The Left Needs Its Own Vision for a United Ireland

A debate on Ireland’s political future if partition comes to an end is already up and running. Left-wing forces need to put forward their own agenda instead of allowing establishment liberals to dominate the conversation about Irish unity.

A graffiti on one of the Peace Walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland promotes the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, September 16, 2021. (Larissa Schwedes / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Although it is not yet a topic of everyday debate on either side of the Irish border, the idea of Irish reunification is gaining a strange kind of momentum. Books on the question seem to be printed on a monthly basis, all registering stern words of warning about the gravity of the choices that lie ahead. Even in the realm of civil society, we are witnessing ripples of yearning for what is evasively called “constitutional change.”

A moderate, tentatively multiparty civic nationalism is beginning to flower across the island. And for this tendency, Brendan O’Leary, an Irish political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, is fast becoming an intellectual and strategic polestar. O’Leary’s latest book, Making Sense of a United Ireland, draws mainly on the findings of surveys and focus groups on the constitutional future of the island that he helped supervise.

While he is drawing up blueprints for a united Ireland, the campaigning organization Ireland’s Future — cross-party in composition but skewed heavily toward Sinn Féin — is seeking to make gains on the political front. Both embody a form of liberal civic nationalism that is steadily engulfing the intellectual debate on Irish reunification.

Academic Statecraft

O’Leary is an academic who has never been afraid to get his hands dirty in the world of politics and statecraft. A promoter of consociational forms of government for the resolution of ethnic and ethno-national conflicts, he served as an advisor to the British Labour Party between 1988 and 1996 during discussions on the Irish peace process. Other political and constitutional advisory roles have included time with the UN, the EU, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, as well as the UK and Irish governments.

His first book, The Asiatic Mode of Production: Oriental Despotism, Historical Materialism and Indian History (1989), was based on his PhD research at the London School of Economics. For O’Leary, Marx’s concept of the Asiatic mode of production was “theoretically and empirically deficient,” a “bastard child of historical materialism” that misled Marxists and non-Marxists alike when it was set against the feudal mode of production.

O’Leary and his colleague John McGarry went on to publish two influential works on the Northern Irish conflict, The Politics of Antagonism (1993) and Explaining Northern Ireland (1995). The first was a narrative history of one of Europe’s most intractable conflicts from its origins to the present day, while the second was a critical survey of theoretical perspectives on that conflict.

O’Leary and McGarry took issue with most of those perspectives, but sensibly insisted that there was no reason to present the subject itself as fundamentally unknowable — a cliché of much journalistic commentary: “Northern Ireland is complex, but its conflicts, and theories about its conflicts, are structured and explicable.” To provide what they saw as a more grounded and unbiased analysis of the region, they placed different ideological modes of thinking under the microscope, including the various attempts to analyze the conflict in Marxist terms.

Explaining Northern Ireland devoted two of its chapters to these competing and irreconcilable Marxist schools of thought, from the “Green” or anti-imperialist Marxism represented by the group People’s Democracy to the “revisionist” Marxism of the British and Irish Communist Organization and the Workers’ Party. The book’s treatment of figures such as Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann, Paul Bew, and Henry Patterson, whose writings were highly influential in shaping perceptions of Northern Ireland, was tinged with sympathy — unsurprisingly so, given O’Leary’s past identifications with the Left. That said, the authors viewed revolutionary theories of change with barely concealed contempt.

A Guide to Action

Making Sense of a United Ireland is designed to be an accessible and informed guide to constructive political action. For O’Leary, the fact that he is “a Southerner by birth who became a Northerner by residence” and who has both “left and never left Ireland” perhaps grants him some special insight that allows him to “be read with some sympathy across the island.” While the book is written with a mainstream audience in mind, it also self-consciously addresses politicians and civil servants on both sides of the border.

The Conservative-led Brexit that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) backed has not only opened up the possibility of a united Ireland. It has also impressed on civic nationalists the importance of constitutional due diligence. The specter of Brexit, which O’Leary sees as a catastrophe not to be emulated, lurks behind every section of his latest book.

He counterposes a failing Britain to a properly planned united Ireland, which he suggests will prove Ireland to be “judged a comparatively better democracy than its immediate neighbour.”

This way of thinking is increasingly popular among Irish civic nationalists, who see a Little Englander–powered Brexit as the foil to an Ireland that embodies the best virtues of twenty-first century liberal democracy.

