North of Ireland: On the edge of Europe

In New York or Berlin, turn on the telly, tune your wireless, and Ireland is in the news bulletin. Stormont’s collapsed – it’s direct rule from Westminster and relations with the parties in Belfast are strained. South of the border, Dublin’s aligned with Brussels and wishes Britain could be too. But in London the European question has divided a bickering parliament and a hapless cabinet. In the North of Ireland it divides Unionism; there, business groups, the farmers’ union, local celebs, all plug the benefits of European free trade – to the annoyance of an obstinate Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). No, not 2019 – welcome to the Spring of 1975. For the DUP and its spiritual mainspring the Free Presbyterian Church, ‘A vote for the Common Market is a vote for Ecumenism; Rome; Dictatorship; Antichrist.’ A referendum approaches on Britain’s membership of the ‘European Communities’ (EC) and, for some in its troubled Irish possession, campaigning is underway with a Biblical vengeance.

On New Year’s Day 1973 Britain had entered the European Community (EC), forebear of today’s European Union (EU). Two years later Harold Wilson’s Labour government, acting upon a manifesto pledge, sought to resolve its own internal conflict over Europe with a referendum. Seizing the moment, Enoch Powell’s disciples in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) set out to annul the fragile marriage of convenience between Britain and the rising Franco-German bloc. A young, Paisleyite DUP joined the crusade and shared their failure: a surprise majority of voters in the North of Ireland endorsed EC membership. Today, the DUP’s position is little changed. Again, its Europhobe ravings pit it against traditional pillars of Unionism: big business and the Ulster Farmers’ Union. But now, unlike 1975, the DUP is no footnote. The DUP received 36% of the vote in the North of Ireland in the 2017 General Election, giving them ten seats in Westminster and disproportionate influence in a hung parliament. Today’s Brexiteers don’t much like the phrase déjà vu but the parallels are striking. While the prospect of Irish unity is talked-up everywhere, an historical comparison reveals the respective weaknesses of pro-British Unionism and constitutional nationalism in Ireland.

Out of splendid isolation

Prior to its admission in 1973, Britain had applied twice already to join the European Common Market and twice it had been rebuffed: first in 1961 and again in 1967, thwarted on both occasions by French opposition. By the time of Britain’s initial application for membership much of the old Unionist establishment in the North of Ireland, although unenthusiastic, was reconciled to the prospect of joining. It appeared to offer escape from the doldrums of ailing agriculture and an industry in chronic decline. The Northern statelet hardly shared Britain’s post-war boom. World war had been the Springtime for its shipyards, linen mills and farms; in contrast to ‘the mainland’, the good times for Northern capital barely lasted the 1940s. Subsequent erosion of Loyalist privilege threatened Unionist consensus, with Protestant workers rocked by factory closures and rising unemployment. British imperialism, seeking to redress its decline, gravitated towards the EC – and Unionism travelled in tow.

This changed in the 1960s as an influx of foreign capital to the Six Counties secured new jobs for Protestant workers and bolstered the Unionist alliance; Stormont’s champions of modernisation now fretted that EEC membership might endanger this process, limiting British state aid to industry and agriculture or removing the statelet’s effective ban on Southern Irish labour. Reassurances were received but not everyone wanted reassuring; the fact traditional firms were losing out to the new industries fuelled opposition to further foreign encroachment associated with European integration.

As the North erupted at the close of the decade, the debate on Europe came to reflect insecurities about survival of the union. Under the banner of Catholic civil rights, the youthful radicalism of 1968 collided with an ossified Orange state. The clash brought forth a revolutionary challenge to British imperialism in Ireland, and fierce new strains of Loyalist reaction. When the EC opened the door to new members in 1973, Britain did not enter alone; the Irish Free State accompanied them. To the new generation of Loyalist demagogues, with all Ireland subsumed in Europe’s ‘Roman Catholic super-state’, partition would be undermined, setting the North along the road to Dublin rule.

Broad church, crumbling foundations

In 1975 the DUP was not the principal party of Unionism – that was the ‘broad church’ UUP until as recently as 2003. Now, having taken the place of its elder brother, the DUP has become . . . rather ‘ecumenical’. More than a congregation of Calvinite Fundamentalists, small farmers and Loyalist workers, it is today the proud ‘party of business’. Increasingly it is the party of Unionism. Such collectivism causes all sorts of problems when the material interests of Protestant workers and Northern capital unravel. Both British referendums on Europe exposed this contradiction. The UUP hesitantly backed a British exit in 1975; Unionism itself remained torn on the question of Europe.

So too in 2016. Indeed, for all its recent Brexiteering, when it came to picking a side three years ago the DUP dragged its feet. This from the party for whom nailing colours to masts is a cultural reflex. Its position was announced only after official campaigning kicked off. The UUP, with its dwindling middle-class base, wavered, then declared for Remain – a position it has since reversed.

