Northern Ireland – Assembly parties deliver cuts & sectarianism

‘Power Sharing’ Assembly delivers austerity, as sectarianism grows 2010 – Time for united working class opposition! Published in the Winter 2009 – Issue 24 of SocialistVIEW The prolonged row between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the devolution of policing and justice powers is just one of many political battles that could lead to the collapse of the Stormont Executive, reinforcing the need for a socialist alternative writes Gary Mulcahy.

The signing of the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 was meant to represent a framework which would enable the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein to work together as the two largest parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. Peter Hain, Northern Ireland Secretary for State at the time, declared it an “astonishing breakthrough”. This so-called agreement, though, was nothing of the sort.

Instead St Andrews ignored the real divisions between the parties and introduced further veto mechanisms which have led to more stalemate and deadlock. In the previous Assembly, while major decisions required “cross-community” support representing a majority of unionists and nationalists, individual Ministers could implement their own policies relatively independently of each other. For instance, this would have enabled the unionists to block Martin McGuinness from scrapping the 11 Plus exams as Minister for Education in the final hours before the last Assembly was suspended. St Andrews has curtailed the ability of Ministers to act in such a way. This in effect represents another concession from Sinn Fein to the DUP.

The other notable change contained in St Andrews was the removal of the power of the British government to suspend the Assembly in times of deadlock and crisis. This option also enabled the British government in the past to use suspension of the institutions as a safety valve against pressures from the DUP and anti-power sharing elements within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) opposed to David Trimble’s leadership.

The removal of the suspension option means St Andrews’ “solution” to deadlock and breakdown in the Executive is to simply collapse the Assembly and move immediately to fresh elections. Given the nature of the contentious issues which deeply divide the parties (e.g. parades, policing etc.) and the sectarian methods which they use to position themselves, fresh elections after the collapse of the Assembly would invariably result in an even more polarised sectarian result, leading to continued deadlock. The practical consequences of this fudge were seen last year when the Executive failed to meet for five months because no agreement could be found on a variety of issues. In the end, the chilling winds of recession and pressures from working class communities, on the one side, and from big business (especially construction companies), on the other side, managed to force the Executive to meet. This was particularly embarrassing for Sinn Fein, which had attempted to use their veto to force the DUP to give way on issues such as the devolution of policing and justice powers and the introduction of an Irish Language Act, but ended up re-entering the Executive without any concessions from the DUP. Because of the growing disenchantment and anger against the policies of the parties in Stormont, and more importantly the dramatic rise in sectarianism across the North, the party’s room for manoeuvre has lessened. The rise of rival sectarian forces in society that are competing against the DUP and Sinn Fein has further destabilised the Executive, which raises major challenges for power-sharing.

Threat from TUV
The European election results in June 2009 confirmed our analysis that sectarianism has grown and deepened. The emergence of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) which secured 14% of the vote, proves that the Dromore by-election result, in February 2008, which saw the TUV capture a seat at the expense of the DUP, was not a freak outcome. The electoral support for TUV represents a deep-rooted opposition from many former DUP supporters who are against sharing power with Sinn Fein. On a lower turnout than the 2004 election, the DUP’s vote fell by 13.8%, while the TUV secured 13.7%. If the TUV were to replicate this support in the upcoming general election in 2010, it could hurt the DUP, even costing Westminster seats.

It is this challenge from the TUV which has widened the gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Executive. For Peter Robinson, DUP leader, to be seen to be giving ground to Sinn Fein would be seized upon by the TUV. This squeeze has led to a major question mark hanging over a deal being reached on the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to the Assembly before the general election. Even with the Alliance Party leader David Ford lined up and agreed by the parties to take up the position of Minister for Justice, there will be significant opposition in Protestant areas to policing coming under the influence of an Executive with Sinn Fein as a major component, no matter how little or any real influence Sinn Fein may actually have over policing. The demands from the DUP for a financial package as a precondition for devolving policing have been met by Gordon Brown who wants to see a deal in advance of the general election. Sinn Fein has already agreed to the terms of the financial package. The DUP’s only remaining precondition – that there must be “broad community confidence”, is however less tangible. Worried about their vote, the DUP have deliberately stalled reaching an agreement. It is possible a deal will not be reached on policing and justice before the Westminster election. If no deal is reached, this would result in a worsening of relations between Sinn Fein and the DUP, leading to further crisis, even the possible collapse of the Executive.

