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THE inauguration of Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister is a historic moment.
It shows that times are changing. A united Ireland in the medium-term future is now a realistic prospect, though powerful forces still obstruct it.
Obstruction is of course the reason why Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill was only sworn in at the weekend, when her party became the largest in Stormont back in May 2022.
Though the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) explained its long boycott of Stormont by citing opposition to the EU-British Northern Ireland Protocol and its imposition of customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain, that was just part of a panic at geopolitical changes rendering unionism increasingly anachronistic.
Among the many disruptive consequences of the Brexit vote was a forced debate around where a customs border would fall — with a majority on both sides of Britain’s border in Ireland opposed to it being erected within the island. Yet the more logical Irish Sea dividing line inevitably furthers the cause of Irish unity and separation from the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein’s 2022 election result, forcing unionists to take a subordinate role to Irish nationalists in a statelet they saw as their own, posed the dilemma with symbolic force. The result has been the 20-month sulk in which the DUP has simply refused to play, taking advantage of the rigidity of power-sharing arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement to paralyse Stormont by boycotting the Assembly.
On this side of the Irish Sea confusion has reigned over the causes of and solutions to this crisis.
Partly it stems from confusion over the character of sectarian conflict in Ireland, where British media present Britain as an honest broker between backward and bigoted tribes. In fact, in the words of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), “these divisions were fostered by British imperialism” to maintain its dominance.
Partly it stems from confusion over the European Union itself, the myth that it exists to end conflict between nations rather than to institutionalise capitalism by subordinating elected national governments to an unelected structure dictating the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour.
These combined to enshrine the Good Friday Agreement as a sacred text, any departure from which would ignite renewed sectarian killing — which for British Remainers had the advantage of providing another angle from which to undermine the Leave vote, by claiming it was a threat to the peace process.
The CPI took a clearer view, pointing out that the agreement “made competition between the two [nationalist and unionist] communities the main dynamic for politics … [it] cements rather than weakens the sectarian division and makes the achievement of working-class unity more difficult.”
The DUP’s very ability to paralyse the territory’s institutions by walking out showed how important it has become to move beyond the 1998 settlement rather than try to force an evolving society back into that straitjacket.
We should welcome the end of the DUP’s boycott, but note that it was achieved through considerable concessions to its reactionary determination to affirm “Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s internal market.”
We should welcome O’Neill as the first supporter of a united Ireland to hold the most senior post in Northern Ireland’s government, but caution that the anti-imperialist cause — which she championed with a welcome call for a Gaza ceasefire in her inaugural address — cannot be advanced through alliance with British, EU or US capital.
As the CPI argues, “‘Northern Ireland’ is a failed state ... there can be no sustainable internal solution.” Irish republicans will now be looking to whether a Sinn Fein-led administration advances Irish unity or attempts to administer the status quo.
That said, O’Neill’s mere presence in the role has forced British ministers and shadow ministers to acknowledge the possibility of a reunification vote, even if as a hypothetical with no timescale attached.
And that’s something to build on.
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