British refusal to have any government in Belfast that did not include Catholics – in the first year of the war.

A close relative of what the IRA settled for in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, compulsory power-sharing, was available to them from 1973, in the Sunningdale Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement was only, as a constitutional nationalist put it, “Sunningdale for slow learners”.

The IRA ceased fire in August 1994. It set off some bombs in England in 1994-7, but the war was over in 1994-7. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was put in place. It institutionalised an intricate system of sectarian checks and balances and thus froze the existing sectarianism.

There are still around 100 “peace walls” and fences, across Northern Ireland but mainly in Belfast, built to separate Catholics and Protestants. The Cupar Way “peace wall” has been up nearly 50 years – much longer than the Berlin Wall. A 2012 report found that “one-third of those barriers for which we have the construction date have been built since the ceasefires” (see here).

The Belfast power-sharing government collapsed a year ago in a conflict between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Northern Ireland is being ruled from London for the time being.

In Northern Ireland the 2011 census showed 40.8% Catholic, 41.6% Protestant, and 17.7% of other, no, or unstated religion. Belfast now has a Catholic majority.

Is it conceivable that a Northern Ireland referendum on a united Ireland within the EU, under the spur of avoiding Brexit, could now produce a majority for some sort of united Ireland? Surely it is. Although on a straight yes/no question, only 34% in Northern Ireland say they want a united Ireland, opinion polls in late 2017 found 47.9% saying that in the event of hard Brext, Northern Ireland should remain in the EU by joining a united Ireland, and 45.4% said it should leave the EU by staying in the UK (see here).

But that would not necessarily change anything. A bare majority of Unionist-Protestants, if that (there was some fiddling of figures) voted for the Good Friday Agreement. There would still be a compact Protestant-Unionist, anti-Irish-unity area against any such changes. That Protestant-Unionist minority would then be trapped as the artificial Northern Ireland Catholic minority were trapped in a constitutional framework, the Six Counties, whose authority they rejected. There would be resistance, though how much is not clear.

Time and again, British politics have intercut destructively with Ireland. To go back no further, the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14 was as bitter and verbally violent as it was because the Liberals had just abolished the Lords’ absolute power of veto, making the Commons the ruling body. The Tories wanted revenge, and the Home Rule Bill and the Liberals’ dependence on the Irish Home Rule vote in the Commons gave them, they thought, their chance.

In January 1974 a power-sharing government was set up in Belfast amidst raucous Protestant-Unionist opposition. But there was a majority for it in the Belfast parliament. Then the Tory prime minister in London, Edward Heath, faced with an uncontrollable strike movement, called an unexpected general election under the slogan: who rules, government or unions?

He lost the election. No fewer than 11 of the then 12 Northern Ireland seats at Westminster were won by the opponents of power-sharing. The authority of the Belfast government was shattered. Two months later an Orange general strike finished it off. It was 24 year before the new power-sharing executive was set up.

British politics is now interacting destructively with Ireland again. I repeat: Ireland is a very strong reason why Labour should campaign to stop Brexit.

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