Tories stoke sectarian instability in Northern Ireland

The government of Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game of high wire diplomacy with the EU. The threat the British Prime Minister seeks to employ is the threat of a return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland with the aim of forcing the EU to retreat from requiring hard sea border checks. Such checks being necessary to avoid the need for a hard land border between north and south as a result of the hard Brexit the Tory party under Johnson pursued.

In doing so he is attempting to repeat what his political opponents in Dublin and Brussels did to great effect when they raised the threat of Republican violence attendant on the imposition of a hard land border in Brexit negotiations over previous years. As part of the EU’s effort to use Northern Ireland to better tie in the UK into their trading area, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney developed a sudden and profound concern for northern Catholics and an unheard of awareness – for Fine Gael politicians – of the impact of partition on the north.

Playing the Orange card

Of course, for his part, Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to seek to ‘play the Orange card’. Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston, of whom Johnson is a biographer, used the tactic in opposing Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill in the 1890s, coining the phrase that continues to echo today that ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’. The risk then as now, with deploying the ‘orange card’ is that it involves playing upon deep-seated divisions which remain unresolved, and indeed unresolvable under capitalism. 

Johnson’s forays, talking up the threat of civil unrest, only make such unrest a more likely prospect. The fact that he set the ‘Twelfth of July’, the central date in the Loyalist marching calendar, as the target date for resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol appears another move to only further exacerbate tensions.

Riots on the streets

In early April, the mounting tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol which came into force but has not been fully implemented to date became visible on the streets as Loyalist rioters torched buses and threatened port workers. The potential for the riots to roll out of control was exhibited as rioters gathered from both sides of the Belfast peace walls to attack each other. While the leaders of Unionism and Loyalism used the death of British Royal Prince Philip to cut across that upsurge and reassert their control, the potential is there for it to return – a fact exhibited by periodic and illegal mobilisations of loyalists in unionist strongholds such as Portadown. 

Removal of Arlene Foster and the hand of Loyalism

Apparent DUP complicity with the erection of a hard sea border was the main driver for the removal of party leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, who despite her record as a hard-line unionist leader, was deemed to be out of step with the grassroots. Her ousting as leader was only part of a wider cull of the broader leadership of the DUP, replaced with a new and even more hard-line generation built around the leadership of the highly conservative Edwin Poots. 

It was also significant that Edwin Poots’ opponent in the close DUP leadership run-off which followed the vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, alleged at the party meeting to confirm her successor that his team had been threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries of the UDA in the course of the election process. 

It goes without saying that this exemplifies the extent to which Northern Ireland is neither a stable or normal bourgeois democratic society.

Unionism in a hard corner

Edwin Poots, the choice of political Loyalism for the leadership of the DUP, at this time, enters leadership at a moment of severe political challenge. 

He has committed to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol – despite it being written in the heart of an international agreement between the UK and EU. At the same time, he must face down a continued slow-boil rebellion from the relatively more ‘liberal’ elements of his own party – many of whom are associated with the former ousted leadership. And he must rebuild the DUP’s position as the leading party in Northern Ireland – at a time when polls indicate the party has lost support rapidly to both the ultra-hardline Traditional Unionist Voice on the right, to the Ulster Unionist Party under its new and more energetic leader Dougie Beattie, and even to the bourgeois liberal party, the Alliance.

Succeeding at any one of these would be difficult alone but the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement means that Edwin Poots has the challenge of doing all three at once. 

Edwin Poots already struggling

The revolt against his predecessor and Edwin Poots’ subsequent leadership bid was rooted on his apparent determined commitment to overturn the NI Protocol – something which Arlene Foster had initially made the mistake of welcoming as an opportunity for Northern Ireland business. But Edwin Poots has not explained how he will effect this change. In particular, contrary to the demands from many corners of Loyalism, he has openly made the case against a route involving the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive as a means to force a crisis and a resolution of the NI Protocol in favour of unionism. 

Unlike his opponent for the leadership, Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots has also been less than clear on the alternative and has a more circuitous strategy of refusing to enact an Irish Language Act so long as the NI Protocol remained in place. To understand the political significance of this issue it is necessary to review the origins of the act in the history of the last four years.

Turning a social and economic crisis into another sectarian headcount

When the NI Executive collapsed at the end of 2016, it did so primarily as a result of the growing public revulsion over the Renewable Heat Initiative but also reflecting the mounting anger over austerity, inaction on economic stagnation and a failure to invest in public services. Both DUP and Sinn Féin faced rebellions from their respective support-bases, in particular working-class communities, but uniquely in the history of power-sharing this was a crisis grounded on social and economic issues instead of over sectarian and divisive concerns which tend to reinforce both parties’ electoral reserves. 

During the election that Arlene Foster forecast would become the most ‘divisive election ever’, both DUP and Sinn Féin desperately sought to reposition the focus on sectarian issues. The highly symbolic Irish language act became a focus of their efforts with Foster justifying her party’s outright refusal to agree an Irish language act as ‘not feeding the crocodiles’. This early comment set the tone for the election and was followed by a very nasty campaign. As expected, the election results returned both parties with an increased mandate although unionists had lost their overall majority in the Assembly.

