Ending partition and the question of a border poll

by John Molyneux, published in rupture.ie

I would like to thank Rupture for giving me the opportunity to respond to Ciaran Mulholland’s article on the question of a border poll in Rupture Issue 3[1]. I wish to reply because a) the issue is a very important one for Irish politics and for the left as a whole; b) I strongly disagree with the arguments advanced by Ciaran; c) I think the comments made in the article about the position of People Before Profit are, to put it mildly, highly misleading.

The central issue

When Prime Time has staged a national debate with the three main party leaders and Claire Byrne has seen fit to censor Joe Brolly for calling out the DUP[2], the current importance of this issue can hardly be doubted. Ciaran himself acknowledges this, speaking of the arrival after one hundred years of ‘the moment of reckoning ‘ and ‘fevered speculation around the possibility of a border poll’ and even suggesting that ‘the momentum towards the end of partition appears unstoppable ‘[3], though he also seems to regret this speculation and momentum. But before we come on to discuss the specifics of a border poll, it needs to be said that for socialists and Marxists the crucial underlying issue is whether or not we stand for the end of partition and the reunification of Ireland.

And let me be clear that by this I mean the end of partition and the reunification of Ireland even under capitalism. In other words, it is not an answer to say ‘We stand for a United Socialist Ireland’. Of course, we stand for a united socialist Ireland. As socialists, we stand for a united socialist world! But that is a different matter from saying that we only support Irish unity if it is on a socialist basis i.e. we do not support, or we even oppose Irish unity as long as Ireland remains capitalist. Nor should this be misrepresented as supporting a united capitalist Ireland when what is being supported is unification of North and South, not their capitalist character. 

This is worth clarifying, because revolutionary socialists take very definite stands on numerous issues within the framework of capitalism, without in any way compromising our opposition to the system as a whole. We were for the defeat of the water charges within capitalism. We were for Repeal and a woman’s right to choose within capitalism. We are for victory to the Debenhams workers even though ultimately we stand for the abolition of wage labour. This point is especially important in relation to the national question. The right to national self-determination cannot be made conditional on the nation wishing to exercise it being socialist. Marx’s support for Irish separation from England in the 19th century was not conditional on Ireland being socialist. Likewise, his support for the victory of the North in the US Civil War (in order to end slavery) was not conditional on the North or the Union as a whole being socialist. In the 20th century would anyone suggest that support for colonial independence for India in 1947, for African countries in the sixties should have been conditional on these countries being socialist?  Was opposition to Apartheid in South Africa conditional on believing in the socialist credentials of ANC? Today support for Catalonian independence from the Spanish State and Scottish independence from Britain does not depend on the socialist character of Catalonia and Carlos Puigdemont, or of Scotland and Nicola Sturgeon. The same applies to Irish unity.

So why should socialists be for ending partition? Because it is in the interests of the Irish working class and the international working class. 

The partition of Ireland was imposed by British imperialism by force and threats of force. It should be remembered that Michael Collins and his supporters accepted the Treaty that divided both the country and Irish republicanism in the face of a British threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’.  It was then imposed by Collins and the pro-Treaty forces with the aid of British arms. Moreover, this was done in defiance of a large all-Ireland majority for Sinn Féin and pro-independence forces in the 1918 General Election. It was not done to defend the interests of an ‘oppressed’ Protestant minority in the North but to halt the developing Irish Revolution and to retain for the empire control of the richest most industrialised part of Ireland around Belfast. It was therefore a clear denial of the democratic right of the Irish people to self-determination and remains such to the present day. 

Its immediate effect, as predicted by James Connolly, was to produce two rotten reactionary states – a deeply sectarian ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ in the North and a deeply conservative clerical dominated state in the South which trampled on the rights of workers, women and children; two rotten states which in essence survive to this day.

Moreover, partition resulted in a doubly divided Irish working class. The first division, often ignored in discussion of this issue, is between the working class in the North and the working class in the South.  The simple fact of living in two separate jurisdictions under two different governments creates an objective rift in the economic and political class struggle which, although it can and should be challenged, is nevertheless difficult to overcome. At times even some socialist and left political organisations have succumbed to the logic of partition and organised separately, North and South. The second division, between Protestant and Catholic workers in the North, obviously pre-dated partition but it was mightily deepened and reinforced by it. The existence over many decades of a sectarian Orange State which ruled on the basis of systematic discrimination against Catholic workers and marginal advantages for Protestant workers could not fail to entrench and maintain bigotry particularly as the ongoing existence of this State nourishes, on a continuing basis, the illusion among Protestant workers that this position of relative privilege can last indefinitely. Ending partition and with it, the sectarian State will obviously not eliminate this horrible legacy overnight but will undermine its main ideological and material base and create favourable terrain for overcoming it. 