Nevertheless, if the DUP signed up to a deal after the Westminster elections next year, they still face potential punishment at the hands of the TUV in the local and Assembly elections due in May 2011. There is no doubt there are many nervous DUP MP’s, MLA’s and local councillors who are worried about the rise of TUV, which could yet lead to tensions and even splits in the DUP.

If no deal is done, it will create further difficulties for Sinn Fein. Their decision to support the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) has led to significant damage. Many members have left Sinn Fein, leading to an implosion of activists in areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone where they also lost an MLA, resigning from Sinn Fein to become an independent republican over their support for policing. Sinn Fein members and supporters were told that the condition for supporting the PSNI would be the transfer of powers to the Assembly. If policing powers are not devolved, it cannot be completely ruled out that pressure could build up over time within Sinn Fein to withdraw support for policing. This would raise major problems for the Sinn Fein leadership. It would represent a major blow to their entire strategy. The withdrawal of support for policing would inevitably bring the Assembly crashing down and consequently runs contrary to Sinn Fein’s interests. It is therefore possible that the Assembly could continue to limp from crisis to crisis for a period.

Re-alignment of unionism?
The other side of the European election results showed how a split unionist vote has opened up the real possibility of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in the North. Sinn Fein’s actual vote fell by 18,000 votes, but for the first time they topped the poll with 26% of the vote. The DUP, who topped the poll in 2004, only barely managed to take the last seat this time, coming behind the UUP.

For unionists, the nightmare scenario of Martin McGuinness becoming the First Minister of Northern Ireland may yet lead to attempts for a re-alignment of unionism to maximise the unionist vote. The ambitious non-clerical wing of the DUP, which lured UUP dissidents, such as Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson into the party, could yet be tempted to open talks with the UUP with a view to creating a new alliance or party. Similarly, the TUV could become a pole of attraction for the more hard-line and clerical in the DUP. However, the merger between the UUP and the Tories – Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (New Force) or UCUNF – has complicated such a process. The Tories have declared they want to contest every seat throughout the UK, which means ruling out a voting pact with the DUP. Within the UUP, there are differences on this strategy. Their lone MP, ‘Lady’ Sylvia Hermon, has publicly stated that she would not be calling for a vote for the Tories and has also announced that she will not vote with the Tories in the next parliament, choosing instead to support the other Tory party, New Labour. The split unionist vote led to Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP taking the Westminster seat for South Belfast in 2005, despite the majority of votes being for the two unionist candidates. Divisions have opened up with the South Belfast Ulster Unionist Association opposing the strategy of standing in all seats and instead support opening discussions with the DUP over supporting a single unionist candidate. In other areas, given the DUP has more of a base amongst Protestant working class communities, it will be a source of discomfort for them to be seen to ally themselves with the Tories who are preparing a vicious war of cuts against working class people if they win the election next year.

Impact of a Tory Government
The fact that the Tories have formally merged with the Ulster Unionist Party and have a far more pronounced and open unionist position will mean that if they are elected into government next year, it will have repercussions for the peace process. The perception amongst working class nationalists and Catholics in the past has been that having a Labour government in Britain creates more opportunities for change and equality in Northern Ireland, even though the leadership of the Labour Party always upheld the capitalist system. It was nonetheless recognised that at branch level, the Labour Party was a workers’ party before the advent of New Labour in the 1990’s.

