Protocol Crisis: Workers’ movement needs to provide answers

This year marks twenty five years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. While marking an end to the violence of the troubles, the peace process has been based on instiutionalising sectarianism

By Kevin Henry

This year marks twenty five years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. While marking an end to the violence of the troubles, the peace process has been based on instiutionalising sectarianism. Its reliance on bringing together sectarian leaders at the top meant that Stormont was always crisis ridden and at times of polarisation the institutions collapsed. The current DUP boycott of the institutions until action is taken against the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol is a reflection of much deeper processes. Includes a demographic shift and increase instability over the prospect for the future of the United Kingdom.

The prospect of a deal between the EU and the UK is currently being talked up with a new agreement around data sharing and talk of fewer checks from EU officials. It is possible for the EU and UK to cobble together a deal but the real question is would such a deal be acceptable to unionists and the broader protestant population in the north without alienating Catholics? In part, the problem is that the opposition to the protocol is not primarily about checks but the psychological effect of having a border that divides Northern Ireland from Britain and creates the sense among the Protestant population of being coerced into a united Ireland against their wishes. 80% of Unionist voters support the DUP’s stance of not returning to the Assembly or Executive without significant changes to the protocol and a significant section believes that it should only be returned to Stormont if the protocol is entirely scrapped.  The increased activity on the party of loyalist paramiltaries is a serious warning about the risk of violence. 

Similarly the proposals from the “center for the union” backed by the DUP, TUV and key loyalist figures amount to moving the responsibility down the road by placing the responsibility for enforcing entry into the EU markets on the southern government. Despite options around utilising technology this would ultimately require some degree of increase monitoring and policing of the north/south border which would not be acceptable to the vast majority of people in Ireland particularly catholic in the north. 

If the Assembly is not restored it will raise the question of what next. The British government proposes fresh elections but that would likely return an even more polarised result than previously. The idea of ‘direct rule’ – i.e. rule from Westminster – would not be acceptable to Catholics who see the Tories as having no mandate in Northern Ireland. “Joint authority” between London and Dublin would be unacceptable to protestants. Either option risks inflaming sectarianism. 

The history of Northern Ireland is not just one of sectarian division but of powerful movements that united working people, including movements that took on the bigots and cut across division. Today the workers’ movement must act to do the same, starting with coordinating the industrial struggles. Rather than demand a return to the status quo of Stormont, a program of action should be developed, including opposing attempts by Tories to make workers in Northern Ireland pay for the political crisis through vicious cuts. It also means the trade union movement should not wait for further escalation by sectarian forces. Unions currently engaged in struggles should organise anti-sectarian conferences to discuss how we can build an alternative to challenge the sectarian status quo including clearly opposing any “solution” to the border question that would enflame sectarianism. This means clearly opposing any “solution” that would harden a north-south border in anyway but also likewise opposing the Irish sea border. 

Most importantly it means there is an urgent need to build an alternative basing itself on workers and young people in all working-class communities with anti-sectarian and socialist politics. An alternative that strives to unite people in common struggle against this rotten capitalist system and find solutions to issues that divide people on the basis of mutual respect and solidarity.

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