The following statement from Socialist Democracy (Ireland) addresses the Stormont Assembly elections on May 5th and examines the further hardening of sectarianism and the future of the Good Friday Agreement if the DUP no longer holds the First Minister’s role for the Unionists
SOCIALIST DEMOCRACY (IRELAND) STATEMENT ON THE STORMONT ASSEMBLY ELECTION
No to sectarianism
No to partition
For workers unity
For a Workers’ Republic
The Stormont Assembly election is shaping up to be one of the most sectarian in living memory as the DUP seeks to rally its supporters to prevent a nationalist claiming the post of First Minister. While this is essentially the same campaign the DUP has run in every election since emerging as the leading party of unionism the debacle for the party over Brexit and the NI Protocol – and its decline in popularity – has seen the scare tactics and rhetoric ramped up to a higher level.
That sectarianism continues to be driving force of politics in the north goes beyond the current upheavals within the DUP. It persists because it is the foundation of the northern state and is also baked into the institutions – the Executive and Assembly and the whole range of public bodies – that were brought into existence by the Good Friday Agreement.
These institutions operate on the basis of the sharing out of sectarian patronage. But because it is sectarian there cannot be an equal share. It only works if one community has an advantage – no matter how marginal or symbolic. This is why who occupies the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister have taken on such importance as it provides a very visible demonstration of who is on top. That the Executive can only exist when unionists are seen to be in a superior position (and nationalists in an inferior one) – and that even the possibility of the reverse throws the whole system into crisis – shows the inequality that underpins it. The Assembly does not represent the fulfilment of civil rights but the entrenchment of community rights which, by their nature, are unequal.
Neither do the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement represent a transitional stage to a united Ireland. Rather they are intended as a final settlement. All the sponsors of the Agreement – whether that is the British government, Irish government, the US or the EU – favour the continuation of partition. Where there are gestures towards self-determination in the Agreement, they are highly qualified aspirations rather than practical mechanisms. A border poll is promoted by nationalists but the power to call one is completely in the hands of the British government which has already dismissed the possibility. Even if a border poll was held and won it would not mean the achievement of united Ireland as the various plans being put forward by the Irish government and nationalist parties for such a scenario represent nothing more than a repackaging of partition.
The Assembly and the Executive have a very poor record in terms of governance. They have been a byword for disfunction, incompetence and outright corruption. This was really exposed during the pandemic when the north was recording some of the highest infection and death rates in the developed world. The policy agenda adopted by the Executive has been a conservative one centred around pushing for greater privative sector involvement in education, housing and health. The option of using the taxation powers that the Executive possesses to support public services has been rejected. No progressive reforms of any note have been enacted. The most significant legislative changes – on Equal Marriage and abortion – have bypassed the devolved institutions completely. Indeed, since its restoration in 2020 the Executive has been frustrating women’s access to abortion by refusing to commission services.
The Executive offers mitigations rather than reforms. These are arrangements that partially ease the impact of austerity for a limited period. The best example of this is welfare reform when the DUP and Sinn Fein returned powers to the Westminster government in order to introduce the Bedroom Tax and Universal Credit. This was accompanied by a financial package that spared current claimants from these punitive measures. However, they are still in place for new claimants and over a period of time will become the norm for everyone.
The Assembly and Executive are not progressive in any way. Any group of working-class people who are struggling for civil rights, democratic rights and social reforms – or just fighting to hold on to what they have – will find themselves in conflict with these institutions. However, one of the problems they face is that the leadership of the organisations they would look to for support are completely invested in the status quo. In the north the trade unions are operating a form of social partnership which ties them into the Stormont system. They have accepted a role that limits them to lobbying for various mitigations. The trade union leaderships ruled themselves out acting as any sort of opposition years ago. Once they claimed that the Stormont institutions would shield workers; now they demand that workers make sacrifices to save the institutions.
Activists within the labour movement and in working class communities should have no illusions in Stormont. The type of society we want – a socialist society – that is free from sectarianism, free from oppression and exploitation – will only be brought into existence by an independent working-class movement. While such a movement does at the moment Socialist Democracy are willing to work with other organisations and individuals to help bring it into existence.
In this election we are asking people to vote for any candidate who stands for independent working-class politics, opposes partition and sectarianism, and is fully in support of women’s rights. In the absence of such candidates, we urge people to register a protest by writing “For a Workers’ Republic” on their ballot paper.