Kishore Lennon argues that Unionism’s crisis is intense, but that this alone will not bring down the northern state. Partition will only end when a strong enough working class movement can overcome it.
Recent years have seen renewed speculation of the possibility of a United Ireland, brought about through a border poll. Such speculation is usually motivated by demographic changes, the subsequent loss of Unionism’s previously large electoral majority as well as it’s historic loss of institutional power.
These are all features of what we can broadly describe as the crisis of Ulster Unionism stretching back to the late sixties. In that time we’ve seen the success of the civil rights movement in forcing reforms to the Northern state, the rise and fall of the Provisional IRA followed by two decades of relative stability with no renewed struggle for a United Ireland.
Yet throughout those latter two decades, the crisis of Unionism has deepened. This apparent contradiction is rarely acknowledged by analysts who tend to base their speculation on sectarian assumptions that underpin the logic of the Northern state. There is no acknowledgement of the role of British imperialism, even outright denial that imperialism is a contemporary phenomenon, meaning it’s success in containing the fallout over the national question cannot be acknowledged or assessed.
Contrary to much mythology, Britain retains an interest in partition. The decline of Ulster industry may have removed any economic interests which existed at the dawn of partition but it has remained crucial that an imperial power is not seen to be defeated either by a mass movement or armed campaign. Today the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is presented as a model for managing tensions around the world and the collapse of this arrangement in favour of a United Ireland would signal the failure of these arrangements. The emergence of a large independence movement in Scotland which threatens to dramatically weaken the British state and with it British nationalism provides further reason to maintain partition.
The GFA enjoyed significant levels of support across Ireland including a small (and short lived) majority in the Unionist community. The new political dispensation did not however emerge organically either from the previously hegemonic Unionist ideology or the struggle of the dissenting Irish Republican movement. Instead the GFA reflected the need of British imperialism to contain the fallout over the national question through what has been termed a ‘constructive ambiguity’ whereby competing movements were told that their political aspirations could be achieved through the same agreement.
For Unionists the GFA secures the Union and ensures it cannot be changed without a majority in the North, whilst for nationalists it allowed the possibility to have a border poll on reunification. Rather than resolving the national question therefore the GFA seeks to contain the fallout over partition within the parameters of electoral politics ensuring that British resources can be utilised elsewhere, in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, rather than policing a legacy colony in the North of Ireland.
Within this dispensation both Unionism and Irish nationalism found new roles as communal representatives in a power sharing arrangement. Both parties claim that they are standing up for their respective communities over matters ranging from so called ‘cultural issues’ surrounding flags and parades to allocation of resources. The communal nature of the roles played by these parties is reflective of the GFA itself which dictates that those elected must designate themselves as “Unionist”, “Nationalist” or “Other” upon election. Parliamentary mechanisms such as the petition of concern, which supposedly exists to stop one community dominating the other, can be used to block legislation by a majority of those who designate themselves as belonging to a given community. Most recently the DUP attempted to use the Petition of Concern to block a bill increasing the provision of secular education in the North.
Little wonder then that the anticipated lapses in communal tensions have not come to fruition since the GFA. Indeed if anything, divisions have deepened, particularly in working class communities. This is best illustrated by the fact that the number of so called ‘Peace Walls’ separating Catholic and Protestant areas have increased since the end of the troubles. Whereas much of the Western world has seen the collapse of the centre and a ‘Left vs Right’ polarisation since the financial crash of 2008, the North has instead seen an intensification of sectarianism as all political issues are categorised as ‘Green Vs Orange’. This is best demonstrated in the Union flag riots of 2013 as well as the more small scale violence at the start of 2021.
The spiralling of sectarianism into violent confrontations is mirrored by Stormont’s incessant tendency to collapse. Most recently the executive has been collapsed by the DUP over their refusal to accept the Irish protocol. In 2017 Sinn Féin collapsed the executive following revelations of a botched energy scheme and the executive was not reconvened for three years, primarily due to the DUP’s opposition to an Irish Language Act.
Such crises reflect the inability of the GFA to contain the sectarianism it incubates. When institutions go into crisis they rely on the British government to chair talks or even to pass legislation at Westminster to resolve deadlocks revealing the continued reliance on British imperialism to stabilise the North. This is necessary precisely because the GFA has institutionalised divisions rather than resolve their fundamental source in the North – namely the Irish national question.
For socialists and all those interested in challenging sectarianism it is necessary to take account of the role of partition and the institutionalising of sectarianism in the Northern state as well as the centrality of British imperialism in upholding this arrangement. A challenge to partition remains a fundamentally anti-imperial struggle and sectarianism remains a crucial barrier to the building of a movement capable of winning a United Ireland.
To this end a major success of the GFA for British imperialism has been to redirect demands for reunification into a constitutional strategy. Even if Sinn Féin win a majority at Stormont it is at the discretion of the British secretary of state to call a border poll. So too has it potentially reconciled elements of the nationalist community with partition. Polls show dramatic fluctuations in support for a United Ireland within the nationalist community. This is partly explained by concerns over the viability of a border poll as well as fears of a Loyalist backlash. But even taking these into account a United Ireland is clearly not an immediate priority for many nationalists in the way it was during or prior to the troubles.
What is particularly noteworthy is the emergence of a nationalist middle class in the North. During the period of the Orange State even the small number of middle class Catholics experienced discrimination and had a motivation to end partition. Increasingly, middle class Ulster is freeing itself from the worst excesses of sectarianism. Middle class communities are increasingly more ‘mixed areas’ and these communities are not terrorised by sectarian gangs. It remains to be seen how such communities would respond to a campaign on reunification, but sectarianism and the structures which reproduce it are plainly not as destructive to the most privileged sections of the Catholic community as they are to the working class across the sectarian divide.
The promised ‘Peace Dividend’ following the end of the troubles has never materialised and Northern Ireland has the highest levels of poverty in the UK. Wages are, on average, 10 percent lower in the North than they would be for the equivalent job in Britain even in the public sector. Whilst much anger in working class communities has been mobilised in a sectarian direction this is not an inevitable outcome of declining living standards, even despite the sectarian nature of the Northern state. Without a resolution, however, the national question will remain a potential source of division.
Given the success of imperialism in containing opposition to the Northern state it is difficult to conclude that the crisis of Unionism is synonymous with a crisis of the Northern state. The Unionist – Nationalist divide in the North continues to dominate Northern politics but the resolution that many imagined, based on mobilising the Catholic community alone, is not tenable. Instead it is necessary to look to the working class, across the sectarian divide, which is the only force with an objective interest in ending partition and which possesses the ability to mobilise to this end.