Exceptional Times

Sinn Féin's surge in Northern Ireland has transformed the political landscape. The Left can't fail to take advantage.

No one, it seemed, wanted this election.

Since the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont in January, Northern Ireland endured what much of the Irish media disdainfully characterized as a divisive and toxic campaign. The right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose erstwhile dominance gave them little cause or talent for self-reflection, had just enough wit to realize they would be facing a base disgruntled by scandal, a re-energized Sinn Féin furious at the imposition of Brexit, and an austerity-hardened electorate whose oft-mythologized sectarianism is, while still extant, no longer as reliable as in years past.

A brave-faced Sinn Féin, contrary to conspiratorial mutterings that they had engineered the vote to give Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness an excuse to retire, were not eager for another election just ten months after their previous disappointments. Theresa May’s Conservative government, maniacally committed to Brexit, had no desire to be distracted from planning a future free from immigrants and human rights by the unrewarding quagmire of Northern Irish politics.

And yet, despite being proclaimed unloved and unwanted, the March 2 election saw the highest turnout since 1998. Northern Irish voters, it seems, were less exhausted by the political process than their press and politicians. It was the first of several shocks the election had in store.

Some were more surprised than others. After wall-to-wall coverage of two British by-elections, the UK’s insular media remained largely disengaged from what was transpiring in Northern Ireland until the results were in. But once they were . . . “Carnage.”

The DUP remains the largest party, but it is not a victory anyone would envy, with Sinn Féin less than 1,200 votes and one seat behind them. A state intended from its inception to guarantee a pro-UK majority now has equal numbers of Irish republicans and unionists within its devolved legislature. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement mandates the inclusion of both sides in any Stormont executive, but genuine parity is a new development.

There was plenty of right-wing humiliation to go around. Mike Nesbitt, leader of the once-mighty Ulster Unionist Party, resigned after crushing losses, and will doubtless be missed by whole dozens of people. The Conservatives, the UK’s party of government, received 0.3 percent of the vote, a result aptly summarized by Adam Ramsay as “kind of hilarious.”

But while this was a dispiriting election for British unionism and for the Right — now largely interchangeable — its implications for the Left are more complicated.

The far left People Before Profit Alliance articulated a socialist skepticism towards the European Union while backing last year’s Leave campaign, taking the optimistic view that Brexit was “an opportunity for an alternative Europe.” Faced with a choice between the austerity of the Tories and that of the Troika, anti-Brexit Northern Irish voters evidently felt more disgust with that which is closer to home, and made PBP suffer for it, reducing their representation from two MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) to one: the veteran activist Eamonn McCann, who won the endorsement of republican socialist legend Bernadette Devlin when he first ran last year.

Elsewhere on the Left, the Greens — who, like their Scottish and English compatriots, have significant though not dominant socialist membership — bear watching in the future, but for now retain their two MLAs, leader Steven Agnew and deputy Clare Bailey.

As for Sinn Féin, counting on them as a vehicle for left-wing policies — or to create a fertile environment for future left organizing — is a dubious enterprise, even with their enlarged numbers. At the same time, it would be self-defeating for leftists in Northern Ireland to imagine they can pursue a strategy isolated from wider political developments. Any attempt to disentangle socialism from nationalism in Ireland, North or South, has always been a doomed endeavor, and in a realm where all politics is constitutional, the landscape has been transformed. Failing to take advantage would be a disservice to the entire history of the Irish left.

The upheaval underscores once again the growing fragility of a British state trapped within its own character — by Brexit, by Tory rule seemingly without foreseeable end, by the nativist conservatism that ensures both, and by the timeless motivations of capital that will profit as a consequence. In the words of Tom Nairn, Marxism’s most significant theorist of nationalism, “Escape from the final stages of a shipwreck is its own justification.”

Now, a new power-sharing executive between the DUP and Sinn Féin must be formed within three weeks; if it is not, either another snap election will be held, or direct rule from Westminster will be reimposed.

The former is unlikely. But no one wants direct rule either. Theresa May and her bumbling posse of second-string Brexiters, post-Thatcherite ghouls, manic self-publicists, and surviving stragglers from the Cameron government lack both the imagination and the finesse necessary to enact it, even if doing so effectively was possible.

While cutting through the Gordian knot of Northern Irish politics with some old-school colonial authority might tickle certain Tory dinosaurs, May — having ostentatiously affirmed her commitment to the Union, as all Conservatives must — should know that direct rule will do the unionist cause no favors. The spectacle of the British government taking away Stormont’s toys because voters cannot be trusted would play right into Sinn Féin’s hands.

Early talks have broken down thanks to “waffle, waffle, and more waffle” from Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire, a man who must have picked the short straw somewhere along the line. Brokenshire has urged Sinn Féin to accept further inquiries into IRA killings during the Troubles as part of any deal, but that looks both unpromising and disingenuous considering the British government has done everything possible to shield its military personnel from legal scrutiny. In the considered opinion of May’s government, the real war criminals are those who go looking for war crimes.

Both sides are still making the appropriate diplomatic noises, if only for the sake of appearances. But there is little hope of compromise while Arlene Foster remains first minister, having refused to step down for the duration of an inquiry into the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scandal, which precipitated the collapse of the previous executive.

