Ireland’s future lies in the quest for unity

By Jeremy Corbyn MP

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star on 9 February 2010

A new chapter has opened up in Ireland’s future. Gordon Brown confirmed to Parliament on Monday that an agreement had been reached between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin over policing in Northern Ireland — the last contentious barrier in the devolution process.

Brown described the deal as a significant and defining moment.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said that ‘many had thought it wouldn’t, couldn’t happen — that our respective positions were too far apart — but it did, as a result of very intense discussions by Sinn Féin and the DUP.’

Adams went on to describe the agreement as ‘hugely important and symbolic’ and he said that the current situation is ‘an opportunity to build society based upon respect, equality, partnership and fairness.’

In the Commons, Peter Robinson was publicly very supportive of the agreement he had reached, as was his fugitive rival for leadership of the DUP Nigel Dodds — although Dodds seemed to be slightly backhanded in his remarks concerning the Parades Commission and Sinn Féin’s role in it.

The question of the future unity of Ireland now moves centre stage.

It is important to understand Ireland’s history — the colonial conquest, the brutal way in which Irish nationalism was repressed, and the legacy of the violence under British occupation over many centuries, from Cromwell’s death squads in the 17th century to the famine of the 19th century. This was caused by British refusal to distribute the food that was necessary to save the lives of starving people who were denied access to fertile land and the opportunity to feed themselves.

The brutal oppression of the nationalist cause in the latter 19th century led to the 1916 Easter Rising, the declaration of independence and then the counter-attack and execution of the republican movement’s leaders. Radical republicans paid the ultimate price for standing up against colonial domination.

The ensuing civil war, encouraged by British divide-and-rule tactics, finally led to partition in 1922. For decades the population of Northern Ireland was deliberately divided on religious and social grounds. Poverty, discrimination and oppression sparked the 1968 civil rights movement and then the presence of British troops for the next 40 years.

The division of Ireland is a colonial creation, and the development of cross-border institutions, the Irish language and close cultural developments indicate that the reunification of Ireland is becoming closer and increasingly inevitable.

The prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the largest nationalist party and holding many of the major offices would have been dismissed as a pipe dream only 20 years ago. From the early 1970s onwards, there was a parliamentary consensus to maintain the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Emergency Powers Act and, later, a travel and broadcasting ban on republican leaders.

The Labour Party and the many trade unions refused to even discuss Ireland throughout the 1980s. But attempts to isolate Sinn Féin ultimately failed and a political process took over from the daily conflict and death on the streets of Northern Ireland.

One should recognise the enormous step taken initially by Adams and SDLP leader John Hume in reaching a common position, followed by the 1994 and 1997 ceasefires and huge progress since.

Recent events give the conference hosted by Sinn Féin on Saturday February 20 enormous new momentum. Hosted at Congress House in London, Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda will discuss a strategy for achieving a long-term aim of a united Ireland.

While the conference takes place against the backdrop of a deal with the DUP and with the final piece of the devolution jigsaw put down on the board, there are big, looming problems.

In the last decade the economy of the 26-county Irish republic has boomed. The so-called Celtic tiger encouraged a financial services economy and massive growth in house and land prices. The current comatose state of the tiger has created the conditions for the return of mass unemployment, increased social divisions and denied the aspirations of many of Ireland’s young people.

In response Brian Cowen’s Fianna Fail-led government has slashed public spending and increased taxation. His belief that this will solve Ireland’s problem is more than simply short-sighted. Just as anywhere else, it will spark a cycle of economic decline.

In contrast, a united Ireland dedicated to the principles of social justice and an economy planned for the needs of the people rather than as a tax haven for the super-rich could deliver on the aspirations of those who laid down their lives in the 1916 Easter Rising — and since.

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North.