Ireland: Brexit and DUP’s opposition to rights put unity referendum firmly on the agenda

February 19, 2019
The campaign to repeal Ireland's anti abortion law drew supporters from across Ireland.

While the political establishment in Ireland is determined to downplay the need for an Irish unity referendum, it is plainly obvious that the appetite for such a poll is growing by the day. Besides the obvious major constitutional shift that Brexit will cause, the demand for a referendum is being fuelled by the clear lack of social progress in the North, as well as Britain’s arrogant disinterest in a region it insists on keeping control of.

In this debate, people talk a lot about identity, but the supposed straightjackets of unionism and nationalism are becoming less relevant. Yes, we have seen more polarised electoral outcomes, but I think that speaks more to the dysfunctional nature of the political institutions in the North, and the colonial relationship with a foreign unrepresentative parliament where all the major decisions are made.

The North is not British and virtually no one in Britain would seriously argue that. British political parties are non-entities in the North, for the most part. The lack of democracy is evident: no one in the North – unionist or otherwise – has ever been able to vote for their prime minister, while the North’s 18 MPs account for less than three per cent of the House of Commons.

In an all-island parliamentary system, based on the current ratio of seats to population, the North would hold about 58 out of 215 seats – 27 per cent of the Dáil. You can decide which is more democratic.

Changing identities

For many progressive activists, the ‘traditional’ identities are breaking down and the border is becoming invisible when it comes to social issues. There have been many inspiring examples of people working together, regardless of their supposed identity or which part of partitioned Ireland they come from, most importantly in the referendums on abortion and marriage equality.

Many progressives from the six counties flocked down to help our LGBT brothers and sisters seeking a fundamental right to marry and help our sisters access the healthcare so long denied by the Eighth Amendment. Activists from the northern trade union movement and other organisations arrived in buses to my own town of Carrickmacross to help last May. Some of them identified as Irish, some as British or Northern Irish. Never once did I ask, nor did I care.

During the celebrations after the repeal victory people declared, completely organically, that “the North is next”. The DUP’s abuse of the petition of concern has kept the issues of marriage equality and other progressive demands off the political agenda for too long. It is no big mystery as to why they refuse to go back into power-sharing, having lost the ability to abuse the petition after losing their majority.

While unionists understandably have legitimate concerns about Irish unity, the South is not the theocracy it once was. Having turned into a backwater, without comparable rights to citizens in the South or Britain, the limits of the 1921 sectarian partition have become very apparent.

Identities can often be accidents of birth rather than something you think or feel. In the throes of globalisation and an economic and social system that promotes individualism to the detriment of our instincts and mental health, people feel less and less a part of any community. The conflating of religion in particular to one side or the other is also inflammatory and inaccurate. Being Protestant doesn’t automatically make you a unionist, or Catholic a nationalist.

Unfortunately, the language used when talking about communities, and ordinary working people, has not caught up to this reality. The media, particularly the BBC and RTÉ, have been good at creating division on this island, making Dublin feel as foreign as Brussels to people in the six counties.

I cannot imagine that the Jim Wells of this world represent the views of forward-thinking young people from a unionist background in the debate about future constitutional arrangements. Many unionist young people in the North have no natural political home, despite the minor gains of smaller parties like Alliance, the Greens, People Before Profit and others. None of these parties are outlining a vision beyond the suffocating confines of the northern statelet.

Intergenerational scaremongering means that Sinn Féin is untouchable politically to this section of the community. What Sinn Féin is saying might sound appealing, but they very simply don’t believe it. Instead, many have been forced to look across to England to place their hope in the Corbyn Labour movement; interestingly, this is a movement that is anti-imperialist and Corbyn himself is a supporter of a peaceful united Ireland.

A unionist backlash?

The ratings-focused debates that have been held by the hostile media have led viewers in the South to believe that all unionists are bible-bashing, backward, ‘Never, Never, Never’ creatures who would much rather starve in their crumbling union than prosper under the harp. The reality is that many unionist people find the caricatures in the DUP to be laughable. This click-bait approach to the debate on Irish unity has given rise to a more conservative response from people in the South. I’ve heard people say, only half-jokingly, “build a wall and keep them lunatics up there”.

What progressives should understand is that, ironically, it will be the discussions that take place regarding protections for unionist people in a united Ireland to sustain peace that will spark a national conversation about rights, citizenship and democratic participation more generally. It is at this juncture that we have an opportunity to make gains for our wider demands.

Will there be a backlash against moves towards Irish unity? There may well be, but there will also be a backlash from Brexit, hard or soft. While the reactionary loyalist paramilitary groupings in the past had the capacity for serious life-threatening destruction, we have to keep in mind that this was aided and abetted by the British state. There is no evidence to suggest that stoking a war in the North is of any strategic benefit to anyone apart from those criminal elements who might use the chaos of perceived terrorism to undermine policing and distract from their own profiteering.

People on all sides have worked too hard to create and sustain peace, and most young people don’t even remember the war.

Those most susceptible to violent reaction tend to come from the most impoverished backgrounds. With little to lose and having never benefited from the divvying up of the peace pie, you can see how individuals seeking an expression for their personal oppression could be attracted to such activity. What I would say to those individuals if I could is that they should be focusing their attention on the real enemy.

Catholics, Protestants and dissenters are all victims of neoliberalism. This ideology has caused thousands of preventable deaths, forced people to suicide and condemned others to homelessness. Many experience unemployment, job insecurity and lack of access to healthcare, public transport and education. Neoliberalism doesn’t care about religion or nationality. In fact, this ideology has become so voracious that the once-comfortable middle classes are now plagued with its ills, with adult children still living at home due to astronomical rents and costs of living.

The best way to combat this is by acting collectively, uniting the people of our island. Doing this back-to-back is senseless. We are stronger together.

While a referendum will have to decide future constitutional arrangements, the debate on unity cannot be about one side winning or losing. This debate is not about a future for nationalists. Our aim is to build a fairer and more equal society for everyone, regardless of background. This island belongs to all of us regardless of what stamp is on the front of our passport.

From Irish Broad Left. Rachel Coyle is a political advisor for the Sinn Féin Midlands North West constituency and a member of the party’s Ard Chomhairle [National Executive].

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