Sectarianism prevents sectarian agreement

So do we have yet another political crisis in the North of Ireland, with the failure of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein to bring back the Stormont Executive?  No one is really calling it a crisis since things remain as they were, and we simply have the now default position of no devolved administration.  And neither is it exactly causing panic in the streets.  So is there really nothing new then?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, the failure of the ‘peace process’ to process us some peace is not new.  From the start it has been sold on the lie that it brought an end to political violence, asking everyone to ignore and forget that the ceasefires happened before the sectarian deal, and that political violence remains, although at a much reduced level.  However the claim remains a vital illusion, since opposition to the process from any progressive standpoint must be painted as anti-peace.

The Stormont Executive has collapsed so many times I’ve lost count.  Talks between the parties have ended in failure even more times; while this latest failed agreement follows that of the ‘Fresh Start’, and the St. Andrew’s Agreement before that, which itself was supposed to sort out the problems with the Good Friday Agreement.  The Holy character of the last deal was sanctified by the forever peerless referendum that endorsed it in 1998.  It is fast becoming an imperialist version of the last all-island vote in 1918, that for some Irish republicans will forever legitimise armed struggle to impose its result against imperialist denial.

The latest crisis however reveals once again that the Good Friday solution cannot bring a settled peace or reconciliation and cannot bring an end to sectarianism.  This cannot be a surprise, since It is based on pacification by the militarily force that was most powerful; and it must hide or disguise the truth about what we have to be reconciled to, which accounts for the more and more open acknowledgement that there will never be any truthful accounting for the past.   And it cannot bring an end to sectarianism because we are asked to accept one sectarian outcome because it is claimed to be acceptable, as opposed to all the others that are not.

The claim to popular endorsement of the peace process deal is also becoming increasingly threadbare, as the reasons for the collapse of the latest talks make clear.

The local journalist Eamonn Mallie described DUP politicians dancing on the head of a pin in denying there had been a deal with Sinn Fein, one subsequently sunk by the DUP and its grassroots.  The British Broadcasting Corporation has danced on the same pin in the gyrations required to deny openly reporting that there was a deal and the DUP had killed it.  Impartiality and balance for it are the same as fairness and truth, so the good ship was sunk by the DUP was and was not sunk; it is both simultaneously dead and still breathing – everyone just needs to take a rest, and then go back to breathe new life into the stinking corpse.

But it is now widely accepted that the deal collapsed not because of the leadership of the DUP, who were willing to endorse it, but was collapsed because the rest of the DUP political class and its grass roots were opposed to it, including the unionist ‘NewsLetter’ newspaper – reflecting wider opposition to the Irish Language among the unionist population.  What sank the deal was the sectarianism expected to simultaneously deliver a settlement and also somehow be undermined by it.

The myth peddled by the media, British Government, certain politicians and by the most naïve sections of the population – that only a small minority oppose agreement – ignores the obvious fact that the vast majority of people mean very different things when they say they are for an agreement.

By its very nature, how sectarianism is to be shared is not something that can ever actually be agreed. By its nature, it identifies differences that must be maintained and defended; it identifies separate interests that are mutually exclusive and antagonistic, and it compels its expression through privileges that must be continually asserted.

There is therefore no such thing as the common good.  At most it can exist as the fair division of exclusive and opposing rights based on a division that, because it does not express the deepest interests of either section of the people concerned, can never be settled in a fashion that meets either’s deepest needs. Since sectarianism cannot ultimately meet the requirements of Protestant and Catholic workers there is potentially no end to the struggle to make it otherwise.

The current extreme of false sectarian rights is the demand for equality with Irish for the non-language that is Ulster Scots, which has become a totem for Protestant rights in general, and which a lot of Protestants regard as something of a joke.  However, such claims are true to the unionist tradition, a tradition that claims to stand for civil and religious liberty but which is less about claiming rights than denying those of others.

A rational recognition of interest would produce unity and not division, a unity based on the class interests common to both Protestant and Catholic workers.  However, the structure of society, including the most powerful political forces, presents sectarian answers, even when wrapped up in non-sectarian garb. So, resources must be ‘shared’ separately on a sectarian basis and sectarian interests are not to be eradicated but respected.

