Socialist Alternative

Northern Ireland in Crisis: Brexit, the NI Protocol, and the Rising Threat of Sectarian Violence

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Since the Brexit referendum of 2016 mandated the UK’s exit from the European Union, the hope among sections of the British ruling class that it would inaugurate a new, prosperous, and ascendant period of UK capitalism have been completely undone. Instead, it has accelerated economic decline and developments that pose an existential threat to the “union” of the United Kingdom – composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This tension has been exacerbated by a series of bumbling right-wing Tory governments. The mood for independence in Scotland, which has been a significant feature for over a decade, is now a dominant and unavoidable question calculated in every move Westminster takes. There is a growing nationalist sentiment in Wales. But the most consequential development for the working class has been the breakdown of the political institutions and prospect for the return of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

Origins of the Issue

April of this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in Northern Ireland. The GFA was an agreement that came out of the so-called “peace process” of the mid-1990s which formally ended the era of sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant communities, known as the Troubles, which had left over 3,500 people dead. While the Troubles began in the 1960s, the roots of the conflict went back much further to the conscious policy of divide-and-rule (pitting the Catholic and Protestant working classes against one another) by British imperialism in response to the struggle against the oppression of Ireland over hundreds of years.

The divide-and-rule policy was formally enshrined with the historic tragedy of Irish partition in 1921. Fearful of not just national but social revolution, British imperialism made a rotten deal with pro-capitalist nationalist leaders in Ireland to separate (“partition”) the island into two sectarian, poverty-ridden states.. The six counties in the North( some but not all of which had a majority Protestant population) became Northern Ireland and remained part of the UK. The other 26 became the newly formed, nominally independent Irish Free State,today the Republic of Ireland (also referred to here as ‘the South’).

In order to maintain its grip on the North, British imperialism had to continue its divide-and-rule policy. This took the form of oppression and legal discrimination against the Catholic minority. Housing, education, and employment were segregated against Catholics. Capitalism had made Northern Ireland the poorest part of the United Kingdom. The political establishment maintained support for the Unionist parties of the government by preying upon genuine fears of the Protestant community that, in a united capitalist Ireland, they would be an exploited minority. This also reinforced the grip of the corresponding sectarian, nationalist parties over the Catholic community.

Influenced by developments such as the U.S. civil rights movement, France 1968, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, a similar mass movement emerged demanding civil rights for Catholics. This was a movement with revolutionary potential and strong left-wing currents emerged particularly among the youth that was originally aimed at bridging the sectarian divide with demands like quality housing and jobs for all However, the union leadership and main “socialist” forces like the NI Labour Party squandered the opportunity to link the movement to a united working class struggle against sectarian division and capitalism This enabled establishment nationalist forces to shift the focus away from united class struggle and demands and reactionary unionist figures to peddle the idea that a gain for Catholics had to come at the expense of resources for Protestant workers. Demoralization set in, violence erupted, and British troops were deployed. Sectarian forces filled the void in response and the period of wanton violence known as the Troubles began.

Good Friday Agreement – Kicking The Can Down The Road

By the 1990s, the working class could no longer tolerate the situation. This led to pressure from below for an end to the conflict, with mass demonstrations of Protestant and Catholic working class people against sectarian murders, threats and bomb attacks, initiated by trade union activists. This opened the “peace process” culminating in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. However the GFA solved nothing, kicking the can down the road and ensuring the issues at root of the Troubles would re-erupt at a later stage.

The GFA created a new devolved parliament – the Northern Ireland Assembly (known as “Stormont”). Stormont was based on the principle of power sharing between the main Unionist and Nationalist parties to make decisions and elect an Executive based on their representation in the Assembly, an Executive that could not function without the two largest parties participating. The agreement, which institutionalized sectarianism, also contained a large level of intentional ambiguity on what the actual provisions of the agreement were so as to make it more palatable.

Capitalist Crisis and Brexit Overturn the Applecart

Chickens are now coming home to roost in the Northern Ireland Protocol parts of Brexit. While on the surface the Protocol is just a trade and customs agreement, it is bringing to the fore long-standing sectarian tensions. This has gotten to the point where it can be said that we are now at the end of the peace process era and the prospect of major sectarian division and violence looms over the situation.

Written to avoid the political and social implication of a “hard border” on the island (a physical border with monitored checkpoints for authorized crossing of people and products), the Protocol keeps Northern Ireland as part of the European single market for goods. This has effectively erected an “Irish sea border” between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom. This, plus a number of other developments, has ignited fears among Protestants that they are being forced against their will into a de facto united capitalist Ireland in which they would be a marginalized minority.

