Socialists and the elections in the North of Ireland – part 2

History has decisively proved that simple removal of Stormont did not entail a move to a united Ireland and that no such move was possible within the North itself.  The downfall of Stormont left a strategic gap that was filled by IRA claims that it could drive the British out of Ireland by sheer will and its armed struggle.

From then on, the struggle could go nowhere with such a view and nowhere is where it went.  While civil rights protest, and wider Catholic grievance and mobilization could bring Stormont down it could not implement its own solution while a struggle was waged solely in the North, even if it enjoyed Southern sympathy.  Only within a wider social movement for change could a progressive solution be imposed against unionist and British state opposition but this is still not even yet a practical proposition.

In terms of the reformability of the North it must also be obvious that the Stormont of today is not the Stormont of 1972.  The idea that Catholics and nationalists could be in office was incredible in 1972 yet today Sinn Fein is in office.  It is therefore equally obvious that you cannot re-run the story line again and expect the downfall of Stormont to be the same step forward that it was in 1972, even if the first time this step forward made evident the crisis in perspective for the next step.

Today Catholics and nationalists are not demanding the downfall of Stormont but that Sinn Fein stick it up to the unionists and demand equality within it.  Unfortunately, the equality demanded is not that of civil rights, which started the whole struggle off, but of communal sectarian rights which socialists must oppose.

The nature of the counter-revolution in Northern Ireland (if it can be put that way) is that the struggle for unity around civil rights has been corrupted to one of sectarian rights with most people oblivious to the difference.  Calls for a Workers’ Republic in such a situation takes us no step forward in the real world unless it signals not an end-point but a process to get us there – just as for Marx communism was not a state of things but a movement that abolished the present state of things.*  So what then is this movement given today’s conditions and circumstances and how will it abolish the present state of things from the premises currently given?

Despite the experience of incompetence, corruption and general venality there is little demand for the downfall of Stormont except from those who say they prefer Direct rule from a British state with a reputation for some minimal probity and competence (that will suffer greatly from Brexit).  The only other constituency is that which has been dismissed as dissident republicanism, which despite decades of Provisional betrayal of the traditional republican programme cannot convince anyone, including itself, that it can do anything other than repeat the failure of the Provos.

The task of socialists in elections therefore is to begin, and we really are only at the beginning, to break down the sectarian solidarity, not by thinking we could simply remove the mock-Parliament that oversees it but by building a movement that goes through Stormont in order to destroy it.  If this much experience of sectarian corruption and its baleful effects that we have endured is not enough to expose it and the uselessness to workers of sectarianism then it is unfortunately the case that we need to experience more of it, and we will, and crucially to have a socialist presence that can expose it and present a concrete alternative.  And by concrete I obviously mean more than slogans – slogans are easy and if sectarian division was amenable to easy slogans we wouldn’t still be faced by its dominance.

So pretending that workers are already virtually united is as barren as the view that, even though they aren’t, a direct struggle for state power and creation of their own Republic is a concrete alternative.  If it is not, then socialists are clearly fighting to build a working class movement not win this movement to revolutionary politics as if this were Russia 1917 or Germany 1918 or Spain in the 1930s.  If we are faced with the task of building this labour movement then we can only be in the position of seeking reforms since only the working class through its mass movement can achieve a social revolution.

There are two questions to consider at this point as a possible objection to what I have just said.  First, while social revolution can only be carried out by the working class acting as a class, political revolutions that do not require the overthrow of capitalism obviously can be carried out by movements that aren’t socialist. Most political revolutions of the last couple of hundred years have not been working class or socialist.  Such non-socialist revolutions can be progressive if they place the working class in a better position to fight for its own interests, if for example they increase the scope and capacity for workers to organise.

For a number of reasons a political revolution that creates an independent Irish democratic Republic (that is still capitalist) is unlikely to happen.  First, no significant class or political force is interested in carrying it out and the same applies to the international configuration of classes and forces that will be decisive for political and social change in Ireland.  Those who think that struggle for such a democratic revolution will travel towards a socialist one in some version of revolution that keeps going are wrong.  The social revolution is not something the working class will stumble upon in the course of seeking something much more limited.

The second point is that fighting to create an independent working class movement that fights for reforms that are designed primarily to strengthen itself is itself a revolutionary approach.  What is reformist is not seeking to strengthen the working class movement through smaller or greater steps or leaps but rather to seek to advance its cause through reliance on the capitalist state through nationalisation or other state intervention, or confusing socialism with left-wing MPs and TDs in or out of governmental office.

All this is very general and presents the socialist alternative at a very high level of principles which should guide more concrete and specific proposals.  However, even at this high level it is already clear that this approach differs from that practiced by the Irish left.

To make this alternative more specific is not a question of a set of proposals that guarantee growth of the left.  Ultimately a party of the working class cannot rise any higher than the working class itself.  The working class party is only such if it is part of the working class, yet both preponderant left approaches are not about how this working class can be made stronger but assume that it just has to be led differently.

But the fact that working people in the North of Ireland vote massively for sectarian based parties is not simply a question of leadership but reflects the divisions in society which mean that class cleavage is not decisive to the everyday experience that shapes their political consciousness. How this is changed is the problem and only the self-activity of working people themselves is capable of accomplishing this task – the emancipation of the working class is a task for the working class itself and socialists can only help to lead such a process by being leaders in rebuilding the labour movement to become the political representative of the class as a whole.

