Failed Stormont Faces Brexit Precipice

Failed Stormont Faces Brexit Precipice

The future of Stormont and of a new Northern Ireland power sharing-executive remain on hold after talks between the main parties broke down. Another short period of talks will occur before a new executive is cobbled together, without which direct rule from Westminster takes its place.

Sinn Fein want the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster to step aside while her role in the “Cash for Ash” scandal is investigated. Other red lines include issues relating to the Irish language, a Bill of Rights and “legacy issues”. These are certainly not unimportant concerns, but unfortunately no red light appears for Sinn Fein when it comes to the inevitable new round of austerity.

Whether it would suit Sinn Fein and the DUP to stay outside power-sharing arrangements for long remains to be seen. Nationalists have increasingly been enraged by the DUP’s sectarian behaviour and wondering what they’ve gotten out of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), while many DUP supporters have never embraced the GFA anyway. So a period of direct rule is on the cards amid widespread disillusionment with a failed and scandal-ridden Stormont.

Whatever happens Britain still rules the Six Counties, and will do so as long as Unionists have a veto over a united Ireland, a veto enshrined within the GFA. Sinn Fein’s attempt to trigger a border poll provision in the GFA is completely in the hands of the British government. So we now have a triple whammy: a Unionist and British veto over a border poll, a united Ireland and continued EU membership.

Sinn Fein’s success at the polls was considerably helped by DUP corruption and arrogance, but major fears over the consequences of Brexit also played their part. Other anti-Brexit parties like the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and the (“cross-community”) Alliance party also benefitted. Pre-referendum, the anti-austerity People before Profit (PbP) took a significant slice of voters away from Sinn Fein, but just one year later this pro-Brexit grouping completely lost its momentum.

Brexit will be a disaster for Ireland north and south.The Republic is set to take a big hit to its trade with the UK, through tariffs and exchange rate volatility. This will impact on the north’s key trading relationship with the south as well. In the north the loss of crucial EU funding, which has been set at £3.5 billion over seven years, will never be replaced by Westminster. Although there is consensus between the EU, the UK and the Republic against the creation of a hard border, the likelihood of a hard Brexit is likely to dash these hopes.

Moreover, the UK can only negotiate its trading arrangements with the Republic through the EU, and not directly. And given the slim prospects of the UK getting a free trade deal with the EU, this means that there will be taxes on imports and exports between the UK and the Republic. Customs checks will be needed to enforce this. And even if a deal is done, there would still need to be checks on the origin of goods so that the Republic is not a backdoor route to avoid UK taxes.

This scenario of border checks and queues will hinder trade and the movement of people across the partition border. No wonder resentment is growing in border areas, as witnessed by protests organised by Border Communities Against Brexit. No wonder that a united Ireland is once again proving a popular option north and south.

There is clearly a massive anti-Brexit feeling in Ireland. This lays the basis for building a movement in which labour movement activists are at the forefront of taking direct action to stop the increased social and economic hardship resulting from Brexit. The centrality of the working class is also key to ensuring any fight for a new united Ireland must be for a Workers’ Republic, and not a plaything of US, EU or British imperialism.