Tag Archives: Good Friday Agreement

Irish Elections and Reunification

Irish Elections & unification

Dispatches From the Edge

Feb. 15, 2020

 

The victory by Ireland’s leftwing Sinn Fein Party in the Republic’s recent election has not only overturned some 90 years of domination by the island’s two center-right parties, it suddenly puts the issue of Irish reunification on the agenda. While the campaign was fought over bread and butter issues like housing, the collapsing health care system, and homelessness, a united Ireland has long been Sinn Fein’s raison d’être. In the aftermath, Party leaders called for a border referendum on the subject.

 

But nothing is simple in Ireland, most of all, reunification.

 

For starters, the election’s outcome is enormously complex. Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) did get the largest number of first-choice votes—Ireland has a system of rated voting—but not by much. The center-right parties that have taken turns ruling since 1922—Fine Gael (the Irish Tribe) and Fianna Fail (Soldiers of Destiny)—took 22% and 21% respectively to Sinn Fein’s 24.5%.

 

Although other progressive parties, like the Greens, also did well, it would be extremely difficult to form a government without one of the two big traditional parties. Fine Gael has ruled out working with Sinn Fein because of its association with the Irish Republican Army, but Fianna Fail is hedging its bets. Party leader Michael Martin was coy in the aftermath of the vote, saying he respected the democratic decision of the Irish people.

 

But getting from the election’s outcome to actual governance promises to be a difficult process, and one that, in the end, might fail, forcing yet another general election. Sinn Fein will be reluctant to play second fiddle to Fianna Fail—the latter won one more seat than Sinn Fein—since junior partners tend to do badly in follow up elections. Sinn Fein would have won more seats if it had fielded more candidates, but it was reluctant to do so because it had taken a beating in local elections just seven months earlier. The Irish lower house, or Dail, has 180 seats.

 

If governance looks complex, try reunification.

 

On the one hand, there are any number of roadblocks to reuniting the Republic and Northern Ireland, many of them historical. On the other hand, there are some very practical reasons for considering such a move. Sorting them out will be the trick.

 

Northern Ireland—called the Plantation of Ulster by Elizabeth I—was established in 1609 after driving out the two major Irish clans, the O’Neills and the O’Donnels, and seizing 500,000 square acres of prime farm land. Some 20,000 Protestants, many of them Scots, were moved in to replace them.

 

From the beginning, Ulster was meant to be an ethnic stronghold. Protestants who used native Irish labor had to pay special taxes and eventually even intermarriage with Catholics was discouraged. Protestant farmers got special deals on rent and land improvements—the “Ulster Privilege”—and Catholics were politically and economically marginalized. Hatred between the two communities was actively stoked by extremist Protestant organizations like The Orange Order. The name comes from William of Orange (William III), the Protestant husband of Mary II, queen of England.

 

This is hardly ancient history. Up until recently, Protestants controlled Northern Ireland through a combination of disenfranchising Catholics and direct repression. In 1972 a peaceful march in Londonderry demanding civil rights was attacked by British paratroopers, who gunned down 24 unarmed people, killing 14 of them. “Bloody Sunday” was the beginning of “The Troubles,” a low-scale civil war that took more than 3600 lives and deeply scarred both communities.

 

Getting past that history will be no easy task, even though the Good Friday Agreement ended the fighting in 1998 and established the current assembly in Northern Ireland, the Stormont. A recent agreement between the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the largely Catholic Sinn Fein Party has the Stormont up and running after a three-year hiatus.

 

The practical reasons for re-examining reunification are legion.

 

During the 2016 Brexit vote, Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the European Union (EU). A majority of Protestants voted to leave, but a strong Catholic vote tipped the scales to “remain.” Northern Ireland gets more than $780 million yearly from the EU to support agriculture and encourage cultural development and intra-community peace.

 

What was once one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world has been dismantled, and Ulster exports to the Republic are worth $4.4 billion a year. And because the border is open, the North has an outlet for its goods through the Republic. If Ulster follows Britain out of the EU, however, that will change. While there is agreement not to reestablish a “hard” border, Ulster’s imports from Britain will still have to be inspected to make sure they follow EU regulations.

