SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 192 October 2015

Crisis in the Northern Ireland executive

The Northern Ireland executive has been plunged into crisis as bitter sectarian divisions open up once again. While attempts to patch up a deal are ongoing, a dangerous, uncertain situation exists. MICHAEL CLEARY reports.

Yet again the Northern Ireland governing executive is in crisis. A storm erupted in the aftermath of the killing of ex-Irish Republican Army (IRA) member Kevin McGuigan in East Belfast on 13 August. His murder was immediately assumed to have been carried out by the Provisional IRA (PIRA) in revenge for the killing of prominent republican Jock Davison on 5 May. Murders such as these are often regarded as ‘internal housekeeping’ – that is, paramilitary groups settling their differences with guns without involving the wider population. The events might have quickly slipped out of the headlines. But the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) announced on 22 August that he believes that "the Provisional IRA still exists" and that its members were involved in McGuigan’s murder.

McGuigan and Davison shared a history. By all accounts, they were key members of Direct Action Against Drugs (DADD) in the late 1990s. DADD was a cover name employed by the PIRA under which a dozen alleged drug dealers were murdered. It appears that the two fell out and Davison had McGuigan shot in the arms and legs in a so-called ‘punishment’ shooting. Subsequently, McGuigan nursed a grudge against Davison whom he considered to be a state informer. In the following years, Davison was embroiled in major controversy when the press reported that he was the PIRA commander who ordered the killing of an innocent man, Robert McCartney, in a Belfast bar. By the time of his death, Davison may have been on the verge of becoming the next PIRA chief of staff. His murder could not go unchallenged.

Prior to the chief constable’s statement, there was a widespread belief that the PIRA did indeed still exist in some form. Every so often, media stories would appear regarding mainstream republican involvement in fuel smuggling, the sale of illegal cigarettes, money laundering, and other fundraising activities. Such allegations were met with a collective shrug of the shoulders and effectively ignored. The PSNI statement changed everything. What was hidden came into the open. Suddenly the state was asserting that, not only does the PIRA exist but it is armed and is prepared to use its arms. The so-called ‘creative ambiguity’ that helps to maintain a shaky and imperfect peace was swept aside.

For many Protestants there was now a real problem: Sinn Féin, a party with an armed and active paramilitary wing, was in government. The second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), reacted quickly and withdrew its minister from the power-sharing executive. Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest unionist party, was wrong-footed and under pressure. The arrests of prominent members of Sinn Féin for questioning over McGuigan’s murder only increased the pressure.

Executive paralysis

Shortly after an opinion poll showed that 80% of Protestants supported the UUP move, Robinson announced the resignation of all of his party’s ministers but one. He stepped aside from the position of first minister, but another DUP minister, Arlene Foster, is acting in the role. In an unexpected development it was announced that DUP ministers would resign for a week at a time, return to their positions a week later, and then immediately resign again. This tactic was adopted to prevent Sinn Féin or the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) taking the vacant ministerial positions. It had the added advantage of allowing the DUP to claim that it was blocking the effective working of the executive without entirely collapsing the government. The relevant legislation allows for this bizarre arrangement.

The executive was already in crisis before the recent events and has become an increasingly ineffective institution. For many workers and youth it has become the object of ridicule. Accusations and counter-accusations reverberated around the political institutions. Sinn Féin and many nationalist commentators claimed that unionists simply did not want to share power with nationalists and republicans and were looking for an excuse to exit. They point to the hypocrisy of Robinson and other unionist politicians who have lined up alongside loyalist paramilitaries in disputes over parades and have not threatened to take action over the continued existence of these organisations.

Sinn Féin and its supporters further asserted that the entire crisis was simply manufactured and was no more than a struggle for position between the DUP and UUP before the next assembly elections. Unionists asserted, in turn, that they simply could not be expected to share power with politicians who still resort to the gun when they decide it is in their interests. They demanded ‘proof’ from Sinn Féin that the days of a gun in one hand and a ballot box in the other were gone.

As often in the complex sectarian games which pass for politics at Stormont (the seat of the Northern Ireland assembly) there is some truth in the statements of each side. It is not true, however, that this crisis has been manufactured by unionism. The suspicion and fear among the mass of Protestants is absolutely real. It is not true either that Sinn Féin has not changed its position on the use of force and has maintained a secret military force which might relaunch its previous campaign someday. It has, of course, held on to some weapons, and imported new weapons, will act to protect its own when challenged, and reserves the ‘right’ to fundraise by illegal means, racketeering in the communities it regards as its own.

Stormont austerity

The ‘Stormont House agreement’ was supposed to have solved the problems dogging the executive. The agreement was signed on 23 December 2014 by the five executive parties and the British and Irish governments. It came at the end of eleven weeks of intense negotiations which concluded with 30 hours of continuous talks. First minister Peter Robinson claimed that the agreement was "a monumental step forward". Deputy first minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) described it as "astounding".

