The issue of the border between the British-occupied six north-eastern counties of Ireland and the 26-County Republic has emerged as one of the key stumbling blocks in Britain’s tortuous path towards leaving the European Union.
With the toxic mixture of imperial arrogance, short-sightedness and cynical duplicity that has always characterised British imperialism’s attitude to the Irish people, Theresa May’s government, itself riven with divisions and scarcely knowing which way to turn, and dependent for its very survival on a sleazy deal with the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), thought that the question of the border, the economic coordination and harmony between the two parts of Ireland, and the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, solemn and binding in international law, could all be swept under the carpet with some vague and meaningless words. It was not to be.
With the revolutionary nationalists of Sinn Féin steadily gaining in support and breathing down their necks, the Dublin government, despite being led by Fine Gael, traditionally the most pro-British party in mainstream politics in that state, has been forced to take a stand. And, with Britain heading for the exit, rather than being even-headed, the remaining 26 member states of the EU only have an obligation to back the Irish position. Moreover, they are presently more than happy to be handed a convenient stick with which to beat ‘Perfidious Albion’ for having had the temerity to upset the EU apple cart. For perhaps the first time ever, therefore, Ireland is currently enjoying the upper hand internationally in a dispute with Britain.
Any return to a so-called ‘hard border’ between the two parts of Ireland, which in some form seems inevitable if the UK insists on leaving the customs union and the single market, and refuses to accept freedom of movement between the UK and the EU, besides being in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, an affront to the Irish people, and entailing major security implications, would also adversely affect the economic interests and well-being of many among those sections of the people in the north who have traditionally supported the union with Britain.
It was therefore highly significant that an opinion poll conducted in early December showed for the first time that people in the north of Ireland would prefer to join a united Ireland and maintain their EU membership than stay in the UK and be outside the bloc in the event of a ‘hard Brexit’.
According to the poll, 57.8% believe that the north should be given ‘special status’ in the EU, which would involve remaining in the customs union and the single market, a position advocated by Sinn Féin. 47.9% of people would support joining the Republic in the event of a hard Brexit, while 45.4% would rather stay in the UK. Another 6% said they were ‘undecided’, but would definitely vote, while fewer than 1% said they would not vote or would spoil their ballot.
The poll also found 52.4% believe there will be a reduction in rights as a result of leaving the EU and 75.8% think EU standards should be maintained after leaving.
Duncan Morrow, a Politics lecturer at Ulster University, described the result as probably the first time a poll in northern Ireland had shown “a majority for a United Ireland in any circumstances”.
The polling company Lucid Talk published the survey on 7 December. The same company accurately predicted the result of the Brexit referendum in the six counties within a 1% margin. Whilst the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU by a narrow margin, the north of Ireland voted to remain by a majority of 56% to 44%.
Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson, commenting on the poll findings, told the Derry Journal:
“This vote, just like that of the majority who voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum, is drawn from all sections of society across the north.
“This shows the deep level of concern about the Tory/DUP Brexit agenda, and reinforces that the DUP do not represent the views of the people of the north.
“While of course this is an opinion poll, it also chimes with what we have been hearing in our engagements with people from all sections of society from across the north.
“What this shows is that more and more people now realise that securing special status for the north within the EU is achievable and offers the best protection for the Good Friday Agreement and citizens’ rights.”
Comrade Anderson, along with other Sinn Féin leaders, urged continued vigilance and struggle after the EU decided that the UK government had given sufficient guarantees on the Irish question, the question of the rights of EU citizens living and working in the UK and Britain’s outstanding financial obligations to proceed towards substantive negotiations in the new year. Speaking from the Belgian capital on 15 December, she said:
“I was in Brussels this morning for the meeting of the European Council where it was decided that the Brexit negotiations can move on to the next stage.
“It is essential as the talks move to the next stage in the New Year that the issues of Ireland, the border, protecting north-south cooperation and trade and citizens’ rights are kept to the fore.
“They cannot be allowed to move down the agenda in favour of other items and I will be working with my fellow Sinn Féin MEPs in the European Parliament to ensure they don’t.
“There is a huge responsibility now on the Irish government to ensure it lives up to its pledges in recent days about supporting the rights of Irish citizens in the north and works to ensure the full implementation of what has been agreed and making sure there is no rolling back.
“It now has to work in the next stage of the negotiations to secure the north’s place in the customs union and single market.
“We will continue to work to ensure that commitments made are legally binding and enforced.”
Her words were echoed and reinforced the same day by David Cullinane TD, Sinn Féin spokesperson for Brexit, who said that the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, along with no return of a border on the island of Ireland, must remain red lines issues in the forthcoming round of talks.
Comrade Cullinane said:
“While the joint report signalled some progress, it is in the second round of talks that flesh will be put on the bones of this ‘gentleman’s agreement’.
