Ireland and Brexit – Workers Need a Hard Border Against Bosses' Politics!

On 12th October, the Financial Times (FT), described the Brexit situation as an "Unpredictable Muddle". We would not disagree.

Submitted by Internationali… on October 16, 2018

In particular, the confusion has allowed the political parties in Northern Ireland to resurrect long standing strategic obsessions, none of which can offer anything to workers in a an area where deprivation remains appallingly high. The current situation remains in line with a 2012 report that commented -

“Northern Ireland has higher levels of multiple deprivation than the rest of the UK with over a third of the population living on or below the breadline. 29% of households are ‘sometimes skimping’ or going without food so that others in their household will have enough to eat. 7% of households can’t afford regular fresh fruit and vegetables.

People are struggling to heat their homes across Northern Ireland and 10% of families live in damp homes. Almost a fifth cannot afford to keep their homes in a decent state of decoration. For many people on low incomes the situation is set to get worse, as the cost of living continues to rise and wages continue a three year decline and benefits begin to fall behind inflation.”1

The Brexit Pandora's Box

We have already commented several times that the ruling class's loss of political clarity is product of their inability to solve a capitalist economic crisis that has been building over decades. Unable to devalue capital in order to restart a new round of accumulation the system limps from one expediency to the next. The net result is that the ruling class have abandoned any long term strategies and this led them to wander into the Brexit minefield. In Revolutionary Perspectives 11 (RP11) we published an article entitled "Brexit 2018 – The Ruling Class Nightmare Continues"2 where we analyse in detail how the British ruling class got to where they are now. Nothing that has happened since changes that analysis. And today, as the UK Government has drifted to within 6 months of the agreed Brexit deadline, the convulsions in the political parties are increasing, bearing out in full that the "circle cannot be squared".

In our article in RP11 we referred to "the apparently insoluble issue around the status of Northern Ireland and its land and sea borders". That question has become even more complicated because of the contending factions in the Westminster Parliament.

With the UK Government's "Chequers Agreement" having been rejected by the European Union (EU) the thrashing about within, and among, the political parties has become increasingly frenzied. After accepting the billion pound increased funding as a price for supporting May's second government, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has threatened to vote against the Tories' budget proposals later in October.

DUP's new demand is that the UK Government achieves the virtually impossible – a "Hard Brexit" withdrawal from the European Customs Union and EU single market while avoiding border controls between the UK/Northern Ireland(NI) and the EU/Republic of Ireland (ROI). To make sure that the level of impossibility is increased as far as possible, DUP have reverted to their most fundamental "core value" of total political and economic union with Great Britain above all other considerations. Arlene Foster's reference to "blood red lines" reasserted the approach and rhetoric of Carson and Paisley.3 Such language serves to galvanise their core supporters and acts as a clear commitment that nurturing cross-class support for the Union remains the DUP's key political foundation.

We continue to argue that workers must not be drawn into any of the bosses' camps each urging us to push for the various options available to the British state. Only arguments based on our class independence and consciousness can point towards a way forward in the interests of the class of producers rather than the minority who own and control.

In the Brexit circumstances, workers are faced with that challenge throughout the "United Kingdom”.4 In all parts of the territory workers can only hope for real progress by opposing all capitalist machinations. Workers in Northern Ireland are faced with particularly insidious tricks building on previous bourgeois factionalism and their linked ideologies.

The Good Friday Settlement 1998-2018

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement allowed the establishment of "normalised" conditions for capitalist exploitation in Northern Ireland (NI). The deal was brokered by the US imperialist "godfathers" with the cooperation of both the local "lesser powers", ROI and UK. With that coalition in place the two main competing parties, DUP and Sinn Fein (SF) have willingly played the democratic game, got their snouts firmly in the trough to maintain conditions for capitalists to generate profits.

The ability for capitalists to profit by trading across the border has always been built into the arrangements between the two states on the island. That existed both before and after the UK and ROI joined the EU in 1971. With the previous military conflicts having largely been defused, the new settlement after 1998 built on those foundations together with the free trade that the EU arrangements provided.

The European Union also provided other support for the new arrangements. Part of this involved providing finance – part of the "Peace Dividend". Using the various EU Structural Funds they directly supported capitalist companies and other bodies active in NI. During the two most recent EU funding rounds (2007-13 and 2014-20) a total of approximately 7 billion euros flowed into Northern Ireland from EU funds.5

6 counties or 32?

In March 1914 the revolutionary Marxist, James Connolly, commented that the plans for a new capitalist settlement based on two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland "would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South".

As already noted, the bourgeoisie of Britain and all parts of Ireland have ensured that the "carnival of reaction" has played out to allow the capitalist order to remain unhindered in both the 26 and 6 county states that have existed since 1922.

Brexit has breathed fresh life into the political arguments advocating bourgeois rule either in an ongoing "two state" solution or in a state encompassing all 32 counties. Indeed, again using Connolly's language the Brexit pantomime has allowed the capitalists to once again serve up "Old Wine in New Bottles".6 The old corrosive arguments for or against a united capitalist republic have been revived and overlaid with the talk of hard or soft borders and indeed the UK Government's fantasy digital border or the version that talks about a border down the Irish Sea.

