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.

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?