Tens of thousands of workers went on strike across the North of Ireland on March 13 in protest against cuts in jobs and services implemented by the devolved administration in Stormont. The local administration is imposing the austerity agenda dictated by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in London. The strike was particularly successful because transport workers, including on the buses and trains, took part as well as those in the civil service, health and education.
Observance of the strike was good and pickets and rallies had respectable turnouts. Workers have suffered a long period of declining living standards and are clearly willing to declare their opposition. It would be a mistake however to exaggerate the stage we are at in the development of this struggle. A glance at the numbers voting for strike action in a couple of the biggest unions involved shows the distance yet to go to build a strong and active movement.
In the trade union NIPSA, covering staff in Government departments and other bodies as well as admin and clerical staff in the health service, 52.9% or 4,201 voted for strike action in the civil service side out of a membership of around 20,600, with the health service side having an even lower turnout. Not all of the membership was called upon to strike but the vast majority of members were affected. In UNISON, with a membership mainly in the health service and some in education ,3,181 voted for strike action in a membership of around 40,000, again not all of whom would have been called upon to vote but a majority of whom would have been affected. The strike had sympathy among the wider population but this finds no expression in organisation.
Many on the left have demanded another strike and have claimed that the recent ostensible U-turn by Sinn Fein on welfare cuts is a result of the strike. However this would be to take the Sinn Fein position at face value, or rather take them at their word, and exaggerates the effect of the strike. While it focused opposition to austerity, and can lay the grounds for a deeper campaign against it, the actions of Sinn Fein are not so much a reaction to the strike but the wider feeling of opposition to cuts.
The strategy of the trade union leaders is to lobby and put pressure on local political parties so that if the next Westminster election results in a hung parliament local politicians can demand and negotiate an end to, or at least an amelioration of, austerity imposed in the Northern Ireland. It therefore takes as given the continued position of these parties and resists any project of setting up a political rival. This is on the basis that to do so would inevitably require a position to be taken on the constitutional position of the Northern State.
Such a party would inevitably have Keynesian policies of greater state activity in taxing and spending. In other words salvation would be presented as arriving from the state, so the programme of any such labour or workers’ party would very quickly run up against this challenge. No autonomous development of the party would be possible. It is now some years since a labourist project was attempted and the last one that set up the current political arrangements was an embarrassing failure.
The strike was however noteworthy because it was carried out explicitly against the policies of the local Stormont Executive, the centre piece of the peace process and the ‘new’ political settlement. It also took place against the background of another ‘crisis’ in the process, with the whole financial arrangements of the local administration thrown into doubt by a late Sinn Fein withdrawal of support for the budget because the deal to preserve it did not fully cover the cuts in welfare that were to mirror ‘reforms’ in Britain.
Sinn Fein therefore paraded its anti-austerity credentials, which the media took to be another late intervention by Gerry Adams to shore up the anti-austerity stance of the party in the South of Ireland. Sinn Fein faces a general election in the South within the year. The party is riding high in the polls on the basis of this perceived position and it would not look good if it were seen to be implementing austerity in the North while claiming to oppose it in the South. Sinn Fein therefore ‘supported’ the strike even if the strike was clearly against the budget it had just approved as a major part of the local administration.
This support was invisible in the well-attended rally in Belfast city centre on 13th and is based on the party once again talking out of both sides of its mouth. A long established practice.
This most recently saw an outing through Sinn Fein’s vocal support for the Catholic teacher training college St Mary’s, which was threatened with cuts by the local administration. The cuts were proposed by the Alliance Party Minister responsible who was simply implementing the reduced budget given to him by Sinn Fein and its Democratic Unionist Party partners. The sectarian aspect of this support was lost on no one as similar cuts were to be made to the ‘Protestant’ teacher training college at Stranmillis. In the end the two biggest sectarian parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP – got together to overrule the Alliance Party Minister.
The last minute opposition to the welfare arrangements therefore doesn’t inspire the view that Sinn Fein are a principled opponent of austerity but rather smack of an opportunist change of tack. At their Ard Fheis in Derry the weekend before they dropped their bombshell the leader of Sinn Fein in Stormont, Martin McGuinness , was proclaiming great satisfaction with the deal and congratulating the party on how well it had done in the re-negotiated financial settlement with the British Government.
At the very best their new found concern means that they hadn’t done their sums right or had been rather easily hoodwinked by the DUP; or perhaps that they had re-evaluated the calculus of staying with the welfare cuts programme as it was going to develop – thus facing the flak when it was put into practice – as against provoking another ‘crisis’ and the fall-out that would then ensue.
That this was all a bit last-minute became clear from the Sinn Fein media performances to explain its change of approach. One prominent spokesperson on local radio refused to say it was a question of money when it could hardly be anything else; then it was claimed that it would cost over £280m to put right before this became translated into a round figure of £200m when the round figure it would appear closest to would be £300m. Unionist claims that it was clear in the deal that not all the benefit cuts would be covered by mitigation measures in the budget, and would not be permanent for new claimants, seemed more convincing.
Nevertheless, the row over the extent of the funds to cover cuts in welfare matters to those welfare recipients affected who are indeed, as Sinn Fein says, some of the most vulnerable. It doesn’t in the least affect the fraudulent nature of Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity posturing.
To be continued