Why It’s Time for Labour to Back Irish Unity

100 years after partition, public opinion in Ireland is moving towards reunification – it’s time for Labour to follow suit.

Credit: Daniel Ramsay / EyeEm / Getty Images

At the height of Ireland’s ‘War of Independence’, the British labour movement commissioned a report on the atrocities carried out by British crown forces in Ireland. In concluding its 1921 report, the Labour Commission observed that ‘things are being done in the name of Britain which make her name stink in the nostrils of the world.’

While the stench rarely cleared from the nostrils of the world in the intervening century, there is no doubt that in recent times Brexit has exposed a particularly pungent stench: the rotten-timbers of partition.

Significantly, this long century of partition has served to obscure the enduring reality of imperial domination, with most observers utterly ill-equipped to reach beyond lazy colonial tropes of ‘tribal’ enmities in their misguided attempts to analyse contemporary political conditions in modern Ireland.

Indeed, increasingly lacking a revolutionary consciousness, many within Britain’s parliamentary Labour Party now view the six north-eastern counties of Ireland not as an annexed territory by an imperialist power, but as an ‘integral part of “their” United Kingdom.’

Oblivious then to the historical reality of the political, economic, and national domination of Ireland by the British state, they remain blind to the fact that partition was merely the blunt imperialist tool deployed to ensure such domination would continue.

Having routinely used sectarian division to subjugate Ireland for many centuries, it is no surprise that the British ruling elite stitched corrosive sectarianism into the very fabric of the fledgling northern state to help provide the colonial agency in Ireland to ensure this political and economic domination would survive.

Sectarianism remains a disease embedded in those same rotten timbers of partition one hundred years on. The painful reality is it will likely only be eradicated when privileges—real or perceived—are no longer entrenched by the present connection to Britain.

As early as 1914 James Connolly spoke of the sectarian upheaval and repression that he believed would inevitably follow the partition of Ireland. Connolly argued that partition would unleash a ‘carnival of reaction’ leading only to the ‘capitalists and their clergy holding onto their rallying cries’ as the ‘unity of the labour movement’ would be destroyed. And so it came to be.

So if the British labour movement—in all of its parts—wants to genuinely advance the interests of working people across these islands, it must recognise and embrace the right of the people of Ireland to determine their own future. As the French Socialist Jean Jaurés once said, the only question to be posed in politics is that of the people’s sovereignty; everything to follow depends on that.

The importance of the British labour movement supporting the fulfilment of Irish democratic sovereignty extends well beyond an act of solidarity in and of itself.

As Marx, Engels, and Lenin all observed, so long as the British labour movement allowed the British state to dominate the Irish people, British workers will be forced to join with their ruling class ‘in a common front against Ireland.’

In successfully pulling the working class into this chauvinist political alliance, then, the British state has sold the fictitious idea of a ‘national interest’ which has in reality never been anything other than the interests of the ruling elite.

Observing the deep-rooted anti-Irish racism and chauvinism among the English working class, Marx argued that the British labour movement—ostensibly the voice of workers from an oppressor nation—had the duty to support the oppressed nation’s right to self-determination.

Marx told the British working class that it was in their ‘direct and absolute interest to get rid of their present connection with Ireland.’

During the rise of democratic politics in the latter stages of the nineteenth century, many Irish immigrants came to the fore in building alliances with the working class in Britain. Figures such as the Chartist radical leader Feargus O’Connor, Jim Connell of ‘Red Flag’ fame, and the Land League revolutionary Michael Davitt regularly championed the need for solidarity on the road to social emancipation in Britain and Ireland.

However too often the leadership of the Labour movement in Britain has pivoted from sneering indifference to the most reactionary, imperialist Anglo-British unionism.

Lenin was never embarrassed about such struggles, arguing that ‘national self-determination is the same as the struggle for complete national liberation, for complete independence against annexation, and socialists can not—without ceasing to be socialists—reject such a struggle in whatever form, right down to an uprising or war!’

Unfortunately for Ireland, the Labour leadership in Britain has cared little for Lenin, or indeed Irish democracy.

For the best part of five decades after the imposition of partition, Labour leaders ignored systemic discrimination and oppression in the north of Ireland, with the colonial policy of ‘non-intervention’ helping nurture and sustain the Orange State.

A similar indifference has characterised much of Labour’s record in recent years also, as the parliamentary front-bench has grown idle in the shade of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Such a laissez-faire approach has undoubtedly empowered the Tories to undermine devolution, hollow out the Good Friday Agreement, and side with the most reactionary of forces in an effort to weaken democracy and the primacy of human rights.

