by Joe Duffy
At present, the debate around a Border Poll to determine the status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is gathering momentum. A clause in the Good Friday Agreement, which set up devolved government for Northern Ireland some 23 years ago, allows for such a poll. If a majority (over 50%) vote to end the political partition between the two countries, then there is a political imperative for new constitutional arrangements to be set up. This will gain further momentum should Scotland secede from the UK in the coming years.
The following article is submitted here to WIN (in a personal capacity) by Joe Duffy, an activist on the Dublin Council of Trade Unions who wishes to contribute to this debate. It details a critique of the approach of those, including many republican-leaning trade unionists and some left political parties, that envisage solutions to the contentious border issue primarily through a two-stage strategy.
The inherent flaws and dangers of this approach are analysed, as is a way forward to achieve reforms and build unity between workers campaigning and struggling for those reforms prior to a border poll being triggered. It is therefore not just theoretical, but practical in its orientation. Responses to this article are welcome.
Northern Ireland: Partition and Beyond
The political initiative & manifesto entitled “Uniting Ireland, Uniting Workers” is a new addition to the republican campaign for a ‘Border Poll’ as allowed for under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The manifesto document needs to be critically evaluated, as the ramifications of such a poll, not just in terms of the net poll outcome, but also in terms of any preceding, prolonged campaign’s effects in the communities in Northern Ireland could be huge. For a large section of the population both north and south of the border the jury is out on whether NI is “ready” for a Border Poll. Will such an immanent constitutional referendum unite or further divide what is widely referred to as “the two traditions.” At its worst it could end up as what some describe as a “tribal sectarian headcount ” in many areas and at best it will be a real challenge to focus the debate coolly and rationally on the optimistic course envisaged by the proposers.
In producing this critique we have studied and evaluated the above-mentioned TU4NUI manifesto. We can state that its primary theses are as follows:
- The debate over the future status of NI is now being discussed at ground and official levels and it would be negligent and irresponsible of the trade union movement not to involve themselves in that debate. (It is appropriate here to pose the question as to what extent the trade union movement, a less powerful presence in recent years, will be allowed anything other than token access into that official ‘debate’)
- The Manifesto is an attempt to focus and kick-start a campaign to put workers rights ‘front and centre’ in that discussion. It is emphasized that it cannot be a question of ‘merely stitching together two failed states’ in the name of unity and that an entirely ‘New’ Ireland is required. (The devil will not just be in the detail, but in the delivery)
- It envisages the involvement of all sections of society being involved in the process via the convening of a Citizens’ Assembly. Contributions from numerous civic groups, including submissions from unions and minority groups etc. would be considered in a process leading to a Bill of Rights and hoped for reforms with specific mention of a right to housing, fair & progressive taxation plus measures related to a Green industrial transition. (Spanner: There are no guarantees that a Citizen’s Assembly will deliver many of the reforms sought in whole or part)
- The central objective of their campaign is to support the establishment of a New and United Ireland in the wake of a Border Poll, which they believe is now all the more urgent as a result of the ‘perfect storm’ arising from the triple impact of the fall out of Brexit, the need for all-Ireland solutions to the pandemic and also the looming climate catastrophe which necessitates an all Ireland approach for maximum effectiveness.
- There is an optimistic sub-text that a Border Poll can take place in the context of a new radical government committed to introducing these left wing reforms to deliver that new Ireland…and whilst unstated it is most likely envisaged that the largest all Ireland political party will be Sinn Fein in turn leading the next Government in the ROI. And that SF would be committed to a platform of Left Reforms as envisaged.
- Underpinning the verdict that both states of Northern and Southern Ireland have failed is the stated assumption that it is Partition rather than the nature of Capitalism itself, (given that it’s the system that systemically generates inequality), that is responsible for that failure in both entities. If Capitalism rather than Partition then is the primary cause of poverty, slashed services and inequality in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland then we may well ask why is that not also factored in ‘front and centre’ in the equation? Is it not a key part of the problem?
On reading the document it is clear that those behind the campaign are genuinely motivated to make any such united Ireland a worker friendly society in the event of such a poll result.
They are people who have spent individually and collectively many, many years championing workers and citizens rights and their document undoubtedly seeks a vastly improved island for the Irish working class, both North and South. It is a progressive document but reflects a quite similar political world-view to that underpinning the present Sinn Fein strategy of “offering a vision” of a New Ireland and what is possible…following a Border Poll.
