Sectarianism and austerity: Twin pillars of reaction
As 2014 drew to a close hosannas rang out from governments in Ireland, Britain, the US and Europe. The Stormont house agreement had been signed off at the last minute and the Irish peace process was yet again striding forward into the future.
The reality is that there was a hurried scrabbling together of documents to present the appearance of agreement - a desperate sticking plaster solution disguising the continuing decay of a rotten system.
To establish the truth of this assertion all one has to do is apply the Haass test. The Haass talks crashed and burned at the end of 2013 when the unionists rejected formulations on flags, parades and the past, themselves concessions made after they had reneged on earlier deals. How were these issues resolved in 2014?
The answer is that they weren't. In fact they were hardly discussed. The unionist ultra-right and paramilitaries split off from a unionist alliance at the start of the talks because they wanted the absolute right to assert sectarian privilege through Orange marches as a precondition to any discussion. The DUP's Gregory Campbell announced to cheers at their conference that Sinn Fein proposals might as well be written on toilet paper as far as his party is concerned and was then supported by party leader Robinson. It was crystal clear that there would be no accommodation by unionism.
The DUP could not and would not give way on issues of sectarian privilege and, despite tearful pleas from nationalist commentators, neither the British, the U S, nor Dublin had any intention of overruling them – Sinn Fein’s “friend” at the talks was Dublin’s foreign minister Charlie Flanagan, a Fine Gael Blueshirt and admirer of imperialism in general and Israel in particular who was denouncing Sinn Fein with the crudest sexual abuse within a week of the talks closure. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny also denounced Gerry Adams for holding back Martin McGuinness from instant capitulation.
There was no point in discussing the Haass proposals and therefore they weren't discussed. They were ignored completely until the closing chapters of the talks and then kicked down the road in a plethora of grants, quangos, committees and working papers. Insofar as any business was done it consisted of concessions to unionism with a few minor sops to Sinn Fein. The concessions to unionism are quite significant. The most significant of all is that the Haass proposals, and formal agreements that went before, have been wiped out. The unionists have a veto and there will be no overall settlement that does not concede to their bigotry.
The specific concessions express this reality: Plans to shrink the administration and thus the range of Sinn Fein’s patronage (unionism is built into local civic society and controls a great deal of patronage without the need for the Stormont administration). Plans to modify the administration to allow for an opposition – at present 5 parties have seats in government and the unionists want a “democratic” settlement where they rule alone. By far the most significant concession is the proposal that decisions on sectarian parades will be transferred to the office of the first minister and deputy first minister. Given that it is impossible that the DUP would accept restrictions on sectarian parades this is a major victory for the Orange bigots.
The concessions to Sinn Fein were that a major road project would go ahead and that a British proposal to hold an enquiry into a blocked Orange march in Belfast was taken off the table. A sign of the balance of power between the Shinners and the Unionists was indicated when all the Unionist parties, despite winning further concessions, protested the cancellation of the march enquiry, expressed dissatisfaction at the outcome, and have delayed signing off on the deal. Sinn Fein’s Ard Chomhairle immediately accepted proposals they had been denouncing weeks before. This includes a series of deadlines that apply only to Sinn Fein—any promises by unionism will come into effect after the elections
Rebalancing the economy
The real business of the talks was to agree an austerity budget that would include very sharp cuts in welfare payments. Claims that the peace process would include a peace dividend and provide economic growth proved false. The current capitalist policy is to rebalance the economy by shrinking the public sector. In practice rebalancing means the development of a low wage economy with the ill and deprived forced off benefits. Problematic anywhere, it is especially difficult in the North of Ireland where the collapse of traditional industries and lack of any real economic strategy has been partly offset by a reluctance to apply cuts too sharply while an armed revolt was still on and by the employment of a sizeable section of the population in a massive security sector. Application of British cuts will be devastating and the idea that local small-scale industry will take over or that there will be a large influx of transnational capital is fanciful.
Sinn Fein's strategy had been to demand that unionists honour their "equality" agenda in return for financial agreement. When that strategy proved unviable it was they who were caught in the pincers of a political trap.
