Interview: Scotland’s referendum experience has provided a template for the Irish Left, says MLA Gerry Carroll

The People Before Profit MLA for West Belfast talks Brexit, democratic rights and the breakup of Britain with CommonSpace

GERRY CARROLL has been a distinctive left-wing voice within the political landscape of Northern Ireland for almost a decade.

As one of the most prominent faces of the socialist People Before Profit (PBP), his election to the Northern Irish Assembly in 2016 provided the party with its first MLA. Carroll held his Belfast West seat amid the tumult of the 2017 election, which led to the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont, an impasse which remains to this day.

In a country where almost all politics is framed in constitutional terms, PBP stands out, defining itself as ‘socialist’ rather than ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’. Following Northern Ireland’s majority vote for Remain in the EU referendum, PBP also distinguished itself as a source of left-wing opposition to the European Union.

However, Carroll does not shy away from discussions of Ireland’s future and potential unification – a possibility much speculated upon in light of the present UK Government’s obstinance on Brexit’s Irish dimension – and differs from much of the British anti-EU Left in advocating a further vote on any future Brexit deal that would respect the democratic wishes of Ireland, North and South.

Carroll’s relative prominence in Northern Irish politics, particularly at a time when Brexit dominates the political discourse, contrasts with how the Left was largely sidelined during the EU referendum itself and much of what has followed; arguments in favour of Brexit have been dominated by the Eurosceptic hard right, while campaigning efforts against leaving the EU has been characterised by the familiar, thoroughly un-radical faces of the British establishment.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Carroll reflected on this marginalisation of the Left and how it might be combated: “Generally speaking, it [the EU campaign] was presented as a choice of lining up with Nigel Farage and a cabal of right-wingers to support Leave, or getting behind the CBI, David Cameron and Theresa May to support Remain.

“I think what was missing then and even still now is an understanding that what you have is two imperial camps. The role of the EU as an imperial project was massively understated, and in some cases not talked about at all, during the referendum. Whereas the British state obviously had an empire, and you have people like Jacob Rees-Mogg who want to reinvent or recreate the British Empire for today. And the presentation [during the referendum] was: which of these choices is the least worst?”

“What was missing - because the Left were squeezed out of the national debate in Ireland, and for the most part in England and Scotland - was a Left critique of both the British state and the right-wing nature of the EU.” People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll

“What was missing - because the Left were squeezed out of the national debate in Ireland, and for the most part in England and Scotland - was a Left critique of both the British state and the right-wing nature of the EU. Going forward today, in the north of Ireland, we’re presented with a choice: we can get behind Leo Varadkar, and some kind of fake national unity project. Or, you can back Theresa May, Arlene Foster and Rees-Mogg. For us, in terms of People Before Profit, we’re with neither camp, and I think that’s an important distinction to make, which isn’t always easy to do. But in my view, it’s the only principled position.”

Left-wing opposition to the EU has emerged from some parts of the Scottish Left, but in terms of its exposure, appears to have been dominated by camps within the Labour Party. Even under Jeremy Corbyn however, Labour has presented no plans for constitutional reform in the UK. Can a left critique of the EU exist without a similar critique of the British state?

“They go hand-in-hand,” Carroll responds. “I think fundamentally what Brexit has taught us is that it’s sped up the crisis of the British state, which you can say was simmering for a while. Brexit brought it to the fore, with Scotland voting Remain and Theresa May and the Tories generally being seen as unconcerned with what the Scottish people want for the future. I would say the same, if not more so, has happened in Ireland - or the North anyway - where the British state is seen as not giving a damn about the North, and the border is treated like, at best, a plaything. In Arlene Foster’s case, she said she didn’t remember a hard border existing. Tell it to the people who lived in Armagh.

“I think you have to understand that the Left will put forward different demands in different places, but generally speaking, I think the Left needs to have a critique of the undemocratic nature of Britain as a state, which is fragmenting and breaking up. And I think that’s a positive thing. What comes out of it at the end has to be shaped and fought for by the Left now. The only stability the British state ever provided was for the rich.”

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Carroll is far from being the only Irish voice to criticise the UK Government’s stubborn lack of understanding over what consequences their approach to Brexit might have for the Irish border, but he nevertheless considers the fact that the issue is being discussed at all to be heartening: “In the last few years before Brexit, if you talked about the border, you were told you were being divisive and almost dangerous. But now, the fact that the border is being talked about in such a mainstream way is also positive, and I think that’s something the vast majority of people across the island could benefit from, regardless where they’re from.”

Across the UK and particularly in Scotland, disagreement has emerged on the Left over the possibility of a ‘People’s Vote’. Similar debate has emerged within the SNP, which has increased its support for a second plebiscite on EU membership.

PBP are, at present, the only all-Ireland party demanding a vote in both the North and the South of Ireland on the terms of the Brexit deal, a proposal which has gained little coverage in the rest of the UK.

