June 2016        

The North’s political institutions: as powerless and ineffective as ever

Tommy McKearney

In this rapidly changing world we can still depend on political Ulster unionism to remain stationary. Its outlook has stood cemented in place for the last century, and apparently it has no plans to make any adjustments for the coming decades.
     Typical of this rigid disposition is the North’s first minister, Arlene Foster, who, when recently offered the opportunity to speak to a university audience about inspirational women, cited her devotion to the late Margaret Thatcher.
     There are many who share this attachment to the former British prime minister, but in Northern Ireland the very mention of her name is enough to create division. Her inflexibility has not been forgotten, either by those who bitterly resented its impact or by those who applauded its application. A more generous or indeed diplomatic first minister might have chosen a less contentious role model; a more socially aware or conscientious first minister would certainly not celebrate a politician whose name epitomises the harsh economic policies now harming working-class communities throughout the six counties and beyond.
     After the recent Assembly election the North remains locked within the same mandate-restricted political institutions that have produced little meaningful progress for most working people over the past decade. The success of the Democratic Unionist Party in keeping attention directed towards security and constitutional issues masks the Assembly’s failure to provide prosperity across the board.
     Adding to an already lengthy list of depressing reports into poverty and hardship in the North is a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.¹ Among several disturbing findings it has recorded that a fifth of the Six Counties’ population is living in poverty, average weekly pay is lower now (allowing for inflation) than ten years ago, and an increasing number of young people and working families are living on low incomes.
     In many ways, a Northern Ireland version of “Project Fear” has held unionism together since the beginning of the twentieth century. Always conscious that allowing consideration of class to enter the political debate might undermine their control over their followers, Unionist leaders have invariably promoted unity by means of the lowest common denominator. At one time this meant concentrating on the possibility of perils emanating from Rome; now the bogeyman is Martin McGuinness, who, it was said, would become first minister if loyal Ulster folk did not vote last month for the DUP.
     The dire warning seems to have worked, and the DUP was returned with enough seats to nominate the first minister. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, only secured enough Assembly members to nominate McGuinness as deputy first minister, a position defined by a British act of parliament as joint head of the Executive,² making the job’s title a distinction without a difference.
     Thanks in no small part to the feeble decision-making powers of the devolved Assembly, the May election generated only modest interest among the public. For the fifth time in a row there was a fall in turn-out, with more than 45 per cent of the electorate not voting. In reality the North’s political institutions are as powerless and ineffective as ever. As one of the local wags said about the appointment by Sinn Féin of a wealthy businessman, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, to head the Department of Finance and Personnel, “he’ll share out the pocket money that David Cameron gives us.”
     Moreover, the decision by the SDLP and UUP to go into opposition will make little difference. Arguably their leaving the Executive points more to desperation than to a radical departure promising something different. There is little doubt that the DUP-Sinn Féin Executive will ignore their criticisms, just as the British government turns a deaf ear to the entreaties of all the parties at Stormont.
     One small source of encouragement, however, emerged from the otherwise dreary story of the Northern election. Two members of the Socialist Workers’ Party were elected in constituencies with large working-class communities. Efforts have been made to play down or undermine their achievement as a purely protest vote. While they have undoubtedly benefited from disillusionment with both Sinn Féin and the SDLP in constituencies suffering high levels of unemployment and deprivation, this alone cannot explain their victory. Both Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll are hard-working community activists and well known within their constituencies. The fact is that both men stood and won on their programme and record. Moreover, by doing so they have demonstrated that running on a left platform is not a barrier to being elected, in republican areas at least.
     While they did receive some support from within the unionist working class, their core base is in republican areas. To develop and promote the politics of James Connolly, to which they aspire, it will be necessary to convince still larger sections of the republican community of the need to promote left-wing politics and not just to follow an anti-partitionist agenda. To do so requires an active engagement with that community, and it will be interesting to see if this occurs.
     Some might argue that this would be a divisive or detrimental approach. Nevertheless, in the absence of ideal but at present inaccessible options it would be the better choice of those available. To build a strong and properly informed socialist republican cohort within the six counties would be an important first step towards uniting the Northern working class.
     Nothing in such a course of action would preclude co-operation with unionist working-class people who are taking action on bread-and-butter issues. If anything, it would assist the genuinely progressive people within those communities to demonstrate the potential generated by a united front. There is intriguing evidence, moreover, that some important opinion-formers within the wider unionist community are willing to explore the political opinions of others. Earlier this year, for example, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland hosted a day-long seminar reflecting on the events of April 1916—a not insignificant development in the light of the hostility such an event might create within that institution.
     Therefore, and in spite of the “as you were” stance by both parties in the Executive, there is just the slightest hint of something more progressive developing in the North. Nevertheless, nothing has emerged to alter the fact that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity, or that the long-term answer to its problems lies in building a workers’ republic.

1. “Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland, 2016” (York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2016).
2. The Northern Ireland Act (1998).

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