For many years, much of the Dublin political class has looked upon the idea of reunification with contempt. But in a kind of technocratic postcolonial revenge, there is a growing tendency for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and others to pitch the reunification project in sharp distinction to British elites. In a mirror image of the old colonial narrative, they depict those elites as irredeemably naïve, hotheaded, irrational, and susceptible to populist pressure.

In agreement with most onlookers, O’Leary believes that voters who currently don’t express a strong constitutional preference in opinion polls — whom he calls the “wobblies” — will swing a future border poll in one direction or the other. Yet the emphasis he places on the swayable middle-grounders clustered around Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party needs to be interrogated. The sociologist Kieran Allen has noted the great paradox of liberal unionism, which may seem less zealous in its commitment to the Union than working-class loyalism, yet “rests on stronger direct connections with Britain that many Protestant workers have.”

As Allen notes, the upper professionals who constitute the social base of this political tendency often occupy “important positions within the UK state and its local iteration in Northern Ireland and their expertise and occupational culture are derived from a familiarity with that state.” Will the promise of what O’Leary calls “reunification two” — the North returning to Europe after Brexit — be enough to win this cohort over?

Two Models

Perhaps more than any other scholar, O’Leary has thought through the permutations of a vote for and against reunification. Offering a sharp rejoinder to those who believe that a majority in favor of changing Northern Ireland’s status must be overwhelming, he insists that any majority should prevail, even if it is a narrow one, “because the alternative is that a narrow minority should prevail.” This is sage counsel on democratic principles that many on the island should heed.

He also puts forward a number of suggestions for how to minimize the danger of either unionists or nationalists boycotting a constitutional plebiscite to make it appear illegitimate, and sets out a number of options for constitutional change that the author deems impossible or improbable: confederation, federation, repartition, joint sovereignty between London and Dublin, and Northern Irish independence. Eyeing up the various options, O’Leary proposes two models for reunification that he considers most viable.

The first would involve a devolved Northern Ireland within an all-Ireland state, with the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement simply passing into Irish control and the all-Ireland parliament exercising broad powers in and over the region, just as Westminster does today. As O’Leary cheekily describes it, this model would mean that Northern Ireland had its own version of “home rule” within a united Ireland.

In competition with this model, O’Leary poses what he calls an “integrated Ireland” — a more drastic process whereby Northern Ireland would be absorbed into a unitary Irish state. At present, the devolved model seems the most tolerable option for cultural Protestants, while nationalists and republicans will naturally prefer full integration. O’Leary argues, however, that “a future convergence” of the two models could develop, with devolutionary structures in a united Ireland “as a transitional arrangement, provided that it is fully intended to lead to an integrated Ireland.”

Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, O’Leary’s view of reunification as a reset — defined by “renewal of our institutions, our relationships, our policies, our international alliances, our economic, cultural and social policies, our freedoms, and our rights” — looks very much like absorption of the North into the South with a face-lift for the latter. What is his preferred approach to reunification — a paradigm shift, or an enlarged and superficially edited version of the existing southern state, with the same neoliberal economic model? O’Leary gestures to the former but his analysis points us to the latter.

A Song for Europe

The genesis of Making Sense lies in O’Leary’s previous publication, A Treatise on Northern Ireland, a three-volume work that aimed to provide readers with a foundational political-historical study of Northern Ireland’s colonial and sectarian underpinnings. Unlike many in the Irish academy, he insisted that “archaic” colonial causes were still central to understanding “modern” antagonisms.

In a short section on the island’s future, O’Leary identified what he considered to be the dominant “mega-trends” in the world at large that might ensnare Ireland. Those trends included “de-democratization, plutocracy, inequality,” “the erosion of social-democratic and social-liberal parties,” and “the hollowing-out of political parties” in general. This gives us some valuable insight into O’Leary’s thinking on the EU (which is largely absent from Making Sense).

Although he acknowledged that discontent with the results of neoliberalism might “produce regular upheavals inside and outside the EU,” O’Leary believed that such discontent could be addressed within the EU’s present-day structures and held out an optimistic future for the European project. Both the EU and the Eurozone should be “made more social and social democratic (even if these labels are not necessary),” with a European Central Bank mandate to promote full employment and greater redistribution of wealth. This could be achieved, in his view, by allowing “member states to use social-welfare measures, basic income polices, and debt policies, which will partially work against so-called market freedoms.”

