By Kevin Henry
In the early stages of the Covid crisis, we were told the Stormont Executive would rise above politics and present a united front against the virus. This came after a period when cracks were already showing over what advice to follow in relation to closing schools and other measures needed to combat the virus.
However, the attendance of Michelle O’Neill and other prominent figures in Sinn Féin at the large funeral of Bobby Storey, an important republican figure, split this facade of unity asunder. The event was controversial as it breached Covid regulations and other families had been prevented from saying farewell to their loved ones in the usual way. All the main parties united to criticise Michelle O’Neill. Arlene Foster has since refused to attend public briefings with O’Neill. This also gave an impetus for a series of local marches and bonfires across the North around the 12th July, despite the fact it was discouraged by the DUP and Orange Order leadership.
In reality, there is hypocrisy all round. We should remember that Black Lives Matter activists have been fined for engaging in socially distanced protests – something all the main parties, including Sinn Féin, are responsible for. While the other parties lambast leading figures in Sinn Fein for attending the funeral, all the main parties are united in reopening the economy without due regard for health and safety and have refused to take action in the face of clusters of cases, particularly in the meat industry.
Another indication of the tension is the fact that eleven DUP MLAs defied the party whip to abstain on the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill. This has been described as the largest rebellion in the party’s history. As many commentators have pointed out, it is also an important warning for the leadership of Foster, who in many ways is a lame duck, damaged by the RHI scandal and only kept in place because removing her at the time would have been seen as a concession to Sinn Féin.
The bill itself is an attempt to square a circle. It essentially returns Ministerial power to the period before the 2006 Saint Andrew’s Agreement, when the DUP and Sinn Féin first agreed to share power. Unless a decision significantly impacts the functioning of other departments, the Minister essentially has free reign. The rationale for the bill is to give Ministers more power to drive through controversial decisions with less public accountability. In the context of an Executive based on a sectarian carve-up, it can be an instrument that creates more instability, rather than overcoming it, if an individual Minister pushes through decisions which jar with their counterparts.
These tensions can lead to more sectarian provocations – such as Gergory Campbell repeating his old ‘joke’ relating to the irish language. They also underline the reality that, in the context of the economic and social crisis related to the pandemic, there will be no return to the stability which characterised the period following the Saint Andrew’s agreement. These tensions can also find a reflection in broader society, posing dangers for ordinary people. The trade unions and other movements must offer an alternative to the pro-corporate policies and sectarian bickering of the main parties, uniting working-class people around our common interests.