Are the people of the Six Counties to be again left high and dry due to the selfish interests of yet another British politician?
That is the question many people are now asking in the wake of last month’s ‘any price politics’ in Westminster.
As the nine MPs of the DUP rescued the British government from a sensational political defeat on Wednesday June 11, it is worth recalling that Gordon Brown is but the latest British prime minister to gamble his political future on a deal based upon the sectarian demands of unionism.
Lord Randolph Churchill in 1885 summed up the self-serving tactics of the British establishment in Ireland with his famous decision to “play the Orange card. Let us hope it turns out the ace and not the two.” Gordon Brown must be echoing those hopes today.
In playing the Orange Card and acquiescing to the right-wing, religious fundamentalist agenda of the DUP, the British are providing, as always, credibility to those who stand against Irish self-determination and who think that they can retain power indefinitely and that change will not occur.
While the playing of the Orange Card has caused untold damage in Ireland through the years it has been only one element of the British occupation over the centuries. Ireland still remains that Empire’s first and oldest colony. The nature of that lengthy imperial rule was accurately summed up by Karl Marx:
“England has never ruled Ireland in any other way, and cannot rule it in any other way, except by the most hideous reign of terror and the most revolting corruption.”
The Orange Card was originally played as a counter-revolutionary measure to stem the growing popularity and strength of the United Irishmen in the 1790s. The Orange Order, recruited en masse into British militia units, was a powerful force in the smashing of that first Irish republican mass movement.
The Card lay idle for close to a century, until it was played again in 1885 as a new, but less potent, threat to British rule emerged - the campaign for Home Rule within Westminster. Instead of seeking complete independence, constitutional nationalism sought only a limited amount of Irish self-governance within the confines of a foreign empire.
The effectiveness of that particular play was demonstrated in 1912 during the so-called Home Rule Crisis when the Ulster Volunteer Force was the organization of choice. And again in 1921, as imperialists, landlords and capitalists dealt the Orange Card once more and partitioned Ireland.
More recently, in 1995, it was John Major’s minority British Conservative government, which succumbed to playing the Orange Card and courting unionist parties’ support. By July 1996, the Major government had became increasingly reliant on unionist parties’ support, to the extent that, within hours of a crunch meeting with Ian Paisley and David Trimble in Downing Street, nationalist communities in Portadown, Derry and elsewhere were paying a heavy price for standing up for their rights, as the combined forces of the RUC and the British military were unleashed against them.
If Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Ireland, it would have abandoned the Six Counties long ago. But the real reason behind partition is as powerful now as it was at the time of the Tan War - fear of the creation in Ireland of a revolutionary working class movement that would provide an example to others. Such a possibility was, and is, the spectre that haunts the corridors of power in London, Dublin, the US and the European Union.
Even today, that possibility is worth every penny of British expenditure on “devolved institutions”, on heavily armed police forces, on occupation troops and on secret intelligence services. These obvious manifestations of Britain’s plans for Ireland are supplemented with US and EU expenditure on the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ to ensure a veneer of economic and political stability to partition, in an attempt to prevent the re-emergence of such a revolutionary movement in Ireland.
The various conservative parties in the Twenty-Six Counties also prefer the status quo of partition, lest the struggle for a re-unified Ireland should lead to a conscious, united and fighting working class.
However, as so often is the case -- card-games produce losers.
By lending its support to ‘New’ Labour’s embattled government, the DUP expects London to endorse its veto-based demands in what would, essentially, be a return to de facto single party rule in the North. They and Gordon Brown know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
So now a new factor comes into play: Will those who have once again wholeheartedly committed themselves to a British internal settlement accept, however reluctantly, such a scenario; or will they be forced, again reluctantly, into recognizing the political cul-de-sac of trying to deliver constitutional change through purely constitutional and institutional means within British-laid parameters?
Either way, the British government’s secret political dealings this month have demonstrated three things. Firstly, that when things come down to the wire, Britain will always be willing to cut a deal with Unionism at the expense of Irish democracy and the rights of the nationalist and republican community in the Six Counties. Secondly, it exposes the futility of pursuing reform via British / unionist constructs within a partitioned Ireland. Thirdly, and most importantly, in James Connolly’s words, it must impress upon all of us that:
“A real socialist movement cannot be built by temporising in front of a dying cause such as that of the Orange Ascendancy, even although in the paroxysms of its death struggle it assumes the appearance of energy like unto that of health. A real socialist movement can only be born of struggle, of uncompromising affirmation of the faith that is in us. Such a movement infallibly gathers to it every element of rebellion and of progress, and in the midst of the storm and stress of the struggle solidifies into a real revolutionary force.”