Can our side benefit as the Northern Ireland power-sharing fix unravels, asks Chris Bambery
Northern Ireland will be heading to the polls after Sinn Féin’s Martin Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister. His resignation, and Sinn Féin’s refusal to replace him, brought down Northern Ireland’s First minister, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Northern Ireland’s devolved administration has a series of checks and balances built into it as part of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, agreed between the British and Irish governments, the main political parties in Northern Ireland, and with the approval of the United States. One of those is that if the Deputy First Minister goes so does the First Minister. The whole thing is based on creating power sharing between Unionists and Nationalists.
In nearly two decades what has been striking is the ability of the DUP and Sinn Féin to work together in coalition.
The current scandal dates back to Arlene Foster’s tenure as Minister of the Economy when she presided over the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI), supposedly created to boost the consumption of heat from renewable sources. Businesses, farmers and other, non-consumer users were offered huge sums to use biomass boilers that burned wooden pellets.
Reports quickly circulated that the money was being pocketed on an epic scale. Early last year one whistleblower revealed a farmer had made £1 million by renting an empty shed.
It is incredible how hard Sinn Féin worked to prevent Foster and her party being brought to book.
Just before Xmas the Northern Ireland Assembly voted, by a majority of three, for Foster to resign. It did not count because in order for that to happen it would require a majority of both Unionist and Nationalist members to vote for it. Members of the Assembly are urged to identify with one of those camps, which most do.
The DUP voted against but Sinn Féin abstained, arguing they’d put their own motion in January which should be voted for.
Because the Assembly and the Northern Ireland political system is based on formalising these two “identities” across the political process it means politicians concentrate on looking after “their” community. It encourages pork barrel politics which can easily pass over into outright corruption.
McGuinness’s resignation only came after public anger over the money which had gone up in smoke under Foster’s watch had meant they were in danger of being caught in the mire too.
People Before Profit Alliance, which topped the poll in West Belfast in last year’s Assembly elections and had Eamonn McCann elected in Derry had been calling for new elections as the only way out. McCann not just called for Foster to quit and for the whole case to be investigated by the Justice Minister but also questioned the whole political set up:
“It’s not just Arlene Foster and the DUP whose credentials must be judged by the people. It is the whole set up based on striking a balance between orange and green. The fact that our political system is constructed around the idea of communal identity has been a factor in allowing some politicians to believe—as is evident in this case—that they can get away with anything, so long as it doesn’t disrupt the solidity of either the orange or the green blocks.”
Gerry Carroll, the People Before Profit Alliance MLA for West Belfast pointed out:
“RHI goes to the heart of the rotten politics of the Executive. People are sleeping rough on our streets. Food banks are reporting a record number of service users. And across West Belfast, workers and community groups have had to face wage freezes and job cuts, as politicians tell them that there simply is no money left. But there is money. £600 million was found to literally burn. It was always a question of priorities.”
Their message is one of working class unity, irrespective of what community people come from, and for independent working class politics.
For Sinn Féin there is the problem that they and the DUP have been in charge for so long they have become identified with each other. That has translated not just into the success of the People Before Profit Alliance but also into 40% not voting in last year’s elections. In Northern Ireland it was a standing joke that even the dead voted in what was often a sectarian head count.
One problem is that post-election if Sinn Féin does not agree to re-enter a coalition with the DUP the Theresa May government might re-impose direct rule from London, which would be seen as a step backwards. The party is now caught between two bad options.
The DUP has leverage at Westminster, where it has eight MPs. Prior to the 2015 UK general election, David Cameron assiduously courted them in case he was in charge of a minority government, as then seemed likely. With a narrow majority May will also want to keep them sweet.
And beyond this there is Brexit. The vote in Northern Ireland was to Remain, only the DUP among the big parties backed Leave. It shares a soft border with the Irish Republic, and no-one wants a return to check points and custom’s posts. Yet it is hard to see how all this can be reconciled at the chances of a Hard Brexit grow.
The biggest danger is that this election can be reduced to a sectarian choice, with Sinn Féin and DUP arguing voters need to rally behind their own community leaders. That might squeeze the People Before Profit Alliance. On the other hand they benefit from outrage over corruption and how Northern Ireland has been governed.
This will be a hard fought battle. But when it’s over the question might well be whether it’s time for Northern Ireland to move on from an entrenched political set up based on a simple choice between two camps.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.