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New Decade, New Approach

Welcome to backstop county

13 January 2020

The New Decade, New Approach document restoring the local executive in the North of Ireland marks a return of the Orwellian doublespeak of the novel 1984.

New Approach is in reality the same old tired formula of bribing Unionist bigots and bribing and strong-arming a corrupt Sinn Fein in to cobbling together another forced coalition. The idea that this will last for a new decade is the wildest fantasy for a process that has been in a state of ongoing collapse since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This latest iteration is so dysfunctional that neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP would own it. While being driven on by their fear of the only alternative, fighting an election, they reluctantly mutter their conditional support and assure their members that they can change it later once it is launched by the British and Irish governments. The forced agreement was followed by immediate convocation of the Assembly in an attempt to move on rapidly before any awkward questions could be asked.

Yet again attempts are made to ensure stability by bringing all the parties into a monolithic administration. Earlier attempts to allow for opposition have been dispensed with. The tent is again widened to include civic society - the trade unions, churches, businesses and nonprofit organisations.

In reality the new arrangement is the deformed progeny of the "Fresh Start" austerity project and associated failed political programmes.Politically none of the decisive issues have been resolved! Sinn Fein must swallow the lack of an Irishlanguage act. Instead the British will absolve the Unionists of any responsibility by incorporating language recognition into the government of Ireland act. A Unionist veto will prevent further steps towards recognition of the language.

Resources are to be thrown at an imaginary Orange culture that is in reality a reactionary political alliance. The British will bring in a Military Covenant that will provide preferential treatment for ex soldiers, including the local militias directly involved in the dirty war. The British offer a further gesture to Orangeism with extra days for flying the union flag while Sinn Fein shamefacedly mutter that this is off sheet and not part of the agreement.

Legacy issues - recognition of state crimes and compensation for victims - is included in the agreement but in a context where the British government are moving towards impunity for their own forces it is highly unlikely that these issues will be resolved in any progressive way. The 'petition of concern', a mechanism where majority votes could be discounted, usually in the form of a Unionist veto, has had only cosmetic reform. Instead the British have sought stability through administrative means by lengthening the time that the Assembly can be collapsed without triggering an election and preventing a Sinn Fein pullout from automatically collapsing the Executive. Gay rights and abortion rights, used by the British to prod the DUP, are nowhere mentioned.

A major issue that will not be resolved is the overwhelming smell of corruption hanging over the Assembly. Part of the last collapse was the "cash for ash" scandal that saw millions of pounds of public money flow mainly to DUP supporters in a crooked green energy scheme. On any rational grounds DUP leader Arlene Foster holds political responsibility, yet she has returned as First Minister.


However, the political issues are just the start of the inherent instability of the Stormont administration. The economy generally and the public sector in particular are in a state of collapse. The British have promised a sugar rush of funds to kickstart the task, but most of the promises of improvement are aspirational.

In truth much of the decay is deliberate. The unions and civic society silently looked to Sinn Fein to plead their case. By running a minimalist direct rule lite that starved public provision the British were piling the pressure on the Shinners. A return to even a 'normal' flow of funding will be a relief.

But the problems go much deeper. Just before the last Assembly collapsed the parties agreed the Fresh Start programme. This a massive wave of austerity and privatisation aimed at slashing the public sector budget. A stop gap suspension of some elements of welfare reform is promised, but Stormont now has to press ahead with the offensive.

A case study for the new reality rests with health workers demands for greater recruitment and pay parity with Britain. The health unions tied their demands to the return of Stormont. The British agreed that it was a local issue and would not settle, instead increasing the pressure on Sinn Fein to restore the Assembly. Now £50 million has been reserved, but workers will have to wait for the Executive to get around to their claim.

The broader issues will require much more in the way of resources. A relatively modest target of 900 nurses over 3 years has been proposed but sits alongside a shrinkage of waiting lists that will involve a major use of private agencies. In the longer run the civil service are already implementing the Bengoa report, involving hospital closure and mass privatisation. Similar proposals on community health and social services await in the wings.

Alongside health workers stands a pay parity claim by teachers. No commitment has been given here, other than for schools to achieve a balanced budget. At the moment hundreds of schools are effectively bankrupt. A new education strategy, already partially implemented, will involve school closures, shrinkage of the curriculum and the abandonment of much in the way of special needs provision. The sectarian division of education doesn't even merit mention.

Some funds are to be allocated to the housing executive, but it has been demoted to a repair agency. House building and management are functions of Housing Associations. They have already received bank loans and thus housing provision has been privatised. The sectarian nature of civic society means a growing sectarian division in housing provision. No-one expresses any concern over recent DUP involvement in ethnic cleansing and enforcing housing apartheid.

The one thing utterly absent from the narrative around the restoration of Stormont is a discussion of Brexit. Brexit influenced the restoration process in that a section of middle class unionism swung away from the DUP and these defections made heading off a local election a priority. It also allowed the British, with a comfortable Tory majority, to wade in and enforce a settlement. What it did not do is bring about the birth of a movement. The DUP is in thrall to the Tories. Sinn Fein follow the lead of Dublin. Neither group have any ideas about developing a local economy because the reality is that the North is a colonial appendage of Britain and the only business is sectarian squabbling about the division of the block grant.

The future is grim. The North has been relegated to backstop county, with no plan of its own for surviving Brexit, totally dependent on vague promises from Boris Johnson and with a local administration whose main task is to enforce savage austerity.

Trade unions

The traditional role of defence would fall to the trade unions, but it was the health unions who led the charge to restore Stormont by ignoring the British, who held the money, and by including calls for a local administration in their strike. UNISON claimed that they were blackmailed when they found that pay restoration was being delayed, but they were willing victims considering that they had acquiesced to the Fresh Start programme. Owen Reidy, NIC-ICTU spokesperson, was touting support for the new deal before it had even been published. The union leadership were following a role that they carved out in the 26 counties in managing austerity alongside the bosses.

However with each iteration the argument for partition becomes increasingly flimsy. No-one can pretend that the latest pile of steaming horse dung was the result of negotiation or reconciliation. It was handed down by proclamation from the real rulers in the North, the British. In turn the Dublin government gave unconditional support. However the week previously the same government had believed that they could commemorate the role of the Black and Tans in Irish history, only to face a popular revolt.

On both sides of the border everyday life becomes increasingly desperate. The major political groups are living in a bubble, isolated from this desperation. They believe that the concerns of the working class can be ignored. That will work for them - until it doesn't!

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