Hundreds of activists joined Labour Outook’s Forum on “Why Socialists Support A United Ireland”, setting out some of the history of the British left’s relationship with the issue of Irish reunification and its contemporary relevance. Ben Hayes, Islington North CLP & Arise Festival Activist reports back.
Francie Molloy, MP for Mid Ulster, opened the discussion by making the case that both socialism and republicanism “are about exercising democratic control over all aspects of people’s lives”, and are therefore intrinsically linked in the context of Ireland. The creation of two separate states on the island of Ireland had partitioned not just the institutions of the country, but its people: meaning championing national self-determination is vital for socialists.
The impact of partition can still be seen economically, with the British government still controlling how much the NI Executive can spend and 20% of workers in the north of Ireland earning less than the Living Wage. Molloy also highlighted how the case of Brexit exposed the issues with the current setup from a democratic standpoint.
However, he stated that the signing of the Good Friday Agreement had “offered a vision of what was possible”, and called for the British government and opposition to set out their criteria for holding a unity referendum (as set out in the GFA).
Molloy summarised that the British labour movement should be engaging in the discussion and making the case for a United Ireland: both as part of the principle of supporting national self-determination and as a step forward for the advance of socialist politics in England, Scotland and Wales.
Geoff Bell, historian and campaigner with Labour For Irish Unity, echoed the call for clarity on the position of the Labour Party in relation to the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. Bell highlighted that even in the 1980s under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, the official position of the party was to be ‘persuaders’ for a ‘United Ireland by consent’, and asked why this should not be possible in current circumstances.
Discrimination against nationalist and Catholic comunities was at the heart of the creation of the northern state: which is why the Good Friday Agreement’s commitment to a society based on equal rights and institutions which act with fairness meant the DUP opposed it from the very beginning, he argued.
The crisis of unionism (as seen in the recent internal wranglings of the DUP, with Jeffrey Donaldson recently taking over as Leader after his predecessor lasted just 21 days in the role), Bell outlined, is based on the increasingly exposed irrational case for partition: an arrangement that means two separate states, currencies etc on an island with a population of around 7 million people.
The contributions sparked an insightful discussion, with former Labour Party NEC member Rachel Garnham mentioning previous solidarity visits to Ireland from socialists based here, and the need to re-engage with the best traditions of the left in Britain when it comes to campaigning on this issue.
Other issues raised included the importance of assuring unionists that a United Ireland will be an inclusive one, with no return of the category of second class citizen, and dispelling the notion that the national question is fundamentally about religious conflict- with speakers pointing out that many Protestants have played a hugely significant role in the republican movement, all the way back to Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen in the late 1700s. The significance of Sinn Fein’s emerging from last year’s Dail election as the largest party was also discussed, in addition to the importance of support for justice campaigns and cases such as Bloody Sunday and the Ballymurphy Massacre, demonstrating the nature of the British state’s historical role in Ireland.
Concluding the event, Molloy outlined that, far from being a power struggle between warring tribes, the cause of reunification is about winning power for all the people of Ireland. He emphasised the role of republicans not as wanting to simply transfer the 6 northern counties currently ruled by the British government to the present Irish government, but to fight to create a new Ireland. This means a state that, rather than “fighting wars around the world”, exists to defend and advance the interests of the entirety of the population: as he put it, a new socialist republic.
Bell argued that it is important for socialists to understand that partition represents a huge barrier to the advancement of the Irish working class, and that removing it is therefore a crucial task when it comes to strengthening the left in both countries. He ended with a call to get the issue of Irish Unity on the agenda in the Labour Party and the British labour movement more generally in this vital period.
You can watch the forum in full here…