This prescription approaches absurdity when individuals must be assigned a sectarian identity even when they reject it, all in the name of equality.  For employment purposes what matters is what “community background” you come from.  As the old saying goes, or rather to paraphrase, you can take a man out of the Shankill but the state will not allow you to take the Shankill out of the man – your sectarian ‘community’ background will eternally define you.

That the latest deal was sunk by sectarianism is obvious.  Opposition to a ‘stand-alone’ or separate Irish Language Act was the declared reason for unionist opposition, but the ‘justification’ given for this shows that the language is but the latest hook on which to hang sectarian hostility.

You will look in vain for any rationale why the Irish language must be opposed.  Opposition to the Act, given what appears its modest objectives, might be seen to be opposition to the language itself, but the vehement opposition that has been expressed is such that it prevents agreement on  everything else.  It can therefore only denote opposition to something other than the language.

Arlene Foster’s walk-away statement said that “I respect the Irish language and those who speak it, but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.”  In other words, I can’t say what is wrong with the Irish language, or an Act to give it some recognition, but I’m going to oppose it anyway.  Since the Irish language must be a sectarian attribute of the Catholic population, Protestants must get something in return, something that isn’t defined but which is needed in order to accept something which otherwise there is no reason to oppose.

The DUP’s Nelson McCausland opposes an Irish language Act because it is simply a part of republicanism’s “cultural warfare”.  So he can’t say what is offensive about the language or an Act to promote it either.  The rationale for opposing it is simply that the other side want it, and that’s not only a necessary but also a sufficient reason to oppose it.

The real opposition to an Irish language Act is best expressed by DUP MP Gregory Campbell who replaced the Irish greeting in the Assembly “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the English words approximately sounding like it – “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”.

This of course is not an insult to the Irish language and it is not even an insult to those who speak it, it is a sectarian insult that manages to even be offensive to some not otherwise disposed to be sympathetic to Irish language rights.  While no one has the right not to be offended most recognise a deliberate offense based on bigotry when they see one.

From a socialist point of view, we are in favour of Irish language rights and the real capacity of its speakers to practice their language, and without insult or intimidation.  The key question is not that it furthers division, as some unionists hypocritically claim, but that its recognition would be an acknowledgment of what is now a minority cultural practice. In this way, a tolerance might be built up to such differences, not that these differences may be held up as the end objective in themselves, but that they become less and less important as markers or carriers of division.

The real gain would not be the bureaucratisation of the Irish language and its movement, which will not in the end help it but will place the dead hand of the capitalist state upon its shoulders, suffocating the voluntary impulses that make it so attractive to many.  Rather its free expression would help demonstrate that the language is but one facet of existence and that real freedom and human flourishing is not synonymous with language rights.  I remember listening to a young political and language rights activist, who thought the language was the most important issue and was the central element of liberation.  I would have been happy to tell him that you can be exploited and oppressed in any language.

However, responsibility for the failure to have a language Act lies more widely than with the narrow bigotry of the DUP.  The commitment to introduce one was given by the British Government, and the responsibility to ensure this commitment was delivered has rested with Sinn Fein.  That one does not exist is their failure.  Ian Paisley junior has claimed that republicans never pushed for one, and this is one unionist claim that has a bit more credibility.

Foster has now stated that there is currently no basis for a return to Stormont and both the DUP and Sinn Fein have said this round of talks are over.  For the DUP this means direct rule by Westminster in all but name.  For Sinn Fein it means that the input from the Irish Government must be increased.  Otherwise it becomes obvious that the North of Ireland remains completely under British rule, without any Irish input whatsoever, making any claims to have made progress in weakening this rule obviously hollow.

In the past socialists have dismissed nationalist claims that the Irish Government has either any separate interest or the power to enforce any separate interest on the British in relation to the North.  Brexit changes this, or rather modifies it.

