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Northern Ireland’s Unhappy Centenary

100 years ago the partition of Ireland deepened sectarian divisions and lay the foundations for conflict and reaction – but a century later, there is a growing movement for a new republic: north and south.

This year marks the centenary of the partition of Ireland, a fraught, violent, and traumatic process whose outcome, writes the historian Robert Lynch, was ‘far removed from natural conferral of statehood’. Its legacy is found both in the southern Irish state—which in both of its forms as a Free State and Republic was a breeding ground for reactionary politics—and the Northern Irish statelet, which remains contested to this day.

In formal terms, partition followed the signing and ratification of the Anglo–Irish Treaty – the peace document which established both the southern and northern Irish states after the Irish War of Independence.

The new border had no geographical logic, but was instead designed to serve the interests of British imperialism and an Ulster Unionist bourgeoisie. For the Unionists, supported by their Tory allies at Westminster, the main aim was to secure a permanent demographic majority in the new statelet. A nine-county Northern Ireland—the historic province of Ulster—was therefore rejected in favour of a six-county settlement, creating an in-built 2:1 Protestant majority.

Though initially conceived as a temporary solution to a disputed decolonisation process, partition was tacitly accepted by the leaders of the newly-established Irish Free State. The brutal civil war of 1922–23, for which partition and the fate of the six counties was only a minor factor, established the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil camps that would dominate southern Irish politics for a century.

The victorious pro-Treaty forces had no interest in threatening the internal stability of their fledgling state with a renewed northern campaign, and these exigencies meant leaving the border intact, allowing the Unionists to consolidate their position in the north.

Partition and the Revolution

In 1914, two years before his death, the Irish socialist James Connolly had written of partition that it would lead to ‘a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.’

To a great extent, he was proven correct. Not only did partition represent the subversion of democracy and Irish national self-determination proper, but—like the civil war which circumscribed it—it helped to forestall the social revolution. In the years of the War of Independence, Ireland had been a site of considerable radical potential by an upsurge in industrial militancy, trade union membership, and rural agitation.

Historian Emmet O’Connor records, for instance, that over 100 soviets were declared across the island in those years. But the country’s division set in train a counter-revolutionary state-building process that circumscribed the potential for class politics in both polities.

In the north, the Unionist regime set about establishing what historian Chris Loughlin describes as a ‘moral economy of loyalty’ through a combination of sectarian discrimination, patronage, and the political repression of those considered ‘disloyal’ – Catholics, nationalists, republicans, and socialists. These impossible conditions for labour organising pertained for fifty years of Unionist misrule, only to be succeeded by forty more of political strife and sectarian conflict.

South of the border, the Thermidorian reaction of conservative Irish nationalism was backed by the Church, the press, big business, and farming interests. The counter-revolution which lasted well into the 1930s created an economic and political system underpinned by Catholic social teaching, dominated by a comprador capitalist class and, while formally independent, subject to a neocolonial relationship with Britain.

A weakened and rudderless Irish Labour Party—once the party of Connolly and Larkin—was established as the third wheel of the Irish political system, later to become a mudguard for successive right-wing coalition governments. Corporatism, rather than class conflict, would become the guiding philosophy of the trade union movement and industrial relations practice in the south for the best part of a century.

For the past century, partition has remained a travesty for the devastating and long-lasting consequences it threw up: a mirror image of conservatism, a divided working class, the truncated development of labour politics, border communities ripped apart and cut off from their natural hinterlands, and a bitter legacy of sectarianism that reverberates to this day. Almost every progressive aspiration of the revolutionary period fell victim to the parallel processes of reactionary state-building, to the benefit of an indigenous business class and international capital.

But a century on, this partition—and the twin conservative states it produced—seems more fragile than ever. And there is a growing awareness among a new generation that it might not survive their lifetimes.

The Limits of Partition

In one sense, the politics of Northern Ireland have been relatively stable since the 1990s. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement succeeded in channeling a decades-long war down constitutional avenues. But it did so, in large part, by telling two different stories.

For Unionism, 1998 was supposed to represent the defeat of Irish republicanism and particularly the IRA, as well as its ambitions for a united Ireland. The Agreement granted Unionism a major victory—and historic opportunity—by reformulating the question of national self-determination on the basis of ‘consent’, i.e. that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK until a majority of its population decided otherwise. For republicanism, this was interpreted and sold as acceptance of the legitimacy of their cause and a formal path towards unity. Clearly, these two perspectives on the Agreement could not coexist in perpetuity.

