This article, written by John McAnulty, first appeared in the March/April issue of Socialist Democracy (Ireland)
The 2011 elections in the North of Ireland marked a substantial victory for capitalism. It marked the first point where one Stormont administration morphed into another via election, without the collapse of the government.
That modest success quickly became a much more substantial victory. The election was preceded by the killing of a Catholic police constable by republicans and the election was settled in advance in a wave of hysteria where, church, state, political parties, sporting and cultural bodies, and trade unions all united to indicate rabid support for the new dispensation and to assert, yet again, that the only alternative to the sectarian and colonial settlement was bloody war. The election result saw the consolidation of Sinn Fein and the DUP in power and the continuing decay of the other capitalist parties. The small socialist movement no longer opposes the settlement and the candidates looked to be Left representatives in the assembly rather than a focus of opposition to it. The republican organization, Eirigi, staged a political opposition in some limited areas but has yet to consolidate that base.
The election victory was all the more substantial when one considers that the DUP and Sinn Fein went into the election promising an austerity programme of £400 million.
The new administration faced a major public sector strike and mass demonstrations in November, but the union leaderships, with a long history of partnership, quickly returned to negotiating the implementation of the cuts.
So, on neither the grounds of the national question and democracy, nor on grounds of austerity and class oppression, does the Northern administration face any serious opposition. This however is not enough to guarantee the final victory of imperialism. To assess the stability of the settlement we need to look at the underlying mechanisms.
One element of instability is the increasing sectarian polarisation of Northern society. In a political system organized around sectarian rights, support gravitates towards the most effective exponents of these rights. As a result the SDLP and Ulster Unionist parties are in terminal decline, with the most recent leader of the Unionists resigning after 18 months in office.
Politics has simplified itself to two large confessional blocks of the DUP and Sinn Fein. The Alliance Party, which claimed to stand outside sectarianism, has been plugged in as permanent “neutral” holders of the justice ministry. In fact they act as proxies for the DUP.
The sectarian structure is usually in a state of paralysis. Only reactionary legislation which is in the class interest of both groups gets through relaxation of planning laws, reduced rates for small business, a plan to subsidize corporation tax and, of course, a £400 million austerity programme. A promised “peace dividend” boom turned out to be a property bubble that has now imploded.
The original claim of Sinn Fein, that the settlement was a stepping stone to a united Ireland, has been discredited. Owen Paterson, British Secretary of State, announced that there were no plans of any sort to hold a referendum on the ending of Partition, much to the displeasure of Sinn Fein. The news caused hardly a ripple. In the aftermath of the election, Sinn Fein came out of the closet as a fully formed bourgeois Catholic party. The evolution is exactly in line with the new middle class, who accept British rule and that Unionists will get the majority of any share out, but are perfectly content as long as their share of patronage is guaranteed.
The general view is that the northern statelet will gradually evolve through slow reforms towards a less sectarian society. The evidence is against this also. A programme of cohesion, meant to be top of the agenda, has been stalled for years and initial drafts heavily criticized for their sectarian content and indifference to human rights. Provocative Orange marches lead to annual crises. The jewel in Sinn Fein’s crown – a non-selective education system – has proved impossible to deliver.
In fact the stabilizing mechanism in the current setup is the willingness of Sinn Fein, and nationalists generally, to recognize unionism as top dog. A British commission suggested that there be a reform of the prison officers, almost entirely Protestant, mired in brutality and sectarianism. That reform would be purely symbolic. It was immediately ruled out by first minister, Peter Robinson, who indicated that traditional imperialist symbols would remain.
The prison reform was supposed to mirror the Patton reforms of the police, but just how spurious that reform was, was revealed when it was disclosed that 500 officers, at the heart of an organisation seen to be involved in sectarian killing and removed by the payment of what was described as the world’s most lavish redundancy package, had immediately been rehired as civilian advisors in the same posts. A report by the Joseph Rowntree foundation in February has indicated that the composition of the police force is in any case falling from the high point of 33% Catholic recruitment, with Catholic police more likely to leave the force.
The freedom for the DUP to set the agenda is not reflected in similar freedom for Sinn Fein. Shortly after the police row the Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, Niall Ó Donnghaile, was forced to make an abject apology when, while awarding Duke of Edinburgh medals, he arranged for someone else to present an award to a British army cadet. In case the apology did not stick, Martin McGuinness repeated it in Stormont.
The top dog mechanism does not stop in the Assembly. It extends to the streets. In June last year the UVF staged a mass attack on the nationalist enclave of Short Strand. The organizers were rushed to meetings with the First and Deputy First Ministers and offered major concessions. UVF trials involving almost the entire leadership collapsed when the judge interpreted the evidence on the narrowest of grounds, allowing them to continue as the “representatives of the protestant working class” and to set up to head civic society and receive grants in loyalist areas. Recently a feud has broken out in the UVF, with attempted assassinations and bomb attacks ignored by the authorities. A shocking event, where a film crew were attacked by a mob because some extras were Catholics and one young man almost beaten to death, was quickly covered up. One Unionist MLA dismissed it as a storm in a teacup.
Similar tolerance is not extended to republicans. Protestors against Orange demonstrations face punitive sentences. Marian Price is interned in solitary confinement for holding a piece of paper.
The picture painted above is one of corruption but not of collapse. There are many mechanisms supporting the settlement. Much of the complacency in the face of corruption is based on widespread bribery and the distribution of peace funds.
The system has the frantic support of the Irish bourgeoisie, as evidenced by their hysteric adulation of the British Queen and by the campaign to support the Shinners by joining Ireland’s foremost cultural event, the Fleadh Cheoil, to the British ‘City of Culture’ in Derry.
The nationalist population, who used to have an anti-imperialist and democratic tradition, has largely internalised the confessional understanding on which the political institutions are based. Many believe in a benign sectarianism where resources can be shared out while avoiding violence and conflict. Capitulation is presented as cultural reconciliation.
The Irish trade union movement is highly bureaucratised and linked to the state. It gives unconditional support to the new institutions and is rabidly hostile to any challenge.
There are elements that indicate that the life-span of the new statelet is not indefinite. The prestige of the Irish bourgeoisie is in decline. At the time of the peace process they rode the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Now they lead a merciless offensive on Irish workers. The price paid by Sinn Fein has been the decay of their northern working class base. This has expressed itself as apathy, but there are signs of a minor resurgence in republicanism that may eat away at the Shinners. They hope to continue their advance by becoming the new Fianna Fail party in the South, but even in the remote event they are successful, they will quickly be forced to give up their attempts to base themselves in working class areas. The dominant factor is the crisis of the working class organisations. The traditional organisations have been unable to adapt to the crisis of capitalism. A new movement is on its way that will head a massive confrontation between labour and capital on a world scale. This renewal, expressed in Ireland, will pose a major challenge to the imperialist settlement.
In any case Marxists have the duty we have tried to express in this article, to strip away the mask of hypocrisy and pretence that obscures the Irish peace process and unveil the savage mechanisms of sectarianism, colonialism and class interest that lie beneath.