Special interview with Gerry Grainger, International Secretary and member of the Central Executive Committee of the Workers' Party of Ireland (WPI)
ICP, 15th August 2016
ICP: What was your party’s stance on Brexit before referendum?
Gerry Grainger: The Workers’ Party of Ireland recommended that the people of the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union. The WPI opposed initial entry into the-then EEC in 1973 and has argued against all the EU treaties in the referendums held on these in Ireland. We argued for a ‘Lexit’, a left-wing vote to exit the EU, on the grounds that the European Union is an entity created for and that continues to serve the interests of imperialism. The EU is fundamentally opposed to the interests of the people and especially of the working class. Its rules deny the peoples of the European Union their democratic rights: its attitude to democracy is summed up in the words of the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker when he said that “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties”. The EU denies peoples their rights to determine their own economic policies, to create and sustain state-owned industries, and seeks to deny workers their rights and to drive down living standards in the name of “competition”. The increasing militarisation of the EU represents a threat to peace, as does its foreign policy, as seen recently in its support for a regime in Ukraine containing fascists. The EU’s trade rules with the rest of the world are designed to benefit multinational corporations, and to continue to place the peoples of former colonies in a dependent position. The Workers’ Party believes that a rupture with the EU is essential to the interests of working people both within Europe and across the globe. We recommended a vote to leave the EU anticipating that the exit of a major imperialist power would damage it profoundly, and open new possibilities for progressive policies and politics in the UK that membership of the EU renders impossible.
ICP: Why did the bourgeoisie in the UK vote to leave? Do you think the competition within the EU and the outmanoeuvre on Germany affected the
GG: The bourgeoisie in the UK was split over whether to vote leave or not. Many of the most powerful corporations wished to remain within the EU. The financial interests that dominate the City of London, for example, promoted a vote to remain. These financial interests attained a strong position with the victory of Thatcherism and they have dominated UK politics since the late 1970s. That they were defeated in this vote was a blow to them.
The parts of the bourgeoisie that were in favour of leaving the EU believe that the EU is a drain on the UK economy through payments made to the EU and that the economic regulations that come with EU membership hold them back from increasing their profits. Many in this section of the bourgeoise think that the UK is capable of negotiating more profitable free-trade deals with the rest of the world outside the EU. Some believe the UK would be better off in a trading bloc with the countries of North America and the former British empire (even though the United States supported the UK remaining in the EU). They are no less committed to capitalism than the pro-EU bourgeoisie, but think that the UK will do better economically and politically outside it.
There is no doubt that many of the bourgeoisie who voted to leave did so because they regard the EU as a tool of German, or Franco-German, capital that sacrifices UK interests to their needs. This attitude finds political expression in the Eurosceptic parts of the Conservative Party and in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In that sense resentment towards the power of Germany within the EU was definitely an important factor motivating many who voted to leave. This attitude is particularly prevalent among sections of the right-wing media, including those controlled by Rupert Murdoch, as well as domestic press owners. There is no doubt that the constant stories about German and French power within the EU over decades influenced the vote.
Allied to hostility towards Germany is the question of racism and xenophobia. There is no doubt that the question of immigration influenced many to vote to leave, especially in the conservative parts of southern England where, ironically, immigration is very low. However, in our view the influence of the immigration question and of racism and nationalism have been exaggerated. Many liberal commentators hostile to the working class have assumed that the votes in favour of leaving the EU in working class parts of northern and central England that traditionally vote for the Labour Party were due to racism. In fact, those votes represented more a protest against the neglect of these areas over the last four decades or so by both Conservative and Labour governments.
ICP: Is there any ongoing discussion on leaving the EU in Ireland which is also a member of the EU? How did the UK vote affect the situation of Ireland?
GG: Popular opinion in the Republic of Ireland has been increasingly hostile to the further integration of the EU, as has been seen in the increasing percentage voting against it in the referendums that Ireland must hold on each EU treaty. Most famously, the Nice and Lisbon treaties were rejected by the electorate initially, only for second votes to be held to ensure the EU got the result it wanted. Hostility to the EU was also increased by the loss of economic sovereignty and increased taxes and cuts to welfare services that followed the so-called ‘bailout’ of 2010, when the debts incurred by domestic and foreign speculators were forced onto the Irish working people. However, while the EU is less popular than it has ever been, the reality is that, for the moment, people in the Republic of Ireland have expressed a view that they want to remain within the EU. If anything, the UK vote and its immediate aftermath has strengthened that feeling.
ICP: How did Brexit affect the issue of Irish unity? Following Brexit, people are now talking about the demands for a referendum parallel with the Good Friday Agreement for the reunification of Ireland. What do you think about that?