Since elections in themselves are a small part of working class experience, though play a rather larger role in their experience of politics, it is outside elections that the working class alternative will be built.  In elections, you only reap what you have sown.  As Engels put it “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class.   It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state.”  In other words, it will not be the road to socialism, and the generally pitiful votes for self-declared socialist candidates shows how far to maturity it has to go.  Facing this reality is the first step to changing it.  Pretending that either it is anything other than badly divided or that it can be presented with the task of overthrowing the state is to fail to take that step.

 

*“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

Back to part 1

Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2

Trade union leaders support austerity? Oh yes they do!

Pantomime season is upon us, where actors go through well rehearsed and sometimes laughable theatrics to keep us distracted in the chilly season, performing roles we have seen so many times we could write the script ourselves.  Familiarity creates half the fun for the adults and innocent gullibility the mirth for the children.  Or at least for some.

A number of years ago a work colleague reported a conversation between two young boys sitting behind him while he was watching a panto with his kids.  “He’s behind you”, roared the children in the audience, only for the object of their warnings to turn round and miss the actions of the dastardly villain about to carry out the nefarious deed.  “Oh no he’s not” exclaimed the gormless actor.  “Oh yes he is!” screamed the children in the audience.  “He’s behind you!” they would roar again and so again would the witless actor turn round to see nothing amiss.  This obviously went on at some length until my friend heard one very well-spoken boy behind him tell his companion to shut up about the “he’s behind you” stuff – “be quiet Roger, the man’s obviously a fool.”

This story came into my head when I read the latest statement from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) about the “Fresh Start” agreement between the British Government, Irish Government and Northern Ireland parties.  The agreement was a stunning exposure of the hollowness of Sinn Fein’s opposition to austerity as it agreed and subsequently praised its agreement to Tory austerity, with less mitigation of the cuts than they had previously denounced as harmful to the most vulnerable.  The rest and larger part of austerity, including job losses, it had simply ignored as it happily implemented the cuts without a murmur of protest.  Shame and embarrassment are fundamentally important human emotions but there is something that Sinn Fein and the Tories share – they don’t have any such feelings.

The ICTU statement is a staged event which acts out opposition that is without even the merit of being funny and which could only be bought as serious if one was a small child, or rather the vast majority of small children.  It sets out ICTU’s support for the agreement even though this agreement is an agreement to implement austerity.  How then do ICTU hope to oppose austerity while supporting the agreement that implements it?

Why, you may as well shout “he’s behind you”, because austerity lies inside, behind, beside and in front of the ‘Fresh Start’ but ICTU will pretend not to see it – “Oh no it’s not! – it’s over there”.  “It’s inside, behind, beside and in front of you!” you might cry, to no avail.  And so it might go on.

As you can see, not half as funny as your regular panto.

The ICTU statement is full of lies and pathetic, vapid declarations of opposition that are a tiny leaf protecting its extremely modest pretence at opposition.  Not so much the naked emperor as the emperor’s naked servant.

So we can’t get past the first line of the statement before we get untruthful nonsense – “Given the critical role of the NI trade union movement in promoting and securing a peace process, Congress views it as essential that our devolved institutions remain intact.”

As a matter of fact it was not the trade unions and their large rallies that created the peace process but the secret negotiations between the British Government and republicans plus the unionists.  Everyone knows this.  All the rallies organised by ICTU did was reinforce support for the view that peace lay with those responsible for the violence.  It is only in the sense that ICTU continues to support the same sectarian politicians that can it claim to continue to “secure” the peace.

As I pointed out before, the demand for local sectarian institutions was justified by the erroneous claim that this was required to end the violence, while now acceptance of violence is justified by needing to do so to save the institutions.  Now ICTU claim that the existence of the sectarian institution is necessary to oppose austerity – “The imposition of Direct Rule would have unimagined consequences for the most marginalised in our society, as well as for trade unionists”, when in fact it has just been demonstrated to all but gullible children that austerity is necessary for the survival of the sectarian institutions.

In order to avoid reality ICTU is required to peddle the same nonsense as Sinn Fein but because it cannot be seen to be politically partisan it has to go further and cover up for all the political parties, including those whose policies are to the right even of the evil Tories and who make little pretence about their support for austerity: “Congress accepts the validity of the statements made by political parties that they pressed the UK Government for additional financial resources for NI to no avail  . . . Congress in this context recognises that our political parties are facing up to their responsibilities to ameliorate the negative impact of welfare reform.”

Other embarrassing aspects of the agreement are hard to just ignore so instead they are ‘noted’ –“Congress, while noting the insertion of a clause in the Fresh Start Agreement which specifies that the cut in Corporation Tax can only occur if the NI Executive’s finances are on a ‘sustainable footing’, will continue to oppose the cutting of CT in the unconditional method as advocated in the Agreement.”

I don’t know what this means. Is cutting corporation tax ok if finances are on a ‘sustainable footing’; does ICTU oppose “unconditional” cuts only but support cuts with conditions; what would these be?  Does the agreement not already state conditionality – finances on a ‘sustainable footing’ – so does this not therefore mean it supports the agreement on this issue as well?

