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Marx and Contemporary Northern Ireland Politics: Widening the Debate

We owe a tremendous, if often unacknowledged, debt to Marxism in framing our collective understanding of Northern Ireland. Through Marxian conceptions of political economy, the state and ideology we have been able to more adequately explain how unionist and nationalist cultural formations are shaped and reshaped within finite historical contexts. Or, in plainer terms, Marxism has made it easier to understand why unionism and nationalism takes some forms over others at certain times. Drawing on this legacy, this article sets out the benefits of widening the parameters of some more contemporary Marxian analysis.

What contemporary analysis?

Marxs influence can be detected in much recent scholarship and political debate concerning Northern Ireland. However, this article narrows its focus to the overtly Marxian contributions made pseudonymously by Dr Kevin Bean in a talk delivered to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and in a follow up article in the Weekly Worker.

Why single out Bean’s analysis?

Of all the recent analysis of post-Brexit politics in Northern Ireland, few have the breadth and depth offered by Bean in his talk to the CPGB. Here Bean expertly foreshadows our current political crises with a historically grounded examination of the shifting dynamics of social relationships within and between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. He then proceeds to offer a reasonable assessment of the case for Irish unity and the trajectory of the peace process. As such, his analysis has a level of sophistication that poses questions worthy of critical engagement.

What is Bean’s case?

Links to Bean’s full contributions have already been provided. Rather than simply reiterating his argumentation in its entirety, this article focuses on locating the spaces within his approach that may be cultivated to highlight the merits of widening the scope of his analysis. Consequently, it takes his prescription for Marxists in relation to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status as its focal point.

Unlike many in the commentariat, Bean is sceptical that Brexit will necessarily lead to Irish unity. At the beginning of his talk, Bean lists a variety of arguments around Brexit, demography and supposed shifts in unionist political allegiance that have found much favour amongst those reporting an upsurge in demand for Irish unity, before going on to point out that “for every argument I have advanced a unionist could come forward with others”. Later Bean states his view, which he sees no strong evidence to contradict, “that Dublin governments would prefer a modified form of the status quo”. Bean’s scepticism of the potential for radical change also extends to his views on the possibility of a national movement for reunification emerging from within Northern Ireland:

The sort of dynamics that might give rise to a national movement from inside Northern Ireland, I think, do not exist… Northern Ireland is not wonderful for everybody, there are still areas of deprivation, there are still all of the problems of poverty, particularly in areas that are unemployment blackspots, but in comparison with the dynamics that created the civil rights movement, in the uprisings of the populations of the Bogside and West Belfast in the summer of 1969, that sort of matériel, that sort of human dynamic does not exist.

As a proponent of Irish unity, Bean certainly has the power to face inconvenient truths.

In fact, this backdrop of scepticism arguably makes Bean’s contention that “the job for Marxists in Ireland and indeed Great Britain is to argue for reunification” even more interesting. According to Bean, this position is not rooted in a naive sentimentality, but pragmatism. In support of this view, Bean asserts that the ‘carnival of reaction’ that engulfed the whole island of Ireland following partition can only be addressed through a unified Irish Republic, which allows the working classes on the island to “take on the Irish bourgeoisie, whether they are orange or green”.

Why widen the parameters of Bean’ analysis ?

Despite his considerable understanding of unionists and their political representatives, Bean’s analysis offers little in the way of explaining how they are to be won to his socialist vision of Irish unity. There is also an element within his analysis that fails to treat the pro-union population as partners in such an endeavour from the outset. This is reflected in Bean’s treatment of unionists as a “problem” to be solved, rather than partners to be listened to and worked with. Such problematising of unionists, however, is largely a superficial issue when compared with the limited consideration Bean affords to the possibilities of a meaningful leftist politics within the union, and indeed his apparent elevation of the importance of fighting the forces of neoliberal capitalism in Ireland over exploring how Northern Ireland might become a hub linking such struggles for greater freedom in both the UK and Ireland.

Essentially, Bean forecloses examination of the implications of Bew, Patterson and Gibbon’s work, which shows how commitment to the union can be a means of expressing cross-class material interests, in a post-Good Friday Agreement context of interdependence. As Pete Shirlow articulately conveys in a recent article in The Irish Times, leaning into Northern Ireland’s liminal position between Great Britain and the Irish Republic can bring both cultural and economic benefits. Such a policy would further recognise and give expression to the plurality of identities within Northern Ireland. It would also help sell Northern Ireland’s preferential access to markets in Great Britain and the EU to investors and build the region’s economy. Furthermore, it leaves the door open to deepening north/south collaboration in healthcare, which has seen those from both sides of the border benefit from improved provision. There is also no reason to believe that the pursuit of interdependence will hamper the development of progressive social movements. After all, the north was next regardless of Northern Ireland’s constitutional arrangements: the call that emanated in Dublin reverberated in the chambers of Westminster.

Naturally, interdependence is not a panacea, there are considerable obstacles to the realisation of a socialist type of politics in Northern Ireland. As Bean points out, the structures of the Good Friday Agreement have encouraged communal resource competition and cultural antagonisms that have fundamentally hampered the development of progressive politics in the region. He may then reasonably ask: why do you think radical change is possible within such structures? By way of reply, it can be argued that it is not so much that a policy of interdependence leads to an easily accessible path to radical politics, but that in recognising the enduring material basis of support for the union such a policy provides the most favourable context in which such interests can find productive expression.

Despite some depictions of Northern Ireland as a social and economic backwater, there are clear advantages offered by the union. Public spending, for example, is significantly higher in Northern Ireland than it is in the Irish Republic, with the region having some of the highest spending in the UK. Such spending not only funds the NHS, which is free at the point of use, it also provides well-paid public sector jobs that may be lost in a united Ireland. It is also worth mentioning that its levels of public spending and its relatively affordable stock of housing have led economists to suggest that living standards are around 20 per cent higher in Northern Ireland than they are in the Irish Republic.

None of this is to say that Northern Ireland is the promised land — far from it! The region remains blighted by poverty and inequality. Notwithstanding the mitigations secured from Westminster, the roll out of welfare reform has had a devastating impact on many recipients, forcing some further into debt and heightening their dependence on food banks. Much more also needs to be done to push back against the low-paid and precarious forms of employment that are prominent features of the Northern Ireland labour market. It nevertheless should be recognised that these problems of neoliberal capitalism are offset by what Colin Coulter describes as the remnants of “the social democratic impulses of the UK state”. As should the potential to revive these impulses within the union. Surely, a leftist politics of interdependence that seeks to promote solidarity across the UK and Ireland should be a welcome prospect for Marxists? Perhaps their job in relation to Northern Ireland is more ambiguous than is outlined by Bean? It would at the very least appear that widening the terms of the debate helps clarify the range of options for those on the left.

*A competitive advantage arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol is of course linked with pragmatic solutions to current disruption.

*Views expressed belong to the author alone, they are not representative of his employer.

Researcher focusing on youth non-voting in Northern Ireland. All views expressed are my own.

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