I believe that this New Ireland needs to be and can be achieved prior to any Border poll,
with a programme of change effected in the Republic to give both communities serious grounds for then considering a united Ireland. A campaign to realize a related programme of progressive reforms in Northern Ireland can also give impetus to the commonality of interests of the working class in both jurisdictions. It could highlight what is possible in an Ireland united around common social, economic and cultural rights as the bedrock of a united island sharing a common government, constitution and border. * (C.f. Appendix)
This difference is more than just a subtle difference of approach. Yes the political objective of creating a society which meets the needs of the citizens, and particularly that of the workforce, on an all island basis is what we all seek. However I also believe that both the path to that goal and how it is proposed to get there will have a huge impact on relations between both communities and ultimately on the outcome& fall-out of any border poll. A premature border poll in advance of major reform of the southern state in particular will not result in any meaningful social transformation…and in reality, there is a major risk of regression to even deeper divisions in the wake of any premature poll’s outcome, one way or the other.
Our task is to assess whether the underlying premises and approach particular to a border poll, as proposed by TU4NUI, stand up to the acid test i.e. will the honest attempts to secure reforms and workers rights after such a campaign, be possible, if the commitments are contingent on a SF-led government lacking the will to deliver them. Will we not hear the usual ‘pleading for time’ refrain and the necessity of ‘compliance with EU fiscal rules’ etc etc.
Also, the evolution of the nationalist pro-Brexit case in Britain into a Pandora’s Box of reaction, is a warning as to what can happen in a ‘debate,’ managed by a cynical official media establishment, that will pit ‘nationalist’ against ‘unionist spokespersons’, green vs orange, in the largely corralled terms that unfold. On ‘social’ media it is likely to be a ‘carnival of fake news’ and with the sectarianism that is simmering in many communities, hopes for ‘rational ’ reasoned exchanges of views could well be just that…. high hopes.
In fairness the TU4NUI campaign seeks to move the debate beyond green and orange, but what is crucial is that we also coldly assess what is possible if the campaign for unity is driven largely by people from one section of the community. And dominated by a SF party that, along with the DUP, have been axemen of austerity on behalf of the Tories for many years.
An immanent Border Poll, in this context, and as analyzed below, may well, like the 1916 uprising in Dublin, be ultimately viewed as being premature, both from the perspective of the desired outcome of its authors and its divisive impact on the workforce. I firmly believe, as indeed privately do many of the signatories of the declaration therein, that major left reforms and change will be needed first in the Republic to give sufficient cause and optimism to the northern population that it will indeed be a ‘New’ Ireland they are being asked to consider joining. Securing such reforms prior to pursuing a border poll, rather than as a set of promises in the wake of it, will enable proponents to counteract and expose sectarian distortion of the debate. Proof of the pudding will have been tasted, and via solid delivery. It shifts the concept of a ‘new’ Ireland from being a pitched ‘vision’, to a reality. Yes, a work in progress…but on solid Workers and Citizen’s rights foundations.
Our Starting and Finishing Point:
In assessing any proposed border poll pathway to a New United Ireland many believe the wider Trade Union movement should have its own independent criterion for assessing the merits for ending of the present constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Criteria with regard to the likely impact on living standards, access to improved services and welfare provision, protection of identity and cultural rights, workers and citizens’ rights, employment and welfare rights and with base line conditions demanded in all these areas including provision for women’s rights and the rights of minority and ethnic groups.
I agree with TU4NUI that Partition was a historically retrograde step introduced by an Imperial Power to retain a chunk of her closest colony using the classic divide and rule tactic so beloved of all empires. Today its continued existence must of course be reviewed, but more particularly from a socialist (as outlined just above) rather than a solely republican and border-centric perspective. This process, via the active scrutiny of trade unions, must centrally involve workers from both traditions in assessing what it actually means for all workers with special regard to claims made re equality of opportunity, a comprehensive Bill of Rights. Also how it proposes to respect and validate the identities of both communities within this context of citizens’ and workers’ rights in any new united Ireland.