ICTU claims it will oppose the terrible austerity but only in so far as it is the responsibility of the Tories in London, without accepting the responsibility of the local reactionary parties for agreeing to it and implementing it.  All so that ICTU can pretend that the face of austerity is not in front of them when they go to lobby the local parties but is “behind them”.

ICTU pledges that it will “continue a vibrant opposition to austerity” but this opposition rests on a platform of “actions” that read not as solutions to austerity but as a list of “actions” that provide jobs for trade union bureaucrats.  Their alternative policies consist of economic strategies, models, policies and quangos that culminate in a plea for the notorious patronage in existence not to pass them by – “That the membership of the trade union movement, as the largest civil society organisation in NI, be reflected in the composition of public bodies proposed under the Fresh Start Agreement.”  So while thousands of public sector jobs disappear ICTU wants jobs for their head boys and girls.

The duplicity of the drafting of this rotten statement is exposed by the first lines of the statement being contradicted by the last – “Congress advises all of its members to note that the Fresh Start Agreement is not a trade union agreement but one reached by democratically elected political parties and both governments.”  Having claimed credit for the process at the beginning they deny responsibility for its results at the end, from embracing it they state it’s nothing to do with them.

Which of course implies that one of their claims is actually true.  And since I’ve just said that the opening lines were a lie, this means their concluding lines are correct.  But only in the literal sense that the deal was made by the local parties and British Government, and the Irish government were in attendance as well.

The political purpose of the statement however is clear – don’t blame us for the consequences of the deal we’re supporting, we didn’t negotiate it, the “democratically elected” politicians did.  More bluntly – you elected these people so you’re getting what you voted for.

This is also true and explains the ability of the two main parties to come out of negotiations confident they will still be the two biggest parties after the next election.  But this does not excuse ICTU or its rotten statement.  It simply means they lack the courage of their declared convictions.  Most crucially it means they provide no alternative to austerity but are unable and unwilling to admit it.

But doesn’t the fact that the majority has voted, and repeatedly voted, for these sectarian parties that are imposing austerity mean that there really is no alternative?

Well, yes and no.  Yes, because there is no political alternative at present to the collective plans of the British and Irish governments and the sectarian parties – no one can credibly claim that there is even a semi-coherent practical alternative being debated, or even ignored.

No, because these agreements always erupt into crises because the parties just don‘t agree on what their agreements are. ICTU backs every rotten deal that comes along and then they fail; so there will at some point be an alternative.  The problem is that there is no progressive, working class one on the horizon.

No again, because the statement not only fails to oppose the agreement and the austerity that necessarily goes with it but endorses it.  Exposing the austerity that resides in the heart of the agreement would begin to weaken it on grounds that are minimally progressive.  When the leaders of ICTU can’t even oppose austerity then what we need is to oppose the ICTU leaders.

Use ‘ A Fresh Start’ to whitewash your dirty linen – maximum spin programme recommended

2015-11-24 21.25.27

The richest political party in Ireland paid for the Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ to include a glossy leaflet inside it, selling the latest political deal which has been negotiated between it, the British government, Irish government and the Democratic Unionist Party.

It’s called ‘A Fresh Start’ although it isn’t: the whole point of it is to refurbish the previous agreement, of which Sinn Fein had been an enthusiastic supporter.

So it’s not fresh, since it contains no new ideas, and because we have been here countless times before and the main point is to implement the Stormont House Agreement, it’s not a start either.   In fact according to Sinn Fein no fresh start was even necessary.

Not necessary because the first paragraph in its open letter states that the crisis which prevented the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement was provoked by Tory cuts and a contrived political crisis caused by the murder of two people; one of which was carried out by Provisional republicans (so the contrivance must be partly their responsibility).

The other respect in which they were responsible for the ‘contrived’ crisis was their acceptance and then refusal to implement all the Tory welfare cuts, in the process claiming opposition to austerity while implementing it in all its other aspects.   In their leaflet they state that “the only way to protect our people and our public services from Tory austerity was through working the democratic institutions.”  Except that implementing Tory austerity became the only way of saving “the democratic institutions”.

The new deal implements the Tory cuts to welfare, with apparently some local mitigating measures already agreed, and nothing more than that.  The hollowness of the previous angry Sinn Fein opposition to the Tories and their cuts has been exposed through the ‘Fresh Start ‘Agreement making provision for transferring the powers to make the cuts from Stormont to Westminster.  Not so much standing up to Tory cuts as handing over the knives to the Tories to make them.

In parenthesis it may be noted that during all this fake opposition to welfare cuts the people affected were as utterly dependent on Sinn Fein as they are on the benefits themselves and have seen this opposition withdrawn along with some of their benefits.  What it proves is that the only way to protect our people and our public services from Tory austerity is through working people organising to fight back and creating an alternative.

The next paragraph in their open letter notes that Sinn Fein is standing up for victims by demanding the British Government discloses information, which it is refusing to do.  What a pity then that this is repeated on the other side of the leaflet below a picture of Gerry Adams whose complete disclosure of the past involves complete denial of ever being in the IRA.

