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Bad faith arguments over Ireland and the EU

GUARDIAN columnist Polly Toynbee never tires of writing features detailing how one force or another “must” do everything possible, including sacrificing dearly held principles if necessary, to keep Britain in the European Union.

She’s not bothered whether this is achieved through recourse to another referendum or by the combined Remain forces in both houses of Parliament uniting to flout the decision voters plumped for in June 2016.

Toynbee surpassed herself last week by moving beyond her “Labour must” and “business must” pleas and roping in Sinn Fein MPs as possible collaborators in service to the EU superstate.

“They need only appear for the few crucial votes that would stop the Brexiters wrecking Irish prospects. Then they can retreat again as noble deliverers of their nation,” she wheedled.

Noting that Sinn Fein has had a red line more than a century old of its elected MPs not taking up their seats in Westminster, she bounced this into touch by insisting that “all red lines may be up for reconsideration.”

The former SDP enthusiast also cited Leo Varadkar and the Irish Labour Party in her support — and in almost identical non-class terms.

The Taoiseach urged SF to act “to make things better for Ireland,” while Labour wanted it “to defend the interests of Ireland.”

It was left to Paul Maskey, successor to Gerry Adams as Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast, to return to first principles this week.

“The crucial point here is that we are not British MPs. We are Irish MPs and we believe the interests of the Irish people can only be served by democratic institutions on the island of Ireland,” he explained patiently. 

“Sinn Fein goes to the electorate seeking a mandate for that position. We are elected as MPs by people who vote for Sinn Fein not to take seats at Westminster.”

It may seem difficult to understand for people whose party affiliation and political principles are lightly held, but the logic of an Irish republican party that wants an end to British involvement in Ireland holding to the reciprocal position that it declines interference in Britain’s democratic institutions seems clear. 

More striking about Maskey’s response to Westminster’s would-be seducers of Sinn Fein was how he encapsulated his party’s position on the decision by UK voters to leave the EU.

“The Irish people now see a parliament that runs roughshod over the integrity of their democratically expressed decision by enforcing Brexit upon them, threatening disruption to their border communities and to their most basic rights and livelihoods.

“The people of Ireland will not find a solution to Brexit in the parliament that is imposing it. On Brexit, Irish people in the north look to Sinn Fein, to the Irish government, the Irish parliament and to Europe to defend their interests,” he wrote.

He is correct to say that a majority of voters in the six counties backed the Remain campaign, but the referendum was pitched on an all-UK basis not on its constituent nations.

Had a UK majority voted to remain but Northern Ireland had voted with Wales to leave, there would have been no clamour for recognition of “the integrity of their democratically expressed decision” by accepting their right to leave the EU.

The issue is complicated by constant references to the Good Friday Agreement, with suggestions that UK exit from the EU threatens commitments to an invisible border and veiled insinuations from Varadkar and others that a military campaign could once again be on the cards.

The only way to prevent catastrophe, we are told, is to keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union and internal market, effectively shifting the EU border northwards to envelop the six counties.

Given the Morning Star’s historical backing for a united Ireland and GFA acceptance of that as a legitimate goal, given democratic means and consent, what’s wrong with that? 

What’s wrong is that this is not a solution brought about by democratic means and consent. There is no current agreement by the people in Northern Ireland to a reunified Ireland and Sinn Fein, as a signatory to the GFA, supports those conditions. 

Insisting on Northern Ireland being part of the customs union and internal market would be a diktat from Brussels not an expression of democratic will.

Such diktats are not new in Ireland or elsewhere in the EU and Sinn Fein has previously been a vigorous opponent of the EU Commission’s tendency to ride roughshod over democratic decisions it disagrees with.

Ten years ago, the Irish electorate voted decisively by 53.4 per cent to 46.6 per cent to reject the EU Lisbon Treaty, putting the cat among the pigeons since all member states had to ratify the treaty for it to take effect.

Sinn Fein was the only parliamentary party to reject Lisbon just as it had opposed Ireland’s membership of the EU in the 1970s.

Then taoiseach Brian Cowen proclaimed: “The government accepts and respects the verdict of the Irish people.”

EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said that he had spoken to Cowen and agreed with him that this was not a vote against the EU.

“Ireland remains committed to a strong Europe. Ratifications should continue to take their course,” he said.

Anti-treaty campaigning group Libertas spokesman Declan Ganley said: “It is a great day for Irish democracy. This is democracy in action … and Europe needs to listen to the voice of the people.”
Current Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said then that Lisbon equalled “lower wages” and “crushing family farms.”

Citing European Court of Justice (ECJ) anti-union decisions in the Laval and Ruffert cases, she said: “While these judgements took place under the existing EU treaties, the Protocol on the Internal Market and Competition contained in the Lisbon Treaty provides both the commission and the court with an even stronger mandate to undermine workers’ pay and conditions.”

Despite persuasive arguments posed by Sinn Fein, Libertas, the Communist Party of Ireland and other anti-Lisbon campaigners, the response of the EU Establishment was similar to its post-Brexit refusal to accept that people had had a clear choice and voted No.

Baron Kinnock of EU Gravy Train called the Irish vote “a triumph of ignorance,” commission vice-president Margot Wallstrom told officials to “work out what the Irish people had really been voting against” and Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff outdid them all by dismissing the majority as an “odd bunch of racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, the disappointed centre left and the generally pissed off.”

The long and the short of it was that Irish voters were told that their decision was wrong and that they should try again, as French, Dutch and Danish voters have also been told. 

In the EU, Yes means Yes and No means referendums turning into neverendums until you come up with the right answer.

Irish revolutionary leader James Connolly, who is cited by Sinn Fein leaders as their inspiration, warned that to simply “hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle” in place of the butcher’s apron would be useless if the power of landlords, financiers and other institutions was left untouched.

Maskey’s touching reliance, quoted above, on looking to “Sinn Fein, to the Irish government, the Irish parliament and to Europe to defend their interests” raises doubts about how strongly Connolly’s class-based anti-imperialism is embraced.

Has the EU shown greater respect for small nations’ democratically expressed views? Greece suggests not. 

Neither the Irish government nor parliament can compete with the EU commission over economic decisions, which could explain why the Irish people were forced to bear the cost of 42 per cent of all EU private banking debt despite constituting just 2 per cent of the EU population.

Is the ECJ still guided by what suits the internal free market than by justice for organised labour? No change there.

While accepting the principle that Irish people should decide Ireland’s future, it is surely valid to suggest that replacing the union flag with a blue flag covered in gold stars doesn’t equal independence. 


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