For nearly a century, unification between the Republic of Ireland and the North has been the stuff of romantic folk ballads. These songs express a deep longing for a time when the Republic will reclaim the Six Counties — the “fourth green field” — even as actual unification has appeared a hopeless prospect. Catholics seeking a united Ireland and Protestants loyal to the United Kingdom have been in conflict for generations since the partition of 1921; even the 1998 Belfast Agreement that ended the Troubles achieved only a fragile peace.
This bloody history makes the present situation in Ireland all the more incredible. Today, unification is likelier than at any point since the creation of the Northern Irish state. Polling shows growing support for a united Ireland, especially among young people, while Time, the Economist, and the Financial Times are already speculating on what such a dramatic change might mean.
Unification is still far from assured. And even if it does come to pass, there is no guarantee that it will benefit the working class in either the North or South. That is why Kieran Allen’s 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland is such a vital contribution to this discussion. Allen, a senior lecturer in sociology at University College Dublin, argues that left-wingers should draw inspiration from the legacy of James Connolly to achieve a socialist Ireland that transcends the paralyzing, limited visions of a Catholic or Protestant Ireland. And to do that, they must address a fundamental obstacle to unification: identity politics.
First, a caveat. In the United States, the term “identity politics” is often used by both Republicans and Democrats seeking to diminish and frustrate racial justice movements. Despite constant efforts to slander this concept, identity politics remains a crucial lens through which to understand the unique political challenges various groups face. The term was coined in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian feminist socialists who argued that political agendas needed to be driven by material “lived experience” in the face of interlocking systems of oppression.
The situation in Ireland is radically different compared to the United States. As Allen demonstrates in 32 Counties, the binary identity system of Catholics and Protestants is not borne of experience but manufactured — imposed from above, to serve British imperial interests. With partition, Britain had to enforce “a specific ideological concept of Protestantism” to justify a division between a Catholic South and a Protestant North. Reactionary religious organizations like the Orange Order were particularly instrumental in popularizing the image of Catholics as lazy, untrustworthy, and of less value than Protestants, and of the Catholic Church as “the embodiment of evil.”
But for all the talk of historic enmity, the situation in Northern Ireland is not the product of a centuries-long ethno-nationalist conflict, but rather of Britain’s desire to establish a loyalist stronghold in Ireland. Why else would the architects of partition deliberately exclude three of Ulster’s counties from the Northern state, simply because their large Catholic populations would have threatened the permanent, in-built Protestant majority?
Allen reveals that Northern Ireland’s existence did not only serve British imperial interests. Elites in the North and South have been well served by positioning the two countries as enemies locked in an endless struggle. “While politicians might sing republican ballads with great gusto,” Allen writes, “the last thing the Southern elite wanted was the incorporation of a troublesome non-Catholic population.” Indeed, from the outset, the Free State was dominated by conservatives, who “embarked on a counter-revolution to crush any radical sentiments that had emerged in the War of Independence.”
In the early days of the Republic, conservative dominance made it easier for bailiffs to seize property from tenants, broke up strikes, and denied civil servants the right to unionize. Catholic fundamentalism provided an ideological cover for this war against the working class. After all, “if the Irish revolution changed little in material existence, the people could at least have the comfort of living in the most Catholic of countries.” Still, even this comfort was dubious. Contraceptives were banned, women were forced to leave their jobs once they were married, divorce was outlawed, and the Church was encouraged to steer public policy, leading to the establishment of a “shadowy theocracy.” Conversely, Northern elites used the specter of a repressive, backward South to keep their citizens in a perpetual state of fear.
Like partition, Allen argues that the Belfast Agreement, signed in 1998, similarly entrenched a false identity politics. The text explicitly requires “members of the Assembly [to] register a designation of identity — nationalist, unionist or others.” While appearing divided along irreconcilable ethno-nationalist differences, parties across the political spectrum have pushed neoliberal policies that harm the working class. These policies have ensured a low-pay economy in the North that has encouraged multinational investment and weakened trade unionism.
Northern Ireland has continued to serve corporate interests by cutting the corporate tax rate to match that of the South. Allen fears that this could set off a race to the bottom that leads to even lower wages and further concessions to multinationals. He also highlights the dangers of the Private Financial Initiative, which is not only a means of privatizing public projects like schools or hospitals in the North but has already deprived the public of billions of euros.
The Belfast Agreement also failed to address the way politicians cynically draw on the “culture war” between Catholics and Protestants to secure policy objectives. The relationship between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin provides a perfect example. They have argued vehemently over symbols like flags or portraits, exploiting this division to maintain control over their voter base. At the same time, they frequently come together on economic issues (such as lowering taxes, weakening labor’s power, and “reduc[ing] public services”). The Belfast Agreement, Allen concludes, did not “overcome sectarianism but institutionalized it.”
The persistence of this divisive, manufactured identity politics has made working-class solidarity extremely difficult. This divide takes literal form in the “peace walls” that separate working-class communities along religious lines. This has hindered workers’ ability to collectively demand more public housing, as politicians have framed the issue as Catholics trying to invade Protestant land.