The next paragraph boasts of “securing over £500 million in additional finance for the Executive over the next four year.  We also negotiated a £585 million fund to support those hit by savage Tory cuts to benefits and tax credits”.

The last deal they walked away from, because it failed to protect welfare recipients sufficiently, provided for £564 million over 6 years.  Sinn Fein claimed that this roughly £95 million per year was not enough “to protect the most vulnerable in our society” but has now accepted that £86.25 million a year over 4 years to cover the same cuts will be a better deal!  The money they claim to have negotiated now – £585 million in total – will have to be set against not only previous cuts but the new cuts to tax credits introduced since the previous agreement.  Even the ‘new’ money may not be new at all and the lone Green party member of the Assembly has claimed that some of it will come out of the existing Social Security Agency budget!

So what about the first £500 million claimed by Sinn Fein?

Well most of that is earmarked for those traditional objects of Sinn Fein sympathy – security and social security.  £188 million will go to security, with £160 million going to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle republicans (the dissident ones?), and £125 million going to clamping down on social security fraud and error ( the irony of this is matched only by their calling those who murdered Kevin McGuigan “criminals”).

In the debate following the Agreement neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have been able to demonstrate that all the claims about there being new money stand up and that the partial and temporary welfare relief is not just going to be paid by existing budgets.

So when Sinn Fein claims in its leaflet that “Sinn Fein is totally opposed to the austerity North and South” this really means nothing very much in the North and will very likely mean not a great deal in the South either.

In the penultimate paragraph it says that “the best safeguard against future Tory cuts is having the powers to grow and manage the economy in our hands.”  So how have they done this and how do they propose to do it in future?

Well, the Agreement notes approvingly the reduction of 7,410 jobs from state employment in the three years between April 2014 and March 2016 and “If cost cutting does not achieve the results required the Executive will “consider revenue raising measures.”   To indicate the meeting of minds involved, and to demonstrate that we are all in it together, “the Executive commits itself to lowering corporation tax to 12.5% in April 2018.”

In addition the British Government will legislate to ensure that local spending plans cannot exceed what is permitted and will review the Block grant to Northern Ireland after four years to take account of the effect of the reduction in corporation tax, no doubt with a view to further reductions.  How all this is opposition to Tory austerity is anyone’s guess.

Rather stupidly the other side of the Sinn Fein leaflet advertises the opposition of the British Government to disclosing its role in the past, about which Sinn Fein has achieved absolutely nothing.  The Agreement includes as the first of its principles “the ending of paramilitarism”.  This is straight after The British Government has issued an ‘independent’ report saying that the IRA army council still exists, and of course following the murder of Kevin McGuigan, all while Sinn Fein continues to claim that the IRA has left the stage.

On the Unionist side the repeated collaboration with loyalist paramilitaries by the unionist parties is studiously ignored.

It would be tempting to point the finger at both Sinn Fein and the DUP for their hypocrisy but the British have a special talent when it comes to this sort of thing.  It was reported only last week that there have been only ten convictions based on membership of a paramilitary organisation since 1998 and none for nearly seven years.  So how come, all of a sudden, it’s become such a big deal?

A new task force made up of the Northern and Southern police forces and tax authorities is to be established but this will achieve what its masters want it to achieve.  It is the stick to the carrot of additional (or not so additional) money.  However, as it’s a cross-border body it’s clearly aimed at republicans.

What sticks in the craw most about this part of the deal is that the Executive, made up of Sinn Fein and the DUP etc., is to “undertake a public awareness campaign to raise public understanding of the harm done by paramilitarism.”  Yeah, we really don’t have a clue.

The heading for a ‘Shared Future’, costing £60 million over four years, gets one paragraph and explains nothing, which could mean it will never be spent or might be spent on buying off ‘community representatives’, as flagged in the latest loyalist offensive for ‘inclusion’ of their gangster outfits in the Stormont gravy train.

By contrast the section ‘Irish Government Financial Support’ gets two and a half pages, with the highlight a meager £75 million for a road, although it also includes such key aspects of the Agreement as “development of further cross-border Greenways and Blueway cycling-walking-water leisure routes, including the Ulster canal.” The Irish Government also champions the use of private finance to fund further infrastructure projects.  In other words the Irish Government is pretty irrelevant except to allow nationalists to claim some role for it, what role is pretty clear.

The rest of the Agreement promises to implement the previous Agreement on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition.  So, while the paper mentions sectarianism twice it mentions Flags twenty-two times.

The ‘Fresh Start’ also rather embarrassingly reminds nationalists that the British Government endorses “the need for respect for and recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland” but again this means nothing and reminds everyone of the failure of Sinn Fein to achieve its long held objective of an Irish language Act.

What to do about the past is the one area where failure is so total that the Agreement has to admit it.  Yet, rather than skirt round the issue in its leaflet, Sinn Fein states that dealing with the past was one if its four priorities – so what happened then?

If the only thing now that has yet to be agreed, and which will therefore involve yet more talks, is about the past, it will continue to be easy to present the problem as one of living in it.