Asked for more detail on the idea, and whether something similar might be considered in Scotland, Carroll said: “We remain opposed to the EU as a policy, but we recognise as democrats that the majority of people in the North voted Remain; that has to be recognised and respected.

“People in the North should have a right to vote on any final deal that Theresa May and her government is negotiating with Brussels. It’s a basic act of democracy. One of our critiques of the EU is that it doesn’t like democracy, it denies it, and there’s some question as to whether it’s democratic at all. So, we want to go further and say, while we have a fundamental critique of the EU, people in the North of Ireland’s votes should be recognised, and any deal which is negotiated in a back-room should be put to the people, North and South.

“While we have a fundamental critique of the EU, people in the North of Ireland’s votes should be recognised, and any deal which is negotiated in a back-room should be put to the people, North and South.” People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll

“I’m obviously not going to tell the people of Scotland what they should do, but there’s lessons in that. Scotland voted Remain as well, and I think people in Scotland do have a right to have a say on any final deal.”

On the question of the Irish border and its future, Carroll is even more adamant: “Now that there’s talk of a hard border, the question of whether Ireland is divided or not should be put to the people as well – be it a ballot or a referendum, call it what you want. People have a right to say they don’t want their lives disrupted; they don’t want army checkpoints on the border that we were told would be a thing of the past. So, as well as saying people in the North and South have a right to vote on this or any deal, people in the North and South have a right to vote on the whole future of Ireland.

“A recent poll was done at the weekend by the Sunday Business Post that showed over 70 per cent of people did not want to see any strengthening of the border, and that is the position of the vast majority of people in Ireland. But the question isn’t just one for Theresa May – the question needs to be put to the Irish Government: what will they do? Varadkar should refuse to implement a hard border; he should be called out on it.”

The UK Labour Party also cannot hide from the hard questions that Brexit poses for Northern Ireland: “I think obviously people like Corbyn have an understanding of Ireland, and a sympathy with Ireland, but the question becomes, what will Labour do to prevent a hard border? There’s general solidarity and sympathy, but what’s the substance being proposed? And if there is civil disobedience – which I think there will be – if a hard border is installed, will Corbyn and people in the Labour Party back people in the streets in the North?”

Given the amount it has been speculated upon since the EU referendum and Sinn Fein’s electoral gains in 2017, how likely does Carroll believe a vote on Irish unification is in the near future?

“Difficult to say. You’re seeing quarters that wouldn’t normally have supported or even been interested in the question of unification now looking at it as a serious option. You’re seeing people from traditionally soft-unionist backgrounds now looking at a united Ireland as a way out of the current malaise and a way for them to remain inside the European Union. There’s no doubt that there’s been a massive growth in support.

READ MORE: Theresa May expresses doubt in UK victory as Sinn Féin push for Irish unification vote

“The question is, the Secretary of State [for Northern Ireland] has ultimate responsibility to call a border poll ‘if they see fit’, I think the legislation says. In my experience, speaking to people who were traditionally concerned about even discussing a united Ireland, they are now moving in that direction.

“The question is how do progressives and the Left put the Tories under pressure to call a border poll? What’s Leo Varadkar going to do? Because his government has been saying – I’m paraphrasing – that we can’t exploit Brexit to further the cause of a united Ireland. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it; it’s a legitimate demand to have a united Ireland. But Varadkar doesn’t want to upset the applecart. But there’s more of an appetite for the conversation, and I think we on the Left have a responsibility to convince people in the North and South that it’s in their interest to end partition.”

Asked if a second Scottish independence referendum could be similarly justified, Carroll replies: “It’s certainly a legitimate demand to want a second referendum in Scotland – the last one was so close, and there were a myriad of bullying tactics to pressure people into voting against independence. Since Brexit, the conversation has opened up in a bigger way, and I think the people of Scotland are well within their rights to demand a second referendum. 100,000 people on the streets of Edinburgh clearly shows that there is a demand.”

Carroll’s experience of Irish politics echoes debates which have grumbled on within the Scottish independence movement for years – chiefly, questions over the extent to which independence should be tied to other political issues. In contrast to many mainstream Irish republicans and non-socialist voices in Scotland, Carroll is firm that the fight more national self-determination cannot be apolitical.

“Scotland and Ireland, while not being exactly the same, definitely have lessons to teach each other. Unfortunately, the Yes campaign didn’t win in Scotland, but it has provided a template for the Left – connecting independence to fundamental questions around pay, rights and other issues.

“There’s a tradition in Ireland that says we should park all those issues until we have a united Ireland – ‘labour must wait’, as De Valera said. I think that’s the wrong perspective generally, and the wrong way to win people to a united Ireland. You’ve got to talking about abortion reform across the island now, and similarly with extending the health service now, rather than waiting until the country is unified.”

Picture courtesy of Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916

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