The Socialist Party pointed out at the time that this overblown rhetoric was entirely misleading. There were no deals on the contentious issues around parades and flags (the union flag and the tricolour). Instead, one or more commissions to examine areas such as ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ were to be established. These commissions have still not met. Attempts to implement the agreement ran into the sand after several months. Sinn Féin refused to sign up to the implementation of so-called ‘welfare reform’ and has grandstanded on the issue ever since. It claims to be anti-austerity but the reality is different. Sinn Féin has implemented cuts and continues to do so. It signed up to deals on welfare reform twice, before backing away, fearful of the impact on its electoral base both in the North and the South of Ireland.

The main plank of the Stormont House agreement is a massive programme of job cuts across the public sector. Twenty thousand jobs will go. Sinn Féin signed up to this and joined with the other four executive parties to boast of their ambition to ‘rebalance the economy’ away from the public sector and towards the private sector. The plan to cut the size of the public sector is linked both ideologically and practically to proposals to reduce corporation tax. If corporation tax is cut there will be a reduced tax take and the subvention from Westminster will be cut by the same amount. The executive is proposing to make up the difference through saving on the public-sector wages bill. This will be achieved both by mass redundancies and ongoing wage restraint. The executive parties are the architects of the plan to lower corporation tax and cannot deflect blame on to the Tories.

Over the summer there were clear indications of behind-the-scenes talks, however, and an agreement to break the impasse on welfare reform was likely in September. Such a deal might yet emerge, perhaps involving new finance from the Westminster government to deal with issues from the past, such as meeting the needs of victims and survivors of the Troubles. If new finance were drawn in then other sums could be redirected to soften the effects of welfare reform.

Uncertain future

Talks to resolve the crisis are underway. All the indications are that the DUP would prefer not to bring down the executive, but it is wary lest the UUP steal its mantle as the most steadfast representatives of the Protestant community. It has achieved one of its initial aims: the establishment of a three-person commission to pronounce on the status of the paramilitary ceasefires.

If the talks collapse and the executive falls, what happens next is uncertain. The Tory government’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Teresa Villiers, has the power to call an immediate election but will hesitate to do so. An election in a political vacuum will only accentuate all of the difficulties. Villiers no longer has the power to suspend the assembly and return to direct rule, as she once did, but emergency legislation could be passed at Westminster to allow this to happen. The most likely scenario is a long period of talks which will result in a new deal which, like every other deal, will mean little or nothing. Elections to the Northern Ireland executive are scheduled for May 2016 and are most likely to go ahead at that time.

It would be a mistake to make any assumptions, however. The road ahead is uncertain. The talks may fail. Direct rule may return and the assembly elections may be postponed indefinitely. Whatever happens next, the latest crisis only serves to underline the plain fact that the peace process has not delivered on any of its promises. The executive is unstable because the entire political edifice is inherently unstable. None of the problems facing working-class people in the North have been solved, including the dominance of paramilitary groups in working-class areas.

All of the paramilitary groupings remain armed and active to one extent or another. The loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was almost certainly responsible for the murder of Brian McIhagga in Ballymoney in January this year. In June, Derry man Paul McCauley died nine years after being assaulted at a family barbeque. Again, the UDA is thought to be responsible. Recently, the UDA ‘crucified’ one of its victims, nailing him to a table. The loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) also remains active. Last year, it repeatedly shot Jemma McGrath, a young woman, in an attempt to kill her. The various dissident republican groups continue with their dead-end campaigns. There is a ‘punishment’ shooting or beating every third day. There have been 600 recorded sectarian ‘incidents’ at the peace lines over the last year alone.

Even if yet another ‘agreement’ is cobbled together it will not deal in any fundamental way with the para-military control over working-class areas. Only one force is capable of pushing the paramilitaries to one side and ultimately breaking their grip. That force is a united and organised working class. Working-class people are united in their trade unions and on many occasions have followed a union lead to strike and demonstrate against sectarianism and the paramilitaries. The trade unions could and should organise against paramilitary racketeering and intimidation.

Class struggle

The failure of repeated agreements to deal with any of the fundamental problems we face is not surprising. Agreements in Northern Ireland are not agreements in any real sense of the word. The main parties in the talks are not capable of agreement on sectarian issues, such as flags, parades and the past, precisely because the parties base themselves on sectarian division. The Socialist Party believes that real and genuine agreement is possible – the agreement of working-class people and communities to come together in solidarity and in the struggle for a socialist alternative to division and misery.

The working class is also the only force which can challenge the dominance of sectarian political parties. The establishment of a new mass political party of the working class, which seeks to unite Catholics and Protestants in a common struggle for a better life, would undermine support for the sectarian parties. Initially, workers and young people might take some convincing that a real alternative is possible, but the fact that in recent elections nearly half the population did not vote demonstrates that many have had enough.