The old UUP managed its divisions in 1975 with a fudge: its spokesmen stated the party position in carefully chosen words while it refrained from campaigning on the issue. On polling day, as hoped, many of its supporters stayed home. There was no such restraint on the DUP in 2016 – not because of any new Unionist consensus on Europe but because the odds seemed stacked for Remain. Hardly believing their side would win, it mattered little to the party leadership that rural heartlands were deeply conflicted in their relationship to the EU and Common Agricultural Policy. Nor that many of its big business backers were resolutely pro-Remain; such voices weren’t heard because they were never raised. If Brexit hadn’t a hope in hell, what need for Unionism to make a show of its differences? And so, the DUP could allow party loudmouths off the leash, free to thump the Vote-Leave-Lambeg to their hearts’ content. Where in 1975 the results met sighs of relief, this time it was only disbelief.

The DUP had its surprise victory but received a poisoned chalice; cracks would appear. Queen’s University Belfast estimate that, of the Unionists who voted in the 2016 referendum, 40% backed Remain. The Remain vote in the North was 56%. When in November 2018 the DUP rejected the draft British-EU Withdrawal Agreement, an exasperated business class in the North bit back; telling their party of business to take what was on offer. This encouraged many in London and Dublin. They hoped such protest would end the party’s populist grandstanding and bring them to a compromise on the backstop.

For the DUP, that is not so easy. The transformation of the Six County economy has buffeted its base in the Loyalist working class. As a new Catholic middle class grew in public sector employment, manufacture went East; later, European labour arrived in the other direction. Loyalist workers are convinced they have lost their privilege to a Catholic reconquest of the North and to immigration. They readily share in the DUP’s Brexit delusions.

Indeed, from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s the North’s total employment in education, health and social services rose more than quarter and over the same period Catholic share of all new employment grew by a third. The proportion of Catholics with full-time state sector jobs has risen to nearly equal that of Protestants. Catholic children are more likely to continue into higher education and Catholics equal or outnumber Protestants in managerial, professional, associate professional, administrative and technical occupations.

Unify Ireland? You and whose army?

Presently the potential of Brexit to drive alienated Northern Catholics toward a United Ireland is being talked up – but not in Dublin. 62% of people in the North of Ireland think that Brexit makes a United Ireland more likely (RTE/BBC, November 2018). A suggestion popular in the non-Irish media is that an imminent Catholic majority in the Six Counties will secure Irish unity through a border poll. It is popular too with Sinn Féin, calling for such a poll since 2012. 86% of the people in the Republic prefer a United Ireland to a ‘hard border’ (RTE, January 2019).

A border poll is a 1970s British contrivance: a Six County referendum on the North’s constitutional status. When such a vote was held in 1973 it was answered with a nationalist boycott. On polling day fewer than 1% of Catholics turned out whilst the Irish Republican Army bombed London, starting its military campaign in England. After that there were no more border polls. A few hundred words of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were given to the workings of a border poll as a route to unification, but they commit British governments to nothing.

The British state sought to contain the challenge to its rule in Ireland through a combination of repression and reform. By the 1980s the catechism, ‘God made the Catholics and the Armalite (rifle) made us equal,’ adorned walls in Belfast and Derry. With greater access to housing and jobs, the pressures to emigrate were eased and the Catholic proportion of the Six County population grew – the ticking demographic time-bomb of Unionist nightmare. The 2011 census showed the Catholic population at 45% and Protestants 48%. According to current estimates, Catholics will outnumber Protestants within two years. It will be a while before they form the majority of the North’s electorate. Of those currently below voting age, Catholics predominate – 51% to 37%. Sinn Fein received 29% of the 2017 British General Election vote.

But if God made the Catholics, he did not make them nationalists. As opinion polls repeatedly indicate, a Catholic electoral majority – and even a majority of votes cast for nationalist parties in British elections – is not the same as a majority for Irish unity. The prospect of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has unnerved the Catholic population but it has not swept away their ambivalence to a United Ireland. After all, the ‘unity’ now under discussion is not the foundation of a new Ireland but the melding of the North to the Twenty-Six County state. What will induce Northern Catholics down that path, running the gauntlet of inevitable Loyalist reaction? Some wonder whether Dublin and the EU could ever maintain the thatching of grants and subsidy in which the Catholic middle class has nestled. A southerly glance at the EU’s ‘star pupil’ failing to fund even its own paltry welfare system is not persuasive. Nor Sinn Féin’s admission that its ‘radical vision for a new republic’ requires the making of ‘efficiencies’ in public services. Should the Irish exchequer secure post-Brexit exemptions from EU state aid rules, the diversion of emergency funds to agriculture will only place greater burdens on public finance.

Neither King nor Kaiser

All the conservative parties of Irish nationalism have, at one time or another, insisted that the integration of Ireland, North and South, within the Common Market paved a way to Irish unity – and that, conversely, having only one part of the island inside and the other without amounted to a reinforcement of partition: the Nationalist Party said so at Stormont in 1967; Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spoke likewise in the 1972 Southern referendum campaign; the Social Democratic and Labour Party in 1975. As such, it was quite fitting that ‘Eurocritical’ Sinn Féin should argue the same in 2016. But that was never the position of the revolutionary Irish Republican Movement. It understood clearly that integration in the European bloc kept partition intact and Ireland’s economic development subordinate to the demands of British capital. Europe could not break Ireland free of Britain; that was – and remains – the prerogative and historic task of the Irish people.

Patrick Casey

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 269 April/May 2019


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Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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