The Sinn Fein leaflet then is a catalogue of failure and the new Agreement is an attempt to build on that failure.  It is such an open declaration of defeat that even some of those opposed to Sinn Fein appear to find it a bit embarrassing.  The ‘Irish News’ columnist Newton Emerson begins his assessment of the Agreement by saying:

“The ‘fresh start’ agreement is such a total defeat for Sinn Fein that it is positively bizarre.  Even as a unionist, I find it unnerving”

The leaflet aimed at their supporters is just as bizarre as their negotiations and their spin on it is empty and pathetic.

It should also be said that the Agreement is also a rejection of unionist appeals to take steps to ditch Sinn Fein and allow the unionists to begin running the local state apparatus without them.  This would represent a clear break from British strategy and a divided unionism is in no position to achieve this.

Besides, for the British, with ‘enemies’ like Sinn Fein who needs friends?

 

 

How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 2

Roy-Keane-as-Braveheart-Paddy-Power-3When Irish unionists claim rights to self-determination history has shown that this is not a claim for equality but a claim on behalf of sectarian supremacy – a claim to the right to inequality.

But, the question can be put, if socialists regard self-determination as a means to facilitate the voluntary unity of nationalities surely a united Ireland will itself involve the forcible suppression of Protestants and of Protestant workers?  This would mean that while Irish unionism has no legitimacy the alternative of a united Ireland is also not one that socialists can support?

Some on the Left have stopped there, accepted this, and said that the only solution to the question of democratic national rights in Ireland is therefore socialism.  This tends to come from those for whom every thorny problem is solved by the invocation of socialism.

Workers’ opposition to mass immigration? A socialist society with full employment, great public services and housing would deal with objections.  Economic crises, with periodic mass unemployment and cuts in living standards? A socialist society!  Women’s oppression and racism? Socialism is the answer.  Workers’ passivity in the face of their right wing leaders’ betrayals?  A revolutionary party with a socialist alternative.  Sectarian division?  Workers unity around a socialist programme!

Such solutions are not so much an answer to a specific problem as an invocation that the problem would simply go away if it were made not to exist. It invokes an alternative reality and not an alternative set of policies to get there.  It says that the problems and challenges faced by workers are solved by socialism when in fact the reality is the reverse – socialism is created by workers.

This means working people being persuaded and organised to present answers to all these different questions, not invoking an idealist formula disembodied from those whose conscious actions alone can bring them about.  And the only people who can do this are working people themselves, with those who are socialists attempting to advance this process.

In the case of Ireland, the point of opposing self-determination for the Protestant Irish in the North is that such a claim is not compatible with workers’ interests.  It is not an invitation to violently impose a united Ireland.  Its purpose is to explain that the claiming of such rights is reactionary.  It is meant to identify unionist and loyalist ideas and movements as right wing by virtue of the demands they hold most dear.  In this sense the demand for a united Ireland is not one taken up despite the Protestant population but because of it, because it is they who are most saturated with reactionary sectarian and imperialistic ideology.

Treating it as a sanction to pursue an armed struggle against the wishes of the artificial majority in the Northern State is part of the Irish republican liberal understanding that there are rights which, if they exist, should be exercised regardless of any considerations of the reality in which they are supposed to be grounded.

This means for example that armed struggle by republicans is justified by the principle of the right of the oppressed to fight their oppressors by any means necessary, without stopping to ask ‘by any means necessary to achieve what?’  It means rights asserted as abstract principles without regard to efficacy or morality.

Socialism on the other hand is based on workers’ interests and needs grounded in the world they live in and not of abstractions that efface these needs and interests.

Opposition to Scottish independence by socialists can therefore only respond with bemusement to nationalist claims that every other country to achieve ‘independence’ has not wanted to go back, so that it can’t therefore be such a bad idea.

Well how many of these countries are really independent, of the requirements and pressures of capitalist globalisation for example?  How many of the workers in these countries have had their basic needs and interests resolved by the ‘independence’ of the countries they live in?  In what way does the principle of separation of itself address these problems; meaning have these nationalists really considered the alternatives; meaning also that if they have, this particular argument is not really one of principle at all.

The nationalists who claim that there are 200 or so nation states in the world – why has Scotland to be different – might want to ask how this world of nation states has fared in the twentieth century and whether it has been such a good way to order the world’s affairs.  Or have two world wars taught nothing?  Perhaps a look at the character of many of these states might make one think twice that this model is one to emulate.

When it comes to the demand for a united Ireland such a demand is both abstract and unrealistic outside of its insertion into a social and political struggle that understands it, not as the demand for a new Irish capitalist state, but as a means of reducing division; including by rejecting sectarian claims to state legitimacy and power by the Protestant population and rejecting the intervention of the British state to uphold such claims.

But it also means rejection of all the other ways in which division is imposed, including sectarian organisation of education and other state services both North and South, religious imposition of restrictions on women’s rights, sectarian employment practices, sectarian political arrangements such as Stormont and state sponsorship of armed sectarian paramilitary outfits.

It means building alternative centres of working class identification and power including a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian labour movement, trade unions and political parties, democratic campaigns, and workers cooperatives where workers livelihoods directly depend on their working together.

