At a packed fringe meeting at the recent Labour Party Conference a new campaigning organisation, ‘Labour for Irish Unity’ was launched. The headline speaker was Ken Loach whose prize-winning film The Wind that Shakes the Barley tells the story of the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, writes Geoff Bell
Loach was an appropriate speaker because once again many of the issues which have characterised Ireland’s long struggle for self-determination are re-emerging today.
First, there are the repercussions of Brexit which, whether hard or soft will create greater physical, political and economic barriers in the island of Ireland. So much so that the leaders of the European Community are demanding that the UK Government comes up to a solution to the problems Brexit will cause in Ireland before they agree to proper talks.
Second there is the fact that Brexit will be imposed on the people of the North of Ireland against their wishes. Fifty-six per cent of those who voted there in the referendum voted Remain. So, once again a political settlement is being imposed on Ireland, in the classical tradition of British colonialism and imperialism in that country. It does not matter what the people of the North of Ireland want, even less so the people of Southern Ireland. They must to Britain’s bidding.
Third there is the return of the Tory alliance with Ulster loyalists. This time it is the form of the Democratic Unionist Party, a party riddled with corruption and bigotry. It is worth pointing that it was the Conservative who in the years 1912-14 supported the threats of an armed revolt against Irish Home Rule by Ulster’s Loyalists in the shape then of the Ulster Volunteer Force. It was this support which gave the UVF encouragement to resist Irish-self-determination in the struggle depicted by Loach’s film. And, it was a Tory-dominated government which imposed the partition of Ireland at the end of that struggle. Today, the Tory alliance with the DUP can, at one level can be seen as an expedient solution to keep the Conservative and Unionist Party, to given them their full title, in power. However it is also an ideological alliance, rooted deeply in the reactionary histories of all involved.
The fourth relevance of both of The Wind the Shakes the Barley and Labour for Irish Unity is evident in what is happening in Ireland itself. The pre-election collapse of power-sharing in the North has been depicted in the British media as just another example of the mad Irish falling out amongst themselves, with each side being responsible. That is not so. The British/Irish peace settlement of 1998 (the Good Friday Agreement) and 2006 (the St. Andrews Agreement) contained specific promises from the British and Unionist side which they have not kept. A stand-alone Irish Language Act was one of these, specified in the Andrews Agreement. By refusing to support the introduction of such legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly the DUP is reneging on this agreement.
While the power-sharing may still be resurrected there is no doubt that DUP intransigence has put its long-term future in serious doubt, at least in the form it was promised in the peace settlement of 1998-2006. This is further illustrated by the refusal of both the British and the DUP to consider a border poll on partition – despite this also being part of the peace settlement. Ian Paisley Jr has said there will no border poll “for generations” and the Tories have also stated their firm opposition. The antagonism of both these parties to a border poll is, of course, coloured by the fact that at general election nationalist parties in the North won more votes combined than unionist ones.
No one should be under any illusions about the seriousness of the situation in Ireland and the importance of the questions being posed. In its own recent Green Paper on Irish Unity Sinn Fein had this to say:
“We are almost 12 years on from the public emergence of the Irish Peace Process in the first joint statement by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and the then SDLP leader, John Hume, in April 1993. However, the only strand of that process still existing at this time is the IRA cessation of military activities. There is no political process, no dialogue, no negotiation. Instead a dangerous political vacuum has opened up. The failed politics and rhetoric of the long era of conflict are once again dominating the political agenda. The failed rhetoric of exclusion, vilification and criminalisation hold centre stage like the spectre of the failed status quo which gave us conflict in every generation for more than two centuries. The status quo is not acceptable; it is not an option. Stalemate is not acceptable; it is not an option.”
The Tories, in entering into an alliance with DUP and empowering them as a result have nailed their Orange colours to a red, white and blue mast. This was to be expected of them. Labour needs a policy of its own. This needs to return to first principles; and the first of these is Irish self-determination, the denial of which is at the root of political conflict in Ireland.
It should be remembered that the Good Friday Agreement itself stated that its signatories ‘recognise that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination.’ What the British Labour Party now needs to do is to work how this right is best exorcised in the change circumstances of Brexit and Tory/DUP intransigence.
The solution of Irish unity is now being put forward by all the major political parties in the South of Ireland, albeit with different degrees of enthusiasm, and both nationalist parties in the North of Ireland. Labour needs to talk to all of these and ask how they can help to clear the path to Irish unity. For its part Sinn Fein has said its own strategy “needs to have an international dimension which includes seeking specific forms of support from popular and political opinion in Britain”. This is a welcome recognition, and given the public mood in Ireland and the high regard that Jeremey Corbyn and John McDonnel have there for their record on Ireland it seems likely that many would welcome a new Labour initiative. Especially one that was based on recognising the priority of Irish self-determination.
For too long too many in this country have been part of Ireland’s British Problem. It is now time that the Labour Party was part of the solution.