By Kevin Henry

Today, Northern Ireland has entered a two-week period of tightened Covid regulations, with extended closure of hospitality, the closure of non-essential retail, leisure facilities and more. Over 950 people have now died from the virus here, with hospitals recording their highest number of Covid-related deaths in the week ending 20th November. Overall bed capacity within the health service is currently at 98%, with two hospitals – Ulster and Causeway – operating beyond their capacity.

NI Executive shambolic and divided

At the start of this pandemic, we were told that Stormont’s Executive “would rise above politics” and that we would see a united front. In reality, the Executive has been fractured from the outset in how to respond to the virus, with the Unionist and nationalist parties leaning towards the policies being implemented by the British and Irish governments respectively. The Executive also remains divided on legacy issues and Brexit. At the start of this year, we were promised a ‘new approach’ for a newly restored Executive. This new approach has been one of more open division, compared to the decade of relative stability and outward unity which characterised the DUP/SF-led Executive before the RHI scandal.

The Executive as a whole has failed to take the necessary measures to protect public health, rapidly reopening the economy after the initial lockdown without adequate safeguards, and moving slowly to reintroduce restrictions despite a higher rate of infection than either Britain or the South. DUP ministers have been most blatant in their disregard for lives. They have continuously pushed for lessening of restrictions, with no apparent consideration for the lives of ordinary people and for health workers. They blocked a proposal to extend restrictions earlier, only implementing a U-turn when faced with public opposition and the stark reality of the health crisis. Minister Edwin Poots has been to the fore in criticising Covid restrictions. Bizarrely, the party once led by Ian Paisley – who denounced alcohol as “the devil’s buttermilk” – is now the most aggressive about reopening pubs! 

This is a reflection of the particularly close relationship the DUP has with big business interests who are more concerned about their profits than public health. There are also tensions within the DUP, with Arlene Foster’s position looking increasingly shaky. She is seen as weak in criticising Sinn Féin – for example, she was hesitant to call for Michelle O’Neill’s resignation in the wake of the Bobby Storey funeral controversy, given her own refusal to resign over RHI. But she is facing opposition not just from the more fundamentalist wing of the party around Edwin Poots, but also former allies like Simon Hamiliton, now head of Belfast Chamber of Commerce.

Defend public health and livelihoods

Opinion polls show that most people’s main concern is for their health and that of their loved ones. However, we should reject the false choice between our health and financial security, as posed by capitalist politicians and commentators. It is the chaotic drive for profit of this system that forces us to choose one or the other. The billionaires and big business have amassed obscene amounts of wealth during the pandemic, wealth which can and should be taken in order to guarantee the incomes and well-being of ordinary people. The Socialist Party has produced a ten-point programme which outlines the measures we believe are necessary in order to deal with this crisis from the point of view of the working class and the vast majority in society.

Stormont has announced a further £200 million in direct financial assistance to businesses, as well as a £95 million voucher scheme which will see a prepaid debit card for use on the ‘high street’ sent to every household in Northern Ireland in January. This is a recognition that the reduction in income of many working people is having a detrimental impact on the wider economy. Any financial assistance will, of course, be welcomed by people struggling to make ends meet in the midst of this crisis. But this is a sticking plaster.

We won’t pay for this crisis! Take the wealth off the billionaires!

The Tories clearly intend to put the cost of this crisis on the shoulders of the working class. While UK billionaires saw their personal wealth increase by £25 billion just in the three months after the initial lockdown, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has signalled a new public sector pay freeze and slashed planned increases to benefits and the minimum wage, threatening to drive even more people further into poverty. Equally grotesquely, Stormont’s health committee is discussing how to make ‘savings’ (ie, cuts), despite this pandemic graphically illustrating how underfunded and under-resourced our health service already is.

This is an ideological choice, not an economic necessity. Instead, we demand that the billionaires foot the bill for this pandemic. The trade union movement must articulate a clear alternative to the misery being heaped on the working class by the politicians at both Stormont and Westminster, and organise a coordinated response. We need to fight for workers’ full incomes to be guaranteed; a £12 minimum wage immediately and with no youth exemptions; benefits which allow a decent standard of living; nationalisation of firms which threaten redundancies; and mass public investment into services, infrastructure and sustainable industries, creating socially useful jobs.

Working class must prepare to fight industrially and politically
The walkouts and de facto strikes over health and safety concerns which we have seen in meat processing plants and at Royal Mail in Derry – often led by union reps on the ground – should be highlighted as examples of how all workers can organise to defend their health, but also their livelihoods. The planned strike action by Newry, Mourne & Down Council staff next week over pay and conditions is an important battle which should be supported by the entire trade union movement.

The crisis has shown that we have a political establishment which puts sectarian squabbling and business interests ahead of the lives and security of working-class people. That will continue as long as politics here remains dominated by parties which are rooted in division, but who are fundamentally united when it comes to pro-capitalist economic policies. We need a political voice for working-class people – be they Catholic, Protestant or neither. Read our ten-point programme here and, if you agree, join the socialists!