The Norn Iron Elections – a few rays shine a light on the darkness

PbP imageIt may seem odd at first but the second most significant outcome of the Stormont Assembly election is the turnout, which fell from 55.71 per cent in 2011 to 54.91 per cent in 2016.  And even if the number of votes cast actually increased by nearly 30,000 it’s hard to overlook the fact that nearly half the population don’t bother to vote.  But this disenchantment with the political outcome of a world-renowned  peace process is a faithful reflection of the utter and complete inability of many to identify anything in the current political arrangements that they want to support.

Of course history has been rewritten, even as it was being made, to explain that this political agreement brought an end to political violence, and is still necessary for this to continue, but many (without thinking) are not buying the lie in practice.  While some will never vote, a greater proportion are disillusioned or have never bought into the sectarianism that saturates Northern Ireland politics.  The Stormont Assembly, its Trumpton Government and its third-rate politicians have been so utterly useless in even the most mundane of political terms that their unchallenged corruption is the stand-out feature of the regime.  Or it would be if the sectarianism that is the foundation of the regime and overlays every aspect of it were not primary, sometimes missed only because it is so taken for granted.

The turnout went down by under 1 per cent but this masks a fall in the combined DUP and Unionist Party share of the vote of 1.5 per cent and a fall in the nationalist vote of over 5 per cent; with the SDLP vote-share falling by 2.2 per cent and that of Sinn Fein by even more – 2.9 per cent.  The combined nationalist vote is now back to where it was in the early 1990s.  A majority for a United Ireland is not only a long way off but it’s getting further away.

Even the not very bright political commentators who had previously put this decline down to nationalist contentment with the new political arrangements are now forced to recognise that nationalist abstention is a result of precisely the opposite, and is a protest against the rotten Stormont regime.  Nationalists know they can not look to a united Ireland but the tolerable Northern Ireland is barely tolerable.

It is therefore the continuation of the sectarian regime which is the most significant outcome, despite its abysmal track record.  The largest unionist party, the DUP, has been validated in its nakedly tribal campaign to prevent election of a Sinn Fein First Minister, even when this was never a realistic possibility.  The sectarian card is played no matter what the game.

We now have another five years of sectarian dog-fighting, periodically interrupting a shared implementation of reactionary austerity policies.  It matters not that barely half the population took part in the election never mind the smaller number who voted for the two parties leading this austerity – the DUP and Sinn Fein.  This marriage made in hell is sold every five years based on one party claiming the greatest threat to hearth and home comes from the spouse.  The spouse continues to sell it as a progressive example to the world.

The sectarian gloom is never lifted.  There appears no alternative.  The trade unions first oppose the austerity policies but then welcome and support the political agreement, the ‘Fresh Start’, that saved the regime that now implements the austerity, the austerity that is codified in the political agreement now supported.  The other political parties oppose the big two Parties that dominate but are also in ‘Government’ and also support all the big two’s policies in all essentials and in almost every detail.

Opposition exists in the same way it exists inside the Stormont Assembly – it is assumed not to exist and no provision was made for it to exist.   Sectarian division means that all conflict must be contained lest in go down this cleavage so no real opposition to the sectarian agreement can be conceived.  The setbacks, conflicts and struggles are thus all internal to the arrangements which can brook no alternative.  We have an arrangement that seems rigid but at the expense of little flexibility.  Opposition within it is thus no threat as long as the political framework is accepted by that opposition at which point no real opposition can exist.

In other words a real opposition would oppose the very foundations of the Stormont regime.  It would however be the wildest dreams to believe that right now such an opposition can set itself the immediate task of bringing it down – any putative opposition is too weak and there is currently no alternative.

This however brings us to the third, but most dramatic, outcome of the election.  And that is the election of two self-declared revolutionary socialists from the People before Profit (PbP) organisation.