 

The Protestants were promised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there would be no EU inspections, but “promises” and “principles” are two words that don’t easily co-exist with the word “Johnson.” The Prime Minister—no longer dependent on the DUP for votes in the London Parliament—double crossed the DUP and agreed to a EU inspection regime in the Irish Sea.

 

It is not clear how most of the people in both countries feel about reunification. Exit polls in the south found that most voters would support a referendum on unification.

 

Polls also show that many Northern Irish would consider it as well, although that sentiment is sharply divided between “unionist” Protestants and “loyalist” Protestants. The former are more concerned with stability than religious sectarianism, and if Brexit has a negative impact on Ulster—the outcome most economists expect—they might be open to the idea.

 

The “loyalists,” however, will certainly resist, a fact that gives Irish in the Republic pause. The south has gone through a long and painful economic recovery from the crash of 2008 and many are not enthusiastic about suddenly inheriting a bunch of people who don’t want to be there.

 

Sinn Fein argues that the Good Friday Agreement essentially says that the Irish have a right to choose without reference to Britain, and is pushing for a border referendum. Under the Agreement, however, if the vote to reunite fails, another can’t be taken for seven years.

 

Sinn Fein did as well as it did—particularly among the young—because of its political program to build 100,000 homes, freeze rents for three years, increase aid to education, house the homeless, improve health care, and tax the wealthy. Those are also issues in the north, where 300,000 people are currently waiting to see a medical specialist. Some15,000 medical workers recently went on strike to protest long hours and poor pay.

 

At this point, Ulster’s Sinn Fein has seven representatives to the British parliament, but refuses to send them because they would have to swear an oath to the Crown. If Sinn Fein has any hopes of getting enough people in the north to consider reunification, however, it will have to rid itself of such nationalist trappings, and convince the majority of Protestants that their traditions will be respected.

 

This may be less difficult than it was several years ago, because the Catholic Church in the Republic has gone into deep decline, pummeled by charges of child abuse and the exploitation of unwed mothers. The Catholic Church in the Republic fought hard against initiatives in 2015 and 2018 supporting gay marriage and abortion, and lost badly both times.

 

If unification is the goal, supporters in the Republic and Ulster will have to be patient, and show that they can deliver a better life for the entire community. That will have less to do with Ireland’s “long sorrow” ancient hatreds than with decent health care, good schools, affordable housing and well-paid jobs. All the Irish can get behind that program.

 

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Brexit and A Brave New World

Brexit & A Brave New World

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2017

 

As the clock ticks down on Britain’s exit from the European Union, one could not go far wrong casting British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as the hopeful Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest: ”How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t.” And Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May as Lady Macbeth: “Out damned spot, out, I say!”

 

With the French sharpening their knives, the Tories in disarray, the Irish demanding answers, and a scant 17 months to go before Brexit kicks in, the whole matter is making for some pretty good theater. The difficulty is distinguishing between tragedy and farce.

 

The Conservative’s Party’s Oct. 1-4 conference in Manchester was certainly low comedy. The meeting hall was half empty, and May’s signature address was torpedoed by a coughing fit and a prankster who handed her a layoff notice. Then the Tories’ vapid slogan “Building a country that works for everyone” fell on to the stage. And several of May’s cabinet members were openly jockeying to replace her.

 

In contrast, the Labour Party’s conference at Brighton a week earlier was jam packed with young activists busily writing position papers, and Corbyn gave a rousing speech that called for rolling back austerity measures, raising taxes on the wealthy and investing in education, health care and technology.

 

Looming over all of this is March 2019, the date by which the complex issues involving Britain’s divorce from the EU need to be resolved. The actual timeline is even shorter, since it will take at least six months for the European parliament and the EU’s 28 members to ratify any agreement.

 

Keeping all those ducks in a row is going to take considerable skill, something May and the Conservatives have shown not a whit of.

 

The key questions to be resolved revolve around people and money, of which the first is the stickiest.

 

Members of the EU have the right to travel and work anywhere within the countries that make up the trade alliance. They also have access to health and welfare benefits, although there are some restrictions on these. Millions of non-British, EU citizens currently reside in the United Kingdom. What happens to those people when Brexit kicks in? And what about the two million British that live in other EU countries?

