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Donaldson falls

A woman for all seasons: Michelle O'Neill steps forward to sustain the union with Britain

08 April 2024

Former DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson.

The fall of Jeffrey Donaldson hit Irish society like a bombshell, and was followed by instant silence. The seriousness of the case of sexual abuse is illustrated by the fact that the police decided on arrest despite Donaldson's position, rather than a referral to the department of public prosecutions. Part of the shock came from his much publicised  Christianity, although right wing religious movements are often infected by claims of sexual abuse and Ireland provides an encyclopaedia of such cases.

What is certain is that Donaldson cannot recover politically and the political parties are moving on quickly. The big fear is that the latest iteration of the political settlement will collapse. This seems far-fetched. Jeffrey did his work well. It proved impossible to remove the Northern Ireland protocol invented to support Brexit and what was offered to Unionism instead was Sustaining the Union, a reassertion of the areaís status as a sector of the UK.

Donaldson was able to win over hardliners and convince the DUP that as much blood as possible had been squeezed from the British stone. The party agreed, with a large majority supporting the return to the Stormont executive.  Even more telling was the failure of the far right to mount a convincing revolt or any serious alternative. Yet all is not well.

The return to Stormont does not mean overall reconciliation. The DUP will justify their return by humiliating Sinn Féin. They will also be riven by internal disputes. Gavin Robinson is seen as being on the soft right of the party. The hard right will contest for influence.

Success will disappoint them. One political commentator remarked that concern about Sinn Féin/DUP infighting could blind us to the dangers of the situation when they cooperate. The example of this cooperation that comes to the fore is that which occurs within Belfast City Council. A whole series of examples of sectarian division of the spoils, dubious property deals with developers and patronage aimed at their own supporters is waved through in a subcommittee whose discussions are closed to the press and public. However, the main change in the situation is that the DUPís weakness and unionist fragmentation means that the weight of supporting and maintaining partition falls on Sinn Féin.

Sinn Féin understand this and have prepared the way with the slogan First Minister for all.  The idea here is that Michelle O'Neill, as First Minister, must represent the political views of the whole population - vote Sinn Féin - get DUP. In contrast the notorious bigot, Ian Paisley was famous for his constituency work. He understood the need to represent the welfare of his constituents while never giving an inch on the loyalist programme he was elected on. The new regime will blend seamlessly with the new programme of Sustaining the Union confirming the status of the North as a component of the British state.

In a strange reversal of history ongoing partition is sustained, not solely by Unionism, but also by Sinn Féin, their self-satisfied middle-class supporters and the Dublin bourgeoisie. There is a sacrifice to be made for the new settlement. The new financial payment from the British government falls well short of the needs of the population.  The solution will be mass privatisation of services as seen in the Bengoa report, already on the shelf, which lays out a programme of mass privatisation in the health service. In addition, the new executive has been asked to generate £113 million in revenue. Taxing the corporations is not even imagined, so what is on offer are cuts to public services.

In fact, each new Stormont revival has involved a new austerity programme. Until now the union leaders have been able to persuade their members that getting the politicians working will lead to eventual prosperity. That message is becoming increasingly difficult to sell.

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