In the heart of Sinn Fein – West Belfast – the PbP candidate Gerry Carroll topped the poll with 8,229 votes, a stinging rejection of Sinn Fein by many and a rejection all the more cutting for not being unexpected.  The cronyism of the organisation has disgusted many and its disregard for its base illustrated by its support for building a new GAA ground with safety concerns in the heart of the constituency.  This will have particularly resonated in the last few weeks given media coverage of the victorious campaign by the relatives of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster.  This rejection has grown following complete capitulation to Tory welfare changes which Sinn Fein swore to oppose but eventually facilitated the implementation of.

While Gerry Carroll is pictured carried aloft by supporters all waving the red flag the other victorious left candidate, Eamonn McCann from Derry, was to be heard on BBC Radio Ulster singing the Internationale.  Eamonn explained that he was surprised by how many during his canvassing expressed their opposition to being labelled ‘Orange’ or ‘Green’, as is required by the Stormont rules, but said they were ‘Other’, the only alternative designation allowed.  How fitting a sectarian designation’s only alternative is ‘Other’ rather than ‘Anti-Sectarian’ or even ‘Non-Sectarian’.

PbP success represents a dramatic rejection of Sinn Fein but if it is to represent something more it must not just declare an alternative but create one.  Two successful candidates allows PbP to present itself as more than a protest but how much more will depend on how it thinks its revolutionary socialism can be applied outside the Assembly.  As we have seen, what happens inside it is not taken seriously even by those who support it, especially by the DUP and Sinn Fein who carve up the jobs and the decisions between them.

A light can now be shone on the darkness through the election of two socialists but to begin to dispel the darkness will require an alternative labour movement that can offer practical alternatives to sectarian division.  What role will PbP play in that task?

 

The 2016 election – a victory for social democracy?

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 - Counting of Votes. Scenes from the counting of votes for the Dublin West Constituency, at the Phibblestown Communmity Hall Count Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo shows Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger after winning a seat in her constituency. Photo:RollingNews.ie

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 – Counting of Votes. Scenes from the counting of votes for the Dublin West Constituency, at the Phibblestown Communmity Hall Count Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo shows Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger after winning a seat in her constituency. Photo:RollingNews.ie

The 2016 general election has been hailed as delivering a ‘sensational’ result, although this is disputed, and has led to some difficulty in forming a new Government.  Apparently only one party, Fine Gael, wants to be part of one, partly as a result of the horrendous results for the governing parties in the last two contests.

In this election the two Governing parties, holding a record majority, lost heavily: the Fine Gael vote fell from 36.1% to 25.5%, while the Labour Party was decimated, losing more than three quarter of its seats, its vote falling from 19.5% to 6.6%.  The biggest apparent gainers were Fianna Fail mainly because of a striking reversal of fortune, increasing its vote from 17.5% in 2011 to over 24.3%, and Sinn Fein, which increased its vote from 9.9% to over 13.8%.  This performance however will be seen as disappointing, coming nowhere near the 20% it recorded in polls beforehand.

The governing parties stood in the election on the basis that their painful austerity medicine had worked and that there was now a remarkable recovery, the fruits of which would allow tax cuts and improvement in public services.  And the truth is that there has indeed been a recovery; new austerity measures have generally ceased and for some people incomes are rising, either through getting a job or pay increases.

Unfortunately for the Governing parties their arrogant declarations of success rankled with a population fully appreciative of the slenderness of the improvement, which for some has been non-existent, while the more they declared the scale of the success the more it appeared to contrast with the experience of the majority.  The Government claimed credit for the improvement but it was a long time coming and the Irish people are aware enough of the vulnerability of their economic circumstances not to be inclined to credit the Government with creating it or of letting the possibility of a new recession escape their minds.

Above all, the accumulated austerity measures inflicted by the Government have not at all been reversed, the huge cuts and tax increases of the last seven or more years are still being felt, the price is still being paid, and smug and arrogant claims of achievement angered a population weary of austerity and aware of too recent and continuing attacks, including water charges.

