Tories stoke sectarian instability in Northern Ireland

Edwin Poots resigned as leader of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on June 17, just three weeks after he won the position.

Poots was forced to quit after an internal revolt in the DUP over concessions he made to keep the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly in place. He agreed to appoint a new DUP First Minister, Paul Givan, alongside Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, and appeared to concede to Sinn Féin’s call for the quick introduction of Irish language legislation that was agreed upon previously.

This is the latest twist in the turbulence fuelled by Brexit, which has caused a crisis in Unionism by creating a customs border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The government of Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game of high wire diplomacy with the EU. The threat Johnson seeks to employ is of a return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland – with the aim of forcing the EU to retreat from requiring the sea border checks necessary to avoid a hard land border between north and south as a result of the hard Brexit 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 the Brexit negotiations. 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.

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. In early April, the mounting tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol – which came into force in January 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 situation 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 in unionist strongholds such as Portadown. 

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. 

It was also significant that in the close DUP leadership run-off which followed the vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster, the then losing candidate Jeffrey Donaldson alleged at the party meeting to confirm her successor that his team had been threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries of the UDA. This exemplifies the extent to which Northern Ireland is neither a stable nor normal bourgeois democratic society.

Edwin Poots entered the leadership at a moment of severe political challenge. He committed to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol – despite it being written in the heart of an international agreement between the UK and EU. He faced a continued slow-boil rebellion from the relatively more ‘liberal’ elements of his own party – many of whom were associated with the former ousted leadership. And he had to rebuild the DUP’s position as the leading party in Northern Ireland at a time when polls indicate it had lost support 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 have been difficult alone – but the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement meant that Poots had the challenge of doing all three at once. 

Poots’ leadership bid was rooted on his commitment to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol – something which Arlene Foster had initially made the mistake of welcoming as an opportunity for Northern Ireland business. But he did not explain how he would effect this change. In particular, contrary to the demands from many corners of Loyalism, he 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 Protocol in favour of unionism. 

Unlike his leadership opponent, Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots had a more circuitous strategy of refusing to enact an Irish Language Act so long as the Protocol remained in place. To understand the political significance of this issue it is necessary to review the origins of the language act in the history of the last four years.

When the Executive collapsed at the end of 2016, it did so primarily as a result of the growing public revulsion over the Renewable Heat Initiative ‘cash for ash’ scandal but also reflecting the mounting anger over austerity, inaction on economic stagnation, and a failure to invest in public services. Both the 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 2017 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. 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 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. 

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 New Decade, New Agenda deal that the parties cobbled together 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.

With Arlene Foster’s term as First Minister ending Sinn Féin indicated that any refusal by the new DUP leadership to introduce legislation for the New Decade, New Agenda Cultural package would result in the potential collapse of the Executive. 

The resignation of the 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 First Minister and deputy First Minister can be agreed and jointly nominated by the biggest nationalist and unionist parties within seven days, an election has to be called.

In response 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 marked 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. 

But it also publicly quashed the efforts of the Poots leadership to leverage the Irish language act, and by extension the stability of the Executive, to remove the Northern Ireland Protocol. So while the manoeuvre by the British government cleared the way for the restoration of the Executive, London’s approach threw political unionism into a further crisis of its own making. On the other hand, of course, questions are obviously posed about the form of any Irish language act that the Conservative government in London will bring forward.

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 reaction from 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. Despite its benefit from the difficulty of its political opponent, Sinn Féin too faces an inevitable backlash from working-class Catholics who feel the impact of their neo-liberal economic policies and austerity measures.

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 negotiate an advantage in ongoing trade talks. The British government selectively briefed its right-wing media that at the G7 talks in Cornwall 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. 

Against heightening tensions and efforts from capitalist 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.

Cllr Donal O’Cofaigh, Militant Left (CWI Ireland)