However admirable this vision may be, many observers have rightly questioned the idea that European institutions are reformable in this way, and O’Leary himself recognizes that neoliberalism was hardwired into the EU’s treaties. The idea that Germany might one day submit to the sovereignty of the EU’s many smaller member states is quixotic. Yet in this analysis, O’Leary rejected the idea of radical change, favoring instead a tempering of capitalism by the forces of “social democracy, social liberalism, environmentalism, and feminism.”

“Seeing Is Believing”

One section of Making Sense discusses the failed unification of Cyprus and the successful unification of Germany as examples for Ireland to study. The 2004 Annan Plan to unify Cyprus was accepted by Turkish Cypriots but rejected by their Greek Cypriot counterparts in parallel referendums. According to O’Leary, one lesson to be learned from this failed reunification project is that “ambiguities in a negotiated text can have negative consequences.” Turkish Cypriots “believed they were voting to join the European Union,” while Greek Cypriots “believed that all of Cyprus would legally accede to the European Union, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.”

The German case seems more promising as a model, although Making Sense cites the work of Gerhard Albert Ritter, who has argued that unification in 1990 encouraged a neoliberal turn across Germany as a whole in his book The Price of German Unity. O’Leary sounds a warning about following such a path in Ireland “when the average Southerner may well be turning away from an overdose of neo-liberalism.” At no point, however, does he discuss the practicalities of how we might iron out the worst tendencies of Irish neoliberalism through reunification.

As O’Leary wryly comments, the focus of unionist discourse about the economics of Irish unity has shifted dramatically, from stressing the weakness of the southern economy to emphasizing the reliance of its northern equivalent on financial support from the British state: “‘We’d cost you too much’ became the new unionist line, aimed at tax-conscious southerners.” He insists that the southern economy is robust enough to bear the cost of reunification, which is in any case exaggerated in much of the media commentary.

O’Leary brushes aside left-wing critics of the Irish economic model who attribute high growth rates to “accounting manipulation by multinationals in a tax haven.” The main rebuttal he offers to such “cynics” is an anecdotal one:

Seeing is believing. Anyone who journeyed around the entirety of the Republic in 1987 and did the same in 2021 — and that includes me — sees the palpable evidence. The proofs are the physical numbers of people in the island, not just new immigrants; the quality of roads, cars, houses, clothes, schools and universities, and restaurants; and the agglomeration of enterprises — inside and outside the M50.

This impressionistic survey simply will not do as a response to questions about Ireland’s place in the world economic system and the complexities of Irish class structures.

One does not have to believe that all economic growth since the 1980s was a mirage to recognize that tax-dodging strategies adopted by companies like Apple have massively inflated the headline figures for Irish GDP. In 2015, for example, the official figures purported to show GDP growth of 26 percent. Since O’Leary repeatedly cites figures for GDP per capita, his failure to discuss this phenomenon in a serious way leaves a major hole in his argument.

Fables of Social Democracy

Although he includes some brief nods to the lack of public health care and the “current pain in the housing sector,” O’Leary’s overall analysis is upbeat. He insists that Ireland is “not impotent” and “need not be the servant of international capital,” calling for a revamped social contract based on “better public services in return for comparatively high taxes.” In O’Leary’s judgement, this contract would entail tacit acceptance of boom-and-bust cycles by Irish workers in return for “high-class educational opportunities,” “universal healthcare,” and pension policies “suitable to a world of changing jobs and skill sets.”

For their part, corporations will receive “excellent infrastructure and highly skilled graduates” from the Irish state and only have to pay low (or “stable,” as O’Leary describes them) taxes in return: “From this bargain may flow more Irish start-ups, and a ramped-up scale of indigenous enterprise that may partly free Ireland from external dependence.” He does not explain how deepening the level of foreign direct investment in Ireland leads automatically to less reliance on international capital flows and more domestic industry. This sanguine passage of the book reads more like a public relations statement from an Irish finance minister than the analysis of a critical scholar.

O’Leary bases his prescriptions on what he calls “the commonplaces of social democratic economics,” in contrast to the respective dreamworlds of “free-market libertarians and communist command planners.” Fortunately, he writes, Ireland is “headed in this social democratic direction under democratic pressure and responsiveness.” He adduces one main piece of evidence in support of this claim:

No major political party advocates either a nightwatchman state — where the role of central government is restricted to preserving order — or the socialization of all the means of production, and this is a testament to the realism of the public as well as the parties.