Fine Gael won the previous election on the back of the then Government’s perceived responsibility for a disastrous economic collapse, a promise that its policy would be different and that the existing ‘no bondholder left behind’ approach would be challenged.  Labour campaigned on the grounds that there was a choice between Labour’s way and Frankfurt’s way.  Of course these promises were hollow and no coherent policy alternative was put forward, a more politically aware population would have understood this, but the immediate task was to punish the egregious Fianna Fail and a Fine Gael/Labour coalition has been its historic alternative. What this meant, as one commentator has put it, was that in that election they took the least radical option for change, just as they have almost done so again, while in between they voted to accept austerity in the 2012 EU referendum.

So the 2016 election has been hailed as a vote against austerity and an Irish reflection of the forces that have produced Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US.

But the vote in 2011 was also in part a vote against austerity, although driven mainly by the desire for revenge through a massive vote against Fianna Fail, which rocked that traditional hegemonic party of the Irish State and led many to wonder whether it was finished.  It has now had something of a comeback in yet another anti-austerity election.  In the 2011 election the Labour Party did extremely well on an anti-austerity ticket, at one point believing it might end up the largest party.  So what exactly is the nature of a ‘new’ anti-austerity vote that sees the bounce-back of Fianna Fail and the continued development of Fianna Fail nua in the shape of Sinn Fein?

The general election has been characterised by some as a demand for social democracy, an anti-austerity alternative, that was reflected in Fianna Fail’s emphasis on the fruits of the recovery being spent on public services and not on tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich.  The claimed new consciousness is also supposed to be reflected in the increased vote for Sinn Fein, which emphasised that it was in favour of a ‘fair’ recovery in which the better off paid most, and in the showing of new formations such as the Social Democrats, which did moderately well arguing that US tax levels were not compatible with a European standard of public services.

There is therefore a case to be made that the election was a vote against austerity, a vote for some sort of social democracy and even a move towards a more conventional right/left political division, now that the more or less identical Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties together have declined to just under half the vote.  There is also an obvious case to be made that this is a reflection in Ireland of a wider international phenomenon.  But it is more an Irish reflection of this phenomenon rather than a reflection of the phenomenon in Ireland.

So we have an initial clear problem that the recovery in the vote for Fianna Fail is evidence of the move towards social democracy while its savaging in 2011 was also such an example.   We have a move to a left/right divide while the historically largest civil war party made a strong recovery.

This does not invalidate the argument but simply demonstrates its limitations and the weakness of the shift.  But that a shift is taking place is nevertheless still the case.  The long term decline of the civil war parties continues, as recently as 1997 they received 78% of the vote and in 2011 73%.  The 2016 vote was a vote against austerity, but not yet a vote for an alternative, at least not a real alternative because neither Fianna Fail nor Sinn Fein are a real alternative and neither are the majority of right wing independents coming, as they say, from the Fianna Fail or Fine Gael gene pool.

The social democratic tone of the likes of Fianna Fail reflects more an improved economy and not any more basic shift in economic policy.  Fianna Fail is still widely blamed for sharing a large degree of responsibility for the economic crisis while Sinn Fein voted to bail out the bankers and bondholders.  Fianna Fail has a long history of populist rhetoric and actions, which may be called social democratic in a broad sense, but which has been successfully employed to prevent the development of a left/right divide in Irish politics.  Without such a divide we have simply had a right/right division.

The case for a growing right/left split rests partly on the policy proposals of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, and their success, and partly on the pressure on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to collaborate in order to allow creation of a new Government.  There are no credible alternatives as the forces of ‘the left’ are too disparate and divided.  Some informed commentary is that Fianna Fail will not allow such an alliance to happen partly to frustrate the development of such a divide, which would threaten its traditional role and base inside the working class.

The argument for the development of a left/right demarcation however mainly rests on the rise of Sinn Fein, understood broadly as a ‘left’ party, and the fortunes of the Social Democrats and some left independents.  It also rests on the progress of the genuine left, most visibly in the shape of the Anti Austerity Alliance/People before Profit (AAA/PbP) alliance, the creation of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.

