By Seán MacBrádaigh.
As we approach the centenary of Britain’s partition of Ireland it is important to reflect on how the events of that period continue to influence the reality of Ireland today; how the legacy of political conservatism can be overcome; and why socialists should lead the building of a new Ireland.
By executing the 1916 leaders, the British removed the revolutionary leadership including the most advanced and progressive thinkers and activists, including Ireland’s foremost Marxist, James Connolly.
The revolutionary period was quickly followed by counter revolution and the establishment of two deeply conservative states, controlled and administered in the interests of economic elites, North and South.
What emerged in the North was a sectarian, one-party political slum where nationalists were excluded from power and denied opportunity. The “carnival of reaction” that Connolly predicted would follow partition saw systemic sectarian discrimination in the North’s economy and housing allocation, blatant gerrymandering of the electoral system, and the exclusion of any official manifestation of Irish identity in public life.
The unionist working class, while their living conditions were little different from their nationalist counterparts, were kept in line by an appeal to unity with their wealthier co-religionists through the Orange Order, being offered a marginal advantage in the employment market and made to distrust their fellow workers who were Catholic.
The South too witnessed deep reaction. In the Civil War, the forces of conservatism – the church hierarchy, the media and big business – all supported the Free State regime and opposed those who held out for a republic. The Free State was harsh on the poor, on women and on republicans or radicals of any kind.
Liam Mellows’s prophecy during the Treaty debates that, if accepted, partition would see men who assumed political power seeking “above all else” to hold on to that power, was vindicated. The result was an economy built in the interests of a wealthy, merchant class, big farmers, and a society which was morally policed by an extremely conservative Catholic hierarchy.
This claustrophobic, confessional atmosphere witnessed the horrors of the Magdalene laundries, the censorship of Ireland’s greatest literary minds, repeated waves of mass emigration and decades of economic stagnation.
Partition also divided the national movement from the labour movement with socialist and social-democratic forces marginalised by the dominance of ‘Civil War’ parties in the South and the division between unionist and nationalist camps in the North.
The primary objective of republicans has always been the creation of a reunified, independent country. But the ultimate aim must be to build a socialist republic. As James Connolly said: “If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the Green Flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic, your efforts would be in vain”.
A country in transition
Ireland in 2019 is a country in transition. The key props that upheld the conservative two-state arrangement since 1921 are being kicked away one-by-one. The power and influence of the Catholic Church has been fatally undermined, through the combined weight of scandals and social modernisation. Much of the liberal agenda has been delivered in the South. Abortion and marriage equality – unthinkable only a few short years ago – are now realities.
In the North, the Orange state has been dismantled as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, demographic changes and an assertive republicanism that has promoted a potent rights agenda. The once seemingly permanent unionist political majority is now gone.
However, with the fundamentalist Democratic Unionist Party blocking any legislative progress to match social realities, the North looks increasingly anachronistic in comparison to Britain or the rest of Ireland. Brexit will bring a further existential crisis for unionism, which it will be unable to withstand.
It is important that the left takes the lead role in shaping the new Ireland that emerges from all this change. A united Ireland cannot be about grafting the North onto the South. Rather, it should about building an entirely new Ireland with political structures that guarantee that the working class are finally in charge.
The father of Irish republicanism, Wolfe Tone, said: “Our Independence must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not help us, they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – the men of no property.”
So, the campaign for a united Ireland must be linked to the everyday struggles of the people, whether for a national health service, free public transport, a major public housing programme, or fair pay and decent conditions for workers.
Partition is a class issue
The left has to deal, as a priority, with the constitutional issue. This is not helped by the attitude of certain elements on the left who apparently oppose a united Ireland referendum on the spurious basis that it is ‘sectarian’.
The constitutional question is a class issue. It cannot be avoided or wished away. Maintaining the border – which underpins sectarianism and working-class division, and entrenches the conservative status quo – is an untenable position for an Irish socialist.
The societal changes we are currently witnessing are important in building a modern, inclusive society across the island of Ireland. What is much less certain is whether this will be turned into an opportunity to bring about greater economic equality or further advance the struggle of the working class to achieve political power.
It is therefore incumbent on the broad left to recognise the conditions that now exist to build an equal society that primarily serves the interests of the working class. Irish society is as deeply divided as ever between those who have economic power and those who do not.
For thousands of Irish children in 2019, their ‘home’ is a B&B or hotel room. Banks and vulture funds are taking the roof from over the heads of struggling families. Countless households simply cannot meet their weekly bills.
The notion that the markets can deliver prosperity for all has been relentlessly promoted by the conservative political parties and the establishment media commentariat. In recent decades, many of the rights of working people, which were hard won through popular struggle, have been reversed.
A huge challenge facing those who wish to turn this situation around is that for decades successive Irish governments – influenced by the neoliberal ideology that has dominated the European Union (EU) – have stripped the state of much of its power to build a fairer society.
Even within the narrow confines of liberal democracy, decision-making power has been transferred from political representatives to investors, bankers and technocrats. As a result, when the market inevitably fails, as it did in spectacular fashion in 2008, governments – even if they had the political will – have neither the strength nor the tools to deal with the situation.
The Irish left needs to unite around rebuilding the state and in so doing, rebuild society. The state has a central role in investing in jobs, public services and building sustainable communities. This raises fundamental questions about Ireland’s relationship with an EU that is increasingly marked by a democratic deficit and a neoliberal ideology that seeks to further dismantle the nation state.
A broad-based people’s movement
A courageous, compassionate Irish nation state should be a key objective of the Irish left. If the socialist and republican left fails to lead this fight – and instead indulges in political sectarianism – Ireland will not remain immune to the emergence of the type of radical, right-wing political threat we have seen in other European countries.
The left must harness and utilise the energy and youth witnessed in the marriage equality, Repeal the 8th and anti-water charges campaigns to promote the objective of a deeper and broader notion of equality. We need to learn the lessons of successful campaigns to mount a broad-based movement of people, trade unions and left organisations to directly challenge an economic system that has made life increasingly unequal and precarious for so many.
We must also talk to the working class in their own language and on their own terms and not that of the political class or of US university campus identity politics.
We need also to see the election to the Dáil of greater numbers of genuine working-class voices and radical representatives of rural Ireland.
The establishment media thrives on promoting a false narrative of a rural-urban divide, which unfortunately certain elements of the left play into. This is a barrier to the creation of a truly national movement for radical political transformation.
Parliament, the workplace and the streets are all theatres of struggle for a genuine working-class movement for change. This will require activity beyond the narrow confines of Dáil debates, and the mobilisation of communities and workers will be key to a real political challenge to the unequal and unfair distribution of wealth and power in Ireland today.
Seán Mac Brádaigh is a Sinn Féin press officer and activist. He is the party’s former director of publicity as well as the former editor of An Phoblacht