The DUP have claimed they want a soft Brexit with no return to a hard border but they wanted Brexit and they want a hard border – in the same way that some Tories want Brexit in the manner of having your cake and eating it.  Unionists are very keen on an identifiable border that has real meaning, while the more intelligent understand that the conveniences of the current internal EU arrangements are important.  It’s doubtful they have any more clue about how these conflicting wishes can be accommodated than the Tory Brexit ejects now in Government.

The Irish Government however has strong reason for seeking as soft a Brexit as possible, and in this case have not only a separate interest but have potentially European Union support for this objective, as it is one that the EU shares, if not to the same degree.  For both, an arrangement whereby trade between North and South continued to be carried out under current rules would be preferable.  However, the EU can also accept strict border controls inside the island in order to defend the integrity of the Single Market in a way that the Irish State would find more damaging.

The unionist pursuit of Brexit, alongside the reactionary support for it in Britain, is a response to decline and a misguided attempt to reverse history in order to return to a past glory that has gone and is not coming back.  Like unionist intransigence and bigotry, it denotes a movement that has no other understanding of the way forward because it does not want to go forward.  It wants the past, but the past, as they say, is another country.

Unionist demands for untrammelled sectarian supremacy are not sustainable.  The Catholic population is too large, and although it is not politically active in the sense of any mass political movement, it is not completely passive and brow-beaten either.  The demands of unionism are ultimately too extreme, and if given freedom to implement them would provoke reaction.  The current impasse is the result – the British Sate cannot allow unionism the freedom to do what it wants, even while it continues to conciliate its more amenable demands.  And this is the case whether the DUP props up a Tory administration or not.

The impasse is however obviously unstable, and as nothing continues forever it is especially true that this instability will not last forever.

Remembering or forgetting the Kingsmill massacre?

News in the North of Ireland for over a week has been dominated by the controversy created by Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff, who posted a tweet of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill sliced bread on his head in the shop at a service station.  He’s regarded as the Sinn Fein clown but nobody was laughing, at least not publicly, as he posted his video at 5 minutes past midnight on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of ten Protestant workmen by the IRA, at Kingsmill in Armagh.

He was roundly condemned and Sinn Fein suspended him from his post for three months, which was generally regarded as a weak admonition.  Unionists roundly condemned the photo and the punishment and contrasted one republican’s behaviour and the party’s mild rebuke with the recent Sinn Fein demand for equality and respect.

McElduff complained that he had not been aware that there would be any link between his tomfoolery and the massacre but some argued that it was too much of a coincidence.  My own view was that it was crass but couldn’t see the point of a republican drawing attention to something Sinn Fein would wish forgotten and which the IRA at the time would not admit.

What was more important was that the killings had actually taken place and had not been politically accounted for by those who carried it out and who are now claiming the mantle of reconciliation.

The sectarian slaughter was so appalling there was no admission of responsibility and, despite years of demands by republicans for a truth process, they still haven’t done so and aren’t going to.  Six members of two Catholic families had been murdered by loyalists the day before the Kingsmill massacre, and Kingsmill was carried out and widely seen as retaliation.  A classical tit-for-tat killing designed to deliver a message that we can also do what you can.

I remember that, perhaps five years later, a republican supporter defended the massacre to me on the grounds that it stopped the sectarian tit-for-tat killings.  This was the view of republicans at the time and no doubt still the view of most of those old enough to remember it now.

A also remember a comrade of mine once saying that the IRA fought a campaign that sometimes involved sectarian killing while loyalists fought a campaign that was sectarian killing. That many of the unionist politicians today complaining about the behaviour of McElduff are still today collaborating with loyalist paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality and with a record of sectarianism no republican could match makes their protest and grievance easy for many to dismiss.

The media controversy didn’t die, partly because it suited unionist purposes, and partly because it really does put a big pall over the republican ‘equality and respect’ agenda, with the video conjuring up the view that sectarian killing is a joke.  In the North the controversy will not significantly dent Sinn Fein support, but it just adds to the cynicism and/or calculated ignorance required to continue that support.  While always stating their republicanism could not be compared to loyalism, the retreat to what-about loyalist hypocrisy admits of such comparison. It is a defence, but only at the expense of embracing your enemy and sharing the same unwanted spotlight.

