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A tale of two halves

DUP collapses Northern executive

Sinn Féin, unions struggle to save partition

7 February 2022

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson addresses MPs and MLAs
at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Belfast

At one level the story of the latest crisis is easily told. The main unionist organisation, the Democratic Unionist Party, is collapsing the administration and has declared a new one will not be formed if their demands are not met.

What is new is the chorus of calls from nationalists and other groups calling for them to reverse course and save the assembly. The public discourse was summed up by a small demonstration at Belfast City Hall, supported by the local Communist Party, demanding that our "broken politics" be fixed.

What gives?

Isn't it the unionists who want a partitionist assembly and the nationalists who want it to be replaced with a United Ireland?

The Unionist position is easy to understand. A far-right party, they were enthusiastic Brexiteers. The Unionists have never supported the political settlement and they believed that Brexit would deliver a land border in Ireland and unravel the Good Friday Agreement. This allowed them to ignore a substantial section of their own supporters who were concerned about the economic consequences of an exit from Europe.

In the event the British betrayed them with the Northern Ireland Protocol, producing a trade barrier between Britain and the North. Support fell. The more liberal voters moved towards the pro-European Alliance party. The right, angered by the protocol, moved towards the ultraright Traditional Unionist Voice.

The DUP will almost certainly remain the major Unionist party. However, a fragmented Unionist vote would leave Sinn Féin holding the First Minister’s title. The rules require that the DUP nominate a Deputy First Minister. Neither they nor any Unionist party will agree that they will accept this. From their perspective the whole basis of the Northern state is Protestant supremacy. The political institutions will collapse yet again.

The outcome of Brexit saw a bloodbath in the DUP.  Coup was followed by countercoup. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson managed to unseat Edwin Poots, who had unseated Arlene Foster, and claimed to be a safe pair of hands, navigating back towards a secure majority.

He has limited cards to play; note sadly the dangers of sectarian rioting by his followers; constantly threaten to withdraw from the Stormont executive; condemn the protocol without pinning everything on its abolition and above all; fall back into line behind Boris and the Tories and hope there are no further betrayals.

The Stormont pull-out has been carefully choreographed following a meeting between loyalists and British foreign minister Liz Truss. They intend to settle with Europe, with the Northern Ireland Protocol still in place, and claim overwhelming victory. The DUP pull-out adds an extra element of pressure in the final negotiations and they can then join in the British victory celebrations.

This is the best option available, but it is unlikely to reverse Unionist fragmentation, so the tide of sectarianism will rise, with Donaldson calling for Unionist unity to defeat the Catholic menace. The post-election period will see yet another political collapse.

At a certain level the Sinn Féin case is equally straightforward. Decades of struggle for British withdrawal transformed into the administration of a British state. This must be presented as victory and as a stepping stone to a united Ireland. The leadership point to their position as the dominant nationalist party in the North and growing electoral strength in the South. They assert that their electoral assets will lead to the British calling a border poll and then withdrawing from Ireland.

Their claims of victory are based on the clear improvement in the fortunes of the nationalist middle class. They now have a share of political power and the resources and patronage that flow from that. Equality mechanisms have shown more openings for the professional classes.

However, these gains come at a price, with the weak point power being the power sharing executive.  It is constantly asserted that the executive operates on a basis of equality, but in reality, unionism has the ear of Britain and constantly manoeuvres to restore one party rule. Sinn Féin's assertion of victory and their good standing with Irish capitalism depend on maintaining the executive and their ministerial positions. They do this by making constant concessions to Unionist bigotry.
The ideology that justifies this is proclamations of utility. All the parties demand that the DUP return to the Executive so that they can efficiently manage the administration and meet the needs of the population.

This ideology is entirely fictional. Stormont frequently collapses and the administration is carried on by the Civil Service and a handful of British junior ministers. The executive operates by mutual veto and hence is almost entirely ineffective.  Their response to the covid pandemic has run up against DUP denialism and the task of government is to disguise this failure. Not only do they fail in everyday administration, they fail in foundational documents that are supposed to copper fasten the running of Stormont. For example, the last policy document: New Decade - New Approach, was agreed by London and Dublin without the Stormont parties. The DUP were pressed to sign but renegued on abortion and Irish language legislation, forcing Westminster to go over their head.

Perhaps the most extreme pleading comes from the trade union leaders and their camp followers on the left.

Speaking to trade union leaders today, ICTU Assistant General Secretary Owen Reidy said:

“...a withdrawal from government, at this time and on this issue, is nevertheless damaging. This undermines the devolved settlement which destabilises the crucial and important strand 1 relationship of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and further undermines the public’s confidence in devolution as many things which need to be done now, will not now be completed….
...It is essential that all local politicians and all representative bodies in civic society seek to make local devolution work in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. The announcement today of the DUP to leave the NI Executive makes this more difficult, but even more necessary.”
The test case for devolution is the argument that a new plan for the health service needs to be put in place, yet all that is happening is that the deckchairs are being rearranged. Money is being taken from education and other public services, yet covid demonstrated the poor state of the service and political manipulation to disguise conflict in the executive.  The overall health strategy is for further privatisation of the service.

The union line of "let's make partition work" continues a policy of neutrality on the national question that extends back to the foundation of the state. It reduces to support for unionism and British rule and blocks the emergence of a workers' opposition based on a critique of partition. This support is so extreme that when the last but one restoration of Stormont went through at the end of 2015, the unions accepted a major austerity plan in order to secure the new administration. Strike and protest activity have been at a low ebb in the years since.

The coming period will be marked by chaos involving two elements: Brexit and power sharing.  It seems certain that the British will strike a deal and claim victory. In any case Boris and company have demonstrated that they have no coherent plan. British manufacturing economy will continue to decline and the Tories will increase attacks on civil rights and workers living standards. Their strongest card is Labour.  Their solution is to embrace the Tory right and beg for the opportunity to produce a better Brexit.

A version of the Northern Ireland protocol will continue in place, with that and a revolt against power-sharing with Sinn Féin leading to further fragmentation of Unionism. The executive will only be reconstituted through an imaginative form of capitulation by Sinn Féin, swearing that the unionists are still top dog. The whole shebang will be held together by the corrupt sectarian share out of resources at council level and by the complacency of the nationalist middle class and the determination of Irish nationalism and the trade union leaders to keep the decrepit structures in places.

There are of course alternatives - a United Socialist States of Europe as an alternative to Brexit, a democratic and socialist unitary Irish state as an alternative to partition.

It will take time to build an alternative. The existing structures will continue to decay, but they will not collapse by themselves. That will require an act of will by their victims in the working class.  The greater the decay, the less effort will he needed and more urgently it will need to be undertaken.

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