As with all calls for workers to line up in defence of old or new state boundaries, workers need to "treat those two impostors just the same".7 The many dozens of redrawn boundaries in the last century have allowed local capitalist cliques to better find their place in the capitalist order. Workers have benefited not a jot, either in terms of freedom from exploitation or in building our confidence and class consciousness.

For Workers' Struggle not the Workers' Republic

As always, we have to beware the "false friends" in the left wing of capitalism who dress up their support for nationalism in shreds of socialist sounding words.

Many of those in the left nationalist camp dress up their support for bosses' politics by talking about a "Workers' Republic". Using that supposedly radical formula adds an increased level of confusion to their political programme. In particular, it is used to draw a veil over the proven dead end of national liberation that has been evidenced throughout the period since the First World War.

For the left wing of capital operating in Ireland the "Workers' Republic" slogan is used to misappropriate the legacy of James Connolly, who we have already mentioned. To unpick this deception we need to briefly touch on Connolly's actual life and work rather than the nationalist myth.

When the left nationalists trot out the "Workers' Republic" slogan they are deliberately degrading Connolly's long struggles as a proletarian revolutionary. Instead of this they focus on the tragedy of the final phase in Connolly's life when he led his Citizens Army (something closely akin to a proletarian militia) into an alliance with bourgeois nationalism. This was summed up, not altogether inaccurately, in an article in the Irish Times of 17th October, 2015.8 The article comments that "Connolly, having called in vain for the Socialist International to stop the rush to war, realigned with militant nationalists to fight the traditional enemy in his own backyard".

That difference between the struggle for proletarian internationalism and adaptation to bourgeois nationalism is fully illustrated by contrasting Connolly's involvement with the two different publications entitled "Workers' Republic". In the first version, Connolly wrote in 1898 "Having learned from history that all bourgeois movements end in compromise, that the bourgeois revolutionists of today become the conservatives of tomorrow, the Irish Socialists refuse to deny or to lose their identity with those who only half understand the problem of liberty".9

Sadly, after many years of struggling for revolutionary socialism against the weaknesses of the Second International, Connolly became allied with the bourgeois forces that he had denounced in 1898. He edited a second publication called "Workers' Republic" from May 1915 to April 1916 as he abandoned proletarian struggle in favour of a bourgeois nationalist military adventure.

Workers seeking a really hopeful future cannot afford to be misled by the leftist flag wavers for the "Workers' Republic". History has shown that the form of proletarian rule will not be a bourgeois republic with a left-wing mask but will be based on Soviets/Councils, our own working-class organisations. Indeed, the ultimate goal of a truly human society was summed up in the final words of "Old Wine in New Bottles", published in April, 1914. Before succumbing to nationalism Connolly was still able to argue for an "ideal Co-operative Commonwealth" - a socialist vision of the future classless society of a free association of producers.

Destroy Capitalism, Destroy Borders

One of the obvious changes between the current capitalist world and a future human society is that future generations will have no need for states or the boundaries between them. That product of the overthrow of class society is repeated in CWO's basic positions where we describe a future, "global society where production is for need and not profit (and is therefore sustainable), where the state, national frontiers and money have been abolished". Such a vision is in stark contrast to the experiments with "soft borders" in the EU, whether in the Schengen10 area or between ROI and UK.

For communists the full elimination of states and their borders is central to the end of class society and exploitation. The EU arrangements of Customs Unions and Single Markets merely allow the boss class to better arrange their exploitation while maintaining the xenophobic practices of "Fortress Europe". Being drawn into the bosses' discussions about how and where to exercise their powers to create borders is one of the many diversions that capitalism has created to confuse and distract the working class.

Workers need to struggle for our own interests within and against the bosses' system. That is the meaningful alternative to any of our rulers' claptrap about Canada++, Norway models, Brexit in Name Only or People's Votes.


  • 3Sir Edward Carson (1854-1935) was the original leader of Ulster unionism opposed to Home Rule before the First World War. He was the founder of the Ulster Volunteer Force and his statute stands in front of the Parliament building at Stormont. Ian Paisley (1926-2014) founded the Democratic Unionist Party in the 1970s, which eventually eclipsed the Ulster Unionists, as well as several paramilitary groups. More bigoted in his Protestantism he eventually agreed to the Good Friday Peace agreement. Both men were highly honoured by the British state in their lifetimes.
  • 4The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - a predictably reactionary state name chosen by a ruling class that chopped off one king's head and deposed and exiled his son, another king, in the process of establishing bourgeois political domination!
  • 6The title of a 1914 article arguing for Industrial as against Craft Trade Unions.
  • 7"If", Rudyard Kipling.
  • 10The Schengen agreement allows for travel between 26 European states without conventional border controls. Neither UK nor ROI are signatories.