“The Irish government must ensure that the north stays in the customs union, single market, and the EU legal framework.
“These are essential in order to ensure that there is no return to a border on the island of Ireland, and that the rights of Irish citizens as EU citizens in the north are protected.
“It is also essential that Irish citizens are able to exercise their rights as EU citizens in the north, not just when they travel south or to other EU countries.
“And despite what the Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] says, ‘full alignment’ in certain sectors covered by the Good Friday Agreement, such as health, education, energy and transport, will not be enough to avoid a border.
“If Britain decides to stay within the EU tariff regime, all well and good, but if it decides to deviate from it then we need legal protections to ensure that the north stays within it.
“This is now the hard part. The danger is that the issue of the north and the border will be allowed to slip off the agenda once the economic and trade interests of the larger EU countries come into play.
“We need to be vigilant and ensure that the current ‘gentleman’s agreement’ becomes a legal treaty, and that designated special status for the north is achieved.”
Earlier, in a European Parliament debate on 13 December, Martina Anderson had addressed the attempts made by the British government, especially by Brexit Secretary David Davis, to row back from the agreements made by Prime Minister May to allow negotiations to proceed. She commented:
“In today’s debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg it was clear that MEPs are concerned about the British government attempting to renege on its commitments made last week.
“I made it clear to MEPs that this is what the British government does. It makes promises necessary to get others to move forward and then they start to row back and negotiate downwards.
“We know that from years of experience of negotiations with successive British governments and their failures to implement agreements entered into…
“We also heard pledged today to turn what was in the communiqué last week into a binding legal text and that needs to happen as a matter of urgency.
“The EU and the Irish government cannot simply take the British government at their word.”
This standpoint of Sinn Féin’s, of course, comes from the experience of generations of struggle against British imperialism and vast experience of its bad faith and treachery in negotiations; a standpoint perhaps best summed up in an 8 December statement from retiring Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams that:
“Our experience through years of agreements with Britain is that the devil is in the detail.”
It is important to also note that Sinn Féin does not give a blank cheque to the reactionary imperialist role of the EU.
On 13 December, Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan condemned two votes in the European Parliament, which called for greater militarisation. Speaking from Strasbourg, she said:
“Today the European Parliament voted in favour of two reports calling for greater European militarisation. By voting in favour of the annual reports on Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Security and Defence Policy the European Parliament has endorsed increased EU military spending, and further European defence integration.
“The wording in these two reports is clearly laying the groundwork for an EU defence union and the creation of an EU army. These two reports were fully supported by the three Fine Gael MEPs.
“Today the Fine Gael MEPs have voted in favour of the creation of EU military units as part of PESCO [Permanent Structured Cooperation on defence and security], spending 2% of our GDP on defence, and for the free movement of military equipment and troops within the EU.
“Not only have the Fine Gael MEPs voted in favour of the militarisation of the EU and shown their commitment to increased defence spending, they have also voted in favour of removing the national veto on common foreign and security policy decisions. This would make small member states like Ireland virtually powerless when it comes to foreign policy decisions.
“Fine Gael need to be clear with the Irish people about the militarised, undemocratic Europe that they are helping to build.”
However, a further headache for British imperialism came with an 11 November article in The Times, which reported:
“The European Union is pressing the government to give Northern Ireland ‘Hong Kong-style’ autonomy after Brexit. The move would bestow on the nation [sic] a status distinct from the rest of Britain as a World Trade Organisation member in its own right.
“The plan, supported by Dublin, envisages Northern Ireland being granted a legal status separate from its current position as part of the United Kingdom so that European regulations and the EU customs union could continue to apply. Diplomatic sources have confirmed that the EU is studying the examples of Hong Kong and Macao, both part of China but also individual members of the WTO and operating different customs and trade regimes…
“It took British negotiators by surprise and prompted David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, to insist that the government would not accept demands that damaged the ‘constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom’” (Bruno Waterfield, ‘EU wants to split Northern Ireland from Britain’).
The Irish Times further reported that the EU had already sent officials to Hong Kong and Macao to study the Chinese experience in running special administrative regions.
Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who formulated the ‘one country two systems’ formula whereby Hong Kong and Macao were rid of colonial rule and returned to the embrace of their motherland, once remarked that this innovation could also play a role in helping to find solutions to other complex problems left over by history. It would be fitting indeed if his concept were to not only sound the death knell of colonial rule in Hong Kong but to also help do so in Britain’s oldest colony.
When, more than 100 years ago, Irish revolutionaries declared, with the outbreak of World War I, that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, they set out on the road that led to the Easter Rising, the proclamation of the Republic and the War of Independence. Today, as British imperialism continues to roast on the Brexit spit, may this ongoing difficulty serve as a powerful impetus towards the final completion of the Irish people’s great cause of national reunification, independence and freedom!