By posing as a left party Sinn Fein now register as neck and neck with Fine Gael in the 26 county state. They are poised to replace Fianna Fail as the party of populist nationalism and aim for a place in a coalition government in Dublin following the coming elections.
So the question for Sinn Fein became: Are they best placed to do this as a party of the left who collapsed Stormont because they stood by the poor? Or as a party of government, a safe pair of hands able to take hard decisions in the interests of stability? In previous crises Sinn Fein have always answered; "party of government," and so it was today. The real meat of the discussions then became how to provide cover for the Shinners as they yet again sold out their supporters.
Sinn Fein proposed a better, fairer way of imposing the cuts. They demanded a hardship fund to offset the effects of austerity and new money from the British. There are a whole series of problems with that approach.
The most obvious problem is that there no point in a policy that negates austerity inside an austerity budget. A hardship fund would shift elements of welfare from a right to an optional benefit that must be applied for.
So even on the grounds of providing cover for the sell out Sinn Fein suffered a serious defeat. Their main aim had been to increase the cash offer from the British to prove that they had successfully blunted the benefits cuts agenda. Instead they were offered a line of credit. The money available would always be too little and would rapidly shrink. The relatively small sum of £70 million has been set aside over five years. There is no new money. The line of credit will create pressure to keep hardship payments to a minimum. An increase in indebtedness through the credit facility will also increase the pressure to sell off public resources. Water privatisation is an obvious candidate.
In any case the austerity policy, a massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists, does not reduce down to welfare reform. It includes a unprecedented cut in public services that will see massive redundancies (700 million has been set aside for public sector redundancies). This shrinkage of public service will see the transfer of services to "social entrepreneurs" with consequent cuts in services and wages and mass profiteering. In addition there will be a fire sale of public resources, with Belfast Harbour top of the list.
When the Sinn Fein/DUP have worked their way through these opportunities to enrich themselves, the transfer of a further £200 million a year from workers to capitalists will enable them to bribe transnational companies with the offer of 12.5% corporation tax.
A Mafia statelet
The fact is that Sinn Fein has very few levers to shift British policy. The British want the pantomime at Stormont to continue but, such is the decay in popular consciousness, that its failure would not lead to any immediate revival of rebellion, while for Sinn Fein it would lead to the political collapse of their Northern organization. The popular mood combines dislike and distrust of politicians with a conviction that there is no alternative to the sharing out of sectarian privilege that passes for politics. The claims of a new settlement are met with a wave of apathy.
As it is, there are background plans being fast-tracked to shrink the endless departments and the army of MLAs in the local administration and thus the reservoir of patronage available to Sinn Fein and hints that some parties might be levered out of the government and into opposition, slipping back towards the Stormont of old that the unionists call for.
The new arrangements to come out of the Stormont House agreement can best be described as a corporate mafia statelet.
The agreed budget says it all. Almost 40% of the budget is to pay for public sector redundancies, shrinking public services at a catastrophic rate. Another 40% is spent through cross-community mechanisms. This sounds vaguely progressive until it becomes clear that cross community structures do not undermine sectarianism but codify it and serve to share out the spoils. Already underway and part of the whole package is the transfer of housing from central Housing Executive control to local associations more amenable to sectarian manipulation.
So society will move backwards by several generations. A low wage economy, current services reduced and supplied through an amalgam of political and "community" patronage. The whole system will be firmly in the control of the political organizations which will be able to allocate jobs and houses.
The small socialist and left trade union forces imagine that under this dispensation they will come into their own with a programme of "bread and butter" politics.
That is highly unlikely. The major political parties will rely more than ever on sectarianism to retain their hold on power. Most leftists have no answer to this. Their idea of non-sectarianism is a studied neutrality that automatically concedes to loyalist reaction. Much of their activity is centred on the idea that the local colonial administration can be moved to the left through electoral intervention.
For all the dangers we are entering into a new period. Sinn Fein has signed up for a programme that directly and materially attacks the working class and their own base. The trade unions, for the first time, have come out against the deal. A new political movement is possible,
But it should combine absolute opposition to austerity with absolute opposition to the colonial administration enforcing austerity and acting, under the direction of the British, as the major agent of working class division.