 

Controlling immigration was a major argument for those supporting an exit from the EU, though its role has been over-estimated. Many Brexit voters simply wanted to register their outrage with the mainstream parties—Labour and Tories alike—that had, to one extent or another, backed policies which favored the wealthy and increased economic inequality. In part, the EU was designed to lower labor costs in order to increase exports.

 

Indeed, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982 to 1998) pressed the EU to admit Central and Eastern Europe countries precisely because they would provide a pool of cheap labor that could be used to weaken unions throughout the trade bloc. In this he was strongly supported by the British. Union membership in Britain has declined from over 13 million in 1979 to just over six million today.

 

The Conservatives want to impede immigration, and also have full access to the trade bloc, what has been termed the “have your cake and eat it too” strategy. So far that approach has been a non-starter with the rest of the EU. Polls show that only 30 percent of EU members think that that Britain should be offered a favorable deal. This drops to 19 percent in France

 

The Conservatives themselves are split on what they want. One faction is pressing for a “hard Brexit” that rigidly controls immigration, abandons the single market and customs union, and rejects any role for the European Court of Justice.

 

Another “soft Brexit” faction would accept EU regulations and the Court of Justice, because they are afraid that bailing out of the single market will damage the British economy. Given that countries like Japan, China and the U.S. seem reluctant to cut independent trade deals with Britain, that is probably an accurate assessment.

 

While the Tories are beating up on one another, the Labour Party has distanced itself from the issue, quietly supporting a “soft” exit, but mainly talking about the issues that motivated many of the Brexit voters in the first place: the housing crisis, health care, the rising cost of education, and growing inequality. That platform worked in the June 2017 snap election that saw the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority and Labour pick up 32 seats.

 

Divorces are not only messy, they’re expensive.

 

This past September, May offered to pay the EU 20 billion Euros to disentangle Britain from the bloc, but EU members are demanding at least 60 billion Euros—some want up to 100 billion—and refuse to talk about Britain’s access to the trade bloc until that issue is resolved. All talk of “cake” has vanished.

 

And then there is Ireland.

 

The island is hardly a major player in the EU. The Republic’s GDP is 15th in the big bloc, but it shares a border with Northern Ireland. Even though the North voted to remain in the EU, it will have to leave when Britain does. What happens with its border is no small matter, in part because it is not a natural one.

 

Those counties that were a majority Protestant in 1921 became part of Ulster, while Catholic majority counties remained in the southern Republic. During the “Troubles” from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the border was heavily militarized and guarded by thousands of British troops. No one—north or south—wants walls and watch towers again.

 

But trade between the Republic and Ulster will have to be monitored to insure that taxes are paid, environmental laws are followed, and all of the myriad of EU rules are adhered to.

 

Other than trade there is the matter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the fighting between Catholics and Protestants. While laying out a way to settle the differences between the two communities through power sharing, it also re-defined the nature of sovereignty. Essentially the Irish Republic and Britain agreed that neither country had a claim on Ulster, and that Northern Irish residents be accepted as “Irish, or British or both, as they may so choose”

 

Such fluid definition of sovereignty is threatened by the Brexit, and most of all by the fact that May and the Conservatives—at the price of a two billion Euro bribe— have aligned themselves with the extremely right wing and sectarian Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, in order to pass legislation. While the pact between the two is not a formal alliance, it nonetheless undermines the notion that the British government is a “neutral and honest broker” in Northern Ireland.

 

May did not even mention the Irish border issue in her September talk, although the EU has made it clear that the subject must be resolved.

 

Talks between Britain and the EU are barely inching along, partly because the Conservatives are deeply divided, partly because the EU is not sure May can deliver or that the current government will last to the next general elections in 2022. With Labour on the ascendency, May reliant on an extremist party to stay in power, and countries like France licking their chops at poaching the financial institutions that currently work out of London, EU members are in no rush to settle things. May is playing a weak hand and Brussels knows it.

 

Eventually, the Labour Party will have to engage with Brexit more than it has, but Corbyn is probably correct in his estimate that the major specter haunting Europe today is not Britain’s exit but anger at growing inequality, increasing job insecurity, a housing crisis, and EU strictures that have turned economic strategy over to unelected bureaucrats and banks.

 

“The neoliberal agenda of the last four decades may have been good for the 1 percent,” says Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, “but not for the rest.” Those policies were bound to have “political consequences,” he says, and “that day is finally upon us.”

 

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