Then there is the international dimension. Precisely because socialists should not be that ‘frog at the bottom of the well’ that Ciaran refers to[4], we should understand and appreciate the fact that the ‘loss’ of Northern Ireland, while not being enormously economically damaging to British capitalism, would nonetheless be a significant political and ideological blow. Taken together with the very possible loss of Scotland, it would mean that ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ would be reduced to a kingdom of England and Wales (with the loyalty of Wales looking increasingly shaky).  That would be hugely damaging to British imperialism, and the power and prestige of the British ruling class in a way that would be of great benefit to the struggle of British workers[5] and would also resonate around the world. 

Thus the case for ending partition is compelling.

Why a border poll? 

Because socialists should support the end of partition, therefore they should support a border poll. Let us ask ourselves, hypothetically, by what possible means the reunification of Ireland might be brought about.  One method might be through armed struggle driving the British State to give up its hold on the Six Counties. But this has been tested to destruction and exhaustion and it simply doesn’t work; the balance of forces was simply far too unfavourable.  It has now been abandoned by its most determined exponents to the relief of the large majority of Irish working people, and no one on the Irish Left or participating in this discussion is proposing its resumption. Another method might be by more or less simultaneous risings by the working class both North and South, overthrowing their respective governments and then joining together in victorious celebration. This would, of course, be by far the best option from a socialist standpoint and socialists should support every step, small or large, in this direction. However, this does not appear imminent at the moment – if that changes, great – and crucially is not in the consciousness as a real prospect for any significant layer of working-class people North or South. This leaves holding a border poll. Such a poll could come about either through mounting popular pressure on the British Government and the two governments, North and South, or through the election of Sinn Féin led governments or, even better, genuine Left governments or some combination of these scenarios. 

Therefore, for all those working-class people who aspire to a united Ireland and indeed a united socialist Ireland, the holding of a border poll cannot but be seen as a necessary step in the right direction. In this situation for socialists to try to claim that we support the goal (of ending partition) but reject the means (a border poll) would be perceived, rightly, as weak and self-contradictory. It would put us in the same unenviable position as Sinn Féin at the start of the water charges campaign when they tried to oppose the charges without supporting non-payment. It would be akin to supporting free, safe and legal abortion in word, but opposing holding the Repeal referendum (maybe on the ‘leftist’ grounds that it didn’t go far enough or that women’s rights should not be up for a vote or such like). It would, along with lining us up with the most reactionary forces in Irish society – the DUP, Fine Gael and very likely the fascists – be a major political gift to Sinn Féin. In short, it would be a disaster. 

Ciaran Mulholland’s arguments 

It is a striking feature of Ciaran’s article that it nowhere takes a clear position on the central issue – for or against partition – nor even argues clearly for abstention on the question. Instead, it restricts itself to presenting a series of side or tangential arguments against RISE or PBP taking a clear position on the matter. 

Ciaran complains about Sinn Féin presenting a border poll as a solution to Brexit and the Covid pandemic and calls this ‘nonsense’. But while ending partition is manifestly not a panacea, and no one on the Left is saying it is, reunification would, self-evidently, resolve the issue of a hard border – and an all-Ireland approach to Covid, including an all-Ireland NHS, is obviously needed. The fact that Sinn Féin says something does not in itself make it false. We agree with Mary Lou that two and two make four. Ciaran says ‘strident advocacy of a border poll is irresponsible and provides cover for the worst excesses of nationalism’[6]. Does that mean that non-strident advocacy would be OK or that no advocacy of a border poll is acceptable? What are these ‘worst excesses of nationalism’ we are supposedly giving cover to? He doesn’t name any and it is hard to know what he is referring to here. 

He says a border poll is not ‘imminent’ and so there is no imperative to take a ‘position now’[7]. This is a very weak argument and suggests that he himself is unsure where he stands. The fact is there is now, as he has acknowledged, a major debate on the question and to not take a position would leave us (RISE and PBP) with nothing substantial to say on the matter. The possibility that things might change in the next ten years and we might therefore need to change our position is, in theory, true of any issue, but of course we do not apply this to other issues and if we did it would reduce us to utter irrelevance. 

