Brexit & a border poll - an anarchist view on the possibilities and consequences


“Every exclusively political revolution that is in defence of national independence or for internal change... [and] that does not aim at the immediate and real political and economic emancipation of people, will be a false revolution. Its objectives will be unattainable and its consequences reactionary.” Michael Bakunin.

With less the two months until the Brexit deadline, the North of Ireland remains on edge as the British PM announces plans to deploy police reinforcements to six counties echoing past images for many of aggressive border checkpoints and control stoking up conflict.
In the the midst of this Brexit spectacle the real war continues to ravage the streets, housing estates and workplaces across the North in the form of a brutal austerity agenda of class warfare in cuts to public services and social welfare under the Stormont Fresh Start Agreement resulting in misery and deprivation for the many while the wealthy few have never had it so good on a local and global level. According to a recent report released by Oxfam in January this year ‘Billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year – or $2.5 billion a day - while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11 percent’ (1)

While sections of reactionary unionism led by the DUP vigorously campaigned for UK exit from the EU, sections of Irish republicanism remained ambivalent and viewed this through the prism of ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’

The current political impasse emerged in June 2016 after the majority of the people in the UK voted in a referendum 51.9 percent to leave the European Union against 48.1 per cent to remain in the EU.  In Northern Ireland 55.8 percent of voters opted to remain in the European Union and 44.2 percent to leave it, with similar results in Scotland.

In March 2017 the current British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 beginning negotiations on the terms of UK exit from the rest of the UK and its relationship to trade, goods and services etc. To date, no comprehensive agreement has been reached that has been endorsed by the House of Commons or EU officials. It is highly unlikely any deal will be reached before the brexit deadline between the Conservative Government and the EU leaving a No Deal a strong possibility and according to some recent media reports British cabinet ministers discussed the possibility of a border poll if a no deal emerged.

According to a Belfast Telegraph report, One Cabinet source told Politics Home: "The view was that a border poll in Northern Ireland was all-but inevitable if there is a no-deal Brexit because Sinn Fein would demand it straight away. The Secretary of State would have no choice but to call one."(2)  

Whether this is merely Cabinet scaremongering to get the DUP in line and support any Brexit deal remains unclear however this is entirely feasible under the Good Friday Agreement, as a referendum on Irish unity can only be called by the Northern Ireland Secretary if there is evidence that a majority in the province would support a United Ireland.

To date there is has been much debate and speculation on how Brexit (if it will even finally happen) will impact on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and subsequent peace process that has delivered little prosperity beyond a huge reduction in institutional discrimination and a substantial reduction in violence for those who have suffered the most from over 30 years of ‘conflict’ and sectarian division.  

With over 300 border crossings between North and South (which today is largely invisible to the naked eye), there has been an attempt to whip up fear and anxiety over a return to a ‘hard border’ in the form of physical infrastructure such as checkpoints, watchtowers etc impacting on trade and investment. However any backstop or hard border that hiders normal cross border trading and movement does not serve the interests of the ruling class at Westminster, Stormont or Dublin.

On the other hand ‘dissident republicans’ continue to wage sporadic attacks and noise such as the recent courthouse bombing in Derry that poses no serious challenge to the status quo and are liable to eventually result in tragedy if civilians happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Border Poll?

The last time there was a border poll in the North of Ireland was in March  1973 that was boycotted by even conservative nationalists such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The voter turnout was 58.7 percent with 98.9 percent voting to remain part of the UK. Moving on over 30 years the political landscape has evolved with those in republican ranks who were threatening poll canvassers in nationalist areas now defenders of British Rule in Ireland. The institutionalised ‘Orange State’ maybe dead and buried but partition and injustices remain in place.  

At the moment, the DUP may have a ‘confidence and supply’ with the Tories that gives ultra right wing unionism a say at the heart of the Government; but this has not lessened fears from some prominent unionists that a Border Poll is on the agenda.  Even former DUP leader Peter Robinson raised the specter of a future border poll at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties late last year and Sylvia Hermon, Northern Ireland’s only anti-Brexit unionist MP claimed she is ‘worried about the consequences of Brexit. In my lifetime I never thought that I would see a border poll and I am now convinced that I probably will see a border poll,”(3)

In the wake of this unionist tension and a referendum on Scottish Independence in 2016, it shouldn’t be any surprise shades of republicanism have recognized this potential opportunity to push for a border poll.

