Alex Homits on partition, the Good Friday Agreement and Irish republicanism.
The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union shone a spotlight onto its continued occupation of six counties of Ireland. This occupation is mired in contradictions.
They begin as far back as 1913 when Irish people who identified with loyalty to the British crown -- with the support of the British crown, formed the ‘Ulster Covenant’ . This Covenant pledged over a quarter of a million people to armed resistance to any introduction of devolved government in the form of ‘ Home Rule ’. Home Rule was postponed by the outbreak of inter-imperialist rivalries of the British Empire and the German Empire, but it was offered on the premise that the Irish fight in the imperial war machine of Britain. The Irish Parliamentary Party, the official representative body in Westminster for Irish Nationalists, championed recruitment and delivered almost 100,000 Irish people for fodder. The elements committed to Revolution and Insurrection remained in Ireland. The first proper outbreak and attempt to overthrow the British Empire commenced in 1916 -- today we remember the Easter Rising as a ‘blood sacrifice’ that the leadership knew they were going to. This would be an accurate description if it were true, but the truth is that nationalist elements with little to no interest in social change such as Eoin MacNeil undermined their comrades in Dublin and ultimately guaranteed their execution and failure of the rising. The 1916 Rising birthed the electoral victory of the party that at this time sought to collectively represent the interests of all of Ireland: Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin candidates stood on a platform of declaring an Independent Irish Republic. This mandate delivered 73 seats out of the 105 that Ireland had for the House of Commons. Otherwise, a clear majority. This majority then set about convening and declaring an independent parliament that would decide and exercise sovereignty over Ireland. With this extraordinary set of events -- came the whip, boot and rifle of the Empire. Ireland, despite returning a majority of representatives under Britain’s own ‘democratic’ model of parliamentarianism, was not afforded the right to determine its own destiny.
War, Partition, Dependency
A War for Independence began in January 1919. In North-East Ulster, the Unionist community was frenzied into anti-Catholic and anti-Nationalist action by it’s leaders. While this is not the origin of cross-community sectarianism in Ireland, it is a pivotal moment in Irish history. The Government of Ireland act of 1920 partitioned the country, giving majority control to one community in the southern parliament and northern majority in the northern parliament. The Anglo-Irish Treaty which was brought back by Michael Collins and the delegation is an enhanced and slightly tweaked version of the Government of Ireland Act.
The 1921 election was held on the basis of a partitioned political unit, copper fastening the incoming partition of the country and minor breadcrumbs The southern statelet was given Dominion status, swore an oath of allegiance to the crown and maintained all of the pompous and arrogant traditions of the British Empire while North-East Ulster was maintained within the British Empire with some devolved powers.
Partition ushered in a ‘carnival of reaction’ as James Connolly predicted. The northern state openly and brazenly discriminated against a sizable Catholic minority. Tommy McKearney describes it as an “orange fascist state” in his book From Provisional IRA to Parliament. This is an accurate enough description that captures the extraordinaryy policing powers, the immense discrimination and inequality that persisted in the six counties.
In the South, the Unionist political forces in the Irish Unionist Alliance merged into the political party that came to represent the staunch pro-treaty forces of Sinn Féin. This political entity was called Cumann na nGaedhal. This entity maintained the economic exploitation of the Irish working class, looked after the gentry and effectively replicated the rule of Britain in Ireland. Ireland remained economically dependent through it’s financial institutions and it’s currency on Britain. How the economy functioned, who held wealth and who dominated political life did not change. Northern Protestants and Presbyterians also looked on in horror down South at the intricate role of the Roman Catholic Church in influencing the decisions being made in the South.
For all intents and purposes, Ireland was successfully partitioned and each majority interest given rule over a specific geographic area, otherwise, North and South. All socially progressive forces, from the women's’ organisations, to the trade union movement or to the Communist Party fell into the background as partition deepened and attitudes hardened.
