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Ireland's return to devolution in the North

The British crack the whip

02 January 2020

Such was the power of the Brexit debate that it impacted the election in the North of Ireland, normally just a referendum on the national question.

The main victims were the DUP MPs, Westminster leader Nigel Dodds was defeated in North Belfast and the solidly unionist North Down constituency elected a moderate unionist Alliance candidate. The far right Emma Little-Pengelly (the Little is retained to remind loyalists of her gun-running father) was defeated by the SDLP's Claire Hanna in South Belfast. The DUP held the flagship constituency of East Belfast, but with a substantially reduced majority. All of the victors in the lost seats were remainers on the Brexit question.

Asked to explain this outcome the dour DUP leader Arlene Foster grunted "demographics" - there were simply too many fenians.

But the DUP opponents did not win by a whisker. They won by a country mile.

The truth is that, outside the party, many voters, unionist and nationalist, are repelled by the intransigence of the DUP.

Their unquestioning stance on Brexit was inevitable given their hard-line unionism, but it clearly represented economic damage for many. Their dreams of absolute power in the British parliament, fed by a cautious Theresa May, have been seen off by a much more hard-boiled Boris Johnson and their high king in Westminster, Nigel Dodds, has been deposed. A fitting end for a strategy that dreamed of extending the Unionist veto not just across Ireland and Britain, but across Europe.

The fundamental problem with unionism is that it is a movement of sectarian ascendancy rather than one that supports any form of power sharing. It took endless concessions by Sinn Fein and enormous pressure by the British to get the unionist parties inside the Stormont executive, and once inside they lived in constant turmoil, deposing their leaders and eventually crashing the Executive as they looked
for ever more complete dominance. In Arlene Foster they found the leader they wanted, but she was so arrogantly provocative that the Stormont Executive failed. The DUP fought the last Assembly election on the assumption that it was better to scupper Stormont than make any concessions to nationalism. Latterly their strategic focus on acting as power brokers at Westminster was seen as permitting an absolute roadblock on the return of a local administration and avoiding any need to conciliate nationalism, so unionism does not yet have a plan B to express dominance through the local political structures.

Many voters were also repelled by the uncontrolled corruption of the "Cash for Ash" heating subsidy scandal and by the very open alliance between the DUP and the loyalist paramilitaries.

The loudest voice in the election aftermath was the almost absolute support for a devolved administration among middle class civic society and the trade union leaders. The dominant narrative is that a renewed assembly will bring both political stability and economic prosperity and the DUP have had the lion's share of the blame for the absence of Stormont.

Sinn Fein cheered their victory over Dodds in North Belfast. The victor, John Finucane, was the son of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, murdered by loyalists acting in collusion with the RUC special branch and British military intelligence.

However the Shinners had much to worry them. They had given way to SDLP candidate Claire Hanna in an anti Brexit coalition in South Belfast, only to be hammered by the SDLP's Colum Eastwood in Derry in the context of another sharp fall in their vote across all areas. This is a real crisis for Sinn Fein. Their strategy has been to be in government in both parts of Ireland. Now they are losing momentum both North and South . Failure will leave them as a rump nationalist party among many others. Ex-finance minister and right winger Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has quit as an MLA for South Belfast, and ex-junior minister Megan Fearon will no longer represent Newry and Armagh. Are these the canaries in the coalmine? The first to jump ship?

The British moved quickly to exploit the weakness of the major parties. A health strike to restore pay parity with Britain and revive a collapsing health sector led to talks where the British proposed a return of the local Assembly and an immediate settlement of the health issues. Hidden in the proposals were proposals on the Irish language and a sectarian veto on legislation called the petition of concern. The DUP held firm.

A sign of the convoluted discussion was an IOU that the parties offered the British. They would promise a deal in the new year if the Secretary of State paid up immediately on health. The Brits turned them down. Yet again the leaders of the health unions went along with the fiction that an Assembly was necessary for a settlement of their pay demands, even when the British made clear their strategy of blackmail by dangling the cash before their eyes.

A last push is now starting. The Tories want the North settled so that they can concentrate on Brexit. Sinn Fein and the DUP are threatened with elections that they are likely to do badly in or an agreement that will restore the assembly and give them a breathing space until 2022. The Shinners are desperate for a deal and have conceded even more than in the last draft agreement, which does little more than mention the Irish language, but savage divisions have erupted in the DUP and reaching a settlement will be difficult for both Parties.

A bedtime story is told in the media. Stormont collapsed because of disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP. We need a quick return to Stormont so that the politicians can grow the economy and develop public services.

The story is completely false. Stormont did not collapse because of disagreement. There was an agreement in which Sinn Fein capitulated almost completely. The one minor concession - a mention of the Irish language, proved too much for the loyalist base of the DUP. Neither was the assembly growing the economy. It was a hotbed of sectarianism and corruption which nodded through the "Fresh Start" austerity programme that is currently being implemented.

Amid all the fairy stories it is easy to miss the main point. That is that the British, after years of pretend helplessness because "the parties will not agree" that are suddenly cracking the whip and kicking the DUP. The collapse of Stormont removed the imperialist's mask and now, amid all the flummery, it is clear that the North remains a British colony and it is the British who will decide the future direction of their Local Assembly.

The likelihood is that movement in relation to the Irish language and modification of the petition of concern will be necessary, but this will still be difficult to manoeuvre through the DUP. In the longer run there is still a unionist majority, but no longer concentrated in one party. The hope is that this will lead to a benign sectarianism, with peaceful horsetrading in the assembly, but loyalism is fighting for unionist supremacy and there have already been threats of violence from that source.

The airheads who foresee a stable Northern Ireland also assure us that a United Ireland is just around the corner. Yet the evidence points to a tide of unionism growing within nationalism. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, persistently argues that now is not the time for unity and his first act is to join with Boris Johnson to stabilise the Northern Assembly.

The truth is that the class elements of the national question are coming to the fore. The nationalist bourgeoisie and the middle classes in the North are perfectly happy with their gains in patronage under the current settlement. The main reason for Dublin's support for the Good Friday Agreement was to put the national question to sleep. Political rights and prosperity continue to decline for workers.

The lens through which to view events is that of growing instability. Just as the British election means a growing crisis rather than "getting Brexit done", so in Ireland we are to listen to Irish capitalism reassure us and try to prop up partition at a time when both they, Sinn Fein, and the unionist parties are losing support.

A new assembly will not lead to a stable society but to increased sectarian infighting and further austerity. The frantic support for partition from the Dublin government will not mean much if their claims of recovery leads to their eviction from office in the coming general election.

The problem is that the centrist Socialist groups are in greater disarray than the capitalists. Confusion on the Brexit issue and an orientation towards parliamentarism dominates their approach. A turn away from electoral opportunism and the use of class analysis would at least give them a solid place to stand, regroup and face the challenges of the new offensives aimed at the working class.

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