In essence a trade union assessment of any new proposed constitutional arrangements must undergo legitimate scrutiny and as with any deals or agreements, guarantees should be sought. The process should be governed by the following crucial questions:
- What common demands, policies, reforms and campaigns are in the best interests of developing and promoting unity in the Working Class of both communities prior to the establishment of any ‘New’ United Ireland?
- What reforms are required to meet the economic, social and cultural needs of all our
citizens on this island? How will the ‘new’ minority of those who primarily identify as British have their identity and community given the same parity of esteem, treatment and opportunity as the resulting majority grouping? Ditto for all ethnic groups in a pluralist, inclusive state.
- What is the effective and realistic way of delivering the reforms necessary to make workers’ and citizens’ rights a proven reality prior to any border poll? From a worker’s view, “what will a change of flag and parliament mean to my wages, conditions, working hours, prospects, services, housing and welfare supports etc”??
- What are the best ways forward to effectively promote ‘an acceptance of difference’ and integration between those who identify as “British”, those who identify as “Irish,” or those with a “NI” or other identity, both prior to and after any prospective Border Poll. Matters and measures required relating to cultural identity and rights can also be referred to a Citizens Assembly in both the Republic and Northern Ireland prior to any proposals for a Border Poll in the future.
- What about the elephants in the room?? Will SF morph into a determined socialist anti-sectarian driven force to deliver and finance the real changes required? Will they abandon their all-prevailing economic cautiousness and opt for a strong charter of workers’ and tenants’ rights, decisive state control of banking, transformative state investment in health and public housing? Will they favour State-led industrial growth, a ‘greening’ of industrial projects and implement taxation policies that take on the power of the wealthy and the corporations??
- Will the same business and industrial establishment and their political cronies essentially be in control making all the ‘new’ decisions using the ‘same old’ profit based criteria that drove the development of two deeply unequal societies with huge rates of poverty, low wage exploitation and anti-worker practices? Will the ‘new’ government succumb to EU fiscal rules and discipline and seek to procrastinate their promised ‘commitments’ into the ‘long-term’? Will it just
be the ‘same ol’ same ol’ grind as usual with a new flag flying and lots of excuses, disillusionment and consequent reaction? We should consider here the experience of other nations, who following unification or integration into new constitutional arrangements, still experience high levels of inequality and deprivation.
The National Question Vs The Social(ist) Question.
In the Republic of Ireland it has, for over a century now, been a reflex assertion that the National Question must be resolved before there can be talk about moving forward to considering the much needed socialist measures to ensure the rights and living standards of workers takes precedence in any new society. Such a view always has “realism” as its justification. This took the form of ‘Labour Must Wait’ in 1918 and variations on this theme have been propagated to this day by the adherents of ‘republican socialism” who subscribe to the two stages “pragmatic” theory of radical historical development. In a nutshell this purports that the unfinished business of resolving the National question, must take place prior to the alleged more ‘divisive’ class based struggle for socialism.
In practice this has meant the goals and strategy of a pan-class national alliance i.e. uniting the Nation State, defending democracy etc takes precedence over campaigning for socialism. Well…after all…if the task is to unite the people along national lines…then with this priority one can’t have radical politics scaring away the middle classes!
The TU4NUI document is in line with this approach given that socialism is not mentioned in the document and the reforms envisaged are not demanded a priori but as a reform programme for what will be hopefully enacted after a border poll vote for unity.
The lived experience of this two stages theory in action throughout history has been that the interests of workers have been postponed & relegated to the background, to the point of being shelved. After all, by this criterion, the task is to first unite “the nation”.
Is it not more valid to say that for the Labour Movement in any country, not just in Ireland, the so-called National Question must become The Social Question? In fact the only answer to the so-called National Question that is relevant for workers and their families is what’s in the promised programme of social, economic and cultural change…and if it is guaranteed. Also more particularly, who is guaranteeing its delivery?
To eliminate years of needless claims and counter claims, if a party or parties want a New United Ireland let them implement the economic and social reforms here firstly. Then constitutional change can be discussed and in all likelihood stand a far greater chance of gaining acceptance without the same scope for rancour, distortion, divisiveness and defeat.
On first glance, it would seem that the document ‘Uniting Ireland, Uniting Workers’ avoids repeating the more nationalist strategy. However, while putting forward a collection of social reforms as part of a vision of what a New Irelandwill hopefully contain it does not specify a worked out route to secure and implement those reforms in advance of any constitutional change to address “the national question.”