But Sinn Fein is not, it must be repeated again and again, a genuine left party.  Have a look at austerity in the North if you find this hard to accept. Only by the most expansive definition can it be considered left wing, which might be useful as some sort of catch-all description in some circumstances but is misleading when it comes to any analysis.

Having a predominantly working class support does not make a working class party; Fianna Fail has had the largest support of any party within the working class for many decades until relatively recently.  A working class party is one that not only is supported by the working class or part of it, but is composed of workers, is organised from within its ranks and in some way represents its separate interests to a greater or lesser degree.

So what constitutes ‘the left’ and how has it performed in this election?  One commentator has argued that, if we include one third of the large number of independents elected, the left has hardly increased, amounting to about a third now compared to 35% in the outgoing Dail, although the composition of this left may be said to be more ‘left wing’.  A second analysis defines Labour, Sinn Fein and United Left Alliance as the left in 2011, together receiving 31.5%, while Labour, Sinn Fein, AAA/PbP and Social Democrats are defined as left for the purposes of the 2016 election, receiving 27%.  Another perspective groups the AAA/PbP and explicitly left independents together to arrive at a total of 141,890 votes, not very different from the Labour Party’s 140,898 – which is supposed to have had disastrous election.  A narrower definition could take the TDs from the United left Alliance that went into the 2011 election and compare their performance in 2016 (while including the gains of the AAA/PbP) and arrive at a total of over 5%.

None of these show any dramatically increased vote for the left, however defined, and are certainly more convincing than some comments from the AAA/PbP, who have not unnaturally looked firstly at their own results.  Richard Boyd Barrett has been quoted as stating that “we went from being newly formed to almost 4 per cent.”

However one delineates the left it is clear that the only consistent social democratic alternative offered has come from the AAA/PbP and the candidates who used to belong to the United Left Alliance and perhaps a handful of others.

There has therefore been no qualitative radicalisation but instead a longer irregular evolution of rejection of the traditional right wing parties but without an embrace of any consistently thought out alternative.  This is therefore expressed in illusions in parties which peddle familiar solutions that may appear to a greater or lesser degree to be social democratic.  When we see these include the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and even Fianna Fail what we don’t see is any sort of consistent social democracy.

to part 2

Nelson McCausland, a little man with a big loud drum. (by Belfast plebian)

47925243_3707225203_e18c6d4d4e-1It is a hell of a misfortune that at this time of a drastic need for some form of social protection for hard pressed working class families we are saddled with a social development minister in the Stormont Executive whose opinions accord well with the right wing government across the pond and who is also regarded by many as a hardened religious sectarian. This little man with the big drum is also proving to be the most active of the generally passive Stormont ministers.

It should be said at the outset that he took on the ministerial portfolio at a very awkward juncture when the Tory austerity plans where already in an advanced state. The SDLP of course vacated the crucial social development portfolio as soon as they caught sight of the content of the welfare reform bill and Sinn Fein screamed PASS to the chance to take over the department from the SDLP following the May 2011 assembly elections. Why Sinn Fein chose to take on the department of arts and culture, the one with the smallest budget and largely symbolic importance rather than one of the key economic departments stands as an interesting question without of course an answer.

Nelson McCausland is known for being an ardent Unionist, a formidable Orangeman and monarchist, a ‘pro-life’ evangelical Christian who is also a Creationist and of course a great enthusiast for something called the Ulster-Scots culture. Indeed it can be persuasively argued that he more than any other individual is responsible for the ideological mishmash called Ulster-Scots culture. When he was appointed to his previous ministerial post in 2009, in charge of dolling out money to the arts and science cliques, his primary mission was to raise Ulster-Scots heritage up a couple of intellectual notches to the status of ‘a traditional culture’ and therefore make it worthy of taxpayer cash. The small budget didn’t deter Nelson too much.