Indeed, according to a poll conducted in March 2018, more people in the North of Ireland prefer a United Ireland over a hard Brexit. The findings, published from results of a poll carried out by LucidTalk on behalf of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) group asked “More than 2,000 Northern Irish were asked if they would rather stay in the UK or join a United Ireland "in the context of a hard Brexit... leaving the EU with no deal on the border, the Good Friday Agreement or citizens' rights...Of those polled, 47.9 percent voted in favour of a United Ireland, while 45.4 percent voted to stay as part of the United Kingdom. On top of this, 6 percent said that they were undecided, and fewer than 1 percent didn't vote or spoiled their ballot.”(4)
Republicanism & Border Poll

While Sinn Fein have been arguing for a border poll for some time, recently the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) somewhat returning from the political wilderness have been emerging as a key voice in campaigning for one under the banner of Yes for Unity.  Learning the lessons from independence movements in Catalonia, Brittany and the ‘Basque Country’ they are in the early stages of building for a border poll organizing discussions and polls in ‘nationalist areas.’ In fact it was the unofficial referendum in Catalonia in which a majority voted in favour of independence from the rest of Spain that reignited the debate of local elites taking back ‘national sovereignty’ but this remains questionable. What do we mean by ‘national sovereignty’ and is it even really possible in a globalised capitalist world run by imperialist powers?

Despite some staunch objections from various shades of disaffected republicanism such as Saoradh and the 1916 Easter Societies, one of the IRSP key organizers Ciaran Cunningham writing recently in the Pensive Quill in ‘Defence of the Border Poll’ points to the changing demographics in the North, popular mobilization on the streets and the utilization of all tactics as key ingredients in securing a border poll.

Arguing that “The Left cannot afford to abstain from this fight to do so not only hands the field back to the British state (literally) but to the right wing, economically.

But let us never forget, that even following a successful Border Poll, national independence without Socialism will not be independence at all, this requires a further push to get Ireland out of the European Union as a necessary step towards creating a Socialist Republic, the IRSP are the only party in Ireland saying this and ‘Yes for Unity’ is confident in that analysis.

Time will tell, either way, considering all of the above, we have nothing to lose.” (5)

What is striking is that republican arguments from public meetings appear to be focused on the changing demographics of the north, the most reactionary approach possible to the winning of such a poll rather than the weakening of the once strong connection between being from a protestant background and being unionist. That is occurring because of the threat of a hard Brexit and perhaps the overwhelming progressive victories in the south in the marriage equality and abortion access referendums.  Irish unity on the basis of catholics outbreeding protestants has very little, if any progressive content.  Unity on the basis of northern protestants abandoning unionism because of its reactionary social agenda would be a positive outcome. 

Guerrilla Doctrine & Elections

‘Never be deceived the rich will never permit you to vote away their wealth’- Lucy Parsons

The ‘Guerrilla Doctrine’ and the utilisation of tactics over principles is a key component of the wider IRSP analysis for pushing for a border poll. Quoting the future founder of the IRSP Seamus Costello at at the United Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in January 1970 that , “I favour guerrilla tactics in parliament, the same as I do in many other respects… And I see no reason why with a few TDs or a few MPs of the right calibre, pursuing the right policies, why they cannot destroy the confidence of the people in these institutions and bring them tumbling down in ruin.”

Ciaran argues that “whatever the context of that year’s gathering, Seamus’ principled rejection of abstentionism that night, could not have simply referred to participation in the elected chambers, North, South or other?

Costello was of course making a logistical (and ideological) declaration of faith in the ability of principled republicans to appropriate and utilise mechanisms of the state to ultimately bring down the state itself; a formidable doctrine of Guerrilla politics.”