The only problem was that the parties’ red lines during the election campaign left them unable to negotiate a compromise to re-establish the Executive. Besides, it was increasingly clear that the Brexit vote would lead to parties in government having to take difficult decisions and make trade-offs on the new trading arrangements that would be necessary. 

Restored government and the promise of an Irish language act

After a three-year suspension in which public services were largely left in stasis leading to mounting anger from voters, both parties felt compelled to make moves to re-establish the Executive. In doing so, they were pushed by an unprecedented and powerful strike of healthcare workers against a decision made prior to suspension to decouple and lower NHS pay in Northern Ireland. The deal that they cobbled together (New Decade, New Agenda) contained action to restore pay parity for NHS workers but also included a commitment to adopt the totemic Irish Language Act – albeit tied to a wider Cultural/Identity package including measures to support Ulster-Scots.

Sinn Féin exerting pressure

Sinn Féin indicated that any refusal by the new DUP leadership to fail to introduce legislation for the Cultural package would result in the potential collapse of the Executive. 

The resignation of Arlene Foster as First Minister automatically meant Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill was no longer deputy First Minister, as the two positions are jointly held. Through withholding their consent on nominating a deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin effectively threatened to veto Poots’ nomination of his supporter Paul Givan as a replacement for Foster.

The apparent deadlock threatened a snap election since under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, unless a joint First Minister and deputy First Minister can be agreed and jointly nominated by the biggest nationalist and unionist parties within seven days one has to be called.

British Secretary of State reaches over heads at Stormont to deliver Irish language act

Last night Tory secretary of state, Brandon Lewis, intervened to remove the ‘roadblock’ and committed to bring forward legislation in Westminster to enact the Cultural package, including the Irish language act, by October if it wasn’t delivered by the Stormont Executive. This intervention marks another step along the way of the Conservative government in London undermining locally-elected devolved power but it was greeted with jubilation by Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who stated that her party had found a way to get around DUP obstruction. 

Meanwhile the move has only ramped up the pressure on the new DUP leadership as their efforts to leverage the Irish language act, and by extension the stability of the Executive, to remove the NI Protocol have been publicly quashed. 

While the manoeuvre by the British government clears the way for the restoration of the Executive, London’s approach throws political unionism into a further crisis of its own making. Of course on the other hand questions are obviously posed about the quality and form of any Irish language act that the Conservative government in London will bring forward.

A Sinn Féin First Minister?

Regardless of machinations in Westminster, within a year we face an assembly election which is likely to be a change election given the DUP’s profound difficulties. 

Sinn Féin has its own troubles however, largely caused by damaging moves by the party leadership that appear to squeeze out more Left-leaning and old-guard representatives in the north, such as former IRA prisoner and high profile MEP Martina Anderson, ahead of potential coalition and all that will go with it in the South. 

But even with such weaknesses, the sharp decline in support for the DUP is liable to result in Sinn Féin coming out as the largest party. And that brings with it the imminently destabilising prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister in the next Assembly where more Unionists will sit than Nationalists. 

The outlook for Northern Ireland: Protracted crisis

The reaction from more vocal and hardline Loyalists and the Traditional Unionist Voice to the public humiliation of Poots has been to threaten the DUP with electoral decimation in a future election. The instability within the party looks certain to continue. Despite its benefit from the difficulty of its political opponent, Sinn Féin too faces an inevitable backlash from working-class Catholics who feel the dreadful impact their neo-liberal economic policies and austerity measures are having.

Whatever comes in Northern Ireland, the difficulties facing the political elite are serious. The fundamental problems remain. The economy remains in the doldrums; austerity cuts will continue to bite; changing demographics, the outworkings of Brexit and the move towards independence in Scotland are all raising tensions and divisions over the national question.

Despite this dire outlook, Boris Johnson’s government remains intent on seeking to stoke the fires to renegotiate an advantage in ongoing trade talks. The British government selectively briefed its right-wing media that French president Emmanuel Macron had justified the need for sea border checks on the basis that Northern Ireland was not part of the UK. Subsequently the claim was denied by French diplomats but whatever the truth it is clear from the way this claim was leaked that the UK government is intent on playing the ‘Orange card’ with all the attendant risks that go with that. 

At the same time that the British government committed to introduce the cultural package including the Irish language act, it has also more quietly moved to unilaterally extend the suspension of implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This act is likely to be challenged as unlawful by the European Commission but signals the willingness of the British government to play loose and fast with international treaties it has already signed.

Workers’ unity and leadership to charter a better way forward

Against heightening tensions and efforts from bourgeois and petit-bourgeois politicians from all sides to exploit divisions to their own ends, it is more vital than ever that workers in the North of Ireland stand united behind a socialist, internationalist platform. 

Whenever an election to Stormont comes, it is vital that there is a platform of socialists standing on a genuinely cross-community basis to offer an alternative to the sectarian politics of division and failure. Vital to that end will be the role of trade union activists, who must seek all means to push their organisations  to chart a course for our class towards real lasting peace and socialism. Part of that process is the need to form a new mass party of the working class.

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