On 9th January, Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of the Stormont Assembly in Belfast, resigned in protest against the ongoing Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal. As the Assembly was unable to elect a new Deputy, new elections have been triggered, as required under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which are now scheduled for 2nd March.
The crisis faced by the political establishment in the North of Ireland is without precedent in the 19 years of “power sharing” that followed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). New elections won’t resolve anything. The reality is that the sectarian cul de sac of the Stormont Assembly lends itself to grandstanding and acrimony, with the DUP and Sinn Féin ruling together whilst at the same time opposing each other and simultaneously looking over their shoulder at their opponents within their own communities.
If no breakthrough can be achieved following the elections then there is every probability of a return to direct rule by London. Such a move would fuel resentment at a time when the British ruling class is already mired in crisis, coming just months - or even weeks - before Theresa May’s deadline for triggering Article 50.
The timing, however, is not just a piece of bad luck but is rooted in the unprecedented crisis of world capitalism, which is finding its reflection in these isles in a series of constitutional crises facing the British ruling class. As long as capitalism was booming and a few minor concessions could be afforded to the working class, power sharing could appear to get along. Now the whole thing is unravelling before our very eyes.
“Cash for Ash”
The current crisis began in November 2016, when it was revealed that a scheme – purportedly to incentivise businesses to use renewable energy sources – engineered by now DUP leader, Arlene Foster, experienced a sudden spike in applications shortly before being shut down. Under the terms of the scheme businesses were offered £1.60 for every £1 of renewable fuel they burnt. Effectively therefore companies could profit from the scheme just by leaving the heating on! Whilst families in the North of Ireland often have to choose between heating their homes and eating, here we have companies milking large sums of cash for simply leaving wood burners to heat empty sheds! The huge volume of claims in the last few months of the scheme has left the Belfast government with a bill of nearly £500 million.
The level of corruption is staggering. Businesses have effectively stolen £270 from every man, woman and child in the North. Each new revelation has revealed that this was no mere hiccup by the DUP but a scandalous act of robbery in which they were complicit. It has emerged, for instance, that shortly before the scheme was shut down businesses were tipped off by a source in government to get their applications in quickly, driving the huge spike in applications shortly before November. Unsurprisingly, it has also emerged that no few relatives of politicians and advisers involved in the scheme are also among those being paid to heat empty sheds.
This isn’t the first corruption scandal to rock the Stormont Assembly. From the £millions of kickbacks involved in the Nama property deal involving the previous DUP First Minister, Peter Robinson, to the corrupt siphoning off of cash from the ironically misnamed Social Investment Fund: Stormont has been increasingly revealed to be a cesspit.
After a rather inglorious and uncomfortable period of prevarication, Sinn Fein were eventually forced to try and separate themselves from the DUP with whom they had been sharing power for the past decade, and on 9th January Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, calling upon Arlene Foster to step down. As the two roles must be jointly filled, McGuinness’ resignation leaves the Assembly in crisis and without an Executive. The sudden discovery by Sinn Féin that the DUP are unworthy bedfellows, after only the day before having reprimanded the “irresponsibility” of the SDLP for going into opposition, reeks of opportunism.
Arlene Foster has for her part dug her heels in – refusing to admit any wrongdoing and adopting an increasingly belligerent, hard-line position that stands in stark contrast to the pathetic opposition of Sinn Féin. With no functioning Executive, elections have now been called for 2nd March.
The “centre ground” parties, such as the SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party, with the same delirium afflicting all of the world’s liberal parties, are at a loss to understand their own fall into utter irrelevance and vainly imagine that the crisis of the governing parties might renew their own fortunes. Such ladies and gentlemen understand nothing. Whilst upsets are not impossible – such as that which saw the People Before Profit party catapulted to first place in West Belfast in 2016 – the centre ground parties are unlikely to revive; the most likely outcome is very little change at all.
The reality is that the DUP and Sinn Féin were able to grow and build their support by undermining the UUP and the SDLP over many years precisely because the conditions for liberal centre ground politics have never existed in the North. The UUP stood for the protestant bourgeoisie and the SDLP itself was formed under the pressure of the Troubles.
As a result, the Assembly will find itself in permanent deadlock and will probably be replaced by direct rule from London, with all of the social and political implications that that would have. What we are seeing is nothing less than the failure of the Good Friday Agreement and a crisis of the entire regime in the North of Ireland.
The RHI scandal threatens to become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, with the Good Friday Agreement finally buckling under the strain of the all of the contradictions which have built up over the past two decades and which are now out in the open.
But how did we get to this situation? And what are the perspectives in the turbulent period that opens up?
The unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement
The end of the armed conflict and the establishment of the current system under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was initially welcomed by the majority of the population in the North of Ireland with a degree of optimism. People were tired of the cycle of violence that solved nothing, and the architects of the GFA promised a future where sectarian division would be smoothed over and peace and prosperity would reign. In fact, the political settlement did little more than paper over the cracks; the promises proved to be a cruel illusion.
In reality the GFA did not do away with sectarianism: it merely institutionalised existing divisions. The rules of power sharing mean that each party is encouraged to define as either “nationalist” or “unionist” and the Executive must consist of a collaboration between the rival camps. The result is that over decades voters have voted along sectarian lines and, naturally enough, given the conditions in the North, the more “hard line” sectarian parties – Sinn Féin and the DUP in particular – have come out on top with yet more belligerent parties threatening to outflank them.
Even the parliamentary checks and balances designed to protect communities from sectarianism have become a mockery. For instance, a mechanism exists for “petitions of concern” to be raised, which can veto “threatening” legislation, if 40% of the MLA’s from any community put their signatures to it. As the DUP now have a majority of MLA’s among the unionist camp at Stormont, they have therefore used this device – originally conceived as a protection against sectarianism – as a reactionary and sectarian “joker card” against legislation legalising gay marriage, recognising the Irish language, etc.
The scourge of sectarianism
In a certain sense, one would have expected sectarianism to decline in the past period as the material conditions which laid the basis for it have been undermined. In the past, the North of Ireland represented the most industrialised, and therefore economically prized, region of Ireland from the point of view of British imperialism. It was this which motivated the partitioning off of a sectarian statelet in the North. Deindustrialisation has left the North as little more than a net cost for British imperialism: it is a nuisance which they would just as happily be rid of. As Suzanne Breen writes in a recent article for the Belfast Telegraph:
"The great and the good berate the London and Dublin Governments for taking their eye off the ball. Do you know what? They don't care and, from their viewpoint, why should they?
"They're too engrossed with Brexit and their own problems. So long as the war is over and we're not acting in any way destabilising their day-to-day existence, they will leave us to fester in our own mess."
Furthermore, an entire generation has grown up since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 19 years ago. The young generation, following a global trend, is becoming increasingly secular and turning its back on religion. A number of other factors have also served to fatally undermine the authority of the old sectarian organisations and institutions. Abuse scandals have utterly discredited the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, deindustrialisation has undermined the Orange Order. In the past Protestant workers could at least be fed the illusion of a community of interests with the Orange bosses through the relative privileges obtained by being given the first pick of skilled jobs in the shipyards and other industries.
These industries are gone, and with them the skilled jobs. In their place are a mass of unskilled service sector and call centre jobs. A corollary of this process of deindustrialisation is that workplaces have become by-and-large desegregated. On that basis alone, the potential for united working class struggle in the face of crisis and austerity is stronger than ever before.
However, in other respects sectarianism has become a greater scourge than ever on the daily lives of ordinary people from all backgrounds in the North of Ireland. Schools remain largely segregated, as does housing. Already in dire straits, the housing crisis is aggravated by sectarian policies with respect to house building that see some of the most deprived areas starved of investment because politicians and construction companies don’t want more people who vote the "wrong way" coming into a neighbourhood and upsetting the balance of power. To this day, overcrowding, poor quality of housing, low rates of home ownership and longer waiting lists disproportionately hit the Catholic population. Furthermore, sectarian violence is on the rise, with Orwellian “peace walls” many miles long and as high as 8m tall being thrown up at a faster rate than ever before to separate communities.
An epoch of austerity
If the GFA has held together for the past 19 years it has been largely thanks to two factors. On the one hand, ordinary people have no desire to return to the violent conflict of the past. On the other hand, the GFA coincided with a long boom of the capitalist system, on the basis of which certain reforms could be granted that made life at least bearable for the majority of working people.
This last mentioned factor is now dead in the water. It is no longer reforms but counter-reforms which are on the order of the day for workers in the North of Ireland. Having never had any real powers, and with a shrinking budget, Stormont appears now as little more than a collective trough in which the political exploiters of the nationalist and unionist populations have their snouts buried. As Suzanne Breen explained in the aforementioned article:
“And if neither [Stormont] nor the Executive are restored, who cares? Once we railed against direct rule by indifferent English overlords. It was accepted wisdom that our own politicians, from whichever side of the divide, would do a far better job.
“Who could say that now? Both unionists, with their tradition of devotion to Stormont, and nationalists with their history of distrust, today stand united in disgust with how things have worked out. While the future of Stormont's institutions is debated to death by the political and media establishment, most ordinary people couldn't give two hoots. Cancer waiting lists are at an all-time high. Every health trust has missed its target. The queues and chaos in our A&E departments means that people are terrified of suddenly falling sick.