Indeed last year when the British government blocked a public inquiry into the state’s assassination of Pat Finucane, the Labour leader Keir Starmer said nothing. That a Labour leader, himself a former human rights lawyer and head of Public Prosecutions, could not rouse himself to issue comment, much less rebuke, is indicative of the dead hand of political reformism within the British Labour movement that has deprived workers of the tools of analysis required to engage with Ireland as an anti-imperialist struggle.

According to the 2019 Labour manifesto, the party in Britain supports the Good Friday Agreement. But what is the point in supporting the Good Friday Agreement if you don’t robustly defend it? If you don’t champion the full implementation of the agreement, in all its parts?

Ireland has moved on since 1998. The notion of a perpetual unionist majority—the imperialist linchpin of partition—is gone. Brexit has exposed the undemocratic nature and failure of partition; the fallout gives birth to new political, social, and economic uncertainties. The realignment of modern Ireland continues apace.

Yet Keir Starmer has declared publicly that he personally, and as Labour leader, ‘believes in the United Kingdom’ and that he will ‘make the case for the United Kingdom strongly.’

At a time when a Labour leader should be boldly championing the historic cause of Irish democracy, demanding that the British government recognise the democratic right of the people of Ireland to determine their own future, the current incumbent remains wedded to the imperial interests of the ruling elite. Distracted by the allure of disaffected ‘One Nation’ Tories, Starmer has become the ‘Great Nation Chauvinist’.

The leadership of the wider British labour movement, including the parliamentary party, must urgently provide theoretical and practical clarity on where they now stand on Ireland. This must involve breaking free from the chauvinist, colonial paternalism that has dominated the official Labour approach to Ireland for the best part of the last century.

Instead, the only approach which truly reflects the material interests of the British working class is that which holds firm to the democratic right of the people of Ireland to determine their own future, and thus the outright rejection of the right of the British state to interfere in the affairs of the Irish people.

Such a new departure for the leadership of the British labour movement would finally demonstrate that the interests of the British working class lie not in the imperialist afflictions of their ruling elite, but rather in the fraternal equality of nations; the basis for a renewed and urgent internationalism.

Correctly locating Ireland and Irish national liberation within an internationalist context not only aids those of us on this side on the Irish Sea, but will further develop the revolutionary consciousness of the British labour movement.

In the mid-1980s, following the heady days of hunger strikes and the intensification of the armed conflict, successive Labour Party conferences still felt sure footed enough to endorse the right of Irish people to national self-determination, with the Labour Party acting as ‘persuaders’ for Irish Unity.

The Labour Shadow Secretary of State at the time, Peter Archer MP, even took to his feet in the House of Commons and declared that ‘the future of Ireland should be one country’ – so why not now?

With the north of Ireland now very firmly on the ‘window ledge of the Union’, it’s unsurprising that the constitutional future of Ireland has featured at fringe events and in discussions at this week’s British Labour Conference in Brighton. Both Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner speak of ‘seizing the moment’ in order to ‘radically transform’ society in their introductory remarks carried in the Conference programme.

At the heart of such a radical societal transformation, must be a renewed internationalism, including the right to national self-determination. The Labour leadership must also renew their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, and embrace the responsibility to robustly defend its vision, and forthrightly demand its full implementation.

This would involve the Labour leadership setting out a clear, progressive vision which embodies the long tradition of the wider labour movement in supporting the cause of Irish self-determination in the contemporary context of Brexit and the evolving nature of devolution in the north of Ireland.

This must include precise guidance on how the Labour leadership would exercise its discretion as outlined in the GFA to initiate a referendum, and a firm commitment to cease any activity—both in policy or practice—that undermines the sovereignty of the Irish people to determine their own future.

Keir Starmer could do worse than look to the former Labour leader George Lansbury for some sage advice. During an event in the Albert Hall, Lansbury paid tribute to the great Irish socialist leader James Connolly before telling the assembled crowd that ‘we the English people have to clear our own doorstep…we have got to clear the “Irish question” up, because until we do, it is not for us to celebrate other people’s triumphs.’

Irish reunification and the fulfilment of the sovereignty of the Irish people is now possible and within reach. The process of Irish national liberation should now be stitched into the fabric of working class advancement in Britain; advancing together towards that day when Ireland finally takes its place in the community of nations as a sovereign, independent, and united country.