A welcome if limited initial reform agenda is proposed in the TU4NUI including a Bill of Rights, Fair and Progressive Taxation Measures, A Constitutional Right to Housing, an NHS modeled reform of the Irish health system, Legislation to improve Workers’ Rights and measures to tackle Climate Change on an all island level. However, given the two-stage strategy outlined and its likely ‘one tradition’ ownership, there is only limited chance of a successful, transformative and peaceful outcome to a Border Poll, despite some recent political “game-changers” such as Brexit and its impact on many businesses.
Assuming in the best possible scenario that the proposed reforms get backing from the convened (government established) Citizens’ Assembly that the document seeks, we are left, in the absence of a specified path, to deduce that it is envisaged that these measures will be introduced in the period after a Border Poll has yielded a majority to end Partition.
In effect, as many republicans put it, “an all island mandate for a New Ireland is being sought”. And if all goes according to their plan we will get a government to honour the commitments made during the referendum campaign. That “If” is very significant.
Crucially it will require that a Sinn Fein/Left Administration government committed to these left reforms will actually be:
a) In power in a strong Left Administration in the ROI** and are…
b) Willing to take on the establishment north and south to implement a radical and urgent programme of change. Given the conservative economic line towed to date by Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, and their cautious approach to social and economic policy in the south this will require a dramatic shift to the left from their current orientation.
The New Doves will be caricatured as Toxic Messengers:
The campaign will also require the emergence of an unprecedented level of trust in Sinn Fein as potential champions of cross-community equality amongst the Protestant working class…and again, given the history of the past 50 years, that too, for obvious reasons, will be a tall ask. Perceived as the erstwhile-armed hawks, they are now presenting as the doves and missionaries of peace and harmony. But for those loyalists with sectarian agendas to prevent any debate on possible Irish Unity the new doves of peace and Unity will be caricatured as toxic messengers with serious baggage. Viewed as proverbial Greeks bearing gifts wrapped up in what they perceive as Emperor New Ireland clothes, they will be greeted coldly on the doorsteps of ‘the other side’ if indeed they even venture that far. Equally very few anti-Brexit Loyalists will step forward to replace them and canvas for Irish unity in the hostile heartlands of loyalism.
Another moot point for those urging a border poll within the coming years is that the quite conservative Catholic middle class view is under-estimated in polls ascertaining views on Irish Unity. Many middle class Catholics and Protestants are doing very well under the present British subsidized system, while others are losing out, and a section of the former may also baulk at the prospect of uncertain change. They are well aware that given the long-term decline of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the New Ireland would be driven North and South of the border by a new possibly leftward moving Sinn Fein, as the emerging largest party.
The Solid Bulwark of Moneyed Conservatism:
In our view, in spite of the trading drawbacks of Brexit for business and farming, many of those middle and upper class citizens will not, for reasons of self interest, wish to see a United Ireland. They do not wish to see dramatic tax rises for employers and the better off, nor a curbing of their rights as perhaps landlords or managers. Viewed through a cold business lens they may well see other egalitarian changes as a threat to their wealth and position in any ‘new’ Ireland when they are actually doing very well out of the ‘old’ Ireland thank you very much! (Just imagine their indignant response “You’re asking me to foot the bill for those layabouts with all their costly new bloody rights”!!)
The perpetrators and beneficiaries of inequality both north and south, tend to be a solid bulwark against all progressive change and have enormous power and representation far beyond their numerical presence, both in the official printed and broadcasting media. The Catholic business community will be weighing the benefits of EU access versus the proposed specific hikes being sought in employers insurance and tax increases in any ‘new’ Ireland.
Added to that are the fears of many in Northern Ireland who believe that any new mandate to impose a united Ireland on loyalist communities hostile to any change would spark a protracted loyalist paramilitary response; in turn sparking other reactions and resulting in ongoing violence and instability…a concept which is anathema not just to the to the comfortable classes, given that poorer communities experienced the worst of the troubles.
What is clear is that the envisaged optimistic scenario for the roll-out of a border poll in NI in the short-term and the subsequent delivery of the reforms that are hoped for, will not be in the control of the Trade Union Movement but driven mainly, but not exclusively, by those with Republican sympathies. And armed with promises dressed up as commitments to enact reforms…. in lieu of guarantees…. it is hard to see the status quo being changed. We are talking ‘hearts and minds’ here and ‘promises’ of rosy futures will not cut the mustard.