The current crop of Eton-raised Tories, who are salivating like rabid pit-bulls at the expectation of coming to power, have revealed very clearly their brutal right-wing Thatcherite agenda. George Osbourne, the shadow Chancellor, boasted at the Tories conference that he expects to become “the most unpopular man in Britain within six weeks of a Tory government”. Under the impact of major attacks from a Tory government, combined with the perception of a more unionist-friendly British government in power, an important psychological change can take place in Catholic areas. After the announcement of the paramilitary ceasefires in the 1990s, an almost euphoric sense of anticipation and hope gripped Catholic areas, which contributed to the sustaining of the peace process. Fundamentally, the world economic boom, which led to moderate but important growth in Northern Ireland, also laid the basis for “progress” to be achieved regarding the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement etc. The idea that the “peace dividend” gave everybody a stake in the peace process through the attraction of foreign direct investment, the creation of jobs and so on, was a crucial incentive sustaining the peace process. However, the economic growth which took place (which was due to the upturn in the world economy and not because of the peace process) was lop-sided and only benefited a minority of mostly better paid workers. In fact, during this period of economic growth, there was a cut in wages for most workers through increased exploitation and a switch from relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs to the lower-paid and low skilled services sector. Between 1998 and 2008, 23,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, a fall of 20%. (Independent Review Economic Policy, Dr Richard Barnett 2009)

Now that the economic boom has turned to bust, it will be far more difficult for the parties to persuade working class communities to be patient and wait for the benefits of devolved government and power-sharing to trickle down. In reality, the very attacks which the Assembly is carrying out, in the absence of a socialist alternative, will undermine support for the peace process, especially amongst alienated youth.

Return to mass unemployment
As we previously outlined, the capitalist economists have seriously underestimated the impact and scale of the recession. At the beginning of 2009, they were warning unemployment would reach 50,000 this year. We warned then that the extent of the crisis was far bigger and deeper than they realised and would most likely result in unemployment reaching 60,000 this year, which is now the case. Unemployment levels have soared in the past year. In September 2008, official unemployment figures stood at 4.3%. Over twelve months, 21,000 workers joined the dole queues – a 79% rise, bringing the official unemployment rate to 7.1% (57,000 October 2009).

Amongst young people, unemployment is worse. 19% of 18-24 year olds are unemployed, up from 12.6% in September 2008. But the true figure for unemployment is masked by the huge numbers defined as being economically inactive. According to the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment, an additional 54,000 people who are classified as economically inactive are looking for work. That makes the actual unemployment figure in the North close to 14%. In working class areas, it is even higher. Unemployment will continue to rise over the coming year as a result of the major cuts being prepared in the public sector and as the crisis in the world economy unfolds. Young people will not accept being expected to “live” on between £50 and £60 a week, especially after billions of public money has been used to bail-out the bankers and the rich. Young socialists, in particular, must seek to organise young workers and the unemployed to fight for real jobs with decent pay and conditions, to open up access to education by scrapping tuition fees and other restrictions. Without a socialist alternative capable of fighting on behalf of working class youth, more extreme sectarian forces can intervene to fill the vacuum.

The growth of sectarianism
Today, the potential for sectarian forces in Catholic and Protestant areas to tap into the anger and frustration of unemployed youth is clear. The rioting which has broken out at “interface” areas, such as the Mountpottinger Rd/Albertbridge Rd junction in East Belfast, has involved mostly young people who have been left behind by the official peace process. Republican and loyalist organisations are attempting to stir up sectarian conflict and seeking to build amongst unemployed youth. In Ardoyne, in North Belfast, there is competition between the different “dissident” republican groups to recruit youth. The rioting which has broken out in these areas has been overwhelmingly sectarian in character. It is a damning indictment of the parties in Stormont that since the ceasefires and the establishment of the Assembly, sectarian division has widened. There are now more “peace lines” physically separating communities in Northern Ireland than ever before. A recent survey by the Institute for Conflict Research has revealed about half of the 41 “official” peace lines in Belfast have been built since the late 1990s.