This socialist agenda is light years from nationalist answers. By understanding this workers might be able to see that the arguments of nationalists, their claims for rights that do nothing for workers, and their claims to address grievances which are either spurious or actually derive from class oppression are false.

concluded

The politics of murder in Belfast

images (11)The murder of Kevin McGuigan on 12 August in East Belfast is widely seen as revenge for the former’s claimed involvement in the earlier murder of Provisional IRA leader Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have done their bit to protect the Provisional movement by claiming that although Provisional IRA members were involved there is no evidence that it was authorised by the leadership.  Since complete denial of Provo involvement would stretch credibility to breaking point and reflect on the PSNI as well as the Provos, this was as much as they could do.

Of course this makes no sense, although it was notable that some nationalist commentators were prepared to swallow it.  Much amazement was feigned by unionists that an IRA even existed, so ‘answers’ were demanded.  The British Government said that of course it knew the IRA existed but that what was important was what Sinn Fein said (i.e. not what the IRA actually did) and especially that it continued to express support for the ‘principles of democracy and consent”.

The Garda in the South had previously claimed that the IRA had no military structure but are going to look at it again and the PSNI claimed it was a lobby group for “peaceful, political republicanism”.  Sinn Fein spokesmen claimed that of course the IRA was not involved, that it had “gone away” and all allegations to the contrary were ‘palitics’.

So the Provos continue to support the police but not as far as allowing them to get in the way of taking revenge or protecting themselves and their enormous financial empire. Support for the police is therefore purely ‘palitical’.

In the hypocrisy and lying stakes each out-does the other.

So the British Government and PSNI are claiming that while a much slimmed-down ‘peaceful’ IRA exists there is no evidence that it sanctioned the murder of McGuigan; although investigations will continue, which means that if it suits the political purposes of the British Government such a judgement can be easily changed. And easily justified – a ‘peaceful’ IRA with guns, that murders its enemies, and which by its very reduced size and tightness makes inconceivable the idea that the murder was not approved from the top.

The meaning of this is obvious: the British state and its police force doesn’t care if the Provisional IRA kills people it doesn’t like.  It doesn’t care if loyalist paramilitaries kill people they don’t like. Round the corner from where McGuigan was killed a young woman was almost killed by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force but the PSNI refused to blame the UVF who were responsible.

Today it is reported that the murder of another Short Strand man Robert McCartney by the Provos was subject of a secret deal between the PSNI and Provos, with the cops offering not to go after those who cleared up the murder scene, in exchange for Provo information on the less important hands-on killers.  No one has gone to jail and the Provos kept their mouths shut.

The political import of the killing is the following:

The Provos can kill and the state will give them impunity but it will expect a price to be paid.  Anyone who thinks that the end of Sinn Fein’s meagre opposition to austerity through opposition to some welfare cuts will not form part of the price probably believes that everything that the British Government, police, unionists and Sinn Fein has said about the murder of Kevin McGuigan is 100% true.

A message has been sent to all enemies of the Provos, political or criminal, that they are willing and able to kill, no doubt under some new set of initials such as AAD (Action Against Drugs).

The slow crumbling of the architecture of the political peace settlement has speeded up and now threatens the current arrangements.  The Ulster Unionist Party has withdrawn from the all-party Executive, putting pressure on its supposed more rabid rivals in the DUP to follow its lead.

The DUP has now proposed that Sinn Fein be expelled from the Executive, although Sinn Fein can prevent it, and only the British Government can do this.  If the British do not support such a move the DUP would then be forced to either put its money where its mouth is and walk themselves, bringing down the Executive, or reveal themselves as joined at the hip to the Provos in the great gravy train on the hill.  It might then start losing support.

As the pro-settlement ‘Irish News’ editorial put it today, the Executive is so discredited most will not care if it remains or goes.  And as I have noted before, the current Stormont regime is so rotten it has little credibility left.

The peace process has been built on the lie that the rotten sectarian arrangement brought about the absence of widespread political violence.  In fact the defeat of the Provos and the ending of widespread violence preceded the creation of the rotten sectarian arrangements.  Again and again the sectarian political settlement has been defended by the claim its overthrow would bring us back to the troubles.

The recent killings demonstrate precisely the opposite.  The existence of the sectarian Assembly and Executive is now justifying collusion between the state, Provos and loyalist paramilitaries in violence, intimidation and large scale criminality.  The message from the British pro-consul has been explicit:  as long as Sinn Fein supports the sectarian settlement and police that is what counts.  What it actually does will be excused and glossed over if remotely possible.  The so-called peace settlement and its preservation is now the justification for allowing political and criminal violence.

Socialists must continue to oppose this rotten settlement.  They should continue to oppose the PSNI and expose its collusion with the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.  They should oppose the austerity imposed by the British Government and the Stormont parties, especially Sinn Fein and its phoney anti-austerity posturing.

It should likewise refuse to offer political support to any opposition by Sinn Fein to its exclusion from Government should this occur.  The Provisional movement is an obstacle to working class people in the North and South of Ireland identifying their own interests and defending them.

Screwing the unemployed in the North of Ireland

Belfast Plebian

work-fare211

One development in the North of Ireland that has come into existence largely unmentioned is Stormont’s new welfare to work programme. There have been quite a few of these in the past, New Deal, Steps to Work, but this one is more than just a hand me down modification, it fits with the now.