Inevitably, conflict erupted in the North. The demand for some modicum of equal treatment transformed into street protests and the formation of NICRA, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Inevitably and like many times before, the response of British Empire was fire, blood and death. In 1972, peaceful protesters were gunned down by British paratroopers. The response of the Irish community, in Ireland and abroad was one of complete shock and outrage. The response also came militarily, as the IRA at first responded, then split over it’s response, and then responded again. Civil war erupted. Internment (imprisonment), arrest, pogroms and torture, backed once more by the British State were normal methods of dealing with the ‘terrorists’. As the saying goes, collusion is no illusion.
An attempt at an agreement in 1973 to create a power-sharing cross-community executive was boycotted by the political representatives of Unionism and a loyalist general strike in 1974. This permanently scuttered the prospective agreement. A referendum on unification or continued membership of the United Kingdom in 1973 was boycotted by the non-loyalist community and delivered an obvious result.
It took another 25 years for an agreement, titled the Good Friday Agreement to take shape and be ratified, thus disengaging the largest participant in this conflict, the Provisional IRA and paving their transformation into a constitutionalist and parliamentary orientated political entity.
Peace, But Actually War
The agreement released prisoners belonging to specific paramilitary organisations that were linked to the political parties leading the negotiations. It did not take away any of the militaristic or police state powers that led to their imprisonment, nor it did fundamentally alter the manner in which the police services operated and who composed and led them.
The Good Friday agreement provided for a devolved government that would be focused on power sharing, a Northern Ireland Assembly that would in turn fill out a Northern Ireland Executive. This is referred to as ‘Strand One’ in the Good Friday Agreement. The powers that Stormont exercises are essentially the powers that a Home Rule entity would have exercised in 1919. The statelet remains an integral part of the United Kingdom and administers British rule in Ireland.
Brexit and Ireland
The complications that British departure from the European union brought to Ireland are straightforward. It should be reiterated that the central contradiction for unification is the historical invasion of Ireland and contemporary occupation of six counties. Nevertheless, the fact that both Ireland and the United Kingdom were in the European Union ensured that all rules regarding the freedom of movement within the EU were uniform. The Free Trade Agreement unites the European economies into one economic trading bloc internationally. Internally it gets rid of custom tariffs and other pesky obstacles to moving money about between large financial institutions.
The question of whether another border would emerge in Ireland dominated political discourse. Would the British State re-introduce secondary and tertiary borders in the form of customs points, checkpoints and tariffs? Nobody on the island of Ireland wanted that primarily because the majority of those living in the 6 counties voted to remain in the European Union. Multiple contradictions opened up and the question of unity and sovereignty arose with it.
It’s generally agreed that there is no desire for a harder partition of Ireland, but it’s impossible to predict right now. Sinn Féin of today, which is absolutely a different entity from the Sinn Féin of 1918, has brought the question of a border poll by stating that a hard border is not in the interests of the people. An obvious enough and an agreeable statement but not easily reconcilable in a pyramid of competing interests ultimately tied to the whim of the British Empire.
The GFA: Another Government of Ireland Act, Another Anglo-Irish Treaty
If Sinn Féin of today existed in the yesteryear of 1918, their political position would be closely associated with the Irish Parliamentary Party, who believed constitutional means and collaboration were the best means to achieve limited self-government. The Republican movement in the 1916-1922 movement was significantly more balanced between those seeking total non-negotiable separation and those interested in cutting various deals and agreements.
The treaties that Britain has imposed, through armed force and threat of war, have always maintained a strong British role in Irish affairs. The partition of Ireland and the creation of a ‘free state’ might have created a new political entity in the world, but it did not change social or economic relations. It in fact developed entirely as James Connolly predicted, flags changed and the English landlord and commercial institutions continued to rule Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement, negotiated during the civil war and agreed upon as a political and legal document, created a framework for the communities in the Six counties to live peacefully side by side. The agreement is a fascinating document because as identified by former Justice Richard Humphreys in Beyond the Border:
As a matter of international legal obligation, the Agreement institutions are permanent. They do not depend on any one party being ‘open to considering’ them, nor are they ‘transitional’ arrangements. Stormont is a permanent feature of the landscape under the Agreement, whether within a United Kingdom or a United Ireland.