However, Ciaran misses the point when he confuses ‘referendums’ or border polls with the parliamentary circus because both are quite unique in their trajectory. One can give people a real say over their lives while the other disempowers the majority and we should know by now that the state apparatus apart can never be used as a tool for fundamental social transformation especially in the context of increasing voter apathy from growing alienation from the political class. Why rechannel this widespread disillusionment back into the harmless channels of the parliamentary game that we know in the long term never rocks the boat?

The movement for social transformation has to contain all the key values of the society it wants to create internal democracy, self-management, and as far as possible, social and economic equality, and its goals cannot be achieved through authoritarianism and hierarchy; a mere reflection of the statist and capitalist society we live under.

The question you need to ask yourself is how many times have you listened from so-called left parties that they can somehow ride two horses at the same time for us to realise that the parliamentary path always ends up as the gravedigger of any revolutionary movement. From the Workers Party in the 1980s to the Provies ‘armalite and ballot box’ mantra and more recently Syriza in Greece are all a logical conclusion of trying to use the master’s tools to bring down the master’s house that ends in failure.

The reality is that instead of so called ‘destroying the confidence of the people in these institutions and bring them tumbling down in ruin’ to paraphrase the words of IRSP founder Seamus Costello they actually strengthened the status quo becoming gamekeepers instead of poachers because all ruling minorities eventually have an interest in maintaining their position as such and the failure of previous left republican projects to recognize this is apparent.

Any newly installed ruling minority will use its power and authority to further justify and entrench its own power and authority. As Ron Taber states, “The very revolutionaries who claim that they are against the state, and for eliminating the state…see as their central task after a revolution to build up a state that is more solid, more centralized and more all-embracing than the old one.”

This transformation is not just simply the result  of a ‘sell-out’  a ‘betrayal’ or a ‘crisis of leadership’ for this change, implying that a better set of leaders could of done better but flows from the failure to build of a different type of organization built on popular self-management and direct democracy from below that removes top down centralized control (democratic centralism). In other words bureaucratic centralism!

The dominance of authoritarian, statist and hierarchical organizational praxis on some shades of ‘dissident republicanism’ that have emerged from the Provisional movement where ‘loyalty’ and ‘discipline’ to the movement was placed more highly than critical debate and internal democracy is a recurring legacy within all shades of republicanism and needs to be challenged. There are too many generals in search of an army, for whom recruitment figures are the main yardstick of success. For us revolutionary change is a question of consciousness: the consciousness that would make generals redundant.

Indeed if you look back at the period from the early 20th century when the universal franchise started to become common such as the civil rights movement you can observe a cycle of the energy of revolutionary upsurges and uprisings being channeled and cop-opted through institutionalised power and corruption that go nowhere part from a few crumbs at the masters table.  Sometimes they win a reform for a period that are subsequently rolled back, frequently by the same party as it ‘matures’ and becomes ‘pragmatic’ bound by the invisible hand of the market and the dictatorship of global finance.

Something Alexander Berkman warned on the pitfalls of the parliamentary path over a century ago when he argued, ‘nothing is truer than the means you use to attain your object soon become your object… There is a deeper reason for this constant and regular betrayal [than individual scoundrels being elected]… no man turns scoundrel or traitor overnight.

“It is power which corrupts… Moreover, even with the best intentions Socialists [who get elected]… find themselves entirely powerless to accomplishing anything of a socialistic nature… The demoralization and vitiation [this brings about] take place little by little, so gradually that one hardly notices it himself… [The elected Socialist] perceives that he is regarded as a laughing stock [by the other politicians]… and finds more and more difficulty in securing the floor… he knows that neither by his talk nor by his vote can he influence the proceedings… His speeches don’t even reach the public… [and so] He appeals to the voters to elect more comrades… Years pass… [and a] number… are elected. Each of them goes through the same experience… [and] quickly come to the conclusion… [that] They must show that they are practical men… that they are doing something for their constituency… In this manner the situation compels them to take a ‘practical’ part in the proceedings, to ‘talk business,’ to fall in line with the matters actually dealt with in the legislative body… Spending years in that atmosphere, enjoying good jobs and pay, the elected Socialists have themselves become part and parcel of the political machinery… With growing success in elections and securing political power they turn more and more conservative and content with existing conditions. Removal from the life and suffering of the working class, living in the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie… they have become what they call ‘practical’… Power and position have gradually stifled their conscience and they have not the strength and honesty to swim against the current… They have become the strongest bulwark of capitalism.”

