As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland, Sean Ledwith looks at the current state of affairs
Voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls on 2nd March for the second time within ten months to elect new representatives for the devolved Stormont Assembly. The snap election was called in January following the collapse of the previous administration amid allegations of malpractice at the highest level in the so-called cash for ash scandal. The political fall-out of the crisis has led some commentators to predict a return to the worst days of the Troubles that plagued the province in the last three decades of the twentieth century and which cost three thousand lives. For various reasons, such an outcome is unlikely, but there is no doubt that the status quo that has prevailed since the 1998 Good Friday agreement is in danger of collapse due to an accumulation of economic stagnation and political corruption over recent years. The specific crisis at Stormont has also been exacerbated by the wider implications of Brexit as it affects the rest of the UK. For the first time in a generation, many working-class voters in Northern Ireland are perceiving not just the possibility of resistance that crosses the entrenched sectarian divide within the six counties, but also the potential for united struggle with the exploited south of the border.
The trigger for the current crisis was the inability of First Minister Arlene Foster to extract herself from the cloud of suspicion surrounding her involvement in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. In her previous role as Trade Minister in 2012, Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party had overseen the programme devised to encourage private sector businesses to convert fossil fuel heating systems to more sustainable biomass-based technology. The incentive scheme gave the green light to unscrupulous bosses to pocket the financial top-up with cynical scams such as allegedly heating empty sheds 24/7! According to the devolved Department for the Economy, the RHI scam contracts are likely to cost Northern Ireland taxpayers almost half a billion pounds. A BBC documentary last year revealed that not only had Foster been alerted to the scandal in 2013 and chose to ignore it, but that her office had blocked an attempt by Jonathon Bell, her successor as Trade Minister, to crack down on the hand-outs. Pressure built up on Foster in the latter half of 2016 to come clean on her links to businesses that had benefitted from RHI. The resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness in January left her no choice but to step down according to a stipulation of the Good Friday Agreement that if the latter position is vacant a new administration needs to be formed. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire had the option of restoring direct rule from Westminster but chose to call new elections in the hope that the DUP and Sinn Fein will come up with a rebooted version of the power-sharing system that has prevailed since 1998. The latter, however, have stated they will not serve in another administration headed by Foster until the RHI scandal is fully investigated.
Dragged through mud
The cash for ash scandal is not an isolated case of Stormont-based corruption. A number of similar episodes in recent years have dragged the reputation of the Assembly through the mud and reduced its legitimacy in the eyes of many in the province. Seven years ago another TV documentary exposed how the Red Sky housing maintenance company was culpable of shoddy standards and overcharging in their management of social housing. Once again, the case implicated members of the DUP in covering up the scandal. In 2014 Namagate ultimately forced Foster’s predecessor as First Minister, Peter Robinson, out of politics amid allegations that he benefitted by up to £7 million for his links to the National Asset Management Agency that was set up to manage toxic loans in the South. Sinn Fein has not been untouched by the miasma of sleaze that has settled over Stormont. In the same year, it was embarrassed by revelations that 36 SF representatives had claimed up to £700 000 in expenses from Research Services Ireland, a company run by other Sinn Fein officials! The cumulative effect of these and other cases of malpractice has resulted in Stormont becoming the focus of the same public disillusionment and anti-establishment anger that affects other major Western capitals in the post-2008 crash era.
Austerity and resistance
The shortcomings of Stormont politicians has been highlighted even more by the demands they have made on the public to take on the economic burden of responding to the ongoing recession. In 2015, the DUP and SF, the two dominant parties in the Assembly, announced a Fresh Start programme designed to rebrand the Assembly as a flagship for cross-sectarian cooperation and consensus politics. The rhetoric of the initiative was largely hot air but it did reflect the unspoken reality that both parties were committed to accepting the neoliberal mantra of cutting the public sector and corporate taxation as the primary ways of bringing the Northern Ireland economy out of recession. Both parties signed up to a deal to bring the latter down to 12.5% and at the same time to shed 20 000 public sector jobs. These were in crucial areas of social provision such as mental health, education and day-care centres. The GDP of the Northern Ireland economy is overwhelmingly based on the public sector which also employs about a third of the population. The Stormont House Agreement was posited on cutting those services by £1.3 billion or 30% of all government departments’ spending. The cosy DUP-SF stitch-up, however, was rocked by a huge public sector strike in March 2015 which saw tens of thousands of workers come out for one day to express their ire at a diabolical assault on society’s most needy and vulnerable. Both the cuts and the strike were particularly embarrassing for Sinn Fein which in recent years has been trying to position itself as the Irish equivalent of Podemos or Syriza by catching the breeze of the anti-capitalist zeitgeist of the 21stcentury. The upsurge of public defiance forced the party in the same year to perform a U-turn on its support for a Welfare Reform Bill
The belated climb-down was symptomatic of the contradictions that characterise Sinn Fein’s post-Good Friday attempts to both appeal to the deepening radicalisation of Irish workers - on both sides of the border -and to make itself acceptable to the predatory corporations and financiers that wish to turn the whole island into a low-tax, low-wage haven of neoliberalism. In the North, SF has found itself implementing austerity alongside its power-sharing partners in the DUP, while in the South, the party has sought to become the key electoral alternative to the Fine Gael-Fianna Fail duopoly of power. The party’s reluctance to rock the Stormont boat was exemplified during the RHI scandal at the end of last year when it initially avoided calls for Foster to step down in a desperate attempt to keep the increasingly bankrupt status quo afloat.
The creation of the power-sharing executive into which SF has invested all its political energy since 1998 has undoubtedly reduced the shadow of the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland politics. However, the fundamental fissures of sectarianism and inequality have been largely untouched. Two years ago the DUP threatened to walk out of the Assembly over the killing of Kevin McGuigan at the hands of the IRA. The party claimed the event indicated the ongoing threat of the Provos, but the reality is there is no appetite among working class Nationalists for a return to the military campaign of the 1970s and 1980s. The DUP’s faux outrage at the low-level activities of the IRA is exposed as hypocritical posturing by its own ongoing links with the loyalist killers of the UDA. The occasional fare-up of the Troubles enables politicians on both sides of the Green-Orange divide to distract attention from their collective failure to address the economic inequality that plagues the province. A government report from 2015 concluded:
Northern Ireland is still an area with living standards well below those for the rest of the United Kingdom. In particular, the trend is the number of working-age adults on lower incomes has tended to increase when it has been decreasing in the rest of Britain. The most affluent fifth of the population has benefited from a 6% increase in income in the past year, while households in the bottom fifth have seen their income fall by 6%.
Beyond the border
The best outcome of the upcoming Stormont elections would be further success for the People Before Profit-Anti Austerity Alliance which currently has two MLAs in the Assembly. One of these is veteran Irish socialist Eamon McCann who has demonstrated over the last few months how effective left-wing politicians can provide a powerful voice for wider social movements. McCann and his comrades provide the best hope for radical Irish politics to move beyond the rotten establishments on either side of the border.