The unity debate is gathering momentum in a way we haven’t seen before. The nationalist commentariat become bolder by the day in their argument that the ‘sub-polity’, as Brian Feeny accurately describes the north, has entered its endgame. Sam MacBride says there is ‘an end of days’ feeling about the place, warning that people might face blackouts this winter. The health service is in its worst ever crisis, homelessness is rising, with over 8000 families without a roof over their heads. And of course, Lough Neagh, a crucial ecosystem that was once a shining jewel, is an open sewer. And this is not, as the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor argued on The View last week, just a ‘no Stormont’ problem. The disasters were ignored, or even set in motion, by the very politicians whom we are now calling on to save the day. For those of us who see the project of a partitionist state as doomed to inevitable failure, there is little satisfaction in all of this. As we have learned in the most tragic way on our island, political disasters bring tragedies that cannot be undone. We should however take this opportunity to acknowledge a truth that has been dramatically unmasked: that the collapse of the ‘Northern Ireland’ project may come through processes beyond anyone’s control.
That’s why Leo Varadkar’s recent comments that he would see a united Ireland in his own lifetime, also appear to reflect a shift in pace. The remarks were significant because they came amid specific tensions over the DUP’s Sotrmont boycott, but have also prompted commentators to ask ‘why’ and ‘why now?’ To better understand the meaning of Varadkar’s comments it’s useful to look at his subsequent defence. His rebuttals pointed out that he was simply asserting the constitutional ambitions of the Irish state, outlined in Articles 2 and 3. Anyway, he’s always held this view, he says, but just didn’t voice it too often. So, we might ask, why be more vocal now?
What’s changed is that the British state, for all its ‘Global Britain’ bluster, is looking weaker and less self-assured than ever before. And Leo Varadkar isn’t merely a politician. He is the CEO of Irish capital. His role is to be the foremost advocate for his class, navigating the intensely competitive game of attracting foreign direct investment, managing state finances and securing for Irish businesses whatever advantages in productivity and profitability he can. As the champion of Ireland’s business community, his job is to see that they can most efficiently squeeze surplus value from the workforce. And viewed in their own terms, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin have proven to be quite skilful. They have presided over an economic boom where Ireland has recovered from financial ruin, restored public finances and recreated favourable terms of investment. And they have done this without having to invest in Ireland’s health service. They have done it without a major house building programme. And they have done it while ensuring that 10% of Irish people own more wealth than the other 90% combined. They are a neoliberal dream. They look to Britain, with its sluggish growth, low productivity, high tax-rates and ongoing strikes and pat themselves on the back for a job well done, while social crises abound around them, far from the concerns of the wealthy.
In this context Varadkar’s personal aspirations for Ireland’s future matter a lot less than we might think. What matters much more are the priorities set by the game of accumulating, seeking favorable trade terms and progressing towards diplomatic goals. These pressures are increasingly pointing towards Ireland as a rival to Britain, particularly in the post-Brexit context.
When viewed together, these developments, of a crumbling north and a booming south, make sense. The FFG Axis sees the crisis in confidence in the north as an opportunity to advance its own political power. It must surely now be a consideration for longstanding members in Dublin’s political elite, in the Oireachtas, in the civil service, the courts, and among party donors, that sooner rather than later all the long-ignored problems of the six counties will come onto their balance sheets and upend their political status quo. We have seen substantial evidence that the subvention, that is the financial burden of supporting the north, is much less of a worry than traditional or unionist thinkers have assumed. But the non-monetary political, social and particularly governmental burden is not so easy to quantify. Varadkar is betting that carving out a space for his own input into the shambolic situation up north, is a good strategic move, rather than an expression of his own heartfelt republican ambitions.
He is also keen to head off the insurgency of Sinn Fein, who have captured the youth vote overwhelmingly and who will easily be the largest party after the next election, perhaps matching Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s seat numbers combined. Varadkar’s comments will do little to halt votes flowing away from the civil war parties in favour of the left, for whom housing and health are real priorities. But he may just be able to keep hold of those who would be tempted to vote Sinn Féin ‘just once’ if they thought it could hasten Irish unity. So paying some lip service to this ambition when international media are around to make a story of it, makes sense too.
But the real story here is the changing relationship between Dublin and London.
Britain remains an imperialist power. This means that it can draw upon extensive networks of trade, military alliances, commercial intelligence, prestige and diplomatic power that were built up over centuries, so as to far surpass its natural position as a country with a small territory on the outskirts of Europe. Along with a number of other European nations, it remains in the group of the world’s largest economies, has a seat on the UN security council, a nuclear weapons programme, a bloated military machine and has left a legacy of legal-constitutional rules and institutions across many of its former colonies, including Ireland. Imperial powers act like a bowling ball on a mattress, warping the fabric of political space-time around them. What may be happening is that we are seeing some tentative flattening of that space, as Britain receives push-back from its neighbours, keen to flex their own diplomatic muscle.
Former UK Ambassador Alexandra Hall tweeted recently:
“Part of the UK’s soft power resides in international perceptions of us as a stable, ordering, democracy: our big cities as thriving multicultural societies.; our people as welcoming and tolerant.”
Hall believes this international perception (a laughably optimistic view to begin with) has been dismantled in recent years and is daily being harmed by the likes of Suella Braverman and Liz Truss, as they court the American far-right on international issues from the environment to immigration. Britain’s ability to chart its own course in the world is widely questioned, as is the instinct of its own ruling class to deal with its own constitutional conundrums.
Rival powers will obviously respond to this, taking the opportunity to benefit where they can. And it’s too easy! Chris Heaton-Harris celebrated the new phase of the Windsor Framework by writing in the Newsletter that “the steak bake or infamous sausage roll will never again need to be accompanied by a signed certificate”. This is the culinary culmination of 7 years of hard work with the European Union and must come as some relief to the 43 000 people on the Housing Association waiting list, or the 400 000 (nearly 1 in 4 people!) currently waiting for their first NHS outpatient appointment. With British ministers making outlandish speeches from ‘pork markets’ to pork scratchings, it doesn’t take very much political character to sound reasonable by contrast, so that even Leo Varadkar, who is not known for inspiring speeches, can make a headline and score some points by saying aloud that this nonsense is all going to end in a decade or two.
What’s missing in all of this is the people in the north of Ireland, indeed those across the whole island. If Irish unity continues to gain support, the British and Irish governments will eventually be forced to confront the practical realities and make plans. Neither the London, nor Dublin governments have a single directly-elected representative in their ministries from the six counties. And that leaves us with a very severe democratic deficit indeed. Both governments will seek to exploit their own strategic advantages and strengths as they wrestle with who picks up the bill for this or that legacy. And as they do that the ambitions of what we want a new Ireland to look like get drowned out in the competition between these two states. We are left to confront the reality that Leo Varadkar not only wants a united Ireland for a very different reason than we do, but wants a very different kind of united Ireland too. Those one in four northerners waiting to see a doctor can hardly see his vision as a shining light. If they were over the ‘border’, they’d simply be looking at one in five! We therefore have to make a distinction between a new, secular, egalitarian and progressive Ireland, which we are fighting for, and one that simply extends the existing jurisdiction northwards, which suits the dominant elites. These are not shared visions, but mutually exclusive goals, entirely.
The more Varadkar sees unity as a goal, the more we have to ask the question: ‘Which goal? Yours or ours?’