By Ruairí Creaney.
Irish unity is on the agenda. Across Ireland, it is being discussed in the media, at dinner tables and workplaces on a daily basis. While the endless calamity of a Brexit led by hard-right Tories, and the possibility of a hard border being imposed on our country against our will, has ensured that the debate on Irish unity has largely centred on our membership of the European Union, there is much more at stake.
The debate has begun, but it has struggled to move beyond questions of national identity and what Irish unity would mean for businesses and trade. Little attention has been paid to what it would mean for the working people who make up the majority of this island.
To broaden this debate, a group of us in the Irish labour movement recently launched Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland (TUNUI), an initiative aimed at shifting this debate to the left and at putting economic and social justice at the heart of the discussion, rather than just focusing on what it would mean for the business classes. We want to articulate a specifically trade union-led vision for Irish unity and why this issue is one that should be a concern of workers.
So far, we have secured the public support of 150 trade union officials and senior activists, including two veterans of the famous 1984 Dunnes Stores anti-Apartheid strike. To properly initiate the debate on constitutional change within the labour movement, we will be hosting a conference, entitled ‘Uniting Ireland – Uniting Workers’ in Dublin this summer. We are inviting trade unionists and progressive activists from across Ireland to attend this conference and take part in this historic and exciting debate.
Bringing class politics to this debate
The trade union movement is uniquely positioned to offer three important contributions to the discussion on reunification.
Firstly, TUNUI want to bring class politics into the debate. The partition of Ireland not only divided our country geographically; it divided the labour movement and it divided working people along sectarian lines in the North. This product of the counter-revolution benefited only the wealthy establishment on both sides of Britain’s border in Ireland.
The trade union movement represents the interests of the mass of working people who create society’s wealth as opposed to the wealthy minority who control it. We recognise that the interests of working people are in direct conflict with the bosses. When workers seek better pay, the bosses seek ‘efficiency savings’ in order to boost profits.
No such thing as a ‘national interest’
Consequently, we recognise that while class conflict exists, there can be no such thing as an Irish ‘national interest’, as if we all seek the same thing. Nations are made up of classes with competing economic interests. The economic interests of Michael O’Leary, for instance, are very different from those of the Ryanair baggage handler. The interests of the tax-dodging corporations and the lawyers and accountants who facilitate them are not the same as an overworked nurse or a primary school teacher.
An opportunity for a new beginning
Irish reunification will be a chance for our country to have a new beginning, and will present an opportunity for progressives to ensure that the mistakes of the last century are not repeated. Constitutional change will mean that we could steer our economy from serving the interests of multinational corporations and towards serving the needs of working people. That means ending the scandalous tax haven system in the south, establishing universal free health care and introducing proper trade union rights for every worker.
Throughout the debate on Irish unity, much of the focus of civic nationalism has understandably been placed on protecting the rights of Irish citizens in the North that are under threat as a result of Brexit.
Little focus, however, has been put on advancing the economic and material conditions of working people. The whole discussion up to now has been contained strictly within the realms of what Mark Fisher described as ‘capitalist realism’.
The ownership of industry and our natural resources is not up for debate. The imbalance of power between capital and labour will not change. The harsh rule of the market is seen as an inevitability. As with so much else in our neoliberal age, ‘there is no alternative’.
We seek to challenge this narrative. We want to ensure that constitutional change will lead to a massive social transformation that will improve the lives of working people.
More that unites than divides us
Secondly, the trade union movement is Ireland’s largest civic society organisation, encompassing people from every ethnic background. There is a colonial myth that working people in the North are bloodthirsty tribes that despise each other and are incapable of having a civilised debate about our collective future.
Furthermore, there is an insidious and snobbish narrative that unionist workers are afraid of having a debate about Irish unity. This is offensive, patronising and dismissive to an entire section of society and ultimately displays an underlying prejudice against working-class people.
Trade unionists have the ability to break down racial, ethnic and sectarian barriers and organise working people based on their class interests. We want to ensure that this debate moves beyond the issues of identity of ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalist’ and towards broader issues of who gets to own our natural resources and how the wealth of this country is distributed. We know that there is more that unites us than divides us, and class politics is how we achieve that unity.
Independent advocacy of working-class interests
Thirdly, and most importantly, we want to empower working people to advance their own rights. Some in civic nationalism have called on the Irish Tories of Fine Gael to protect the rights of nationalists in the North. Again, these rights have not included economic rights.
No mention has been made of the fact that Fine Gael has always opposed the basic right of workers to collectively bargain; that they are opposed to the right to housing; and actively undermine the public health system in order to promote the private for-profit health sector. Why would anyone seriously believe that these people are suited to protect the rights of people in the North when they are undermining basic rights in the south?
Organise for real change in trade unions
Rather than appealing to Tories like Leo Varadkar or the institutionally neoliberal European Union, the most effective way for working people to protect and advance their rights is by organising into strong trade unions and fighting for those rights. This is how we won the 8-hour working day, the weekend, paid annual leave and every other right many of us take for granted.
For those of us involved with Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland, reunification is not about nationalism. It is about democracy and participation.
We are not nationalists; we are trade unionists, democrats, socialists and internationalists. The debate on Irish unity has already begun, and it is vital that trade unionists step up and articulate our vision for society.
If we fail to do so, we will abandon that ground to corporate interests and they will mould a new society in their interests. This would be a continuation of the tax haven status of Ireland, the crumbling public health system and mass homelessness. Trade unionists avoid this debate at our peril.
Ruairí Creaney is a spokesperson for Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland. Follow him on Twitter @RuairiCreaney.
Image above : Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland at their Linen Hall Library launch in February. Pictured from left are former Siptu division organiser Christy McQuillan, Debbie Coyle of Unison, Mick Halpenny of Siptu and spokesman Ruairí Creaney. Picture: Mal McCann.