Means and Ends

“The end justifies the means: we have spoken much ill of that maxim. In reality, it is the universal guide of conduct. One could say better: each end contains its means. It is necessary to seek morality in the end; the means is fatally determined.”- Errico Malatesta

For anarchists the means in terms of how we organize in the present must be consistent with the principles with the society want to create in the shell of the old.  The repression, social inequalities, and militarism of the self- described regimes of "actually existing socialism" and "people's democracies" of the last century are not temporary "distortions" or a "degeneration" of an otherwise-emancipatory Marxist practice. They are the logical outcomes of an authoritarian and statist politics.

The means shape the ends and there should be no surprise that an authoritarian strategy, based on centralisation, dictatorship, and militarisation, necessarily leads to a centralised, dictatorial, and militarised regime. A self-managed and popular revolution from below, on the contrary, has the real potential to create a new and radically democratic society.

Revolutionaries that embrace “means” that are in contradiction with the kind of society they wish to create will consistently fail to create that society. Instead of wasting time, money and resources on electioneering, we believe it is essential to build and cultivate a culture of resistance and grassroots organising because an organized and empowered community based on direct action and self-management in all aspects of struggle is stronger than depending on some party or leader to fix things for us. At the end of the day radical social transformation will only be possible when the majority of people understand the need for -social change, become aware of their ability to transform society, decide to exert their collective power to this end, and know with what they want to replace the present system and can never be imposed from above.

Central to this debate is whether the state can be utilized as an instrument of working-class emancipation and liberation. As the last century proves the state cannot be captured by the popular classes, used by the working class to revolutionary transform society, because it is a centralized institution of minority class rule, inextricably allied to the private corporations and a bureaucracy with its own in interests.

This means that any left-wing republican party, aiming at state power, is a dead-end, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter its size, no matter its program or rules.

Imagine if all the time, resources and finances wasted into a getting a few crumbs from the masters table was instead put into building a our own institutions of mass, collective self-organisation in our housing estates, communities and workplaces replacing the rule of governments, landlords and bosses.

Afterall, the establishment of No Go Zones in the early 1970s when entire communities took back control for a short time was to some extent probably considered more of a threat to the authority of the British state than armed struggle. This in no means devours the tactical use of armed resistance in self defence particularly when it complements a mass movement rather than seeking to control one.

Although it is dangerous to pin any aspirations on a nod and a wink from any British Secretary of State, from an Irish republican perspective it probably makes sense from a practical and strategic outlook to use this ‘Brexit crisis’ to push for a border poll because they have more to gain than to lose apart from shedding a few republican puritans and militarists who still remain wedded to the 1916 Easter Proclamation as their only hope of salvation without looking at the bigger picture.

It also remains unclear whether the Irish yes for unity campaign will be able to replicate the same type of popular mobilisation in the Basque Country and Catalonia because these left independence movements have pushed struggles around gender, ecology and women’s liberation to the fore than the unique challenges of a sectarian divided society and partition. These are not just secondary aspects, that must wait until ‘Independence’ is achieved. On the contrary they are essential parts of the whole process of social transformation, for without them no genuine social transformation will have taken place.

Changing Population Demographics

A YouGov Poll commissioned by the BBC in May 2018  found Brexit causing growing support for United Ireland. Brexit has made 28 per cent say they are more likely to support a united Ireland, 27 per cent say they were already likely to support a united Ireland before Brexit, and 40.6 percent say they still support union with the UK. Just 0.85 per cent of the public say Brexit has made them less likely to support a united Ireland.

Support for the cause is more popular among the younger generation than the old, with 49.4 percent of under-45s backing a break with the UK compared to 37.7 percent who want to stay in it.

