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Workers mobilisations, North and South, have upset the applecart

The Sinn Fein U-turn on the Stormont house agreement is very good news for the battle against austerity. The organisation was attempting to speak out of both sides of its mouth – enforcing austerity in the North while opposing it in the South. It is possible to get away with this when working people are passive and demoralised. When there is the beginning of a mobilisation in the North and hundreds of thousands on the streets in the South the whole house of cards comes falling down. 

That does not mean that Sinn Fein is now an anti-austerity party. Its disagreement with the DUP and the British is on the very narrow grounds of top-ups to welfare payments which were to be paid through a complex set of “poor law” boards.  It claims not to have known that the line of credit set aside to protect the vulnerable was not enough to protect everyone and also not to have known that it was a transitional arrangement that would last for a few years. Yet benefit cuts are just a tiny fraction of the misery that Stormont house would inflict on us and within benefit cuts, top-ups to cuts are only a tiny part of the story. For example, the agreement has a long section on sanctions designed to force you off benefits unless you accept zero hour and more or less zero wage contracts offered by employers. People offered help to offset the bedroom tax will be asked to sign an agreement that they will accept alternative residence anywhere in the North. At the moment private firms are being used to hound the unemployed and leave them without the means to survive.

An important element in driving down wages and living standards is 20,000 public sector redundancies. Nonsensically Sinn Fein claimed that redundancies are not loss of jobs, but loss of posts. All the parties have signed up to the Thatcherite ideology that private industry will take up the slack. This is very unlikely to happen on the scale needed and is in any case depends on benefits cuts and the loss of public sector jobs to push wage rates through the floor.

Little is said about privatisation. Sinn Fein is comfortable with the process.  They are enthusiastic supporters of Public Private Investment schemes, of a “transform you care” scheme that will aid the privatisation of health and social care, and the effective privatisation of housing stock. The privatisation process will be a bonanza for the well-off, another mechanism to increase redundancies and wage cuts and, in the local context, increase political and sectarian patronage when public employment standards no longer apply.

On corporation tax Sinn Fein speak in tongues. They have frequently indicated support but, as it becomes obvious that the money will come straight from the welfare budget, they talk about further consultation and guarantees.

The Sinn Fein programme in the South should not be ignored. Each year they produce an alternate budget that is carefully costed to match, Euro for Euro, the budget dictated by the Troika and containing all the bailout payments.  Essentially they are claiming that they will walk on water – protecting the poor while paying the bankers – exactly the three-card trick they were trying with the Stormont House agreement.

A battle won, not the war

The battle against austerity has won a battle but not the war. Either Sinn Fein falls back into line or the British step forward and make the cuts themselves.  In any case the battlefield will not be parliamentary manoeuvres or backroom deals – the battle will be fought and won on the streets and in the workplace.

If we are to win that battle we must greatly strengthen our movement. We need a broad, democratic and open movement. At the moment leadership is restricted to a section of the public service unions, themselves a sector of the broader trade union movement. There is no open democratic forum to represent political and community activists. Given the impact of the existing movement, it is easy to see how much more powerful a broader and more open movement would be.

Impossible strategy

But the big weakness of out movement is political. ICTU leader Peter Bunting, who rejected the austerity and is leading the current mobilisation, last year issued a statement with church leaders calling on the parties to strike a deal - any deal - as long as the current political settlement is preserved. In the face of austerity the unions decided to fudge. They have announced that they will ignore the political aspect of the deal and that the focus of the anti-austerity drive will be to force the politicians to change their minds.

Yet the U-turn by Sinn Fein shows this strategy is impossible. Any backsliding on austerity calls the existence of the local administration into question. Which option does the trade union movement choose? Fighting austerity or preserving Stormont?

Above all the crisis underlines the fact that trade union non-sectarianism neutrality on political divisions ends up as acceptance of sectarianism. An organisation that represents the Irish working class has frantically supported a political settlement that permanently divides the workers and feeds off sectarianism. 

It abstains on the political fallout of Stormont House. The claim here is that little happened. A new set of talking shops around the past and disputes around flags and marches kicked down the road.

Sectarian carve-up

The Stormont house agreement was not simply an economic deal. The political element represented a triumph for Loyalism and a further lurch to the right.   In the furore about welfare cuts it has been forgotten that the original crisis of the local administration was political. The crisis was described as being about unresolved elements in the peace process; the past, flags and emblems and Orange marches. Yet all these issues had been resolved in successive amendments to the Good Friday agreement, all of which had driven it to the right and reshaped it in the interests of unionism.  Unionism could not hold even to agreements that they themselves had been party to. Gregory Campbell summed the unionist position up to cheers at the 2014 DUP conference – demands by Sinn Fein might as well be written on toilet paper as far as he was concerned.

All the attempts to win unionism to consensus have come to naught. We face a future of flegs and marches, of political reaction rewritten as cultural rights, of sectarian division which does what it has always done – divides the workers and drives down our living conditions and our democratic rights. From this perspective, rather than concern about the political crisis, we should call openly for the closure of an institution that enforces austerity while simultaneously serving as a fountain of corruption and sectarian division.

Yet we can also see the first glimmerings of an alternative – the possibility of a mobilisation across Ireland that will assert working class rights and dignity, of reaching out to workers in Britain and Europe to build a socialist society. 


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