This underlying disjuncture has grown wider in recent years – aided substantially by political developments in Britain and the Republic of Ireland. The immediate source of the latest turmoil can be traced to political Unionism’s catastrophic miscalculation over Brexit.

It hardly needs restating that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) enthusiastically backed a hard Brexit, with an arrogance that grew out of proportion to the strength of its position. Rejecting Theresa May’s backstop solution, party strategists threw in their lot with Boris Johnson and the ERG, dismissing concerns about the risks that this entailed.

Senior DUP figures also rejected the argument that the majority of people in the north voted Remain, rallying supporters behind their defence of Brexit as a reassertion of British sovereignty. Having set out with a pro-Remain position, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leadership quickly came to the same view in a desperate attempt to placate its members and capture some of the DUP’s territory.

Back in 2018, Johnson received a rapturous applause at the DUP conference for stating that ‘no British Conservative government could or should’ support a Brexit deal that included a customs border in the Irish Sea. Yet, just over a year later, he did precisely that, throwing the DUP under the bus.

Politically, the Northern Ireland Protocol does nothing to alter its constitutional status as set out under the Good Friday Agreement. In economic terms, it may even turn out to be a blessing for Ireland as a whole. But this does nothing to assuage the ‘ubiqutous distrust’ in the British government that brought these new arrangements into being or alter the perception that they undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

What has followed is a crisis largely of the DUP’s own making. There is no question of doing away with the Protocol, although a series of technical flexibilities may yet be forthcoming. This could be enough to provide the DUP a lifeline and take some heat out of the situation on the ground. However, Unionism’s problems run deeper than the issue of Brexit or anything that might be resolved by a change in leadership.

Unionism Says No

In fact, what appears to be happening is a fundamental realignment of political and social forces in the north, which not only (partially) maps onto Brexit divisions but also reflects the emergence of new cross-cutting cleavages. Northern politics underwent a watershed moment in 2017 when Unionists became an electoral minority in the Assembly for the first time, ending a century-long era of predictable and secure Unionist majorities.

Significantly, broader electoral trends and recent opinion polls confirm that this is not a transient phenomenon, but a more or less permanent direction of travel. If, as now looks likely, Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party in next year’s Assembly election, elevating Michelle O’Neill to the position of first minister, this would represent a huge psychological blow to Unionism.

Political demographics and generational attitudes have been undergoing long term shifts, but it is the intransigence of political Unionism that has brought forward this tipping point. Back in 1999, Tony Blair noted that Unionists ‘are too stupid to realise that they have won and Sinn Féin too clever to admit they have lost.’

In the two decades since, this feeling of defeat has resulted in the DUP’s rejectionist position becoming the mainstream among Unionist parties, who have worked to frustrate and delay the introduction of equality and legacy changes promised by no fewer than five separate political agreements. The rights of Irish speakers have been used as a bargaining chip, and those of women and the LGBT community repeatedly denied.

Taken together with the impact of Brexit, political Unionism’s failure to embrace change or build a positive vision of the future has had alienating effects across society. On the one hand, this has radicalised the polite sections of northern nationalism: the ascendant Catholic middle classes who were once comfortable to stay within the Union, secure in the belief that their cultural identity and economic interests were protected within the devolution settlement.

Even more significantly, it is clear that there is an increasing disconnect between the Unionist parties and the attitudes and priorities of the communities they would purport to represent. Recent surveys have found that the proportion of people who think of themselves as Unionist has fallen to as low as 26 per cent, while over half of those who are pro-Union do not vote for the DUP or UUP. A clear generational divide has also emerged, with young people increasingly turned off by the conservative politics of the main Unionist parties.

A New Generation

This growing demographic features prominently in the journalist Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground, a panoramic view of the diversity to be found within the lazily conceived designation of PUL (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist).

McKay’s 100 interviewees are overwhelmingly composed of Protestants who are embracing and promoting change in different ways: feminists, LGBT, community workers, faith leaders, bandsmen, former loyalist paramilitaries, playwrights, socialists, climate justice activists, and those spearheading an Irish language and Gaelic games revival in the heart of East Belfast. What binds together many of these diverse experiences is a diminishing attachment to the Union, even among those who remain strongly pro-Northern Ireland.