Though Catholics are significantly more likely to support joining a United Ireland than Protestants, a minority of the latter, 8.5 per cent, say they support leaving the UK. An overall majority (50.2 per cent) in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, support a united Ireland. (6)
However, on the other hand during this period in May 2018 another found there has been no evidence showing a shift in attitudes in favour of a United Ireland after Brexit. The Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by academics at Queen’s University Belfast for a major piece of research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, entitled Northern Ireland and the UK’s Exit from the EU: What do people think?, found that not even half of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland, with just 42.6 percent of Catholics favouring that option – although a large percentage, 26 per cent, were undecided.  Queen’s University Belfast professor John Garry, who led the research team, said that on the possibility of a united Ireland “there is not currently a groundswell of opinion in favour but there is evidence that, in the Catholic community, there could be a sizeable increase in pro-unity views in the context of a ‘hard Brexit’”  (7)

This is a reflection in a trend of a growing Catholic middle class that is content with the status quo and less alienated from state institutions as Liam O'Ruairc refers to in his forthcoming book Peace or Pacification,“From a social and economic point of view, the new Catholic middle-class clearly appears as the winner of the peace process. As Paul Bew noted, this has led to a shift in the nationalist population from a mood of ‘rage’ to one of ‘vanity’ and the development of what he calls a kind of ‘kulak mentality’. The richest part of Belfast, the Malone Road, now has a nationalist majority, and the majority of customers for private jets came from that community, which made one commentator pertinently ask: ‘What did Bobby Sands kill himself for anyway? Was it so that his fellow northern Catholics could own jets? Drive BMWs?” (8)

The Irish PM Leo Varadkar has ruled out any support for a Border Poll claiming it would be ‘defeated’ and ‘very divisive’ adding ‘I think the focus should be on getting the institutions up and running again, rather than focusing on a border poll." (9)

Therefore we have a quite conflicting picture emerging from opinion polls with everything up in the air depending on evolving negotiations between the political classes As they say a week is a long time in politics!

While the majority of the ‘nationalist/catholic population’ voted to remain,  the ‘Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist’ (PUL) are to some extent more polarised with just over a one third voting to remain.

More significantly according to an analysis conducted by three prominent Queen’s University Belfast Professors called ‘Northern Ireland: understanding the Brexit vote and its implications for the border’ there is strong correlation between those who voted remain and having  pro-immigration with those voting to leave in the ‘PUL community’. Those who voted to remain are mainly young and a more open in their outlook towards social issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage. (10)

Indeed rather than relying on the ‘sectarian headcount’ of changing demographics or 50 plus 1 as one way to securing a border poll (the irony considering many republicans opposed the Good Friday Agreement on the basis it institutionalised sectarianism), that fact that old Catholic Ireland is dead and that a significant minority in the PUL community particularly young people not only voted to remain but are more progressive on social issues in defiance of traditional loyalties provides a unique opportunity to excarberate this tension and smash unionist hegemony. Unfortunately this has been largely absent from the pro border poll republican discourse.


“There are revolutions and revolutions. Some revolutions change only the governmental form by putting a new set of rulers in place of the old. These are political revolutions, and as such they are often meet with little resistance. But a revolution that aims to abolish the entire system of wage slavery must also do away with the power of one class to oppress another. That is, it is not any more a mere change of rulers, of government, not a political revolution, but one that seeks to alter the whole character of society. That would be a social revolution.”-Alexander Berkman

Throughout the world the vast majority of people have no control whatsoever over the decisions that most deeply and directly affect their lives apart from voting for some unaccountable clown every few years.

While anarchists have always objected to participating in the parliamentary route that over time always disempowers radical movements fostering a cycle of powerlessness, broken promises and betrayals, we have participated in referendums as it fits closer to our belief in direct democracy. 

At the same time we still need to recognise the pitfalls of referendums that still take place in class divided society that will only ever deliver crumbs from the ruling class table and such polls usually come about through popular pressure from below.

For anarchists it matters how we win reforms and concessions from the state. We should have learnt by now that political parties may say they are fighting for your rights and your interests, but their central aim is to build for their own interests and election campaigns.  Collective Direct action such as the rent and rates strike in the North in the 1970s, to the more recent campaign against the water charges and household tax in the South teaches us to control our own struggles while building a culture of resistance that links with others in struggles in struggles. Solidarity and mutual aid find real expression and as our confidence grows so too does our ability to change our society.