The Unionist parties have since used this genuine anxiety to whip up their reactionary, sectarian agenda. The main one – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – withdrew from the government in 2022 in protest of the Protocol. This triggered an election that saw Sinn Fein (the main nationalist party) become the biggest party in Stormont (Northern Ireland’s legislature). It was the first time a nationalist party had become the biggest party in the history of the state. Since then, the DUP has refused to allow the formation of an Executive which, due to the power-sharing provisions of the GFA, has left no functioning government in Stormont.

The main parties’ sectarian campaigning has also increased the prospect of a return to violence. The Protocol crisis has seen Loyalist paramilitary groups threaten return to terrorist campaigns if the DUP appears to soften its position towards its declared “seven key tests” for an acceptable resolution of the Protocol. There has also been an escalation by dissident Republican groups, one of which ( the “New IRA”) recently shot a police officer in front of his son after a youth soccer game in the town of Omagh and have stated families of police officers are now ‘legitimate targets’. 

Despite British capitalism’s interest in resolving the crisis, it is in no position to do so. Beyond what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland, the Tory government in Westminster has lurched from crisis to crisis and is riven with factional in-fighting. The threat of rebellion by up to 100 MPs led by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in response to any perceived watering down of the Protocol has up to this point hamstrung Rishi Sunak. 

Windsor Framework

However, Sunak recently announced a “breakthrough” in the situation. The biggest provisions of the new Windsor Framework negotiated with the EU would establish green and red lanes for goods transported to Northern Ireland. The green lane would be for goods headed for sale in Northern Ireland, and it is claimed exempt from customs controls. The red lane goods would be sold in the South and in the rest of the European Union, and these would be subject to the applicable checks.

The Windsor Framework also includes the Stormont Brake – a policy which has been sold asthe Northern Ireland Assembly being able to review and block new rules for the EU single market from applying. The Stormont Brake seeks to resolve the fierce opposition among both Tory Brexiteers and the main forces of political Unionism about the Protocol’s original provision that the European Court of Justice would be the regulatory legal body for overseeing and enforcing the Protocol. The role of the ECJ had been a critical sticking point in negotiations as it has been said to have robbed sovereignty from Northern Ireland and the UK. However it is now clear that the “brake” is only a stalling mechanism and the final say on legislation remains with the ECJ. This is a red line issue for Unionism. 

The Windsor Framework was passed in Westminster supported by the Tories, Labour and the SNP with only 29 votes against from the DUP and some hardline Tory MPs.Though they are under immense pressure from the UK, U.S., and international businesses who want a literal return to business as usual, the DUP has its own considerations. DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said the new framework still does not deal with fundamental problems with the Protocol which relate to sovereignty and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.  A recent poll indicated that 73% of DUP voters oppose the Windsor Framework, and the DUP leadership would risk losing significant support to more hardline unionist forces if they accept this deal and risk the outbreak of loyalist violence. 

No Solution on the Basis of Capitalism

Even if Brexit were resolved and a functioning government formed in Stormont instead of going forward with a new election (which likely would result in similar sectarian deadlock), this particular conjuncture would just be one episode in a new, potentially violent chapter in Northern Ireland’s history. The material basis for sectarianism will still exist: Northern Ireland has been experiencing the worst cost of living crisis in the UK. 76% of the population now lives in fuel poverty and weekly gross wages continue to be below the UK average. 

Capitalism’s inability to deliver for working people, and the lack of an organized force of the united working class to push back, means the legacy of divide-and-rule will continue to have an impact. The increasing likelihood of a border poll, which will be nothing more than a sectarian headcount, and the possibility of  Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party both North and South out of the next elections can further harden the fears of Protestants of being forced into a united Ireland against their will, and incubate a return of sectarian violence.

There is a force that can prevent this. A united working class movement of Catholics and Protestants can prevent a new Troubles. Already we’ve seen mobilizations of working class people, youth, and trade unionists against acts of recent sectarian violence like those in Omagh under the slogan “No Going Back” – a mark of the still huge desire among workers and young people to prevent backsliding to the worst era of tensions and violence. The wave of united strikes and struggles by Catholic and Protestant workers against the cost of living crisis also shows there is the basis to build a new mass, cross-community working class party to oppose capitalism and all of the sectarian parties that are part of the problem. The only way to resolve the national conflict in Ireland is by building a common struggle of the Catholic and Protestant working class to defeat sectarianism and capitalism in the fight for a socialist society.

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