This is not simply a question of a veto being given to one community -- it is a question of retaining all political and administrative functions of partition and nominally accepting unification. Even in the prospect of unification, even in the prospect of a triumphant social democratic and majoritarian victory in Dáil Eireann -- the Good Friday Agreement blockades all meaningful attempts at unification.
Conor Donohue perfectly summarizes this by stating that:
Should a United Ireland eventuate, this does not mean that the role of the United Kingdom in the North will cease. It will be continued in at least two ways, both of which will ensure that the interests of unionists are aptly protected. First, the Agreement creates cross-border bodies and forums, which allow the discussion of matters of mutual concern. As the Agreement will continue in force, these entities, too, will continue to exist … Secondly, the people of Northern Ireland will remain entitled to British citizenship. States have a right to invoke the responsibility of another state for wrongful acts done to one of their nationals. Theoretically, the United Kingdom could therefore invoke the responsibility of Ireland for any violations of the right to self-determination, or other fundamental rights, of unionists therein.
In short, the GFA ensures the role of Britain and continues the legacy of the gross violation of Ireland’s right to determine its own destiny. By manufacturing partition and creating two gerrymandered statelets, it is almost guaranteed that one all Island approach cannot be legally or constitutionally taken -- even if you are politically active on both sides of the border.
Beyond British Empire and Partition
This creates a number of obstacles that have not been accounted for by any political entity in Ireland. The border poll has been supported by various campaigns, including the Connolly Youth Movement. Our motives for expressing support for the border poll vary wildly to the interests of other organisations. We see it as a minimal expression of imperialism and bourgeoisie democracy and it needs to be exercised -- mostly to demonstrate the futility of the exercise.
Above -- it’s clearly demonstrated that the Good Friday Agreement which is another Anglo-Irish Treaty in sheep's clothing, delivers nothing but further complications to the advancement of one all Island Republic. The role of the Republican movement is to identify that, much as it was identified by the anti-treaty forces in 1922 and 1923. Now that we have identified the contradictions, let’s identify potential methods of overcoming the trappings of Empire.
To further consolidate partition and refuse to challenge it, is to maintain the economic and political interests of the British Empire, the European Union and the American Chamber of Commerce. Ireland, divided, will remain pilfered -- an open market for the Cromwells of today to pillage as they see fit. A vision for the future has to confront the competing international financial interests and present a plutocratic, participative model of democracy that is linked to the social ownership of the economy on an all Island basis.
Many liberal, unionist and Imperial commentators repeatedly use the line that Unionism must be safeguarded in Ireland. This overlooks the immediate class contradictions within the Unionist community and tries to suggest that all unionists should fear the Republican movement. The fact of the matter is that, this is an argument that primarily benefits big house unionism i.e. the section of the unionist community that line their pockets by exploiting other humans, stealing the value they create as labourers and tenants.
The Workers Republic
The coming storm regarding the border has passed for now, but it will resurface as long as the country is partitioned and each time it does so -- will exist an opportunity to express and present viable and alternative means of unification. The priority for progressive forces should be to look far beyond the confines of the Good Friday Agreement and focus on the Ireland we are struggling for.
The process must begin by envisioning a new constitutional order for the entire island. This constitutional order must place social and economic rights above those of private property. It must guarantee housing, education, health, religious worship, employment and so on. We can draw on great inspiration from the Cuban Constitution and the Soviet Constitution. A new constitution that places the need of humanity and the environment by default challenges many of the contradictions that exist in Ireland today, including the clever treaties and agreements that maintain partition.
By placing social and economic rights at the centre of a new constitutional order, we will conclusively demonstrate to the working class of every community that our struggle is against the exploiters, as opposed to our fellow workers who choose to worship in a different church or fly a different flag. Rights of this constitutional order will stem from one, unitary Workers Republic.
This process of placing all law and regulation around human need has to be supplanted by rigorous and systemic organising across every community and district. This is not a fight between the Communist Party and the many forces of Imperialism -- but between every exploited inhabitant on the island of Ireland. Now is the time to consistently highlight the completely inadequate nature of the Good Friday Agreement for overcoming sectarianism and partition and present a viable, revolutionary and long-term alternative.
⏩Alex Homits is the General Secretary of the Connolly Youth Movement.