Before he captured the minister for arts and culture portfolio he was the director of a lobby organisation called the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council. Back in those days he had little or no money to promote Ulster Scots heritage as a rival to the Irish language and culture movement and so no one of any intellectual standing took him too seriously. It was only when he got his hands on the department cash card that the little man with the big drum had to be listened to by the typically anti heritage arts cliques.

For a brief moment Nelson attracted the attention of the middle brow Guardian newspaper, thus earning a wider notoriety and crossing swords with non-other than uber-scientist Richard Dawkins who declared that the minister was an unfit person to be in charge of science museums. This was after Nelson wrote to the Ulster Museum requiring that it display a range of Creationist inspired artefacts to offer the North’s naive children a legitimate alternative to the “unproved theory of evolution.”

It didn’t take much to put down poor Professor Dawkins, faced with the acuity of Ulster’s superior evangelical mind. “Dawkins is an arrogant and militant atheist who prides himself on his knowledge and reason. He loves to demean and disparage others but this time the mighty man came unstuck” declared Nelson on his personal blog.

Being anti-modern in evolutionary science has not stopped the little man with the big drum being a very successful politician, He is already into his second ministerial position and is easily the busiest minister. Some people think they know why he is so successful. The key to his lasting popularity they say is to be found in his very frequent sectarian public outbursts, something that goes down well in loyalist flag waving working class districts. Let’s run through just a few of his more recent efforts.

On the third of October the Belfast Telegraph ran a story -‘Fury after Nelson McCausland says there’s no need for more Derry housing funds.’ It emerged that the minister had refused a recent appeal by Derry City Councillors for additional funds for the Housing Executive to build more social housing in the city. The latest figures revealed that the number of families and single people on waiting lists had passed the 3,000 mark

Sinn Fein councillor Tony Hassan said ‘we get a letter back from the minister’s secretary and to me it was disgraceful.’ The SDLP councillor John Tierney called the statement of the minister ‘crazy’. And here’s a nice Nelson touch – ‘the minister’s letter also referred to Derry City Council in the address and throughout as City Council of Londonderry.’

On the 25 September he faced down an SDLP sponsored motion calling for a three month parliamentary suspension for supposedly breaching the ministerial code by failing to condemn illegal acts conducted by a royal black band parade as it swaggered outside St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in Belfast. The suspension motion attracted a lot of media attention and was voted down. And so the little man’s political stock went up within his own party. McCausland, more than most DUP politicians, gets a kick out of baiting both ‘republican’ and nationalist politicians. He runs his own blog just to keep the invective regular.

In mid-June we can pull out another two media stories, ably covered by the online newspaper the Detail. The story broke that Nelson McCausland had caused worry and anger among Housing Executive workers when he chose to provide fellow DUP assembly colleague Paula Bradley with the religious breakdown of staff employed in North Belfast in the most public way. The decision was strongly criticised by trade union officials who warned that publication of the religious designation of workers in specific localities might put them at risk.

Less than a week later a car belonging to a Housing Executive employee was destroyed after it was set on fire by masked youths as it was parked outside the agency’s district office in Newtownabbey. ‘The Detail understands that Housing Executive officials have been forced to review security measures at offices across Belfast as a result of the attack. In a series of questions to DSD ‘we asked Mr McCausland to explain why he decided to publish the figures against the advice of his own officials and despite staff concerns…We also asked DUP MLA Paula Bradley why she had originally asked for a religious breakdown of staff… she chose not to respond.’

Also in June McCausland was criticised for blocking plans to build 200 new houses for people deemed to be nationalists on the vacant site of the former Girdwood army base in North Belfast. ‘However the Detail can now reveal new evidence showing that the DUP minister held discussions with the Housing Executive to ensure that four loyalist areas in north Belfast were given preferential treatment to be included in a new housing building scheme despite having little or no sign of any significant homelessness.’ Nationalists make up most of the 1,300 people in homeless stress in North Belfast.