According to the PSNI, there were 1,584 sectarian attacks reported in 2007-2008 and 1,595 reported in 2008-2009. That is four sectarian attacks a day reported to the PSNI, which is generally recognised as being far short of the actual level of attacks, given that many people do not report attacks to the police. In reality, the conflict in Northern Ireland never disappeared but has continued in the form of localised sectarian turf wars over control of estates, streets, town centres and villages. The tit-for-tat sectarian attacks on churches, chapels, Orange Order halls, GAA clubs, Catholic-owned businesses etc. in many rural areas and towns is now a daily occurrence, and shows clearly that sectarianism is not just directed against one community, but goes in both directions. Towns such as Coleraine, Ballymena and Lurgan have seen a surge in sectarian attacks over the past year. In most cases, towns have become completely segregated between Protestant and Catholic housing estates, with little or no genuinely mixed communities. In the case of Rasharkin, sectarianism has seen most Protestants leave the village.

The emergence of mass structural unemployment represents an additional danger. For most people, the only interaction between Catholics and Protestants is in the workplace. This demonstrates the importance of workplace organisation and of the trade unions promoting the need for independent political representation for the working class. In some areas, though, workplaces can also reflect the demographic changes which have occurred, resulting in a workforce composed mostly from one community. Because of the role of the union leaderships and the decline in trade union activism over the past twenty years, many workplaces today are either non-unionised or poorly organised. In some cases, this can lead to isolation and a sense of separation. The material interests of workers though will tend to bring workers together in struggle in defence of jobs, wages and conditions, which can cut across sectarianism, even in workplaces which are not mixed. The attacks on wages and jobs are equally affecting Catholic and Protestant workers, many of whom share membership of the same unions.

Workers’ struggles shows the way forward
The marvelous stand taken by the Visteon workers in Belfast is a vivid example of how workers unity can be forged. This mixed workforce on the “border” of West and South Belfast showed in practice how workers in struggle can overcome sectarian division. The occupation of the plant was a lesson to workers internationally of how workers can fight back against the attacks from major multi-national companies. The support from working class communities for the Visteon workers showed the potential for working class unity.

Unfortunately, while the Visteon workers won a victory in forcing Ford and Visteon back to the negotiating table and securing a far better redundancy package, it was not quite a full victory. The fact that the factory closed and the jobs and skills were lost meant the outcome represented only a partial victory. The closure of the factory which provided relatively well-paid employment is a big loss to the people of Belfast, Catholic and Protestant. It is also a loss to the labour movement that such a well-organised workforce with excellent fighting traditions has been dispersed. Again, the role of leadership is crucial.

If the leadership of Unite union had fully embraced and supported the Visteon workers’ occupation and led a real campaign for the Assembly to take the plant into public ownership, it could have exerted real pressure on the politicians in Stormont, such was the support in the community.

Growth of the dissidents
There is no doubt that the various dissidents republican groups have grown in confidence in the past year. The failure of Sinn Fein to deliver any real change has enabled them to tap into a bigger pool of disaffected Catholics who now despise the Sinn Fein leadership for “selling out”. The Massereene killings of British soldiers, earlier in 2009, and the planting of bombs targeted against police and army personnel, is an attempt by republican dissidents to put Sinn Fein in the position of supporting police raids and other repressive actions in Catholic working class areas and thus further weaken Sinn Fein’s support.

The dissidents “strategy” is to provoke the state into using more repressive methods in Catholic areas as a means to build a base from the consequent opposition. Their aim to is to build a base on which they can launch a sustained armed campaign of individual terrorism. However, this is not the early 1970’s. The conditions which gave rise to the Provisional IRA’s campaign no longer exist. There is no mass support for the dissident republican groups.

The majority of working class people were outraged at the Massereene killings which were correctly seen as an attempt to whip up sectarianism. It is only a matter of time before the dissidents strike again. In October 2009, they came close to killing the relative of a police officer in East Belfast, with a car bomb. A massive 600lb bomb, found near Forkhill, Co. Down, close to a school and a residential area, was foiled by chance by the state forces. If this bomb had detonated, the result could have been another Omagh. Like after the Omagh bomb, there would have been universal revulsion against these methods and groups.