Engaging with the “Protestant’ Workforce.
In fact the last people to buy a promised ‘pig in a poke’ will be Protestant workers who are sick of broken promises and habitually being told to be patient. They have seen see their working class communities in particular decline over decades of neglect and unimplemented “commitments”. It would be wishful thinking to believe they will trust being better off governed by Sinn Fein, on the basis of promises of ‘new’ rights in a ‘new’ republic governed by the same ‘economic realities’ policed this time, by Dublin and the EU, rather than Stormont and Westminster. It is easier to imagine them withdrawing further into a siege mentality, clinging onto their identity and territory for comfort in an increasingly hostile world than buying into a new enforced living arrangement with their historic adversary.
Without prior and major reforms in the ROI, they most likely will see the whole project as just a slick marketing ploy to sell them a new political arrangement in which they are relegated to being a minority on the island. Again, the middle class Catholics in Northern Ireland may well split largely in favour of ending Partition but a significant chunk of them will furtively opt for the status quo that has served many of them very well and to avoid what they see as a potentially costly (to them) unification with possible “ongoing instability”. This skepticism of significant strata of the voting NI population will be enormously difficult to shift in spite of the ravages of austerity during the past 20 years of neo-liberalism.
Media Debates: Entertainment Vs Information, Agendas Vs Access.
The debate in the media will be dominated by those introduced as ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Loyalist’ speakers as at present. And in that pre-determined formulaic context, logic and the reasoned appeal of trade union voices could well struggle to be aired. And as for what circulates on social media…the fake news and irrationality of those who promote fears and peddle old myths will wreak havoc in these forums too.
In exploring how a campaign process to win support for a New United Ireland will struggle to get the majority behind it, I am not merely ‘scare mongering’ or refusing to factor in the demographic and societal changes. I ultimately have the same objectives of wanting a vastly different and socialist United Ireland for all our citizens. But it’s crucial to take the temperature, research and troubleshoot in advance of advocating a course of action with ironically, such a potential for division and conflict. As Robbie Burns famously said “the best laid plans of mice and men oft gang astrae ”
We cannot be blind to the fact that sectarianism is a huge factor to be contended with. If anything it has been institutionalized by the GFA with further and deeper retrenchment into green and orange identities in probably a majority of disadvantaged areas. And given the extent of poverty in NI, that is a lot of areas, a lot of votes and a lot of alienation from the mainstream and its media. We are merely pointing out how in practice the task of selling commitments in a proposed ‘New Ireland’ package, midst an established chorus of both wary and sectarian voices, with limited access to mainstream media, is an uphill one.
Is there a realistic alternative approach?? Yes…Put the Cart back before the Horse!!
I believe that a Border Poll will be premature until at the very least a strong determined left wing government in the south of Ireland delivers the following reforms for its citizens. When those reforms have been enacted, financed and delivered on the ground, only then we will be in a position to raise the ending of partition as being a guaranteed progressive step for workers in the North. We must put the cart back before the horse. These reforms in action are the prerequisite for a campaign that can be founded upon proven change.
Such a pathway can prevent a future Border Poll and its fall-out being dominated and determined by sectarian voices. It is the most practical way forward and offers a New Ireland as an inclusive and worker-friendly proposition.
So what should a reform programme look like? And if Sinn Fein has no serious interest in delivering it, then when is the Trade Union movement going to fight independently for it?
A Left Programme for The Republic of Ireland:
The programme below is eminently feasible if the resources and focus of the trade union movement are organised to campaign for it, both internally and in preparation for its inclusion in the electoral manifesto of a Political Movement. One determined to build a New Ireland in practice and not just in words. In the meantime, Left groups and activists must engage with Sinn Fein members to adopt such a manifesto. Those unions, Left groups and individuals who see the possibility of a Left Government emerging in the not too distant future, can help sculpt the agenda of such a government now, with such an engagement.
The following Reforms need to be introduced to enlist confidence that a New Ireland is indeed possible and is not just a hollow nationalist slogan.
- A Charter of Worker’s Rights to organise freely and defend and advance their interests. This will involve Repealing the Industrial Relations Act in the ROI.