“The predicted post-peace economic boom never happened. It was mostly call centre and other low-wage jobs that came. The average household here has £14,645 to save or spend - £3,000 behind the UK national average.[…] Such hope abounded when the institutions were set up in 1998. What has followed since the Good Friday Agreement hasn't been an anti-climax, it's been an outright embarrassment.”
With little room to manoeuvre in terms of actual reforms, the likes of the DUP find themselves with fewer and fewer strings in their political bow. The last stand of these bankrupts can only be taken on the ground of sectarian politics: hence the constant “petitions of concern”, the flag protests, and the chest thumping about the rights of ageing bigots to march through mixed communities. The hardening, reactionary stance of the DUP is not a reflection of its strength but of its weakness.
The crisis of reformism
For Sinn Féin the same process has had a quite a different effect. Having failed to achieve national unification and equality through armed against the far stronger British state, the Sinn Féin leaders sought to achieve their ends through the methods of reformism. The inability of capitalism to afford further reforms therefore hits the reformist parties hardest of all. In reality, Sinn Féin were always a mere second fiddle to the DUP, despised by their partner in government, and now they have found themselves jointly administering attacks against the working class.
With a worldview hemmed in by the limited vistas of capitalism, Sinn Féin have found themselves proscribed to work within a system dictated by the needs of the capitalists and British imperialism in particular. Sinn Féin have no more aces up their sleeves - hence the pathetic manner in which they continue to cling to the illusion of parliamentary reformism through Stormont, even when events are sucking the life out of it.
The crisis that we are witnessing therefore is no mere accidental falling out but is a crisis of the entire capitalist system and its Establishment. The collapse in the body’s authority is most starkly reflected by the downward trend in voter turnout, which shows a process of inexorable decline:
Brexit and constitutional crisis - where next from here?
The Brexit vote in June was the biggest earthquake in British politics since the end of World War II. Like any earthquake, the vote revealed the tremendous tensions – hidden and beneath the surface – that had built up over decades. It also served to pile pressure onto numerous other fault lines that criss-cross British capitalism but which have remained dormant for years, increasing the risk of violent aftershocks: from a possible IndyRef-2 in Scotland, to the threat of a hard border in Ireland. Each new crisis is itself fed by - and, in turn, feeds into - the general crisis of British capitalism.
The timing could not have been worse for the capitalist class in Britain. Theresa May has said that she will trigger Article 50 no later than March, and has stated unequivocally that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies will have a place at the negotiating table. However, with no operating Executive at Belfast until the March elections, and the possibility that even this will not resolve anything, the Westminster government may have to go into negotiations with no voice present from the North of Ireland. When we consider that the North of Ireland is already starkly divided over the question – a majority of unionist voters voting to leave the EU and a majority of nationalists voting to stay – the denial of any voice at the negotiating table is likely to stoke anger.
Furthermore, the prospect of a hard Brexit or a chaotic exit from the EU with no established deal in two years raises the possibility of a “hard border” being thrown up between the North and South of Ireland. It is hard to imagine how - after decades of free movement and economic integration - this will even be enforceable, as most ordinary people have family members or friends on the opposite side of the border. To the economic pain that will surely fall upon the Northern Irish working class who will be made to pay for such an outcome will be added the deepening of feelings of national oppression.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams has already said that he believes Brexit could jeopardise the GFA if a hard border is raised between the North and the South, urging the Irish government to argue among the other 27 EU countries for an exceptional stance on the question of free movement so as to avoid a hard border with the North in the case of a hard Brexit. When we consider that a tiny region of Belgium was able to almost bring down years of CETA free trade negotiations between the EU and Canada, the question of the border adds just one more complex element to a process which is supposed to be settled and put to bed within two years!
For a Socialist Federation of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales
The future for the North of Ireland looks more turbulent than ever before. Whatever the future, brings it is inevitable that the North is going to become another source of instability for the British and Irish capitalist classes. There is no mood for a return to the violence of the past, but at the same time the status quo is becoming increasingly insufferable for a broader and broader segment of society. On the basis of capitalism, however, there is no way out of the morass.
Only a socialist, united Ireland without borders, in voluntary federation with a socialist Britain, can put an end to the want, misery and violence of the current system. Above all, that future depends upon one factor: the ability of working people to build a party based not upon supposed "community" interests but upon clear-cut class interests. United, on a revolutionary socialist programme, the working class of the North could become the vanguard in the struggle to oust capitalism from these islands. The tasks are great, but the prize to be won is that much greater. The International Marxist Tendency will add its modest forces to the attainment of this goal.