Other republican groups which claim the conditions to launch an armed campaign are not yet present in the North are equally capable of stirring up sectarian tensions and dividing workers. The republican demonstrations against the return of Royal Irish Regiment troops from Afghanistan brought thousands of republicans and loyalists onto the streets of Belfast which, were it not for the heavy police presence, could have sparked serious sectarian rioting and violence.

While the dissidents are gaining support from some of the most alienated sections of Catholic youth, their methods and ideas provide no way forward for the working class. The issues most concerning workers today demand a mass, united working class response, which dissident republicans are incapable of providing.

Dissident loyalists
There has also been increased sectarian activity in loyalist circles. The vicious sectarian murder of Kevin McDaid by loyalists in Coleraine, this year, brought to the surface the reality on the ground in parts of Northern Ireland. Since the killing of Kevin McDaid, tensions have escalated with reports of regular sectarian clashes and beatings. The North West Ulster Political Research Group, which represents the views of the UDA in the Coleraine and Derry area, withdrew support for the political institutions and the PSNI this year. In Derry, the UDA have used the selling of its magazine, ‘Warrior’, on the Waterside part of the city to intimidate Catholics. This magazine also contains articles praising the racist attacks on Romanian families in Belfast. Attacks around the Fountain estate, the last remaining Protestant estate on the city side of Derry, have not subsided despite the efforts of republican and loyalist community workers. For many Protestant youth in loyalist areas, the sight of the leaders of loyalism cavorting with establishment figures and the likes of the President Mary McAleese is stomach churning. While figures associated with loyalist paramilitary organisations are rewarded with increased state funding for “community” projects, Protestant working class areas are being devastated by unemployment and deteriorating social conditions. The potential for splits from loyalist groups and paramilitaries can grow in the coming period, especially if dissident republican attacks become more frequent and more deadly.

Racism and the far-right

There is also the potential for far-right and fascist groups to emerge in the absence of a mass socialist alternative. Racist attacks in Northern Ireland are under-reported in the press. According to police reports, more than 1,000 racist attacks took place in 2008. Rising unemployment, lack of social housing and the lack of a mass political voice which could unite workers means there will be also be opportunities for the far-right to grow. Unlike groups such as the Socialist Workers Party, who limit their programme to liberal demands and slogans such as “Migrants are welcome here”, the Socialist Party has shown leadership on this question by developing a programme based on class demands which go to the roots of racism. We have also practically implemented this approach in the case of the attacks on Romanian families in Belfast. When people are losing their homes and jobs, and bosses are using migrant labour to further cut wages, liberal slogans are not adequate and can even play a counter-productive role. It will also be necessary to fight within the labour movement for a class position on migrant workers and racism. Very often, our class demands such as, ‘Jobs and Homes, not Racism’ allow us to get the ear of many people who are not racist but may be affected by the scape-goating of migrant workers and propaganda from right-wing newspapers. This method enables us to bring people to our conclusion that it is necessary to unite workers to fight for jobs for all etc.

Rising class struggle and opportunities for socialists
The world recession and the cost of the massive bail-out of the banks have left the British economy in a deep crisis. In order to prevent a complete meltdown of the financial system, Gordon Brown had no choice but to intervene to prop up the banks. But like the Ancient Mariner, he now carries an enormous albatross of debt round his neck. It is estimated that the state deficit will rise to £97bn by 2013. Whoever wins the Westminster elections, it is guaranteed that major public spending cuts are on the cards. This will have enormous repercussions for the Assembly Executive. Since forming the present Executive, all the parties in power have carried out cuts or “efficiency savings”, as they prefer to call them. The decision to carry out cuts was made before the convulsions in the world economy. Much of these cuts have been carried out by not filling vacancies in the public sector which has added to an already overburdened workforce. In recent weeks, the cuts and their impact have begun to become more visible with the closure of beds in hospitals, closure of crèches etc. However, the cuts have so far been introduced without any resistance from the majority of the trade union leaders.