Likewise, if the state concedes a border poll through popular direct action and self-organisation; this sends a more powerful message and glimpse of our potential power and of a new society we want to build.

It is important for anarchists and the progressive left to take part on the border poll debate as it provides an opportunity towards a reconfiguration of progressive politics beyond the narrow orange and green agenda.

As Bernadette McAliskey referred to when she replied in response to the border poll debate that, “Sinn Fein has no intention of moving forward to a united Ireland that it doesn't control….I can think of no state of human misery, either north or south of the border, at this juncture, that would not be made immeasurably worse by putting the idiots that are running the two sides together in the one state." (11)

Lets not allow political parties to set the agenda for their own interests. Lets not allow the ‘national question’ to once again sidetrack or supplant struggles over housing, workplace and environmental struggles or provide a useful distraction for the our corrupt rulers who continue to impose a brutal austerity agenda of class warfare amidst this border poll debate.

We must recognise that imperialism is not only rooted in capitalism but in the state structure, and that simply replacing foreign elites with local elites will not solve the problem in a way that is fundamentally beneficial for any emancipatory project.

Imperialism cannot be destroyed by the formation of new nation-states. Even independent nation-states are part of the international state system, and the international capitalist system, a system in which the power of imperialist states continues to set the rules of the game. 

This means that any new states - and the local capitalists that control them- soon find themselves unable to fundamentally challenge imperialist control and instead set about trying to advance their interests within the overall framework of imperialism.

In other words, external repression continues in new forms and that local elites are an enemy both within national liberation movements and even more so after the formation of new nation-states. Thus, most left nationalist movements that have achieved their goals have turned on the working class once in power, crushing leftists and trade unionists with equal vigor like their former masters because using bourgeois methods simply results in bourgeois ends. Establishment propaganda and policemen, prisons and schools, traditional values and traditional morality all serve to reinforce the power of the few and to convince or coerce the many into acceptance of a brutal, degrading and irrational system. 

A firm anti-imperialist, Connolly opposed the nationalist dictum that "labour must wait," and that independent Ireland must be capitalist: what would be the difference in practice, he wrote, if the unemployed were rounded up for the "to the tune of 'St. Patrick's Day'" whilst the bailiffs wore wear "green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the road will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic"? In the end, he insisted, "the Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the final analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland.

We need to asking the question of what type of society and how we want to get there, rather than the colour of the flag or putting any new ruling class in power; because let’s face it any ‘national socialist republic’ is a myth as we have witnessed during recent events in Venezuela. Nationalism is no solution to the globalised capitalist system run my imperialist powers or the ecological disaster of climate change.

As Michael Bakunin put it,
“We prefer the republic, we must recognise and proclaim that whatever the form of government may be, so long as human society continues to be divided into different classes as a result of the hereditary inequality of occupations, of wealth, of education, and of rights, there will always be a class-restricted government and the inevitable exploitation of the majorities by the minorities. The State is nothing but this domination and this exploitation, well regulated and systematised.”

As anarchists we don’t have all the answers or a blueprint, but as a former republican I believe it offers a rich revolutionary tradition from across the world that built mass movements of social transformation involving millions of people.

The lesson we must take from this Border Poll debate is that if we are to pose an alternative to the capitalist system, we need to think think outside the box and it cannot come through participating in elections or simply state sanctioned referendums but they may feature.

The fight against the state, against capitalism, and against all oppressions is one fight and socialism cannot come from above. It is a struggle for a society of freedom, individual self-development, the end of the state and of classes, self-determination and self-management in every area of living.

The alternative is to build popular organs of counter power, to organise in communities and workplaces and show how the world can be when we collectively take action providing glimpses of a world based on solidarity not greed, a world without leaders and bosses.

Any campaign for a border poll must not be limited to raising the flag but be part of a wider struggle of social transformation that is meaningful; increasing the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the class. Ultimately aiming to remove all forms of human relations based on domination and exploitation because if there is anything we should take from the last century is that those who make a half revolution dig their own graves.










8)What people are saying about Peace or Pacification? -Liam Ó Ruairc