Foster — unbelievably inarticulate, habitually disengaged, strategically unimaginative, and instinctively obstinate — oversaw the RHI scheme, a screw-up of such staggering incompetence that, should premeditated corruption be discovered — criminality, rather than criminal stupidity — it would probably hurt the reputations of those involved less. Adding to the air of venality, hard (and increasingly bizarre) questions about massive donations made to the DUP during the European referendum remain unanswered.

Foster’s refusal to budge seems motivated not only by a desire to retain power, but to prevent Northern Ireland from joining the twenty-first century. The DUP, which even in the context of Northern Ireland have always been amateurish at disguising their social conservatism as anything other than bigotry, were the chief force blocking marriage equality in Northern Ireland, over the objections of both the majority of the assembly and the populace.

But now, having only twenty-eight MLAs, the DUP has lost their ability to employ the “petition of concern,” a controversial mechanism by which a sizable minority of the assembly can block legislation. All they can do now is bank on Foster’s belief that gay people don’t really want to get married.

Amongst other factors, the DUP’s troglodytic homophobia has left it vulnerable to Sinn Féin, whose gradual reinvention as socially progressive would have been unthinkable in the days when the party was almost entirely beholden to Irish Catholicism, but who have nevertheless become the most significant party not only to support marriage equality, but to oppose welfare reform (with, it must be said, compromises and U-turns along the way) and water charges, making anti-austerity a central rhetorical plank of their platform. They did this with such ease partly because of the rest of the Irish left’s paltry state, but mainly because the DUP inadvertently provided such enormous opportunities.

Despite much talk after the Brexit vote, Sinn Féin has made no significant move — yet — on a border poll. Unification with the South is still their ultimate goal, but numerous hurdles remain, not least the republicans’ lack of an actual majority in the North. Yet unification is now part of the discourse in a way it hasn’t been for decades. Sinn Féin, whatever one thinks of them, do not engage in pointless gestures. If Sinn Féin seriously press for a border poll, it will be because they believe they can win.

Complicating matters further are those fractures rippling elsewhere within the United Kingdom. Shortly before the election, Foster spoke darkly of the “instability” that the issue of independence had brought to Scotland, a risible comparison considering Scottish nationalism’s death toll over the past two centuries stands at precisely zero. Still, this was catnip to a certain breed of intellectually vacuous commentator, who hastily remembered who Foster was, and by inscrutable logic, decided her opinion was worth the oxygen necessary to articulate it.

It made a twisted kind of sense: the British government and the Labour Party are increasingly focused on opposing any new independence referendum in Scotland (now being pitched, with heavy qualifications, for autumn 2018). Should fresh constitutional uncertainty emanate from Northern Ireland, there is no telling how it would affect the wider situation. Whatever transpires, May is completely unprepared for a pincer movement of chaos from both her Irish and Scottish flanks.

By their public pronouncements, one could be forgiven for thinking that Sinn Féin and the Scottish National Party (SNP) are barely aware of each other’s existence, and that’s probably how they like it. Sinn Féin knows the evolving Scottish independence movement provides a safe point of comparison, demonstrating that opposition to the British state can be civic and peaceful.

They also undoubtedly know that any performative statements of solidarity will not help the SNP, who once preferred to speak only of the Republic’s neoliberal “Celtic Tiger” economy, a habit that ceased when said tiger was shot by a property bubble, then stuffed and mounted by the IMF.

However, despite recent teacup-based tempests and the party’s studious disinterest in last year’s Easter Rising centenary, the SNP are cautiously rediscovering the usefulness of Irish parallels, particularly against the backdrop of Brexit. There has been discussion of replicating the Irish “soft border,” a notion greeted with outrage from pearl-clutching unionists who apparently feel good ideas should only be employed under threat of violent death.

Amid all this, Theresa May’s government remains an intellectual wasteland. They have no strategy for Brexit beyond “making it work”; they have no strategy for dealing with a second Scottish referendum beyond opposing it; and they have no strategy for renewed constitutional uncertainty in Northern Ireland, beyond dangling the threat of direct rule or another election, and hoping it goes away.

On the other side of the aisle, Jeremy Corbyn is ill-positioned to change the situation. One word from Corbyn on Irish politics and old photos of the Labour leader astride Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams will be gleefully produced by a right-wing media perpetually horrified at Corbyn’s habit of standing next to people they detest. If he should intervene, his perspective would almost certainly encounter vociferous resistance from within Labour, just as he will over his recent admission that a second Scottish referendum would be “absolutely fine.”

Even if the unlikely occurs and an executive is salvaged, the danger for a crumbling British state will not pass. As many in Northern Ireland will argue, power-sharing has only a passing relationship with democracy, is dependent on willful dishonesty, and cannot and should not last forever.

Last year, there was much renewed discussion of James Connolly’s legacy. Now, mere months later, the presence of his ideas has faded once again. Irish politics is often uninspiring and tangled; Connolly’s visionary talent was to look beyond that, and imagine a workers’ republic defined by what should be, not by what is deemed possible by those who make both national liberation and effective government impossible.

“We believe in constitutional action in normal times,” wrote Connolly. “We believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times.” What lies ahead may be a mixture of both.