The Detail obtained evidence that emergency approval was used to ensure that the four estates were added three months after the three year building plan had been finalised by the Housing Executive. The change was all down to pressure from the DSD and was a clear breach of a 40 years old protocol that social housing should be allocated strictly on the basis of priority of need and not on the basis of political or religious affiliation. This incidentally dragged Sinn Fein into the mix as they had agreed to the decision at local level talks.

And here is one from this month, this time from Nelson’s personal blog. Under the heading Biased Broadcast Corporation he complains about a pro Sinn Fein bias at, of all places, BBC Northern Ireland . He thunders against a BBC documentary that he hasn’t even seen about the life of the youngest Lord Mayor of Belfast, who happens to be a member of Sinn Fein, councillor Niall O Donnghaile.

He notes ‘This is not the first BBC documentary on a Lord Mayor. There was also a documentary on Alex Maskey, who was Lord Mayor in 2002. In between there were eight other Lord Mayors and they were drawn from all the larger political parties, but the BBC has decided that the only party whose Lord Mayors merit a BBC documentary….There is an onus on the BBC to acknowledge that it was wrong to give preferential treatment to Sinn Fein, to determine how this happened, to ensure that it does not happen again and to take action to redress this balance.’ There is a lot of this type of thing on Nelson’s blog, most of it aimed at excoriating Sinn Fein, his partner in government.

So Nelson’s strong electoral success can be attributed to some degree to what appears to be his carefree sectarian mud-slinging that goes down well with his many loyalist followers. However this is not what I want to focus on so much, rather I want to show up his other prejudice, his right wing class prejudices that make him the emblematic leader of the main party of government at Stormont.

Nelson holds strong opinions on socio-economic matters but critics prefer to ignore them, all the more to encourage him to just get on with his ministerial post. If only Nelson would just do his job and not court publicity things would be fine say his newspaper critics. But Nelson is getting on with his job. In fact he has the two biggest policy initiatives of the Executive on his agenda, implementing the welfare reform bill and dismantling the Housing Executive.

We can pick up the thread of Nelson’s approach to welfare reform from his offering on the bedroom tax. The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) Cameron Watt recently called on Nelson to delay the implementation of the bedroom tax until the Universal Credit is actually ready to go. This would of course only mean a postponement of about six months, from April 2013 to October 2013.

According to NIFHA this is ‘necessary, realistic and fair.’ Nelson rejected the very meek proposal outright saying that ‘I intend to increase funding available for discretionary housing payments to be made to all social housing tenants.’ In other words if any of the 34,000 tenants experience problems with rent they might be able to get a discretionary payment to help them out. Housing officers are to be offered a new career path into becoming poor law guardians.

The public line of the Stormont Executive is that it is being blackmailed by the Con-Dem government into progressing the welfare reform bill. If it was down to them it would not happen but if they put obstacles in its way they would face financial penalties

Yet in his speech to the NIFHA conference Nelson says “Turning now to events at a UK level, everyone in the room will be aware of the welfare reform agenda which is progressing. We know that its implementation is unavoidable. I think most of us will agree that the key principles behind this legislation are positive and we should recognise the real positives and opportunities that can be achieved as a result of some of these reforms.”

The principle that Nelson likes most is the one that says a welfare system should promote personal and social responsibility. In fact Nelson being a keen evangelical is happy to edge the State out of welfare provision and get the churches in. His department has already licensed a couple of schemes to that end.

We find an article on his blog of 25 November 2012 called signposts for funding churches “The Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, believes that there is a very critical role to be played by the faith sector in developing strategic partnerships with Government to help deliver practical approaches to tackling poverty. For this reason, the Minister funds the Faith Forum for Social Development …. Minister McCausland wants all faith-based groups to become engaged with the Department whether it is on local Neighbourhood Renewal Partnerships, benefit uptake or helping ensure the connections exist between vulnerable citizens and agencies such as the Social Security Agency or the Housing Executive. There is no cost to them and only benefits to be gained by those most in need.