- A Charter of Tenants’ Rights that delivers the optimum protection to tenants. Provision to be inspired at the very least by modeling the Charter on the best provisions currently available in some EU countries.
- A massive home building and conversion programme to generate the homes needed and to retro-fit older houses with energy saving systems.
- Legislation to set up Slainte Care, (an agreed model of Public Health Provision similar to the N.H.S.) free at the point of entry and usage.
- A Progressive Income and Wealth Taxation System that can provide the means to properly fund the Health, Education and UBI Welfare systems introduced.
- Explicit Legislation and Provision for a Universal Basic Income and also a Living Wage to replace the present Minimum Wage. The introduction of a UBI will become even more crucial in the future as the market system is now driving the replacement of jobs with automation via AI at an increasing rate.
- The Setting up of State owned Green Energy projects, research and industry.
- The Creation of 100% controlled State Banks and also smaller Public not for profit Banking Systems using the German Sparkasse model.
- The Creation of State industries and encouragement of co-operatives through free credit from the State banking system.
- A State programme of investment to develop community-building projects with a major focus on inclusion, mental health, green projects and social solidarity.
The above programme does not claim to be the finished product as regards all the measures that will be needed to dramatically address the needs of the population in the next few years. There are many other areas needing state support and investment as e.g. in the provision of new Refuge Shelters for women (and often men too suffering from domestic violence). Housing Accommodation also impacts on Direct Provision services for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. Equally Migrant Workers have many issues that need urgent attention.
Time for a New Constitution for a New Ireland.
The present R.O.I. Constitution is nearly 80 years old and underpins privilege, private property, landlordism, labour exploitation and the primacy of Catholic values. We need a new Constitution now, one that enshrines not the right to private property, but the precedence of the rights of the citizens. In classic republican terms…’the men and women of no property.’ (If, of course, Partition is ended, a revised All Ireland one will then be required)
Question: Could not the ICTU convene its own Citizen’s Assembly, comprising of activists/reps from unions, women’s groups, tenant’s rights groups etc. and take submissions from all those in society seeking to build a new inclusive rights based constitution? Why can’t this work begin in advance of waiting for a government to embark on this task and have a ready-made draft for consideration and comparison purposes??
A New Constitution to include sections and clauses outlining:
- A Right to a Home including the State’s duty of provision for such a right.
- The duty of the State to provide a single tier National Health Service free at the point of entry and usage.
- A model of Public Education with zero grounds for discrimination on the basis of beliefs, religious identity, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
- Freedom of Religious Practice to be guaranteed. However no state endowment or promotion of any organised religion. All church activity to be organised privately by congregations or citizens in the context of strict separation of church and state.
- The primacy of economic justice, citizens’ and workers rights.
- Rights re Cultural Identity, Language, Events, and Practices with additional special focus on the rights of minority groupings.
A Socialist Solution: The Locomotive that can drive the ‘Freedom Train’:
Given that all aspects of our working lives are essentially controlled and conditioned by an economic system that generates inequality in its very exploitative modus operandi, we need to see the above programme as very much a transitional one to try and establish a basic level of decency for our citizens. To actually achieve a society capable of eliminating the exploitation and inequality at the core of our working lives then we need to raise our sights and begin the discussion on, not the National Question, but the Socialist Question. Even mild reforms demanded from the present system are now greeted with howls of protest and dismissed as being ‘ looney ’ left. E.g. a proper wage is now portrayed as an outrageous expectation given we live in ‘a market-driven competitive world’ etc! Hence unprecedented rates of poverty are rapidly becoming the norm for huge swathes of the population in this neo-liberal age and only a minority of citizens can attain any kind of debt-free life.
The discussion around a socialist alternative system is complicated of course by the failure of distorted and dictatorial communist systems that degenerated into failed caricatures of what Marx envisaged. Equally the role played by so-called ‘Socialist’ and ‘New Labour’ type parties throughout Europe, particularly since the 1990’s in effectively implementing neo-liberal austerity regimes, has dragged the name and concept of socialism through the mud. No amount of roses, rainbows, sharp suits and whitened smiles can cover up their collaboration with the diktats of big capital and their abandonment of workers’ interests. The bottom line is that in none of the countries in Western or Eastern Europe was workers’ democracy ever the core principle at the point of decision-making, production and distribution. Without workers’ control and planning at a macro and micro level someone else is in control…and benefitting from their position of power as a privileged separate class.
