Stormont restored: Can it last?

By Kevin Henry

After two years of boycott by the DUP, Stormont has now been restored with the election of the Speaker, First (FM) and Deputy First Minister (DFM) and of a four party executive, i.e. involving every party entitled to join the executive on the basis of D’hondt (an apportionment method for allocating seats on basis of proportional representation among political parties). The fact that Stormont has the first nationalist FM is of symbolic importance for many – particularly those from a Catholic background, including those who have never voted Sinn Fein.

In another first – Sinn Féin, now the biggest party, holds both the ministry for finance and for the economy. The  DUP opted to leave Sinn Féin with the difficult position of holding these posts which, notwithstanding the shared responsibility of the Executive, will put SF under pressure on many fronts as the department of finance is responsible for budget allocations. It also seems that the DUP wanted to ensure they got the education ministry to undermine proposed changes to Relationship and Sex Education (RSE).

In general the restoration of this Executive has been met with even less fanfare than previously. In no small part this is reflective of the fact people feel they have been here before and unlike previous deals this was not a deal between political parties but primarily one between the DUP and the British government. It is therefore not illustrative of greater agreement between the parties here – in fact the opposite remains the case.

It also reflects that while most people wanted a return of Stormont there is not a huge faith that it will make a substantial difference to the lives of working-class people.  Significant sectarian polarisation remains, particularly with a split in the DUP and unionism generally. Despite the extra £3.3 billion, it’s at best a temporary fix as our public services remain in crisis and we face serious economic difficulties if we play by Westminster’s rules.

Why a deal now?

The strike action of 18 January saw 170,000 on strike across the public sector including health, education, civil service and transport workers. On the day Socialist Party members distributed thousands of leaflets calling for ICTU to name the next day of all out action, i.e. broadening the action to involve the private sector. We also pointed out that whether Stormont was restored or not, workers must continue to organise, fight and strike for the funding needed to actually deliver public services. The strike action most certainly acted to put pressure on the more moderate wing of the DUP, who more generally felt that the boycott was running its course and that if they got some movement on the Windsor Framework they would have the basis to return to Stormont.

However, this wasn’t the only factor that led to a deal. When Donaldson collapsed the Executive two years ago, Boris Johnson was prime minister, he basically was publicly considering the idea of breaking with the protocol, even if it meant provoking a trade war with the EU. Johnson represented the faction in the Tories that wanted to use Brexit to aggressively reposition Britain’s position in the world, including the utopian idea of reversing the trend which has reduced Britain from the largest empire in the world to a third rate imperialist power. The new cold war between US and Chinese imperialism has been turbocharged by the war in Ukraine. There has been significant strengthening of the two imperialist blocs, European and American imperialism on the one hand and Russian and Chinese imperialism on the other. Since then Rishi Sunak has become Prime Minister and dropped many of Johnson’s utopian plans in favour of closer alignment with the EU and US, in reality a return to Britain playing the role of the most Atlanticist wing of the EU.

It is likely that the Tories will lose the upcoming General Election and be replaced by Keir Starmer’s Labour who likewise will not favour significant regulatory divergence from the EU. As others have pointed out the current deal in reality has elements of “soft Brexit,” similar to Teresa May’s backstop. The hardline Brexiteer wing of the Tories, which the DUP is closest to, has been significantly knocked back. 

Unionism divided

Opinion polls show ¾ of DUP voters back the current deal. That means the moderates had an easy road towards restoring Stormont. It is clear they faced significant opposition both internally (among their officers and executive) but also externally from more hardline figures and groups like Jamie Bryson and the TUV.  Hundreds of posters saying “‘stop the DUP sell out” were erected. Groups like “let’s talk loyalism” also organised thousands of people to sign “keep your word” pledges.

Although not massive in scale these actions reflect a discontent among a section of Unionists about the institutions being restored which is unlikely to simply go away. If the moderates are seen to fail to deliver for their community, and if the DUP’s electoral support was to slump again in opinion polls it would likely trigger a leadership contest. The recent opinion poll which showed them losing support to the TUV is illustrative of that concern. But the DUP has a temporary saving grace, as it is currently the only unionist party capable of contesting Sinn Féin’s position as the largest party in Stormont. This will likely motivate many unionists, even those dissatisfied with the Stormont deal to hold their nose and vote DUP. 

No to “business as usual”

A major issue for the new Executive is the question of long term funding. The £3.3 billion from Westminster is only for the next year, even then it is not enough to actually provide inflation-busting pay; the most workers have been offered is 5% pay rise plus a 1,500 one-off payment. While many workers would welcome this given the long period with no pay increases, the truth is it does not match inflation. The trade union leadership, especially those close to Sinn Féin, will push to limit further strike action so that Stormont can get on with business as usual. Ordinary workers should reject that approach and organise to be prepared to take action, the fact Junior Doctors plan strike action in March reflects pressure on wages is not going away.

Some of the money on offer is also tied to Stormont implementing £113 million in revenue raising measures. Michelle O’Neill has ruled out domestic water charges but not yet other regressive measures, such as hiking tuition fees and cutting free transport for people over 65. Correctly the parties have pointed the finger at Westminster and called for more money. But the question arises: what should they do if Westminster refuses to hand over more money? They should set a ‘needs-based budget,’ even if that means breaking the law and seek to mobilise workers to win this money especially through the trade unions. However given the Stormont parties’ record of previously passing on Westminster cuts it’s highly unlikely they would do so. For working-class people it is however the only option to ensure services including in health, education and transport that can actually meet our needs.

Over the last couple of years Northern Ireland has seen the highest rate of strike action since 1989.  Recent strikes took place without Stormont, leaving it unclear for many; who to target or how to win. Now that the Assembly is restored we have a clear target. It’s also not just on the trade union field they will feel more pressure on a large number of issues including gender-based violence, the need for LGBTQ+ inclusive, consent-based and factual RSE, and the crisis in Lough Neagh. 

Alternative to sectarianism needed

Sectarian polarisation in society means the Assembly is inherently unstable. This is increasingly the case as issues under debate are more and more the fundamental issues of division. Smaller issues won’t go away either as sectarianism is consciously injected into every situation. For example, Emma Little-Pengelly has argued that funding for the GAA’s Casement park, which would allow UEFA games in 2028 to be hosted there, must be tied to extra funding for other sports. Of course this is keeping with Sinn Féin and the DUP’s long term approach of engaging in sectarian carve ups on issues but we can expect these spats to be expressed more publicly now. 

The more fundamental issues can be seen in the Tory/DUP deal document where the preamble effectively rules out calling a border poll as conditions are not expected to be met for decades to come. Yet there is no agreement on what the conditions are and more importantly in an official document from the British Government there is an open break with the idea that Britain has no-selfish interest in Ireland. At the same time Mary Lou McDonald says a united Ireland is within touching distance. So we can expect an increase in ‘preparation’ or agitation on part of republicans while at the same time intransigent opposition to calling one on the part of unionism and the British state. 

A border poll would not resolve the division among working-class people or alter the reality that there are opposing national identities and aspirations here. Coercion either in its present or in any future scenario cannot resolve the situation in the interest of working-class people. A refusal of a border poll is therefore also not a solution. This underlines that on the basis of the status quo or all the options offered by the establishment there is no way out of division, tension and conflict. This is why working-class people need to find a different way forward and build a socialist cross-community working class political alternative. 

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