The election in the North of Ireland has drawn a lot of attention in recent days. For the first time in history, in apparent contradiction to the very purpose of the state, people in the North elected Sinn Féin as the largest party in the assembly. As a result, Sinn Féin’s leader, Michelle O’Neill, is eligible for the position of first minister. Sinn Féin is, of course, the former political arm of the IRA.
Though the election is significant, it is not the “momentous blow to Protestant-oriented Unionism” that it has been interpreted as by many. Unionist parties still maintain over 42% of seats in the assembly. Nationalist parties hold 40.5% and ‘neutral’ parties hold the rest. One of the major changes is that these so-called neutral parties, such as Alliance, have drawn support from the more-reactionary unionist ones.
Yet, as Odrán Waldron keenly noted in Ebb Magazine, “58.8 per cent of Alliance’s voters favoured the continuation of British rule in Ireland in 2019, with just 25.6 per cent favouring the reunification of Ireland.” The ‘neutrality’ of their apparent non-sectarianism is not legitimately neutral – neutrality is, of course, a political position which is an impossibility. Waldron also notes that the British still control public funds in the North, including taxation. It also controls ‘foreign policy’ and military matters.
Further still, the model by which the political process functions in the North is British. As the BBC recently said, power sharing means that in “any government there must be representatives from both the nationalist community – who favour unity with the Republic of Ireland – and unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. The idea is that, whatever their historic differences, both communities have a vested interest in the system.” The power sharing process is designed to keep the system running – to uphold a British state structure, ensure peace, and maintain the status-quo.
It is important to note that the British model of state also maintains dominance in the South, where the Irish elite embraced British political structures as well as capitalism, its all-encompassing economic structure, following the revolution and civil war. Though the Republic of Ireland now has so-called political independence, it is still not free of the colonial claw. As James Connolly wrote in 1897:
“If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.”
When England colonized Ireland, it imposed an economic structure which enabled dominance and extraction. It forced the concept of property on the people and established chains which enabled the English elite to perpetually extract wealth from the island and its people. A form of government was established which ensured that this system kept running – its contradictions meant that it would collapse otherwise. Today, the chains remain and wealth extraction continues, and whether a class of Irishmen – and men it is, for capitalism and colonialism are patriarchal structures – are also growing rich off the subjugation of the rest does not matter. The states in place both North and South are designed to uphold the structures of dominance that Britain imposed.
Therefore, the North is not alone in its continued reliance on Britain; however, it maintains direct British oversight and a parliamentary structure explicitly designed to cement Britain’s governmental control over the region. The region itself maintains a large British population which has established long-standing roots in Ireland – a population which has its own classes of exploited and disenfranchised people, suffering as a direct result of British structures of domination. It is this population which has been used to uphold British rule and to justify the British state’s unwillingness to release Ireland from its grasp.
It cannot be forgotten why the current system of governance in the North exists. It is not long since Irish Catholics in the North took to the streets to demand civil rights and were met with violence by the British state. It is not long since these people were subject to arbitrary internment and torture, since guns were planted in young Irishmen’s cars to justify arrests and passed into the hands of young loyalists to outsource executions. It is not long since a peace process was agreed to, which brought the most overt expressions of colonial violence on the island to a halt.
The still unspoken truth is that the British state bears total responsibility for the so-called sectarian violence in the North. ‘The Troubles’ were a product of a long-standing colonial system and its unbending repression of Irish people. The violence erupted when the Irish people asked for rights and the British responded by gunning them down. Irish nationalists are not innocent of disgraceful acts during the war that followed; yet, it is only because they resisted that they have anything at all. The British state not only carried out the bulk of the violence during this period but was only willing to bring an end to it on its own terms – the ‘peace process’ is a result of Irish people deciding that enough was enough, that the violence was too much and too pointless, because the British would never take their guns off Irish streets.
Now, Irish nationalists in the North try to oust British control through the channels of British government. Symbolically, it is significant that the post of first minister will go to an Irish nationalist in the Stormont. Sinn Féin will inevitably push for a border poll with renewed vigor and may one day convince the British to allow such a vote to occur. Yet, for now, the system prevails. The DUP, the major unionist party in the North, unwilling to play second fiddle, is currently blocking MLAs from taking their seats in the assembly. Unless they begin to play along, Michelle O’Neill will not take her post and a government will not be formed. Power will once again go to Westminster and British control will be direct, for that is the neutral state of the North.