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The return of Stormont and the election of Michelle O’Neill as First Minister

The Communist Party of Ireland warns that these latest developments do not represent a path to Irish unity and national liberation

THE election of Michelle O’Neill, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, as first minister of the Stormont Assembly is historic only because she is the first non-unionist leader of a devolved administration in the six counties statelet which was established by the British to ensure a permanent Protestant/unionist majority. 

Other than a non-unionist holding the position of first minister, nothing else has changed. O’Neill held the position of deputy first minister before the last assembly elections as Sinn Fein, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), administered British rule within the six counties in tandem with the Democratic Unionist Party. Having a Sinn Fein first minister has not weakened Britain’s position in Ireland.

The GFA was based on the false premise that the Irish conflict was an inter-communal struggle between two warring tribes. The agreement allowed British imperialism to portray itself as an “honest broker,” keeping the peace between Catholics and Protestants. 

Its role in fostering and maintaining these divisions in order to safeguard its position in Ireland is ignored. For centuries, in pursuit of its exploitation of Ireland’s material resources, the extraction of surplus value from Irish labour and the perceived need to defend itself from invasion, the English, then British, ruling class has followed the dictum that might is right as it sought to control Ireland. 

The Stormont Assembly was established under the terms of the GFA. It institutionalises sectarianism, nationalist is pitted against unionist in a futile pursuit of gaining dominance over each other within a set of institutions designed and incorporated to deny any real control of their respective lives. 

The allocation of the entire population into separate sectarian camps and the institution of mechanisms for ensuring that decisions are weighed to ensure sectarian balance, make competition “between the two communities” the main dynamic for politics in the north. 

It cements rather than weakens the sectarian division and makes the achievement of working-class unity more difficult. It is also the complete antithesis of the Irish republican principle of unity of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter in a common Irish citizenship.

The assembly provides a democratic facade to the continued denial of democracy in Ireland by disguising the reality of where political power lies. The British ruling class retains executive power, and it is the British government and not the assembly that has the power to enact trading agreements, to grant any border poll, as well as controlling the timing or cancellation of democratic elections and major revenue-raising and taxation. None of this is changed by the election of a Sinn Fein first leader. 

The GFA and the institutions to which it gave rise do not offer a path to Irish unity and national liberation. Instead, they represent a high point in British imperial achievement, in not only gaining national and international acceptance of its racial and sectarian narrative about Ireland, but in recruiting large sections of the republican movement to that acceptance. 

Sinn Fein has been locked into the straitjacket of imperial needs and interests. It now seeks to adminster the 26-county state in the interests of an Irish ruling class which accepts its subordinate position vis a vis British, US and EU imperialism. 

Sinn Fein’s position north and south of the British imposed border exposes the political and ideological weaknesses within Irish republicanism. It has historically lacked a clear understanding of class struggle as the driver of politics and the centrality of class struggle to radical social change. 

It correctly recognised the political and military aspects of British imperialism, however it has failed to see imperialism as a function of capitalism and, as the history of anti-colonial struggles worldwide has shown, unless anti-colonial struggle is also anti-capitalist it will end in a neocolonial relationship with imperialism.

The belief that the GFA offers a road to unity and national liberation is based on the 1990 remark by Peter Brook, then UK secretary of state for the six counties, that Britain had “no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland.”  

This phrase was later used by John Major in the Downing Street Declaration which led to the GFA. That has led many to believe that Britain is looking for a way to withdraw from Ireland. They should read the document which led to the DUP return to Stormont and the election of O’Neill as first minister. It is called Safeguarding The Union and point six states that “the (UK) government will provide statutory assurance that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom. The government will legislate to affirm Northern Ireland’s place in the union.”  

A change in government in Britain will make no difference since Keir Starmer, leader of the British Labour Party, has said that in the event of a referendum on Irish reunification, he would campaign for the maintenance of the union.  

Closing the Back Door. Rediscovering Northern Ireland’s Role in British National Security, has recently been issued by right-wing British think tank, Policy Exchange. Its central point is that as the international situation is becoming less favourable for US-led imperialism, the 26 counties is the “weak spot in the Britain’s defence.” It argues for a beefed-up military, naval and air force presence in the six counties. 

Once again Britain’s strategic interests are seen as superior to Irish democratic demands. The report has a foreword by two former British defence secretaries, Michael Fallon, Conservative, and George Robertson of Labour. It also has an endorsement from former First Sea Lord and security minister, Lord West of Spithead. It is safe to assume that its views reflect the thinking of the upper echelons of the British military and political Establishment regarding Ireland.

The GFA and the election of a Sinn Fein first minister are not staging posts on the path to Irish unity and national liberation. They are merely the latest in a long chain of attempts by British imperialism to stabilise its position in Ireland. The Communist Party of Ireland remains committed to building a socialist united Irish Republic. “Northern Ireland” is a failed political entity and there can be no sustainable internal solution. 

We call for a British declaration to withdraw from Ireland, allowing Irish people to decide our own destiny by establishing a national democratic state. Workers, north and south, cannot afford a passive strategy which would allow others to decide our fate. We need to bring forward demands and develop strategies that put working class interests to the fore. We need to educate, agitate and organise to build for unity, peace and socialism through working-class unity and effort. Raising demands and developing struggles on an all-Ireland basis, where possible, to turn an aspiration for a united Ireland into concrete forms of social and political campaigns. 

The Stormont Assembly, which strengthens sectarianism hinders that process. The struggle for national unity, national independence, sovereignty and democracy continues. British imperialism and imperialism in general can distort and attempt to restrict the democratic aspirations of the people of Ireland, but they cannot stop them.

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