It emerged from out of the thinkery of the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) as recently as 2012. The protocols were first aired in a draft published in April 2012 (feasibility study; DEL web site). Tenders were then put out to the private sector for attention at the beginning of 2013 and the Stormont Executive approved the full regulations in June 1914. Implementation of the programme started in October 2014 and it is still being rolled out. The Alliance party man in the Executive, Minister Farry declared that this was ‘a major change in the way we help people, focusing on providing more flexible support for individual’s needs and their barriers to work.’

It is certainly a major change all right; it is the semi- privatisation of Stormont’s unemployment responsibility. The job of getting the north’s unemployed reserve army into work has just been handed over to three ‘lead contractors’ i.e. to profit seeking private companies.

  • Belfast Ingeus UK Ltd, supported by Armstrong Learning NI, People 1st, Springvale Learning, SES Consortium and Addiction NI.
  • Northern Region – EOS (Trading) Northern Ireland Ltd, supported by Elle Enterprises, Customised Training Services, Network Personnel, Ulster Supported Employment Limited, North City Business, Roe Valley Enterprise Ltd and Roe Valley Community Education Forum.
  • Southern Region Reed in Partnership, supported by Global Education Ltd, Network Personnel, Rutledge Recruitment and Training and South Eastern Regional College.

From now on the private sector will be gifted an opportunity to make a profit out of the unemployed with contracts worth £35 million. The only objection raised by those MLA’s who were there for the Committee stage was that DEL had unkindly overlooked some locally run training organisations in favour of the bigger outsider businesses -Pat Ramsey of the SDLP worried that 400 jobs could be lost to local training organisations in the transition period.

Ingenus, for example is a welfare to work international business founded in 1989 by the wife of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  Therese Rein sold the business to Providence Service Corporation of Arizona in April 2014 in a deal said to be worth £65 million in cash and another £25 million in stock options, and she agreed to stay on as the Chief Executive.

Although present in several countries, Ingenus makes seventy percent of its declared profit from the British Government’s welfare to work contracts. The Australian government has been pretty ruthless in the slashing of the social entitlements of workers and this gradgrind model is being imposed in Britain via companies like Ingenus.

Another lead contractor is Reed Partnership a division of the Reed Group that includes Reed Specialist Recruitment and Reed Online. The Reed Partnership boasts on its web site that it was the first welfare to work contractor to be trusted by New Labour to deliver the service under the New Deal Programme – “We launched as one of the first private welfare to work providers in the UK. Our first contract started in Hackney in 1998.”

News journalists in Britain frequently claim that the welfare to work programme has been an unmitigated disaster, on the basis that it has been shown to be not good value for the taxpayer’s money lavished on it.  It has been reported that less than 5 percent of those forced under its iron wheels find any permanent work. These sorts of ‘I feel sorry for the taxpayer’ type of political analyses has become the norm for almost all news media criticism of government policy.

When asked about the work programmes’ lamentable failure reported by the news media in England, the DEL civil servants simply told the Assembly Committee that civil servants were under no legislative obligation to take the poor results into consideration when inventing their own scheme specially tailored for the North of Ireland. The DEL officials told the Assembly Committee they were aiming at a better programme and at a higher achieving rate of 29%. Success is defined as finding a job for anyone on the programme for at least three or six months.

The ‘getting good value for taxpayers money’ model of social criticism is an absolutely hopeless one in dealing with the private welfare to work model as it is to be applied in the North of Ireland. The only model of political analysis useful here is the one that relates important government policy decisions directly to the aims of the Good Friday Agreement and fulfilling the mandate of the peace process.

The managerial side of the Stormont regime is certainly not dedicated to ‘helping’ the unemployed section of the working class into some new era of private sector prosperity – that much is obvious.  Rather it is preparing and training them for a future based on low expectations, frequent changes to part time working and acceptance of a long life on the minimum wage.

One of the most significant new protocols attached to the steps to success programme is that the new providers are not obligated by their DEL contract to offer training and education to their unemployed clients. All of the previous work programmes at least contained such a proviso, stipulating some skills training.  This new iteration does not.  It was no doubt thought to be an added expense that the private contractors could well do without.

There is no expectation that the jobs the private sector currently has on offer will be anything but part time, temporary, low skilled and low waged. The fact that the private contractors will receive a payment from the Department on the basis of any three or six months job take-up speaks volumes.

It should be said that participation on the new work programme is mandatory. Even the 60 to 65 age group are forced to take part, something that did not previously apply.

There are to be five client groups – Jobseekers 18-24, Jobseekers early entry, ESA’s (employment support allowance) voluntary ESA’s and Returners. The ‘client’s’ routine is to change from visiting the job centre once a fortnight, to show sufficient evidence of really seeking work, to carrying on with this plus an added second routine of meeting with the ‘provider’ at least three or four times per week for sessions lasting either one or two hours – supervised job searching to really really show they are seeking work.

The larger client group must do a minimum of five hours supervised searching spread out over the week.  This routine includes cold calling of employers who may not have even adverted any vacancies. This is obviously an enhanced surveilling of the lives of the unemployed. The ‘clients’ even have to hand over their mobile phone details and email addresses for random contacts about job offers. They also have to sign wavers allowing the providers to retain and make use of their personal details.

You are asked to inform them of any health problems you may have and to let them know if you are a ‘substance abuser.’  Some of the client groups have to agree to do work placements without pay. The client can in theory claim travelling expenses if they are especially diligent.  I had to delve deep into the DEL protocols documents to discover this.

