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8 November 2007 Edition

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OPINION : Ireland, the EU and the break-up of the 'United Kingdom'

Time to look at EU legislation in an all-Ireland context

BY MARTIN McGOVERN

MUCH of the to-ing and fro-ing over the last month about whether British Prime Minister Gordon Brown would call a general election missed (or avoided) the main point: namely that, for the first time in its history, the next election will be largely an English election.
Gordon Brown, at the British Labour Party conference, talked about “Britain”, that is Scotland, Wales and England – no mention of the Six Counties.
At the Tory Party conference, David Cameron went even further: no mention of the Six Counties or Scotland (the Tories are pretty much wiped out in Scotland). Cameron, who impressively talked for an hour and a quarter without notes, talked about winning back the north of England from Labour.
Both parties are on the horns of a dilemma. Without the Labour vote in Scotland, the Labour Party would be a minority party in Westminster. On the other hand, how can the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ (as it is more properly known) support the break-up of the Union even though it would make them the majority party in Westminster?
For many years now, Tony Benn, the veteran Labour former MP, has pointed out that what is required in England is a new form of nationalism. The reactionary nationalism of imperialism and conquest has to be fought and the progressive elements in English history brought to the fore.
The progressive dynamic in English history is, inter alia, the Levellers in the time of Cromwell; the Chartists, who brought millions on to the street for the right to vote and trade union rights in the 19th Century; and the revolutionary Labour government under Clement Attlee, which was elected in 1946 and brought in the nationalisation of coal, steel,  transport, free education and a free healthcare system. This is the ground on which the new English politics will be fought. There is no ‘Great Britain’ any more – the phrase is dropping out of usage in modern British political language.
A more immediate and related issue which cannot be avoided by any political party is the European Constitution debate, the question of a referendum and how people will vote in a referendum.
Sinn Féin is an all-Ireland party. The problem up to now has been that debates on Europe have, understandably, been conducted on a 26-County basis, pushed by the various referendums on Europe. This time it is different.
As with the Good Friday Agreement, when we had a referendum in the North of Ireland and the South of Ireland, Sinn Féin should call for all political parties to support a referendum on the European Constitution, North and South
Gordon Brown has a huge dilemma, not so much with the result of a referendum but, rather, with the geographic nature of the result.
The reality is that if there was a referendum, the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party in Scotland would all be calling for a ‘Yes’ vote. Remember, the core of the Scottish Nationalist policy is “we are not leaving Britain we are joining Europe”. The same would apply in Wales. In the North of Ireland, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the trade unions would be calling for a ‘Yes’ vote. I assume that Sinn Féin would not be calling for a ‘No’ vote along with the right-wing of the Tory Party?
Gordon Brown’s worst nightmare would be a situation where Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland would vote ‘Yes’ and England would vote ‘No’, thereby leading to a constitutional crisis and accelerating the break-up of the Union and the ‘United Kingdom’.
It is a false assumption that Brown is afraid to call a referendum because he would lose it in England. The situation is much more fluid and tactical than that. Polls have consistently shown that the English are not opposed to Europe. It is the right-wing of the Tory Party that is blindly (and in the most pig-ignorant, imperialistic sense of the word) opposed to Europe. That famous apocryphal newspaper headline, “Fog in English Channel – Europe cut off,” springs to mind.
If Brown can be assured of a ‘Yes’ vote in England he will split the Conservative Party. The liberal wing of the Conservative Party knows that anti-European right-wingers in the party are costing them votes. In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, the Conservative Party would split and Labour would be home free.
In my opinion, Sinn Féin should restate our position on Europe – one of ‘critical support’. We support progressive legislation. We should always look at European Union legislation in an all-Ireland context. Some of us have looked at European legislation on the basis of whether it eroded 26-County sovereignty rather than on the basis of whether it was progressive and advanced the cause of Irish unity within Europe.
We should be calling for a ‘Yes’ vote, North and South, because the legislation is progressive.
In an all-Ireland vote, Sinn Féin should call for a ‘Yes’ vote on the complete treaty. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his “opt out clauses”, has gutted the social legislation within the treaty. In particular, he has removed the limitation of the working week to a maximum of 48 hours. The British Labour government wants the economics of Boston: a right-wing free market with no political or social constraints.
We in Sinn Féin have to point out that the European legislation that we are having a referendum on in the South is not the same as the diluted, reactionary legislation with its progressive social clauses removed that is quite likely to be imposed on us in the northern part of this island. Are we to wind up on this island, as happened with the Euro and Sterling, with two different political economic and social dispensations because the English are bad Europeans?

• Martin McGovern is a former trade union movement activist in Britain. He is now a member of Sinn Féin in Dublin.

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