In the South, things are different.  It is now being argued that the resignation of McElduff after the mild rebuke of suspension has not been voluntary but demanded by Sinn Fein, especially Sinn Fein in the South, for whom association with the past deeds of the IRA really is a shackle they seek to escape.

This might seem the worst of all options for republicans – refusing to take strong action that might demonstrate they have changed and recognising  their responsibilities, while losing their colleague anyway.  But this is not how it works.  He’s gone; they can welcome his decision and move on.  Just like the original massacre – admit nothing, while sending a message, and hope to move on.

Like seemingly every major atrocity during the ‘Troubles’ the spectre of the British state’s involvement has also been raised by the controversy and as usual relegated in importance.

Police failure, seeming incompetence in investigating the case and suspicions of collusion, with no one charged over the killing, has raised again the issue that the IRA and loyalists seemed often to be almost puppets of agents working in the bowels of the British State.  That this was the case for much of loyalism can hardly have been doubted, though seldom admitted, but the state penetration of republicanism has been much more surprising.

In truth, there is little new in the episode because nothing has been revealed that we didn’t know already.  It will not affect the current political stalemate in the North and in the South every step away from its past renders the new Sinn Fein closer to a pale imitation of the rest of staid Irish nationalism.  Those coming from a republican tradition are devout in their remembrance and commemoration of the past but they seem incapable of learning from it.

Far from facing its history and learning its lessons they forget nothing and learn nothing because they either seek to repeat the same strategy today or defend the strategy applied yesterday. In any circumstance it would be a failure today as it was before.

The episode is seen as showing the barriers to reconciliation existing in the North but the columnist Brian Feeney of the Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ is right when he says that reconciliation is a religious notion that is a chimera, one that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t exist.  What is actually being demanded is reconciliation of incompatible claims coming from different sides while the respective validity of these different sides is also paradoxically affirmed.  The complete incoherence of the equality of sectarianism that passes for political progress here is on show once more.

What is required is not reconciliation of two sectarian sides but unity across sectarian division that through this unity dissolves it.  Irish republicanism has failed this task, which it once set itself over two hundred years ago, and no one really expects it to have much to do with achieving it now.

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

The decay of Stormont and Sinn Fein

martin-mcguinness-resigns-2_-lewisWhen a dreadfully ill-looking Martin McGuinness appeared on television to announce his resignation as Deputy First Minister he perfectly personified the alarming state of Sinn Fein strategy.  Whatever about the nature of his illness there is nothing secret about the utter failure of the latter  The repeated response of Sinn Fein to republican critics that these detractors had no strategy to bring about their goals has itself been exposed, as their own policy has become a self-declared failure.

The resignation letter of McGuinness put a poor gloss on a hasty decision that was forced on the party and which it dearly sought to avoid.  Recent actions betrayed a desperation to save its position in the Stormont regime and thereby the regime itself.  It opposed a public inquiry into a scandalous Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme, designed to protect the climate by giving participants £160 for every £100 they spent on burning wooden pellets.  Unlike the British scheme no limit was set on how much was to be spent on the incentive to burn as much as one could.  It was indefensible and in any other liberal democracy, such as Northern Ireland pretends to be, it would have led to a resignation.

Sinn Fein opposed a vote of no confidence in the First Minister Arlene Foster, responsible for the scheme, explicitly stating it was because it wished to save the Stormont institutions.  It also opposed a public inquiry into the scheme because it knew that the Democratic Unionist Party would not wear it.  It hoped instead that a call for Foster to merely step aside for a few weeks, while some fig-leaf of an investigation did the needful in calming the political waters, would be agreeable.  However, the DUP advanced the age-old ‘not an inch’ approach of unionism to reject its request for the pathetic.

To rub salt into the wounds, just before Christmas the DUP Culture Minister withdrew the small bursary scheme, costing only £50,000, for children to attend the Gaeltacht to learn Irish.  The widespread suspicion that millions were being given to well-connected DUP supporters through the RHI scheme sat beside the vindictive insult to Irish language enthusiasts who are overwhelmingly Catholic.

