The UK is a failed constitutional project. It’s time to unite Ireland.
The 100 year anniversary of the creation of the statelet that was named ‘Northern Ireland’ is set to be a topic of discussion in anticipation of the official marking of the occasion in May 2021. As Irish people from this part of Ireland, we have noted that in both Britain and the rest of Ireland there are many misunderstandings, and indeed a general lack of interest, in the unique political situation here. As the centenary approaches and the border imposed on Ireland by Britain is once again being used as political bait, we argue why it is as crucial as ever to understand why ending the union is the only way out of this political crisis.
The promise of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) to address the problems that arose out of ‘the Troubles’, rather than addressing the problems existing out of the partition of the island, was not fulfilled. Since the GFA there has instead been a normalisation of a more peaceful but ever divided society that had for decades been the site of war. Although the worst aspects of the conflict are behind us, the legacy of imperialism and sectarianism are still prominent features in the region. The weight of historical circumstances has not been lifted and deep-rooted inequalities remain. In its 100 years of existence the region has been fraught with permanent uncertainty. From its bloody creation to current dysfunction, we cannot depend on the status quo to address the needs of the still very broken society.
When the smoke had cleared from the pogroms that marked its violent birth, the statelet settled into what was essentially an apartheid system. The six counties that make up the region were selected so as to create an in-built unionist majority over the largest possible territory, insulating it against the democratic will of the Irish people as a whole. This would ensure that the whole island could not become a sovereign and independent republic. The Stormont Government, an avowedly Protestant Regime, that governed from 1921 for a further fifty years, was deliberately empowered to suppress Catholic civil rights and political expression.
The injustices that underpinned this undemocratic regime led directly to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The brutal suppression of the movement by the British-backed Stormont government led to the armed conflict known euphemistically as ‘the Troubles’. Many young nationalists – long-downtrodden, disenfranchised, and disillusioned – abandoned hope of peaceful reform of the statelet and instead determined to overthrow it and end partition. After an initial insurgency period which briefly led some to believe that British withdrawal was imminent, the conflict settled into the so-called Long War; a low-intensity but lengthy conflict characterised by sporadic guerrilla warfare, bombings, tit-for-tat killings and intercommunal violence. A circular pattern of violence emerged between Irish republicans, British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries which often saw civilians deliberately targeted or caught in the middle.
While the GFA saw an end to the armed conflict, the so-called ‘Peace Dividend’ – a promised investment boom to help rebuild the Northern economy – never materialised. Even before the 1970s, the economy had been in steady decline as the manufacturing sector began shutting down and selling up. Three decades of conflict had also left the North with one of most underdeveloped regions in Europe. The transformation of the economic balance on the island throughout the last century has been remarkable. While today over 80% of industrial production happens in the South, the situation was almost completely reversed a century ago, when 70% of economic output was concentrated in three North Eastern counties.
In the South, the GDP and average wage per capita is nearly double that of the North. In nearly every socio-economic indicator – from education levels to happiness to social mobility – the North lags. Even in the twenty years since the GFA, the North’s economy has been characterised by stagnation and the lowest levels of investment in Europe. In particular, the region west of the Bann river and along the border (including much of counties Derry, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh) has experienced very little development. This region in particular has some of the lowest rates of pay and the highest rates of poverty compared with the rest of Ireland, Britain and Western Europe.
The dire economic situation in the post-GFA era is paralleled by the bleak political situation, where the absence of a functioning government has been grudgingly accepted. Disbanded for longer periods than it has ever operated, the Executive and the Assembly have failed to provide adequate redress of longstanding grievances. Even today, political parties are currently debating whether the native language of the island is ‘contentious’. Devolution strictly limits the power of the Assembly, and legislative freedom is further restrained as London controls the purse strings. In addition, mandatory coalition means that what little power the Executive has, is divided among parties which have fundamental ideological differences rendering it unconducive to effective governance. This is essentially the management of division and an entrenched system of sectarianism. In the meantime, Whitehall and Westminter still tacitly rule over the broken statlet which falls foul of even the most basic democratic standards.
For many outside observers the so-called ‘Irish Question’ was essentially solved by the Good Friday Agreement and was only posed again with the debate about the UK leaving the EU and how to address the border in Ireland. Ireland continues to experience the harsh realities of partition and continued British intervention. This might not sit well with the hand-wringers who recently feigned shock that Westminster might renege on international commitments in relation to Europe. But it’s the cold, hard truth. History was not on pause between 1998 and 2016. Far from the promised sunny uplands, the six counties experienced new convulsions of sectarian division, deepening fault lines in the segregation of neighbourhoods as well as prolonged economic stagnation while Britain patted itself for a job well done.
As the centenary approaches, it’s clear that growing numbers of people see no solutions to the problems of poverty, poor mental health and joblessness coming from Stormont or the British state. The left in Britain can no longer merely pay uncritical lip service to the GFA and ignore the fundamental contradictions now staring our two islands in the face. As the dysfunctions of the political system are laid bare, the strains on the Union are carving out the space for a discussion that the UK has failed as a constitutional project. Sooner rather than later, principled voices on the British left are going to have to acknowledge the need to move away from claims of neutrality and rediscover the tradition of supporting, unashamedly, a secular, socialist and united Ireland.
Pluto Press are proud to publish books on the radical history and politics of Ireland. In March, we are publishing the memoirs of Patrick Magee, otherwise known as the ‘Brighton Bomber’, chronicling his early years, time in the IRA, and later involvement in the peace process. Where Grieving Begins: Building Bridges after the Brighton Bomb is available to pre-order now.
Other books include Bobby Sands: Nothing But an Unfinished Song by Denis O’Hearn, as well as Counterinsurgency and Collusion in Northern Ireland by Mark McGovern, which is a ground-breaking analysis of UK state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles.
We will be publishing more books on the subject next year. To get updates on our new books, you can subscribe to our newsletter, which also gives you 50% off your first order with us.