Nelson’s DSD operates something called the Voluntary and Community Unit which doles out millions to agencies like the Law Centre, Citizens Advice Bureau and Northern Ireland Council For Voluntary Action. It also funds the Regional Infrastructure Programme which has an annual budget of 3 million to fund community groups. Some scope then for Nelson to put his own brand of welfare policy into operation.

The day Nelson became Social Development minister in May 2012 was the day the death knell sounded for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and of socialised housing. Nelson has chosen to make social housing his battlefront. We already mentioned the clash over the abandoned Girdwood Barracks, the emails seeking knowledge of the religious makeup of the Belfast offices in February 2012 and the publication of Catholic numbers working in Newtownabbey.

There has also been his row with the senior management over a £7 million repair contract with a company situated in East Belfast, Red Sky. The contract was terminated in July 2011 following accusations that the company had engaged in a practice of overcharging. Huge political pressure was piled on the NIHE to overturn the termination of the contract

Three days into his post Nelson met with the NIHE chairman Brian Rowntree to ask that the decision be suspended for six months. The investigative magazine the Detail gained access to the emails. The NIHE chairman sent one to the Department for Social Development (DSD) Permanent Secretary Will Haire on July1 saying he had ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ over the pressure being applied by the DSD over the contract and asked that the minister take a step back. The DSD permanent secretary emailed back saying ‘I believe that you should withdraw the remarks you made.’ Four days later Mr Rowntree resigned as Chairman citing personal reasons.

Nelson knows a few things about the NIHE that are not to his liking. He knows that it came into being to end the allocation of social housing on the basis of religious affiliation and he knows it always has had a catholic majority in its staff. But putting the sectarian boot into the NIHE is not his only motivation. He does not like its social democratic ethos. He is in fact busy drawing up plans to have it broken up and privatised.

It is likely that the 90,000 tenants will be transferred to private Housing Association where rents are higher. A good number of redundancies will follow out of the 2,800 staff. For those who think he will face opposition from Sinn Fein – think again. In July Stormont announced that it had set itself a target of transferring 2,000 homes to Housing Associations and a number of British based Housing Associations are said to be taking soundings. The public justification for the change is stated in the consultation documents, which is the need to raise a billion pounds for repair work. The NIHE is not able to raise loans from private banks but Housing Associations can do so.

What is motivating the politicians in the Stormont Executive to break up and privatise the NIHE? Some might think it is pure sectarianism. But if it is, what about Sinn Fein? Do they also want a sectarian carve up? Is it simply a relentless falling into line to what is happening to social policy in Britain, with the varied the attacks on the social housing sector? Is it the Stormont Executive looking for one way to cut its own costs in this time of austerity? Or is it that nobody wants to rock the Stormont boat too much in case it sinks and so Nelson must be left to pursue his own private political agenda with a minimum of opposition? Maybe all the above motivations are factors? What do you think?

Support the ICTU demonstrations!

frame-1-ictu-protest-march-over-the-governments-four-year-austerity-plan-assembling-at-christchurch-in-dublin-irelandThe Irish Congress of Trade Unions is meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of organising a series of demonstrations across the Irish State in opposition to austerity and debt.  It has issued a press statement outlining its reasons; in particular it is targeting the issue of debt and has indicated that demonstrations might take place in a number of towns and cities including Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Limerick and Waterford.

The possibility of these being organised should be welcomed but more important, if they take place, they should be supported.  It gives working people an opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to austerity, to demonstrate the scale and anger of their opposition and put forward what they think should be the alternative.

It gives the small socialist movement an opportunity to campaign in the working class to make these events as large as possible so that the demonstrations can convince and give confidence to others to also oppose austerity and oppose the crippling debt.  It gives it the opportunity to speak to workers to take action outside as well as inside the trade union movement and in the private sector as well as the public sector.  The purpose would be to begin reuniting workers who have been successfully divided into union and non-union and between public and private sector by the propaganda of the State, employers and media.

