December 2015        

Not so much a “Fresh Start,” more a political limbo

Tommy McKearney

So there you have it. The Stormont Assembly crisis is over, and we’re told that everything is settled. Well, the crisis has been resolved—that is, until the next kerfuffle arises, sending all hands scurrying back to London for another lengthy round of arbitration.
     In spite of the tedious negotiations, the odds were always in favour of the North’s two largest parties patching up some type of arrangement—not because either of them actually favoured the contents of the “Fresh Start” agreement but because the loss of the institutions would have had detrimental consequences for their respective organisations.
     Let’s remind ourselves what precipitated the upheaval in September. Unionists said they would refuse to work with Sinn Féin until the status of the IRA in particular and paramilitarism in general was resolved to their satisfaction. They have now settled for a promise that all signatories to the agreement will pledge a “resolute commitment to uphold the rule of law and end paramilitarism.” You don’t have to be a cynic to see how little value should be attached to that piece of waffle.
     Then there were problems arising from what are called legacy issues. Not only was there no consensus on which legacy should be investigated but under “Fresh Start” nothing at all could be addressed, as the British government refused to move past the starting-line and grant access to its files.
     It was on the vexed question of welfare reform, though, that the most significant about-turn occurred. After months of huffing and puffing Sinn Féin finally caved in to the British government’s demand and accepted this bitter pill. Although London obligingly agreed to legislate for this assault on the poor, and offered a small fig leaf by way of a trifling amount in extra spending, this climb-down was, by anybody’s reckoning, a set-back for the deputy first minister and his party.
     Apparently the only aspect of “Fresh Start” that pleased the Big Two was obtaining permission to reduce corporation tax in the North to 12½ per cent. This concession to the corporate sector will come at the expense of an equivalent reduction in the central government’s block grant, something that diminishes the funds available for social spending on the less well off. Needless to say, this measure is very much in keeping with the Tory government’s general political ethos.
     Britain’s hard-line Conservative government recently won re-election with an absolute majority, and it is determined to make full use of its advantage. Cameron and his colleagues are out to drive through the type of neo-liberal economic package that will maintain the privileges of the ruling class for generations to come. Tories are relentless in their pursuit of this objective and have no intention of tolerating opposition from any part of the United Kingdom and certainly not from what to them is the politically insignificant Northern Ireland Assembly or its squabbling Executive.
     In fairness to Martin McGuinness and his party it must be said that there is some truth in their claim that there was little they could do to prevent Cameron’s Posh Boys enforcing these enhanced austerity measures. That fact alone summarises much of what is at the heart of the failed political entity that is Northern Ireland. The local administration is powerless to do anything other than acquiesce in what London hands down.
     Gone are the days when the North was of vital strategic interest to Britain’s global ambitions. Gone too are the days when the area’s heavy industries and agricultural produce were of economic significance to the British exchequer and state. In fact gone are the days when Northern Ireland or its political institutions could exert any significant influence over policy-making as it develops and is imposed from London.
     The North is now in a condition of political limbo. Its devolved administration neither has the clout to influence central government nor enjoys sufficient local consensus to do as the Scots do and work towards meaningful autonomy. In reality, the Northern state’s apparatus has reached such a level of inertia that it is difficult to know what purpose its political institutions serve, apart from promoting social sclerosis.
     For all the appearance of normality, the North is not a happy or inherently tranquil place. Long-standing and bitter political divisions within that society remain simmering beneath the surface. The devolved administration is powerless, apart from awarding patronage.
     Moreover, discontent is aggravated by the fact that many of the area’s inhabitants are experiencing varying degrees of hardship. Approximately 25 per cent of adults of working age are claiming a welfare benefit, while 20 per cent of children live in low-income households. In the tax year 2012/13 benefits and tax credits contributed 22 per cent to total household income. This level of deprivation and alienation can only get worse, as these figures relate to a period before the Tory millionaires’ planned round of welfare-slashing measures takes effect.
     In spite of this unpromising assessment, it is important not to lapse into the negative and sterile response of pitching answers purely in terms of avoiding violent conflict. No sensible person wants to see a resumption of bloodshed; but that should not be the predominant theme. Socialism is about offering a coherent choice that encourages well-founded optimism, unlike the right, which prospers through promoting fear.
     Nothing remains the same for ever, and Northern Ireland is no exception. As noted above, the North is marginal to London’s concerns, especially in the context of a changing United Kingdom. There is a real possibility therefore that, as a result of crushing neo-liberal policies emanating from an indifferent Britain, a majority of people will in time become as disenchanted with Westminster as the people of Scotland are today. That doesn’t mean, though, that those who now consider themselves unionists will change allegiances overnight. Nor can it be taken for granted either that all who now consider themselves nationalists would favour progressive change.
     What this does indicate, though, is the need for serious consideration by those on the left and among progressive people in general in order to determine how this situation might best be addressed. Clichéd sloganeering and offering simplistic solutions is worse than useless. Clear programmes based on rational argument, supported by factual evidence, on the other hand, are vital to this process. By the same token, thorny issues such as the demand for socialism and a break with imperialism cannot be obfuscated.
     The case for a workers’ republic is as strong today as it was when first advanced more than a century ago by James Connolly. How to achieve this goal remains elusive. However, a recent meeting in Dublin under the auspices of the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum gives grounds for hope. Although determined to view Ireland in its entirety, socialists, republicans and communists from North and South met and agreed on the need to devote time and resources to the study and advancement of this subject. It was a modest though promising beginning; as we say in Irish, Tús maith leath na hoibre.

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