Why socialists oppose a border poll

By Stephen Boyd

In the wake of last year’s “Brexit” vote and the demand of the Scottish National Party (SNP) for a second independence referendum in Scotland, Sinn Féin first and now the SDLP also, have raised the call for the holding of a border poll. Stephen Boyd outlines the socialist case for opposing a border poll and what’s needed to overcome sectarian division.

Speaking at a Sinn Féin conference, An Agreed Future? In Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on 24 June 2017, Gerry Adams predicted a vote to end partition could happen within a “few short years”:

”We need a new approach, one which unlocks unionist opposition to a new Ireland by reminding them of their historic place here and of the positive contribution they have made to society on this island.”

Adams went on to say, “The Brexit referendum vote last year, the Assembly results in March, the Westminster election results this month and the census conclusions from 2011, are evidence of a shifting demographic and political dynamic in northern politics… within a few short years the potential for a vote to end partition and united ireland is a very real possibility.” At the same conference, unionist political commentator Alex Kane said “From my very personal perspective, the Irish unity debate has little or nothing to do with economic and structural cohesion. I hear the arguments about how we could “be better together” if we weren’t duplicating services across the island. But at the core of the debate is the issue of identity: who we are, who we want to be.”

There is a kernel of truth in Alex Kane’s argument. At the heart of the sectarian division in Northern Ireland is a conflict of national aspirations. Many commentators and nationalist politicians, however, argue that a united Ireland is now inevitable. They dangerously believe that all they have to do is come up with the “right” arguments to persuade Protestants to join a new united Ireland. This patronising and arrogant argument dismisses the national aspirations of Protestants and their genuine opposition to a change in the constitutional status quo.

Two sectarian headcounts

The ending of the unionist majority at Stormont for the first time since the creation of the Northern state at the last Assembly election was a political earthquake. Sinn Féin finished just 1,168 votes and one seat behind the DUP and on that basis predicted a vote to end partition in a few short years. Yet less than three months later in the general election, the DUP increased its lead over Sinn Féin to 55,000 votes, in an election that saw the biggest voter turnout since 1998. Voter registration was a feature of the general election with all parties focusing significant resources on getting “their” voters on the electoral register. And it worked. The DUP won ten seats and Sinn Féin ended up with seven, and in the process, they wiped out the UUP and the SDLP.

In Protestant working-class areas, turnout has been in decline for years as a result of growing disillusionment with Stormont, yet in this election, spurred on by the “threat” of Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party and responding to Arlene Foster’s rallying cry to “defend the Union”, turnout in some loyalist areas was over 70%. The election was a two-horse race, a battle between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Arlene Foster fought the election to “defend the Union”, Sinn Féin on achieving a united Ireland.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin have been badly damaged by their ten-year partnership in government. The Assembly has not delivered for working-class people. Economically and socially, Northern Irish society has declined under their watch. The implementation of austerity by the DUP / Sinn Féin Executive has had a detrimental impact. Public services such as health, housing and education are in crisis. The threat to cut the school uniform grant to the poorest families is the latest in a long line of cuts that, along with the casualisation of employment, the scourge of low pay, a seven-year public sector pay freeze and a slashing of benefits, has left a majority of working-class people struggling to make ends meet.

The DUP have been badly damaged by scandals such as NAMA and RHI, and Sinn Féin collapsed the Assembly Executive in reality because they could no longer sustain the loss of support in their heartlands, which was a consequence of their role in government and being seen to not stand up to the DUP’s arrogant attitude and approach on issues such as funding for Irish language education.

Faced with this crisis, the DUP and Sinn Féin did what they always do when they are in trouble – they turned towards sectarianism in order to bolster support amongst their traditional base.

 A changed situation

A new political period has opened up in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) did not resolve the underlying issues that have driven sectarian conflict on this island for decades. By promising all things to all people, the GFA simply postponed the conflict until another day. Power-sharing was always going to be fraught with difficulties. But when you have parties who depend on sectarianism for their electoral support and who have been implementing neoliberalism, then this current crisis was inevitable. The only way out of this morass is the creation of a genuine cross-community working-class party that can provide a real socialist alternative to the sectarian parties who are incapable of resolving the conflict.

James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland speaking in Westminster said, “I have been very clear that I do not think those conditions [for a border poll] have been met.” A claim he repeated at the launch of the Tory Party’s general election manifesto. Nevertheless, both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have repeatedly called for a border poll. The Sinn Féin manifesto said:

“Sinn Féin believes there should be a referendum vote on Irish unity within the next five years… Ending partition has now taken on a new dynamic following the Brexit referendum.”

The UK leaving the EU has raised fears amongst Catholics (a majority of whom voted Remain, a majority of Protestants voted Leave), that a “hard border” will be a block to them achieving their aspiration of a united Ireland. Many nationalists also look to the EU as a form of guarantor of their human rights and a check to stop a return to the discrimination of the past. These fears are being played upon by Sinn Féin in order to rouse support for a border poll.

European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the third priority in the Brexit negotiations was avoiding a border on the island of Ireland: “In order to protect the peace and reconciliation process described by the GFA, we must aim to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland,” The Irish Times, 17 May 2017. If the UK and the EU fail in this aim then it can create the conditions for increased sectarian conflict and conflict with the British and Irish states. Aside from the potential economic impact of tariffs and custom controls on jobs and business, a hard border between North and South would have a detrimental impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people living in the border communities. Thousands commute daily back and forth across the border to work, to school, to visit relatives and even to use health services. Even “moderate” nationalist spokespersons such as Denis Bradley have spoken of a violent reaction to the re-imposition of custom posts and border controls, “If there is any attempt to construct a hard border I think the passions are so high that the people will pull it down,” The Irish Times, 4 July 2016.

Sectarian polarisation grows

Brexit has put the border centre-stage, but it’s not just Brexit that has created this situation – it would have developed anyway, as was shown by the two elections in 2017. The consequences of demographic changes are imprinting themselves on the political situation. Residential segregation has been a major feature of life in the North since the Troubles first erupted. Social housing is almost completely segregated and the expanding Catholic population in Belfast is creating the potential for new conflicts over territory, as was shown by the recent dispute in South Belfast over the erection of UVF flags