The majority of the new generation of young people born since the ceasefires of 1994 are opposed to the social backwardness imposed by Northern Ireland’s sectarian politicians. They are overwhelmingly in favour of a woman’s right to choose and of full and equal rights for LGBT people. They are impatient for a Northern Ireland where all have the right to live in peace, free from threat and intimidation. They are fed up with the lack of opportunity and the lack of hope that characterises the North.

They want an education which does not leave them with a lifetime of debt. They believe that everyone is entitled to a good job on a decent wage. They do not want to live in a society which is seemingly forever imprisoned by the past. The youth wing of the Socialist Party, Socialist Youth, has grown in recent months precisely because it has reached out to this layer. When Socialist Youth took the initiative and established its Fight4Equality campaign in the early summer large numbers of young people responded with enthusiasm.

Young people looking for an alternative for all that is rotten about society, and trade unionists and other workers who want to resist the cuts, are a potential reservoir of support for a new party which points the way forward out of the gloom of sectarian division and voices an alternative to austerity. If trade unions and campaigning groups came together a new voice could quickly find firm foundations and grow. Caution could become replaced by enthusiasm and hope.

In the immediate aftermath of the ceasefires in the mid-1990s new political groupings emerged on the back of a wave of hope and optimism. If the trade union movement had launched a new party then it could have put down deep roots and provided a real alternative. The period we are in now is fraught with difficulty and danger but resolute action by the trade unions still has the capacity to transform the situation. Inertia does not mean an endless continuation of an imperfect peace but a gradual slippage back to conflict. An alternative must emerge.

Seizing the initiative

The trade unions are central to the possibility of such an alternative. Unfortunately, it is clear that some trade union leaders are of the opinion that the executive parties are ‘doing their best’ in difficult circumstances and have ‘no choice’ but to implement the cuts and to manage politics in a wider sense. This approach is fundamentally mistaken. There is no sense in which some of the executive parties are ‘better’ than others. Some trade union leaders, in effect, are seeking ways of lending support to the ‘anti-austerity’ parties in the executive against the ‘pro-austerity’ parties. In reality, there is no such division. All of the executive parties are pro-austerity. Some trade union leaders are loud in their support for the peace process in a way which is one-sided and unbalanced.

The hard-won and precious unity of the working-class movement is at risk from such leaders. This unity is of vital importance – literally, a matter of life and death. During the dark years of the Troubles, the trade unions were the only mass organisations which united working-class people, and which stood in the way of even worse bloodshed. This unity should not be taken for granted.

The idea that parties which are based on sectarian division, and which deliberately accentuate division, are somehow friends of the unions is wrong. John Douglas, the last president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), has raised the possibility of the unions developing links with Sinn Féin. For the union leaders to move towards a link, formally or informally, with any sectarian party risks the unity of the trade union movement. If our movement were to split it would represent a cataclysmic defeat. All working-class people in Ireland, North and South, would pay the price for many years, even decades. Thinking trade unionists must make it clear where they stand now. The unions must be entirely independent of sectarian, pro-austerity and anti-working class parties.

We must also fight for clear and resolute anti-sectarian leadership in the unions. The contest has begun for the election of the next general secretary of Northern Ireland’s biggest trade union, the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance  (NIPSA). Patrick Mulholland, former NIPSA president and Socialist Party member, is standing for general secretary as the candidate for the Broad Left. NIPSA organises 45,000 workers across the civil and public services and this election comes at a very important time for public-sector workers.

NIPSA, under the leadership of its general council which has had a Broad Left majority for the last year and a half, has played an important role in arguing for the need for the trade unions to struggle to stop austerity. NIPSA was key in pushing NIC-ICTU to call the one-day public-sector strike in March – and was the only union that argued for the naming of a second day of strike action in May. NIPSA members have also been in the vanguard of anti-sectarian strikes and demonstrations over many years.

It will be hard for any new party to maintain an independent class position given the deep-seated problems in the North. A new party will have to deal with all of the difficult issues from its inception. It is simply not possible to pretend that divisions around the national question do not exist. Nor should we seek to unite in the present around social and economic issues and put off discussing a way forward on the difficult issues until the future. This would be to repeat the mistakes of the 1960s when the labour and trade union leaders stood aside and allowed sectarian elements to seize the initiative. The result was the violence and mayhem of the Troubles.

A new mass working-class party must be firmly against the coercion of either community and in favour of compromise and genuine agreement. A new party must base itself on the inherent unity of the working class in the workplaces and unions, and consciously promote solidarity in day-to-day struggle. A new party must strive to raise the sights of working-class and young people beyond the real problems of division today, and towards the possibilities inherent in the fight for a socialist future. Then what unites us will become more important than what divides us. A socialist Ireland, with full and equal rights for all communities, and a voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, will allow for the national aspirations of all to be met, while developing the maximum unity of everyone in these islands.

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