A real campaign at union and community group meetings, at workplaces and in the streets including door to door leafleting and canvassing should aim to mobilise as many as possible to turn out, should the demonstrations be called.  Right away attempts should be made to extend the numbers building the demonstrations through meetings organised to discuss the demonstrations and how they could be made as large as possible.

These meetings should not simply be organising meetings but should also discuss why we oppose austerity and the debt, how they are affecting the lives of working people, how we should organise against them and what our alternative should be.  What for example is our position on debt default?  What role does strike action have in a campaign against austerity and default?

There are many issues facing workers and socialists have the opportunity to give them the possibility of coming together beyond the existing union movement to unite and discuss all these issues.

In this blog I have addressed these questions here, here, here and here.

What have been called as one-off demonstrations should be supported in order to make them an on-going campaign both before and after they take place.

All this is primarily the task of the socialist movement but it is not limited to it.  There are many opposed to austerity and many campaigns against its effects that should take the opportunity to better organise and unite with each other to discuss what should be the alternative.

An additional onus is however placed on the socialist movement.  It claims to stand for the interests of the whole working class and has a special duty to take every step to unite it in defence of its own interests.  This has two aspects.  First it must unite itself to carry out the task of uniting workers.  Otherwise it is weaker and opens itself to charges of incompetence, hypocrisy or political sectarianism.  The second is to create a campaign which is open and democratic and which at the very least offers the possibility, if not yet the certainty, of uniting the most militant workers.

The unity of the socialist movement in such a task should in principle be easier since it has theoretically already achieved some level of unity through the United Left Alliance.  The ULA should immediately discuss how such an opportunity can be utilised to build an anti-austerity campaign, on what basis it should be built and what policies it should fight for.  This is, after all, something which the ULA said it was going to do when it got elected and it would not do to renege on promises, just like the Labour Party and all the other right wing parties, once elected to the Dail.

Complete agreement should be no barrier to taking this action.  A democratic campaign would in any case allow everyone to argue its particular view on the way forward and the alternative.  In a democratic campaign of action there would be no role for vetoes.

The objective on the day would be a united left contingent, united around an agreed programme and demands, offering an on-going campaign to everyone at the demonstration who didn’t just want to go home afterwards to watch themselves on the RTE news.  The size and resonance of such a contingent would testify to the potential to build real and lasting opposition to austerity.

There is of course a flip side.

To borrow from management-speak: for every opportunity there is a threat and for every potential strength a potential weakness.  To fail to take opportunities threatens the effectiveness of resistance to austerity and to fail to strengthen the resistance will result in weakening it.  The ULA through its minor electoral success has given itself some responsibilities which it should relish as opportunities to help workers build a movement against austerity.

Support, build and go way beyond the ICTU demonstrations!

Fail Better

This blog is written by someone who has been a Marxist since being a teenager over thirty five years ago.  At that time, due to immaturity and the nature of the times, hope and confidence in a socialist future were much stronger than today.  Even for those of us who never believed the bureaucratic dictatorships of the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe were socialism their existence was seen to prefigure in grossly distorted form the future end of capitalism and assurance of a new society.  The triumph of capitalism over these dictatorships and the significant weakening of the working class movement have gravely undermined these early expectations.

The response of this blogger is to look again at what he has understood to be the Marxist understanding of society and especially about how the transition from capitalism to socialism might occur.  Particularly important is a re-evaluation of what constitutes an adequate Marxist programme that socialists should argue for within the working class.  After such a long time it is difficult to slough off assumptions that are mistaken while being aware that this does not mean that everything must be prematurely thrown overboard.

It is the ambition of this blog that in its writing and reading it will stimulate both the writer and reader and encourage in whatever small way the development of Marxism in Ireland. I hope it is educative, open and accessible and encourages the productive criticism that is necessary to achieve its aims.

I could do worse than follow some famous words:  Ever tried.  Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.