Ciaran says ‘the theoretical underpinnings… relating to the national question are not fully explained by some on the left – People Before Profit are a prime example.’ This is so far wide of the mark that just listing our writings on the subject would exceed the word length for the rest of this article[8] and none of those writings make reference to, or are anyway based on, Stalin’s 1913 book on the National Question which is dragged in entirely by the hair. 

Threaded through these anti-PBP barbs there are two substantial arguments that are of wider significance. The first is that opposing partition and supporting Irish unification is a compromise with or concession to nationalism – ‘not just boarding the nationalist train but firing up the locomotive’ [9]. I reject this. As Marx, Lenin and Trotsky – internationalists to the core – all understood, supporting Irish independence and the democratic demand of national self-determination (generally, as well as for Ireland) was a means of combating nationalism and undermining its hold in the working class. It should also be recalled that in Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, the national democratic revolution could and should grow over into workers’ power and the socialist revolution – but through the working class putting itself at the head of the national democratic revolution, not abstaining from it. 

The second, and this is the most important because it is a left version of the argument that will be put forward by the political establishment and the media, is that to raise the question of a border poll is to risk stirring up a sectarian backlash from Unionists and Loyalists. Of course, there may indeed be such a backlash, but here it is vital to understand what Unionism is. It is not the political or ‘cultural’ expression of an oppressed national or religious minority. Nor is it a defensive reaction to fear of oppression in a future united Ireland. It is a political ideology based on maintaining British rule and the Protestant ascendancy in the Six Counties. It is not a slightly deviant variant of Irish nationalism, but a variant of British nationalism, as is shown by all its history and symbolism (the Union Jack, loyalty to the Crown, the past affiliation to the British Conservative Party and its ongoing affinity with that party’s right-wing and forces even further to the right). And British nationalism is the nationalism of an oppressor nation, in some respects one of the biggest oppressor nations in history, and is therefore thoroughly reactionary. This is why uniting the working class of Northern Ireland involves winning Protestant workers from the politics and ideology of Unionism – and we believe they can be won – not appeasing it, in the same way that uniting Black and White workers in the US southern states involves breaking workers from the ideology of racism, Jim Crow, and white supremacy – not staying silent about it.

The idea that socialists should downplay or hold back a basic democratic demand – and that is what a border poll/ the right to self-determination is – because there will be a reactionary backlash against it is not one that we would accept, I trust, in any other situation. If applied generally it would rule out socialist and Marxist politics on a permanent basis. Applied to Ireland it would, in reality, put Irish unity on hold until the likes of Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson agree to it and it would actually help strengthen, not weaken their hold over Protestant workers.


1 – Ciaran Mulholland, ‘The Frog at the Bottom of the Well’ Rupture 3. Subsequently CM.

2 – See Kieran Allen on ‘RTÉ, Censorship and Irish Unity’, http://www.rebelnews.ie/2021/03/23/rte-censorship-irish-unity/

3 – CM p. 94. 

4 –  CM p. 94.

5 – The reciprocal relationship between the national struggle in Ireland and the struggle of the English working class was repeatedly stressed by Marx and expressed with great clarity in his Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt of 9 April 1870. “England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.” [Emphasis in the original] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm This letter in its entirety should be read by every Irish socialist.

6 – CM p .95.

7 – CM p. 95.

8 – A few examples: In 2013 Irish Marxist Review 8 was a special issue on the national question with articles on  Marxist basic principles, on the Left and the national question in the North, on Scotland, on Catalonia and on the Kurds. http://www.irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/issue/view/8. More recently we published Sean Mitchell on ‘Is a United Ireland inevitable?’ http://www.rebelnews.ie/2018/10/02/is-a-united-ireland-inevitable/. Then there are the copious writings of PBP National Secretary Kieran Allen, including The Politics of James Connolly (1990, republished 2016) and 1916: Ireland’s Revolutionary Tradition (2016). Also, the next Irish Marxist Review (due 16 April) is devoted to the 100th anniversary of partition  (with articles by myself, Kieran Allen, Eamonn McCann, Goretti Horgan, Fergal McCluskey, Mike Milotte and Brian Kelly) plus Kieran Allan has a new book, 32 Counties: the Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland due out shortly.

9 – CM p. 95. Given the dramatic metaphor, I am surprised it is not supported by any concrete references or quotations.

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