McGuinness has accused the DUP of arrogance, to which it might be tempting to say that it takes one to know one, where the DUP not in a league of their own. Nevertheless, they made for a workable double act for 10 years and the DUP has not recently changed its spots.

The personal arrogance or otherwise of Arlene Foster (she hardly hides it) confuted the media-attempted creation of yet another new ‘moderate’ Unionist leader and is hardly the point.  Expecting a Unionist leader to show humility ignores the laager supremacist ideology with which unionism is inseparably entwined, summed up in its primitive slogans of ‘not an inch’, ‘this we will maintain’, ‘we can do no other’, ‘no surrender’ and ‘we are the people’, all testament to an utterly reactionary movement.

Sinn Fein sat for ten years promising and not delivering, promising equality while delivering sectarian division; promising to oppose austerity while imposing it; promising opposition to welfare reform while handing powers to Westminster to ensure it was implemented, and within the last year promising a ‘Fresh Start’ and a ‘united Executive’, which produced the old, stale smell of bigotry and bitter animosity.

It failed and its complaint about the failure of the Good Friday Agreement is its own failure – the DUP are not complaining about any such failure.  So sewn up has Sinn Fein been that when McGuinness resigned over the RHI scheme the DUP straight away cynically announced its support for a judicial inquiry, leaving Sinn Fein as the only party not to support one.

It promises no return to the status quo following the resignation.  But how is it going to convince anyone that it can go back into office with the DUP and deliver anything different from the last decade of failure?

We should be clear.  It was not RHI that forced Sinn Fein out.  As we have seen it was prepared to give the DUP a way out.  It has known about this scandal for a year and did nothing.  It put up with unionist arrogance and sectarianism for 10 years on the basis that it too had its own sectarian spoils to dispense.  It hasn’t all of a sudden become remorseful at broken promises: once it abandoned armed struggle against the British state the Provisionals had no principles left.

McGuinness resigned because Sinn Fein’s humiliation was so comprehensive its base were leaving it – through increased Catholic abstention and grumblings even from the membership.  The election of two People before Profit candidates in West Belfast and Derry was a warning that it could face an alternative.  DUP arrogance was a factor to the extent that it knew its predicament wasn’t going to change – Foster and the DUP were openly flouting the rules that both parties were deemed to be equal and could only act together.

Some will see these events as proof that the Northern State is irreformable.  McGuinness’s statement was careful to include the British in the cast of those to blame.  A local Stormont regime steeped in sectarianism has never been unpalatable for the British and Sinn Fein is not now presenting them as the necessary factor in making unionism more amenable to equality of sectarian division.  The final proof of the irreformability of the Northern State, in the sense of its inherent sectarian nature, is that it is more than likely that any election will return the same two forces as the largest parties.

The Stormont regime provides evidence of the instability of a sectarian carve-up.  While almost all commentators and political parties have lamented the loss of credibility of the political settlement through the RHI scandal, this is its only progressive outcome.  Stormont is destroying itself.  What matters for socialists is that some steps are taken by workers to build an alternative.

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?


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

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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?



Political propagandists and political murder in Belfast

Feeney 1imagesAs the political crisis generated by the killing of Gerard McGuigan by IRA members threatens to spiral out of control the politically weary population is invited to pick sides on what is to happen next, with seemingly everyone in favour of keeping Stormont while everyone knows it’s rotten.

This appears to put the onus on being able to blame someone else in order to defend a sectarian corner and the particular rights assumed inside the settlement.

The ‘right’ attitude to the killing has therefore to be asserted first, although it is of the least concern to the parties involved in yet another round of talks.

As a result a notable feature of reaction to the murder of Gerard McGuigan has been the propensity of nationalist commentators to ventilate on the synthetic character of unionist outrage at the murder.  In other words the outrage is fake – they don’t care about dead ex IRA men.

