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Does Sinn Fein victory bring a united Ireland any closer?

31 May 2022

By Bernie McAdam

SINN FEIN won a historic victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 5 May. The party that was the political wing of the Provisional IRA and banned from broadcasting for six years by the British government is now the largest party at Stormont with 27 of the 90 seats.

For the first time in the history of ‘Northern Ireland’, a pro-united Ireland party has won more seats than the main Unionist party (the Democratic Unionist Party with 25) and is therefore entitled to nominate the First Minister in the power-sharing Executive. To be entitled, however, is not to be empowered.

Unionist intransigence
The DUP, the main force of Unionism, is hell-bent on preventing the formation of such an Executive. It is demanding the repeal of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the UK/EU agreement, which has drawn an economic border down the Irish Sea, before it will enter the Executive. Since the Protocol has the status of international law, the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, calculates that this will ensure no Executive is formed within the 24 weeks that are allowed before another election must be called. In that election he hopes his intransigence will win back the votes the DUP lost to the Traditional Unionist Voice, TUV, thereby restoring the DUP’s dominance.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement, GFA, was the crowning moment in the ‘peace process’ that ended the Troubles and saw Unionism and Nationalism sharing political power for the first time. Even though Sinn Fein/IRA had decommissioned its weapons and accepted a Unionist veto over a united Ireland, hardline Unionism saw this as sharing power with the enemy.

Nonetheless, the DUP and Sinn Fein did share power. They both agreed on defending the state and the rule of law and they and their supporters were both beneficiaries of a sectarian allocation of funds. Along with all the other main political parties, they agreed to implement Westminster austerity policies which cut public services to the core. The Assembly/Executive became the main instrument of British rule in the north.

Everyone, from the EU, the USA, the Irish Republic and Westminster, plus the major northern political parties, swears by the GFA. They are all implicated in copper fastening the partition of Ireland, but the GFA cannot resolve the democratic deficit at the heart of the northern state. Power sharing is a clever way of concealing this, at least for a time, but it cannot resolve the contradiction of having a British border in Ireland, a border which denies the right of the Irish people as a whole to decide their own future.

Brexit exacerbated that contradiction. It was overwhelmingly unpopular in Ireland, and even in the North a majority voted against it. Now a Unionist minority led by the DUP, so long accustomed to having its way, feels it has the ‘democratic’ right to veto the majority.

As fellow members of the EU, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland had an open border and this was written into the GFA. Brexit threatened to create a hard border between the two states with all the resulting cost and inconvenience to both sides. The Protocol was agreed by the Tories and the EU to avoid such effects. Instead of inspections on the Irish border, there would be checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with NI agreeing to follow EU rules on product standards.

The DUP and TUV believe this Irish Sea border undermines NI’s place in the UK, therefore the Protocol must go. The fact that NI business is benefitting from remaining in the EU market is deliberately overlooked. So despite the new Assembly having a pro-Protocol majority, the DUP/TUV will use their Unionist veto to scupper the results of the election, which Donaldson said he had accepted!

The reaction to this partly accounts for the rapid growth of the Alliance Party to become the third biggest party. The development of this middle class, liberal, business-friendly and pro-EU party may well seduce NI business away from its traditional Unionist loyalty, knowing that the Alliance supports the union with the UK.

Tory Brexiteers, it seems, had given no serious thought to the impact of their plans on Northern Ireland. For many Unionists, however, the prospect of creating a hard border with the Republic was the principal reason for supporting Brexit. The DUP’s rejection of the Protocol, therefore, is both a tactical means of sabotaging a Sinn Fein-led Executive long enough to force another election and a strategic step towards reinforcing the border.

United Ireland?
Sinn Fein’s leader in the north, Michelle O’Neill, rightly says the victory ‘ushers in a new era’ for Northern Ireland. It will also enhance the party’s gathering political momentum south of the border. But does it bring the vision of a united Ireland any closer? Certainly, the debate around a united Ireland has increased since Brexit but its realisation is not remotely near at hand.

Sinn Fein strategy lies in winning political power in both the northern and southern governments, not an altogether impossible scenario, and then to put pressure on Britain to call a border poll. They point out that the GFA provides for Britain to call such a poll if there is a likelihood of a majority in favour of a united Ireland. Their leader, Mary Lou McDonald, is looking at a 5-to-10-year timeframe.

However, it is not down to Sinn Fein; it is a decision that only the British Secretary of State can make. There is no mechanism compelling the government to act. The Irish people have no say in this.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson has already ruled it out ‘for a very, very long time to come’ and Labour’s Keir Starmer also believes a referendum is not in sight and even if there were one, he would oppose a united Ireland. So, Sinn Fein are guilty of creating the illusion that the border poll is close at hand and, if held, would gain a majority, not inevitable if opinion polls are anything to go by.

The consistent democratic position would be for an all-Ireland election to an all-Ireland Assembly in which the Irish people as a whole determine the future of the North. Socialists should be arguing for self-determination as part of a strategy to build a Workers’ Republic. Partition has divided the working class for too long.

In fact it will require a serious rise in the level of class struggle in Ireland and the forging of solidarity in action between northern and southern workers, whatever their religion, to bring this to fruition. As levels of deprivation shoot up in the current climate, it is essential that a militant labour movement is formed to defend the working class throughout the island.

A mass movement on the streets and taking direct action is the way to progress working class interests and to wrest control from both the imperialist state north of the border and the capitalist state in the south.

Workers must respond to the developing economic crisis by industrial action and building democratic workers’ councils which can defend themselves and ultimately break up capitalism. A revolutionary party needs to be built in Ireland, which can fight for the strategy of Permanent Revolution, in which the working class resolves the age-old national question in the fight for a Workers’ Republic.

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