Pressure from workers in the health service has forced the leadership of Unison into calling emergency meetings with reps, in order to be seen to do something about the cuts. The reality is the leadership of Unison has facilitated attacks on health workers and the health service, for example supporting “Agenda for Change” which has led to cuts in pay and longer working weeks for NHS staff.

Cuts have also led to the loss of 75 jobs at Translink and, in effect, a pay freeze for bus drivers. The Unite official representing bus drivers stated: “This is the worst pay deal our members have ever received from the company, but in the light of the current economic situation and in the light of what we are facing, the constant threat of privatisation which would destroy public transport in Northern Ireland, our members agreed to accept a two-year pay deal with a minimum increase of one per cent each year”.

The leadership of the unions, in one way or another, have bought into the idea of maintaining stability for the Assembly, even if that means obstructing workers taking action to defend jobs, conditions and services. This was clearly seen throughout the classroom assistants’ strike in 2007 and even by the role the right-wing in NIPSA played earlier this year, in attempting to prevent the sacked NCP traffic wardens from taking their fight to the Assembly and the Minster for Regional Development, Conor Murphy. The struggle to transform the unions into democratic and fighting organisations capable of representing workers highlights the need for the building of genuine broad lefts within the unions.

The union leaders will not be able to hold back struggle forever. The cuts being implemented so far are nothing compared to what is to come. The Tories have mentioned cuts in public spending of between 9-10%. Osbourne has stated he will immediately make £7bn in cuts per year, which would result in a major cut to the Northern Ireland block grant. However, that only amounts to 20% of what the government has already stated it intends to make in cuts during the next parliament.

he assault on the public sector will have disastrous consequences for the extremely fragile private sector. With the public sector accounting for 60% of the economy in Northern Ireland, and 1 in 3 workers directly employed in the public sector, much of the private sector is dependent on the public sector in terms of purchasing power and public contracts. Cuts will lead to a devastating downturn in the economy. The ingredients for a more generalised fight-back from the working class are beginning to gather.

Despite the role of the conservative union leaders, workers will find ways around to fight back. The revolt from postal workers, which forced their union [CWU] leadership into holding a national ballot, proves that no amount of bureaucracy will be able to forever hold back workers from defending their living standards. Pressure from public sector workers has led to discussions opening up in Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions over balloting for a one day strike, early next year. This should be built for as the start of a sustained campaign against the cuts. Campaigns against the closure of services, schools and hospitals will show the need for a political alternative to the sectarian parties.

If the Executive was to collapse, the role of the sectarian parties may complicate this process but only up to a point. The instinct of most working people will be to unite against the cuts. But without the development of independent political representation for the working class, the opportunities which will be presented could be lost, opening the danger of sectarian forces filling the vacuum. The need to popularise the creation of a mass working class party with socialist policies against the austerity measures of the Government and the Assembly is urgent. This must be discussed and championed by socialists within the ranks of the unions and especially in the workplaces. The local and Assembly elections due in 2011 could present an opportunity to develop a working class slate against the cuts, based on real forces representing workers and campaigns.

The threat to introduce water charges in 2012 could also develop into a full-scale mass non-payment campaign. Even though a relatively small force, the unique ability of the Socialist Party to reach both communities means we can make a big impact in shaping events. By taking a leading role in building the We Won’t Pay Campaign, the Socialist Party has secured important victories by forcing the Assembly to defer water charges for several years. Through this work, the party could carve itself out an important position which would give us a platform to put the case for a mass party of the working class and influence the development and direction of such a party.

The inability of capitalism to deliver a decent future will also lead many workers and young people to seek an alternative. The task for Marxists in Northern Ireland is to build a revolutionary party which can assist in re-building the labour movement and, at the same time, fight to win the majority of working class people over to the need for socialism. The opportunities to do so will open up in the coming period.

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