GG: The objective reality is that the exit vote has no immediate implications for the issue of Irish unity, and longer-term it may have little impact. Unionists who wish Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom are the majority, and according to the terms of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement there will be no Irish unity until the majority of people in Northern Ireland vote to leave the UK. The majority of unionists who voted in the EU referendum in Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU. There is no reason to think that leaving the EU will cause a substantial number of unionists to change their minds and favour Irish unity.
The Good Friday Agreement says that a referendum on reunification can happen only when the UK government sees that there is a prospect that it might be won. That is not the case after the vote to leave the EU. In reality, it is likely that such a referendum would be called only when those in Northern Ireland in favour of Irish unity won a majority of votes in an election, and there are no signs that will happen soon. Calls for a referendum on reunification because of the UK exiting the EU were pieces of political theatre not reflections of a new reality. In reality, in the foreseeable future, the UK exit will have no impact on sectarian politics in Northern Ireland. It will only be possible to say whether that might change in the long term once the effects of the exit have been felt.
ICP: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted remain while England voted leave. Do you think Scotland and Ireland will reconsider ties with the UK? Will Brexit trigger the break-up of the UK?
GG: As noted, there is no evidence that Northern Ireland will vote to leave the UK soon. There is in our opinion a much greater likelihood that Scotland will leave in the UK in the medium term. The reasons for the surge of support for Scottish independence in recent years have their roots in the Thatcher era, and the devastating economic consequences for the industrial areas of Scotland. The relatively well-paid skilled jobs provided by heavy industry have been replaced by much less well-paid and increasingly precarious jobs in the service industries. The feeling that the London government does not care about Scotland has also added to the surge of support for independence. In other words, support for independence has been growing regardless of the EU. What the EU does offer, however, is the idea that a Scotland outside the UK can still benefit from membership of a bigger economic bloc, and so the nationalists argue that leaving the UK will have no negative economic consequences. The question is whether the UK leaving the EU will turn the 44.7% support for independence in Scotland into a majority. While that is certainly possible, it is not inevitable.
ICP: What do you think on the future of the EU?
GG: Since the crisis that began around a decade ago, the EU has come under greater strain than at any time in its history. The Workers’ Party supported the UK leaving the EU in part because we believed it would be a blow to the EU and to its ability to act as an imperialist entity within Europe and globally. We expect that the EU will be weakened by this vote. We hope that the result will also embolden the populations of other countries to imagine a future outside the EU, whether that is of peripheral countries like Portugal or Greece or those at the centre, like France, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Certainly a large section of the European bourgeoisie, bourgeois governments within the EU (and beyond), EU bureaucrats and the monopolies fear this, and so we can expect them to try and bind countries more tightly to the EU. The current debates over whether to treat the UK vindictively or generously in the exit negotiations reflect divisions as to the best way to ensure that no country follows the UK example. These forces will most likely have to be more careful about pursuing ever-closer union politically, though they will continue to pursue their agenda of military and foreign policy cooperation. However, without the UK, the EU becomes a significantly weaker political and military alliance.
At this time, therefore, the future of the EU remains clouded, and the UK vote to leave the EU has added to the uncertainty and will, we hope, help create the conditions for the further weakening of the EU.
ICP: What do you think about the strategic cooperation agreement signed in Warsaw by EU and NATO?
GG: The Workers’ Party has always opposed the militarisation of the EU and the adoption of a common foreign policy. The Republic of Ireland has, in theory, a tradition of neutrality in international affairs that has allowed it to play at times a progressive role in world politics. Neutrality remains immensely popular with the Irish electorate, although there are significant sections of the bourgeois parties that would like to join NATO. We do not think this is likely in the immediate future but some forces in Ireland have begun to argue the case for ever closer links with NATO and Ireland is a member of the so-called Partnership for Peace and was represented at the recent NATO Summit in Warsaw where our Party was present to join the protests organised by the European Initiative of Communist and Workers’ Parties and the World Peace Council. We see the EU’s increasing cooperation with NATO as an attempt to increase NATO’s membership and reach through the back door, and as a violation of Irish neutrality. We campaign against these developments in Ireland.
On a wider scale, we see this agreement as an extremely dangerous development, especially in the context of the tensions between Russian imperialism, the EU and NATO, whether it be in the Baltic States or Syria. Imperialism by its very nature makes war more likely, and the strengthening of connections between these two imperialist inter-sate alliances increases the potential for further reactionary and dangerous developments. Those of us in the Communist and Workers’ Parties in Europe and across the globe must fight against this.