At the same time, elites’ obsession with keeping alive a sectarian conflict has marginalized contemporary social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. In a striking parallel with the United States, Black Lives Matter protesters in Northern Ireland were threatened with prosecution for violating public health measures, despite the fact that they did social distance. Loyalists who did not social distance during a mass rally to defend war memorial statues faced no such pressure. Similarly, the movement for abortion and LGBT rights in the North has faced constant opposition from the far-right DUP. Conservatives in the North and South are “comfortable regulating the old identity politics” rooted in sectarianism but suppress movements that cut across sectarian divides with little resistance from opposition parties. For instance, while the DUP sought to ban abortion outright, Sinn Féin only supported abortion in limited circumstances.
Throughout 32 Counties, Allen makes it clear just how much effort political elites have put into sustaining a mutually beneficial cultural divide, though never at the expense of corporate interests. However, the stale Catholic-versus-Protestant narrative that has obfuscated the ongoing class war has been fracturing for some time. According to Allen, the strain between Britain and Northern Ireland goes back to the 1960s. As industry began to decline, “the British government was forced to subsidize social services and government administration.” Northern Ireland was supposed to make an “imperial contribution,” yet it was becoming an economic burden.
To salvage the situation, multinational corporations were invited to take advantage of the North’s cheap labor pool (this was the beginning of Northern Ireland’s neoliberal transformation). Of course, these multinationals didn’t care if their workers were Catholic, Protestant, or religious at all — they were equal opportunity exploiters. So Britain began to “pressure [Northern Ireland] to shift its political style of rule,” which undermined the supposedly sectarian reasoning behind creating Northern Ireland in the first place. At the same time, despite how careful the British were in securing their permanent Protestant majority, Protestants will soon no longer be the demographic majority, further eroding the rationale for Northern Ireland’s continued existence.
But whatever tensions might have existed before, Allen explains that Brexit exacerbated them exponentially. For it revealed how Britain, which voted to leave the EU, sees Northern Ireland, which voted to Remain, as ultimately expendable. One of the clearest signs of this was the customs border in the Irish Sea that Britain negotiated with the EU. As of January 2021, it effectively separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and pushes the country closer toward the South’s economic sphere. This development, along with the various ways loyalist parties like the DUP were used as pawns during Brexit negotiations, has contributed to a growing sense of betrayal among Unionist politicians and their base.
Just as the North has undergone drastic changes in its relationship with the UK, the South has made significant progress in emerging from the shadow of its founders’ theocratic vision. Allen traces how the decline in the Church’s influence can be observed in everything from women breaking free from antiquated gender roles to the push to ensure school services are not denied on religious grounds. The Republic of Ireland, whose constitution begins “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity,” was the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage by popular vote.
But even if these developments are enough to achieve unification, the question arises: What kind of unification will it be? A former leader of the neoliberal Progressive Democrats and a high court judge with ties to Fine Gael, among others, have already put forward plans that would ensure both parts of the island of Ireland remained attractive tax havens while maintaining sectarian identities. In these neoliberal proposals, nothing would fundamentally change.
Fortunately, Allen offers another way, one rooted in the legacy of Ireland’s greatest revolutionary, James Connolly.
The Socialist Path to Unification
Connolly is perhaps best remembered as one of the revolutionaries sentenced to death for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916. However, his socialist analysis set him apart. That analysis is more relevant than ever — and provides three crucial lessons for the Left today.
First, socialists cannot settle for having the North simply join the South. Rather, both should be abolished and replaced with a socialist republic. The path toward such a republic may require intermediate steps, such as the North separating from the UK but not immediately taking part in an island-wide transformation. But Connolly was not an absolutist — he supported home rule because, while it would not instantly establish a socialist republic, it was an important step forward. The key for Connolly was that socialists could not be complacent. Every victory should make them more aggressive in pursuing their agenda. The same strategy applies now.
Second, socialists must argue for a politics that prioritizes the Irish over Ireland. Connolly had no use for those who would defend symbols of Ireland yet support economic policies that immiserated its people. Because many workers, including those he sought to organize, were in thrall to false identity politics, he wrote incessantly about why sectarian ideologies ultimately undermined their material interests. Connolly’s message was not popular. Socialists will still face backlash today. But socialism cannot prevail as long as sectarianism lingers.
Finally, socialists must unite Protestant and Catholics in organized resistance to all forms of oppression. Connolly was able to get workers “to fight alongside each other in their day-to-day economic battle” regardless of religion, and Allen points to signs that there is currently a “32-county consciousness” arising naturally, “especially amongst young people.” Workers from the North and South have already come together to support gay marriage, address the climate crisis, improve health care, and protest the verdict of a rape trial when the victim’s evidence was not accepted. Connolly understood that when people resist “oppression, they rarely [limit] themselves to one injustice.” But a socialist narrative is necessary to connect these various movements and strengthen them with a reinvigorated labor movement.
Allen’s 32 Counties makes a compelling case that Connolly’s class-oriented vision offers a way out of the sectarian maze Ireland has been trapped in since partition. A confluence of events has presented Ireland with an unprecedented opportunity to implement that vision. But the Left needs to articulate the shared economic interests of the working class — and see beyond the identity politics that have stood in the way of real political change. In other words, we need a socialist Ireland.