By that measure, Fine Gael, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the British Conservatives could all shelter under the big tent of “social democratic economics,” since they are not proposing such a restrictive role for the state in social affairs. Even Republicans in the United States have indignantly denied charges that they plan to scrap Social Security and Medicare.

On the other hand, if we adopt a more rigorous and meaningful definition of social democracy, the only parties in southern Irish politics calling for social democratic reforms are Sinn Féin and the radical left — the latter presumably being what O’Leary has in mind when he derides “communist command planners.” The conservative parties in power are adamantly opposed to Sinn Féin’s plan to address the housing crisis, which is surely located within the mainstream of “social democratic economics.”

Although he presents himself as a nonpartisan figure, in ideological terms O’Leary would fit snugly into the now moribund Irish Labour Party — swimming along with the tides of progressive neoliberalism, content with a sort of Fabian incrementalism. It is not that Making Sense offers an ideological roadmap for any reunification project or campaign. Indeed, it is the claim to be without ideology that is likely to presage the tenor of the debate.

Pacific Dispositions

According to O’Leary, there will still be a “British question” that “requires deep and careful consideration” in the framework of a united Ireland: how to integrate the unionist population. Preserving Northern Ireland’s devolved structures on a transitional basis within a reunified Ireland could satisfy some unionists. Yet talk of finding a place for Britishness and Unionist values in an all-Ireland state has a dark underside. British identity in the Northern Irish context has been infused with an imperial culture, and it could easily be used to legitimize Irish involvement in the Anglo-American invasions and occupations of the future.

O’Leary gives some thought to the geopolitical implications of Irish unity. As he points out, the United States strongly favored German reunification within NATO, despite “significant support for neutralism and pacifism within German public opinion.” A similar situation might arise in Ireland, with the US government tacitly endorsing reunification in exchange for the new state’s accession to NATO. It seems as if the author himself, together with much of the media class in Dublin, would be entirely comfortable with his scenario.

In a section with the ominous title “Securing Ireland,” O’Leary argues that Ireland is “in danger of overdoing its pacific disposition” and laments austerity-era cuts to Irish military expenditure, pointing out that Russian naval exercises took place within Ireland’s economic zone. He quickly gets to the crux of the matter: “Is it past time for Ireland to join NATO?” While O’Leary states that Ireland is currently “in no fit condition to become a NATO member,” this is only because of low security expenditure and meager levels of recruitment across the security services. The lack of a popular mandate for such a move is not an overriding concern.

For O’Leary, the “formal opening” of a debate on NATO membership, with or without Irish unity, is “obliged by Russian bombardment of European cities and civilians” in Ukraine. He does not mention US bombardment of Middle Eastern cities and civilians as a factor that we should also take into account, although he claims that Ireland — whose citizens are in his telling “generally pro-American” — has “not approved of most of America’s recent ‘forever wars.’” While this may be true so far as public opinion is concerned, the Irish political class had no compunction in making Shannon Airport available as a US war base for the invasion of Iraq.

Bertie Ahern’s government would no doubt also have been glad to send a modest force to join the “Coalition of the Willing” if Irish neutrality had not stood in its way. O’Leary’s description of traditional Irish foreign policy as “pro-development and pro-peace, distancing itself from great-power imperialism” is a sanitized picture of reality. But the grains of truth it does contain — a slightly better line on Palestine than most EU member states, for example — will not survive if the anti-neutrality camp has its way.

Alternative Irelands

In sections like this, Making Sense comes across as a serenade to the property-owning and opinion-shaping stratum in the plush suburbs of Dublin and Belfast, much of which is hostile to reunification at present. It offers itself as a handbook to the political establishment on both sides of the border, with O’Leary effectively auditioning for a role as consultant to the unity process.

But there’s an important lesson to take from this book. Left-wing forces need to begin developing their own alternative visions of a united Ireland in opposition to those beginning to dominate Irish newspaper columns, airwaves, and bookshelves. O’Leary’s proposed models should prompt the broad Irish left to set out its own stall.

What constitutional option would be most conducive to a radical realignment of power? What role should the Left play in any reunification campaign? How can it engage in coalition-building and develop its own ideas for what a united Ireland should look like? Without engaging with a buoyant civic nationalism and its ideas, the Left risks allowing what could become an all-consuming and unstoppable force — constitutional rebirth or even breakdown — to pass it by.