Claims for travel expenses will be submitted at participant level and can be claimed on a four weekly basis. The Department will make payments within 30 working days of receipt provided receipts are offered.’ The least expensive way to travel in Belfast is to buy a bus day ticket costing £3.40 or £3.90. So the typical travel expense for participants is likely to be between 10 and 15 pounds per week. A single person under 25 on JSA receives £57.35 and the over 25 person gets £72.40. Obviously one training tip you are going to get on this programme is a vital lesson on keeping receipts.

Any unemployed person who is deemed not to be ‘performing’ to the protocols will be sanctioned with a withholding of benefit. The rules state that:

‘Your benefits will be stopped for two weeks for the first time you

  1. Give up, or fail to attend the required S2S attendance without good reason or are asked to leave for non-compliant behaviour.
  2. Your benefits will be stopped for four weeks for a second breach of the rules.
  3. It will be stopped for 26 weeks if the client breaks the rules for a third time.’

There is as yet no evidence available for current sanction rates in the North of Ireland. The rates of sanction penalisation in GB are amazingly high.  On 12 February, DWP published an important Freedom of Information response 2014-4972 showing the proportion of JSA claimants sanctioned and the numbers of repeat JSA sanctions.

Almost one-fifth (18.4%) of the 3,097,630 individuals who claimed JSA during 2013/14 were sanctioned: 568,430 people.  During 2013/14 the maximum number of JSA claimants at any one time was 1,474,428. This gives some idea of the amount of turnover in the claimant count.

We know from Stat-Xplore that there were 888,936 JSA sanctions in 2013/14, so that the average number of sanctions imposed on sanctioned claimants in 2013/14 was 1.56. It should be remembered that these figures show the proportion of claimants sanctioned after reviews/reconsiderations and appeals. The proportion sanctioned before these challenges in 2013/14 must have been about 20%.

Incredibly the Work Programme continues to deliver far more JSA sanctions than successful JSA job outcomes. The official statistics show that up to 30 September 2014 there had been 345,640 JSA Work Programme job outcomes and 575,399 JSA Work Programme sanctions.

This new policing regime for the unemployed is already in situ while the controversial welfare reform changes that have provoked so much comment are yet to be rolled out. One intention of the welfare reform plan in waiting is to push as many of the more costly benefit claimants into the cheaper Steps to Success programme.  This anticipated change is the reason why the bigger private sector welfare to work contractors from Britain are anticipating an increasing client base. The other is to harry as many people off the benefits system as is possible within the law.

The early signs are that it is working – the last three months have seen the biggest fall in live jobseeking claims ever recorded, 1,700 per month. Many are drifting on to other benefits like claiming sickness benefit but the the economically inactive count is also rising rapidly and last month it reached 28%, the highest by far in comparison with Britain. It is the high numbers of economically inactive that is now attracting the gradgrind attention of the neo- liberal economists.

How quickly the promises of the Good Firday Agreement have turned to dust for the working class. The peace process promised a better life for all and there was much talk of a lasting peace dividend. For a few years there was all the appearance of incresasing prosperity, but it was based on bank lending, rising house prices and some increased public spending.  In retrospect the material cause of the peace process can be said to be precisely this raised State spending.

A recent study carried out by the Nevin Economic Research Institute provided data showing how the cuts may impact.  According to the report three parliamentary constituencies, Foyle, West Tyrone and West Belfast have above-average public sector employment, with West Belfast the most vulnerable to job losses with over 45% of total employment being in the public sector.

A proposed public sector redundancy scheme was announced as part of the Stormont House Agreement. The scheme is intended to “re-balance” the local economy, which is said to be disproportionately dependent on the public sector, which accounts for 31% of total local employment.

The exact number of job losses in the scheme remains the subject of speculation. The DUP Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has announced an initial “closure” of 2,410 civil service posts over the next year but trade unions have estimated an eventual figure of 20,000 job losses. The report also highlighted that the retail and hospitality sectors, which make up the second and third highest sources of employment in West Belfast for example, and which are areas where those made redundant might find alternative employment, are also the sectors with the lowest wages. (NERI Research no 20 by Paul Mac Flynn)

If so many of our people, the ‘oppressed nationalists’ are being employed in secure long term jobs by the State why are we concentrating all our efforts on destroying it? This was the objective condition faced by the revolutionary movement organised by the republican movement pre-peace process.  The long war was never targeted at the private sector just the State. We know how that story turned out.

The republican movement disarmed and then married into the State to become senior board members in a logical exercise in political thinking. Things are now changing – the British government strategy of supressing the insurgency with above-normal levels of public spending is coming to an end. You could argue that the proposed rebalancing to a private sector based economy is simply the logical extension of neoliberal austerity economics. Yet a more precise argument would have to factor in a change in the political conditions and climate of opinion.

The republican organised insurgency is finished and the peace process leverage once thought to be with Sinn Fein has all but been used up. Martin McGuiness said recently that the Tories just don’t get it like Labour did.  This was a plea for special economic clemency for the North of Ireland.  But it is Sinn Fein that doesn’t get it.  We are no more special than the Greeks.  We surely are in new times.