Counted among McKay’s dissenting voices are the progressive-minded loyalists who hold a liberal-left perspective on social and economic issues, and unlike the self-appointed spokesmen of the Loyalist Communities Council are under-represented in the media. Far from harbouring a demand for cultural supremacy, they are working to situate detoxified expressions of loyalist culture within a more civic and inclusive vision. Some even take a more pragmatic view of the future, acknowledging that change is coming and needs to be managed proactively.

Yet it is in loyalist communities that change is hardest to contemplate, and where support for the peace accord is most fragile. These communities are shaped not only by their experience of conflict but also by the impact of deindustrialisation, the disappearance of traditional employment opportunities, and a devastating legacy of educational under-attainment.

In material terms, there is nothing to separate the loyalist Tiger’s Bay from the nationalist New Lodge. But there exists within loyalist communities an enduring perception of loss: a powerful narrative that republicans have gained the most from the peace process, and that any move towards a more pluralist society necessarily involves the systematic erosion of Britishness.

The big problem for political Unionism is that there is no one solution that can satisfy these different interests and build a coherent project with majority support. Significantly, the old cry of ‘No Surrender’ no longer has the same mobilising effect. Just compare the 100,000 people who marched against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 with the comparatively much smaller numbers that have demonstrated against the Protocol.

And while the notion of a culture war continues to sustain a certain level of loyalist protest and resistance, the ground for paramilitarism and ethnic exclusivism is shrinking. Indeed, if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that hardline rhetoric and incitement to violence is only likely to elicit widespread outrage and drive increasing sections of pro-Union opinion towards a more constitutionally neutral position.

Compounding this loss of power and confidence are structural factors largely beyond the control of Unionists. Northern Ireland was once a prized imperial asset, with an industrial base strongly tied to that of Britain. But with the erosion of this link through deindustrialisation, and the simultaneous evaporation of Britain’s hegemonic position in the world, it is increasingly clear that the British ruling class no longer regards the region as of material or strategic importance.

Situate this changed dynamic within the deeper crisis of the British state and the implications become clear. Not only is it increasingly difficult to argue that Northern Ireland is a viable economic entity, but there is no easy route to transforming its political economy so long as power is concentrated in London. This is a serious structural challenge for committed Unionists as well as anyone who has an earnest interest in making the northern statelet work for everyone.

That the historical sands are shifting is evident from increasingly open conversations about a united Ireland. Even the southern conservative Fine Gael has begun to talk up the prospect, establishing a six-county branch in a bid to contest Sinn Féin hegemony. But although the spike in support for unification has consolidated, polling results differ significantly on the precise extent of this support. This is important because the Good Friday Agreement contains a provision for the Secretary of State to call a border poll if it looks as if a majority is no longer satisfied with Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

The census was once regarded as a useful gauge of opinion on the national question, a view based on the always dubious elision of Catholic-nationalist and Protestant-Unionist. But what the 2021 census is set to confirm is that there is a growing population of ‘Others’ who do not sit in any easily defined camp, and who are set to play a significant role in shaping the north’s future.

There are structural limits to what can be achieved within existing constitutional arrangements. These limits are likely to be tested by a non-Unionist majority looking to deliver on bread-and-butter issues while securing the implementation of previous political agreements – on a Bill of Rights, questions of cultural identity, and mechanisms for dealing with the legacy of the past, for example.

This is consistent with the all-Ireland agenda of Sinn Féin, which has recently established a lead for the first time as the most popular party in the south – and done so by focusing on issues such as housing and healthcare. Indeed, Sinn Féin’s reformist path to a united Ireland consists of a de facto all-island government delivering material improvements while the building blocks of a new constitutional settlement are put in place.

There is, however, nothing inherently transformative about the prospect of constitutional change, and no argument based on economic determinism that is likely to win a border poll. As historian Cian McMahon has recently put it, there is a risk that we end up with a transition involving ‘a convergence, rather than a co-transformation, of economic structures’ on the island. Even if the conditions for such a transformation did exist, bitter disputes over the legacy of the conflict and issues of cultural identity would not simply melt away. Overcoming these challenges should be the objective of anyone who aspires to a border poll.

As the contradictions of partition give way to an all-Ireland debate, there is no doubt that the forces of continuity are organising to secure their economic class interests. Absent from the equation at the moment is a transformative social, economic, and ecological vision of the future, backed by a mass democratic movement.

The conditions are increasingly ripe for its emergence. But any project that hopes to succeed in creating a new Ireland must persuade the growing constituency of ‘Others’, as well as working-class Unionists, that it is in their interests to influence change in this direction.