The job of genuine socialists today is to design a modern framework for ground floor up industrial democracy, consumer choice, quality design and products, decent pay levels with equality of access and opportunity for all. And this with available work shared out to ensure a reduced working week. With the world systemically hurtling towards economic dystopia, racist scapegoating and climate catastrophe, that conversation is long overdue.
* Appendix 1: A Sample Programme outline for the Northern Ireland Trade Union Movement:
- A Bill of Rights arising from the convening of a representative Citizens’ Assembly.
- A Programme to end Child Poverty in Northern Ireland
- The introduction of UBI to replace Universal Benefit.
- The introduction of a legal minimum Living Wage to replace the Minimum Wage.
- Legislation to provide vital health services in the area of birth control.
- Campaign for proper funding for NHS to deliver the services needed.
- Campaign for the Ending of Denominational Education. All religious instruction and formation to take place outside school hours.
- An immediate halt to the selling of all public housing assets and land banks. Campaign for a Home and Community Building Programme.
- Legislation to introduce and strengthen Workers’ Rights.
- A Charter of Tenants’ Rights that delivers the optimum protection to tenants.
- A Programme of anti-sectarian and anti-racist workshops in various settings.
- A Programme of Green Industry Initiatives.
- A Plan to develop healthy Communities & Community Policing.
**This cannot be ruled out in the ROI, particularly if the left grouping People-Before-Profit can replace the Labour Party as the main Left Force. A Left Rainbow type government is now a distinct and real possibility. Indeed the Social Democrats and Greens and some Independents may also help make up the numbers. Were the numbers to crunch in this direction there would be major upheaval inside Sinn Fein if it refused to form such a government given the historic opportunity. Coalescing with FF would result in the shattering of their mask as “ the alternative.” On the positive side, such a move by Sinn Fein to betray its mandate for real and significant change would open the door for the future dramatic growth of a new Left and eco socialist movement, possibly on an all-island basis.
*** A RED C Poll published on April 22nd 2021, found that only 32% of people in the Republic of Ireland believed we would see a United Ireland in the next 10 years. While this is only a poll and did not seek a direct view from those interviewed as to their own preference vis-a-vis ending partition, it does show considerable skepticism that there is enough support and political will for a United Ireland, and probably masks an element of reluctance to endorse unity amongst the respondents too. The attitude of middle class southerners not wanting to “import trouble down here” from “up there” is well known.
**** In effect it would take a new Left Wing Government comprised of a left turning Sinn Fein plus Left Groupings to include similar policies in their manifestos and programme for government.
Ideally, a major new left force can emerge with a majority sometime in the future and be the main driver of the Reforms outlined. However, at the moment we have to be realistic and admit that this is an unlikely development in the next few years, given the orientation of most unions towards tacitly backing and trusting Sinn Fein to address their agendas.
There seems to be no appetite at official trade union level to support building a Left alternative to the discredited Irish Labour Party or to challenge Sinn Fein. Many already perceive SF as a party with a predominantly working class base that “they can do business with”. Despite Sinn Fein’s conservative track record, it is quite possible that SF would support the measures sought in the TU4NUI and include them in their manifesto to copper-fasten their radical pitch as “the party of change.” Policies like these would also have the support of the other left groupings and left independents. If the trade union and wider movement for change also organised around this type of programme of demands, a Left Government, albeit likely led by Sinn Fein in the near future, would be the most likely result.
It is likely SF could support the drafting of a new constitution and even similar demands to the Left Programme as advanced here also, or as appeared in the TU4NUI document. One way or the other, Sinn Fein will be pushed and tested, not just in the next election. Whether they intend to rise to that challenge, their members and supporters will soon find out. Their bluff will be called. Will they duck out or deliver? Ultimately the fate of their border poll may well rest on their record, as the nature of their commitment to a ‘ New Ireland’ is tested. A political T Junction is coming and if Sinn Fein tacks to the right and coalesces with a conservative party, along with support from other power-hungry groupings, the sorry fate of the Irish Labour Party awaits them. Being “responsible” (to the needs of ‘the market’) and reneging on the change agenda will sink their credibility…and support. Their choice is the old familiar one…. ‘Be radical or redundant’…. Time, as always, will tell.