September 2016        

History repeating itself

Tommy McKearney

How often have we heard the phrase from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that history repeats itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce”? That the axiom is overused is hardly surprising, as it has been proved accurate so often, and rarely more so than when applied to the present administration in Stormont.
     Once we were afflicted with an uncompromising Unionist regime that governed the Six Counties with scant regard for democracy, creating misery for many. In its place we now have an administration that appears intent instead on making itself a byword for banality and ridicule.
     The Lords Craig and Brookeborough must be turning in their marble tombs with the state they created now home to what might charitably be described as a political circus. For pure farce it would be difficult to outdo the most recent brouhaha following revelations that a Sinn Féin MLA had coached a young flag-waving loyalist, Jamie Bryson, before he gave evidence at a committee hearing investigating the NAMA scandal.
     The only redeeming feature of the affair was the MLA’s immediate and exemplary resignation when he was found to have transgressed—an act of integrity almost unprecedented in Northern political life, where a mule-headed refusal to accept blame for any misconduct is more often the norm.
     As well as the titillation provided by the Namagate coaching scandal, Stormont’s second coming contributes daily to the surrealism that surrounds Assembly business, indicating that it is more about optics than substance. Deprived of overall or full authority, in large part because of the absence of fiscal control, the Assembly—or the Executive at any rate—is now striving to maintain its existence at all costs, often paying less attention to living conditions for its electorate than to its own fortunes.
     One result of this is that the two main parties have agreed on a curious modus vivendi that provides for a distinctly Northern version of bicameralism. But instead of having two chambers, Stormont has in effect two arenas: one for designated areas of public disagreement and the other providing an underlying consensus on economic policy.
     Readers of this paper hardly need reminding of the often-reported areas of disagreement in the North. Less obvious, perhaps, is the extent to which a neo-liberal consensus underpinning the political institutions has led to a virtual policy convergence on economic matters.
     Just how close the two main parties are in these matters was shown recently in a joint letter from the first minster, Arlene Foster, and deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, to the British prime minister, Theresa May.¹ In spite of angry denials, the first minster had apparently performed a dramatic U-turn in relation to the European Union. Notwithstanding her enthusiastic support (and that of her party) for the Brexit campaign to leave the EU, Foster has, in the letter to Downing Street, shifted her position on the EU to one that appears not unlike that of Sinn Féin. The extent of her about-turn is evidenced by no less than four references in the letter to the benefits supposedly accruing to Northern Ireland from membership of the EU.
     While the first minister was being ridiculed by her political opponents and some of the media for her remarkable political somersault, the deputy first minister’s party managed to perform a no less dexterous manoeuvre, albeit one that drew much less public attention. As well as reversing its long-standing opposition to the free-market European Union, Sinn Féin in the letter to Theresa May appears to indicate that it has adopted a pro-business position vis-à-vis workers and wages.
     The jointly agreed and signed communiqué contains a request for policies that should be “sufficiently flexible to allow access to unskilled as well as highly skilled labour.” Elaborating on this point, the letter says that this was necessary because employers in the private and public sectors are heavily dependent on EU and other migrant labour.
     Whether Sinn Féin care to admit it or not, there is nothing transformative or progressive about this stance. There is little doubt that this will not play out as an enlightened appeal to welcome workers from abroad. In Northern Ireland’s depressed economy this is a strategy for lowering wages that are already among the lowest in the United Kingdom.
     Both parties in the Stormont Executive would probably claim, with some little justification, that they are restricted by the terms of the Northern Ireland Act (1998)—i.e. devolved powers—and by the amount in their annual block grant from London.²
     Nevertheless, this is to ignore the fact that there are several areas, such as health, housing, and economic development, over which the local Assembly has authority. Significant improvements could be made in all these areas were it not for this unspoken but undisguised neo-liberal consensus.
     Take just one area, that of the National Health Service in the Six Counties. Even allowing for financial restrictions imposed by the finite block grant, there is no good reason why Stormont doesn’t act to remove privatisation from this service.
     Nor is this a purely ideologically inspired suggestion. Late last year the BBC in Belfast reported that care services for the elderly in their home environment were at breaking point.³ The report makes for grim reading, with one care worker reporting that all too often they can only spend a bare fifteen minutes per day with their elderly and often weak patients.
     Disturbingly, the report also states that there are more than three hundred private domiciliary contractors in Northern Ireland, while care workers experience the lowest average hourly rate paid for domiciliary care in the United Kingdom.
     This surely raises the question, What need is served by having three private middlemen (or any middlemen), and at what cost to patients and care workers?
     Supporters of the Executive will claim that this is the price to be paid for maintaining the political institutions in the North, implying by extension that this is a necessary part of maintaining peace. However well intentioned, this is a mistaken argument, as the status quo in Stormont is, above all else, preserving sectarianised institutions serving a failing state.
     Ultimately the solution to this problem rests in replacing the flawed and failed institutions on both sides of the border with the establishment of a workers’ republic. This should not be interpreted to mean that we have to postpone challenging the Northern Executive’s neo-liberal programme in the here and now. Building a workers’ state is not something that comes about spontaneously or without struggle. Highlighting the flaws within capitalism and campaigning to overcome even some of them are important aspects of that struggle.
     The Northern state’s political institutions may indeed have become something of a farce, but the real tragedy would be if we fail to expose them, or hesitate to organise resistance to these injustices.

1. Letter to Prime Minister from First Minister and Deputy First Minister, 10 August 2016, at http://bit.ly/2b2LFPL.
2. Devolution Settlement: Northern Ireland, at http://bit.ly/2cdLZ1F.
3. Marie-Louise Connolly, “Elderly home care services in NI ‘at breaking point’,” BBC News, 29 October 2015.

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