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Early days of Assembly show shape of things to come

JM Thorn 

25 May 2007

Although the Assembly has only been up and running for a couple weeks it has already provided ample evidence of its reactionary character.  This was on display in the opening debates.  The first motion on the agenda was one proposed by the Ulster Unionist Party calling for the Assembly to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).  Its proposer, the Rev Robert Coulter, argued that if the Assembly were to rejoin the association with other legislatures across the world, it would bring real and tangible benefits.  "It would put them in the mainstream of a worldwide association and embed this Assembly where it rightly belongs - alongside the other democratic legislatures," he said.  According to Coulter, the CPA was vehicle for promoting democracy and human rights throughout the world.  The fact that the CPA counts Cameroon, Maldives, Lesotho and Swaziland among its members would cast some doubt on these claims.  However, the motion had absolutely nothing to do with the merits or otherwise if the CPA.  This obscure body was merely a convenient prop through which the unionists could demonstrate that the political structures in the north are firmly pro-British.  This was made very clear by First Minister Ian Paisley.  He said he was supporting the motion because it demonstrated that “Ulster” was “part of the Commonwealth and part of the United Kingdom” and that “through this motion, we salute Her Majesty.” 

In proposing this motion, unionists were taking the earliest opportunity to provocatively wave a union jack in the face of nationalists.  What was the reaction of Sinn Fein to this?  Under the weighted voting regulations of the Assembly they had the power to veto this motion.  Instead, they abstained, allowing the motion to pass.  Mitchel McLaughlin justified his party’s stance.  He dismissed the motion as unimportant and not being a “primary matter of interest” for them.  This being the case Sinn Fein would therefore “not create any obstacles to those who feel it reflects their particular cultural, political and social affinity."  In this schema, politics are reduced to the level of cultural expression in which everyone’s opinion, no matter how reactionary, is given recognition.  Saluting the Queen and celebrating the dregs of the British Empire are accepted by Sinn Fein as a means of being reconciled with unionists and Protestants.  The fact is that it does nothing of the sort.  It writes off the Protestant population as hopelessly reactionary, and emboldens the sectarianism of unionists.  Evidence for this came almost immediately when the unionists vetoed a motion from Sinn Fein calling for a creation working group at the Assembly to examine the under presentation of women (only 18 out of 108 Assembly members are women).  If Sinn Fein thought their gesture towards the unionists would be reciprocated they were mistaken.  The motion was defeated and replaced by an amended version, calling for the “merit principle” to be maintained and for the issue of gender equality to be referred to the office of First Minister.  While this motion was nothing more than a piece of progressive posturing form Sinn Fein, the fact that the unionists vetoed it demonstrates that they will not even tolerate gestures towards equality. 

Ironically, the following day, Ian Paisley was addressing an international conference on gender equality.  He told the delegates he understood that they had “come to Northern Ireland to learn from us”.  And what was the key concept he wanted them to learn.  It certainly wasn’t equality. No, the key concept for Paisley was “diversity”.   This has been one of the buzzwords of the peace process, but it isn’t interchangeable with equality, certainly not in Paisley’s interpretation.  Unionists can happily live with diversity because it does not threaten their sectarian privileges.  Indeed, in this schema they are actually legitimised.  The second week of Assembly debates followed a similar pattern to the first with the unionists acting as the hammer of anything mildly progressive.  Sinn Fein were posturing again with a motion calling for the creation a single equality bill to bring together different legislation outlawing discrimination.  In some ways this would actually have diluted anti-discrimination legislation by putting the most significant form of discrimination in the northern state, religious discrimination, on a par with race, age or disability discrimination.  Nevertheless, the very fact that the motion was about equality was enough for them to veto it.  They argued that claims of anti-Catholic discrimination were a myth and a “politicised mantra”, and that it was actually Protestants who were being discriminated against.  In his contribution to the debate, Martin McGuinness said that the Assembly needed “to send a signal to all that our future will be based on justice, equality and protection from discrimination."  Yet, it actually sent out the opposite signal that unionists will do everything to prevent this.  They do not accept equality and will demonstrate this by slapping down nationalists on every opportunity they get.  The unionists, particularly the DUP, have to show their supporters that while nationalists may be in the Government they are not there on an equal basis. Unionists have to show that they have the whip hand.  This is why they have been targeting the crumbs that Sinn Fein won in the St Andrews Agreement.  For example, the DUP’s Gregory Campbell has said that his party will veto an Irish language Act, saying that the agenda of the executive would be “about making up (the funding gap) for Ulster-Scots rather than extending the Irish language."

The response of Sinn Fein to these provocations is to capitulate even more in the hope that this will produce some reciprocity from unionists.   One of the most despicable examples of this is its decision to send representatives to series of events marking the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Messines.  This was a slaughter in which 42,000 soldiers, a high proposition of them Irish, were killed.  Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson justified her party’s attendance at this event on the basis of acknowledging its importance "others in the community" (unionists).  The Great War is absolved of condemnation because many of the Irish soldiers who volunteered “believed it was the right thing to do”.   However, this isn’t just about the past.  Unionists mark these events to reaffirm their loyalty to British imperialism.  The same people who line up at WW1 commemorations are also foursquare behind the latest imperialist slaughter in Iraq.  By acknowledging Messines Sinn Fein are also accommodating to imperialism in its current guise.  Politics is stripped of any substance and reduced to showing sensitivity to people’s feelings.  This subjectivism took a farcical form when Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy asked his civil servants to use language to describe the northern state that he was comfortable with.  He assured unionists that that was not meant as a slight or a questioning of the legitimacy of the state institutions but merely a personal preference. 

The first few weeks of the assembly provide a strong indication of how things should develop.  Sinn Fein will continue to strike progressive poses while accommodating to every reactionary demand from unionists.  Nationalist commentators take solace in the belief that they have a veto over unionists.  But in reality they dare not use it as this would bring the edifice of settlement crashing down.  Sinn Fein are determined to hang on to their seats in government no matter what, even this means being slapped down and humiliated by unionists every week.


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