If that were the only point being made the response should be one of agreement.  Yes, unionists have ignored state and loyalist violence and have collaborated openly with paramilitary groups so their condemnation of republican violence is hollow.  They don’t care about dead IRA men and their actions since the latest killing is guided by purely party political calculations.

But that isn’t all there is to it.  The point being made by these nationalist commentators is that what has happened shouldn’t be allowed to upset the current political arrangements because the outrage is phoney.  Just as I pointed out in the previous post on this (that the new peace institutions are now the justification for ignoring the killing of others) so expressing outrage at the killing is also to be discounted because the main unionist complainants are insincere.

And the fact that this outrage is insincere means that this is a purely manufactured crisis that originates in unionist bad faith.  This bad faith is therefore the problem.  The perfidious British however have turned this around, as they usually do, in order to appease unionism.

So nationalists are invited by these commentators to believe that what must be discussed now is not what the danger is to those who fall foul of the Provisional IRA but how the institutions can be saved.  The British are happy to go along with this but add that this involves giving the unionists confidence.  But since this a purely subjective thing we are in the world of Humpty Dumpty – confidence means just what unionists choose it to mean, neither more nor less.

So yes, nationalists have a point about pandering to unionist hypocrisy but they have a problem when they allow this hypocrisy to become their moral compass by replying to unionist hypocrisy with their own.

They have a problem when they excoriate British pandering to unionist violence while turning a blind eye to Provisional murder.  So the outrage at the latter is fake – let’s ignore both it and the event that occasioned it.  Then we can have our equal and opposite hypocrisy.  Unionists complain about Provo violence but we will turn a blind eye to it and complain about loyalist violence.

In this way the sectarian perfect circle of hell attempts to trap everyone within it, everything and everyone is to be defined by sectarian division.

A prime example of this capture by sectarian division, involving capitulation to acceptance of reactionary political violence, can be seen in the regular political columnist in the largest nationalist paper in the North, Brian Feeney in yesterday’s ‘Irish News’.

So the police fingering of Provisional IRA members for the murder of Kevin McGuigan was “ill-considered”.  As I also pointed out before – I wonder would he therefore have considered well-judged the previous failure to finger the loyalist UVF for the attempted murder of a young woman in the same area.

Feeney had a previous column on the unionist invention of the 1960s civil rights campaign as an IRA plot, a fiction of course, but what had this to do with the real IRA plot to kill McGuigan, unless he wanted to claim it too was another unionist fiction?

Instead he goes along with the Sinn Fein line that what this is all about is unionist refusal to live in equality with nationalists: “This refusal to accept mere equality prevents them seeing themselves in the same light as nationalists and republicans.”

He appears totally oblivious to the fact that with this attitude of Nelsonian ignorance of IRA responsibility in murder he should really be writing that nationalists should now see themselves in the same light as unionists, united equally in the same light of sectarian blindness.

By such a descent into sectarianism are nationalist claims for equality to become nationalist equality in sectarianism, which is indeed the political project of Sinn Fein.

He then makes hay with silly and insensitive remarks about “the futile and fatuous attempt to abolish the IRA.”  How would anyone know “if someone has left the IRA? . . how would anyone prove they’d left?”

So does Feeney not want to see the end of the UDA and UVF?  Would Feeney be questioning as futile and fatuous calls for an end to loyalist paramilitaries if they had just killed someone?

Sure how would you know whether they or the Provisional IRA had gone away or not?

Well here’s a start.  You might have a chance of convincing someone they had disappeared if they didn’t kill those who fall foul of them.

Feeney complains that the leader of the DUP Peter Robinson needs to feel that he is “not bound by any constraints that apply to normal relationships.”  Leaving aside what counts for normal in the North of Ireland, does he not think such a remark might also be pointed in another direction?

It was bad enough when the British so openly overlooked and colluded in political murder by loyalists but their shameless excuses for the Provisional IRA and its supposed peaceful intentions complete the circle that working people in the North have to break from.  In this case nationalist workers should see through the muck apparently thrown at the British and unionists because it’s really being thrown in their eyes.  Who else is expected to listen to Feeney?