The question of an independence referendum in Scotland has provoked rumblings on both sides of the sectarian divide here. Peter Robinson has said that Unionists must not “stand idly by”, but instead do what they can to convince the Scottish people to remain within the Union. On the other hand, Martin McGuinness has welcomed the SNP’s move and suggested that they would like to see a similar vote on a united Ireland take place in the near future – perhaps in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising.
Former UUP leader Reg Empey warned that a move towards Scottish independence could “reignite” conflict in Northern Ireland and Martin McGuinness recognised the issue could create division. Unfortunately, these statements do reflect a reality. The irony is that these politicians are the very people who will use the issue to divide working-class people.
Both unionist and nationalist political parties have an interest in using the question of the Scottish referendum – as well as anniversaries of atrocities during the Troubles, cultural questions and anything else they can exploit – in order to whip up sectarianism and distract from the fact that they are united in implementing brutal attacks on the jobs, services and living standards of all working-class people.
If Scotland were to secede from the United Kingdom, it would reinforce the feeling of isolation and insecurity among the Protestant community and heighten anxiety about a slide towards a capitalist united Ireland where they fear their religious and cultural rights could be denied. Many Protestants are also anxious that the loss of a British subsidy in the form of the block grant from Westminster would mean the loss of jobs and services and, thus, a bleaker future. Unionist politicians – and loyalist paramilitaries – would try to prey upon these fears to create a siege mentality and cement their dominance within the Protestant community. They would be aided in this by nationalist and republican politicians who would greet such a development in a triumphalist manner for the same purpose.
Sinn Féin’s call for a referendum on a united Ireland as soon as 2016 is not serious – it is an attempt to steady up their increasingly disillusioned support base. The recent Life and Times Survey found that Protestants remain a majority of the population (54%) and are solidly in favour of remaining within the Union. The survey found that 73% of the overall population were in favour of remaining part of the UK, including 52% of Catholics. While this may not be entirely accurate and the majority of Catholics would probably vote in favour of a united Ireland, it indicates that a referendum in the near future could deliver an embarrassing result for Sinn Féin and highlight their lack of a real strategy to deliver their goal of a united Ireland.
This situation, however, will not remain static. The Catholic community is growing as a percentage of the overall population and political events which heighten sectarian tension can bolster support for a united Ireland among Catholics, especially in the context of a protracted economic crisis.
The conflict here will not be resolved through a referendum or any other solution offered by sectarian politicians or the capitalist establishment. If, in the future, demographic changes meant that Protestants became a minority and a clamour for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland developed, it would dramatically ratchet up the fears of the Protestant population. Due to their legitimate concerns about becoming an oppressed minority in a capitalist united Ireland, the Protestant community would not simply accept moves in that direction.
Moves towards such a referendum would provoke a return to an armed, sectarian conflict – perhaps even a civil war more brutal than the Troubles – and re-partition. This would be a catastrophe from the point of view of the working-class. At the same time, the question is not going to simply disappear. A large section of Catholics will never be reconciled to the status quo and to an indefinite existence of the Northern Irish state, for cultural reasons and, crucially, due to the history of discrimination and repression.
The question can only be resolved by breaking down the sectarian barriers between the communities. This cannot be achieved by right-wing politicians who have an interest in maintaining division. Unity can only be built around the common interests of working-class people from both communities – fighting against cuts and for jobs, houses and a decent future for all. If a mass party of the working-class is built to fight for these aims in opposition to the sectarian parties, it can break down barriers and unite communities. This could lay the basis for an entirely new kind of society – a socialist Ireland where the rights of minorities would be guaranteed, along with homes, employment and a decent future for all, as part of a free, democratic and equal socialist federation with Scotland, Wales and England.