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The #wedeservebetter fantasy

Why not #bulldozestormont?

3 September 2018

Recently an informal coalition, #wedeservebetter, attempted a mobilisation in the North of Ireland with a single demand that the Stormont administration be returned. Despite attempts to boost the mobilisation by the local press and media, by prominent businessmen and by NICVA, the community and voluntary sector organisers, the mobilisation was a failure, with only a few hundred at various locations and the Belfast rally cancelled. The campaign fragmented when some of the supporters asked to speak about outstanding issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage. They were prevented from speaking. It became clear that the campaign wanted the return of Stormont as an end in itself and were not concerned with the argument that in some way a new administration would make life better. The #wedeservebetter tag could not have been better chosen, summing up middle-class desire for comfort and stability along with disinterest in what it would cost the working-class.

However the debate cruelly exposed left supporters of the campaign. Members of the Communist Party and of the Socialist Workers Network/People Before Profit had argued "progressive" demonstrations that took up gay rights and abortion rights could be supported and act as a stepping stone to a more progressive movement.

This is not simply mistaken, it is misdirection. The left are fully aware that sections of the DUP are perfectly willing to split their party to prevent any social reform. Without an inbuilt majority the DUP would not reverse direction to support a return to Stormont. In pursuing this line the left are simply accommodating a narrow section of middle-class youth. They are also accommodating the trade union bureaucracy, who argue that Stormont will have to return in order to legislate for workers’ rights. This is despite the fact Stormont has no history of any progressive actions and ignores the fact that the bureaucracy, in order to save Stormont, accepted the “Fresh Start” austerity programme and have signed off on health and community services reform which will mean widespread privatisation.

On the day of the failed demonstrations the BBC produced a report that perfectly illustrated the lies on which #wedeservebetter campaign was based. It said:
Northern Ireland is a nation (false)
There is no government (false)
There is no government because the parties don't agree (false)
There is widespread public anger at the lack of an administration which is a denial of democracy false).

The North of Ireland has none of the characteristics of a nation. The local administration is not a government. It has collapsed not because the parties couldn't agree but for the reason that the DUP withdrew from the agreement because it included minor concessions on the Irish language. The absence of Stormont is perfectly in tune with the results of the last election, where nationalist voters opposed any further capitulation to the DUP and Unionist voters voted to "defend the union" even if this meant opposing devolution. Rather than public anger, there is widespread public indifference. People are very aware of the corruption and sectarianism that infested Stormont and do not see its return is helping them in any way.

Perhaps the biggest lie is that the North has been without a government. The fact is that it has been continuously governed by the British Westminster administration before and after the collapse of the local administration at Stormont. No one on the left or right is willing to acknowledge this. There are committed to a programme of reform through a local administration even though their experience is of endless corruption without the slightest sign of reform.

It follows right away that the target for campaigns to demand democratic rights should be the Westminster government. At the moment British rule is based on a fiction, held up by the compliance of other parties that is outside all the legal frameworks established by the Good Friday Agreement. Under this agreement the failure to convene an administration should mean the abolition of the body and the institution of direct rule.
As it is, the British have instituted invisible direct rule, where they have absolute responsibility for the administration of the six counties but refused to acknowledge this. This enables them to support the DUP, who have demanded direct rule, to park the whole issue of the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement, and to avoid any serious consultation with Dublin, who are formally required to be involved but in any case did not want to be consulted. Sinn Fein remain silent because they intend at some stage to return to the Assembly and because they cannot afford to admit that decades of strategy have ended in failure.

There is one other string to the British bow. They have a strategy of Old King Log (from Aesop's Fables - The Frogs Who Desired a King). They do only what is necessary but freeze many funding streams in order to starve local groups of money and patronage. This story is that if Stormont reassembles many of the problems of health, education, welfare and social services will be resolved.

This is a complete fantasy. When it was running Stormont was a source of endless corruption and sectarian division. Before it fell Sinn Fein and the DUP had agreed a full spectrum of offensives that would see the quality of public services and the standard of living of the poor fall dramatically. It is however an argument enthusiastically supported by the trade union bureaucracy and by the NGOs of the community and voluntary sector who are directly dependent on government patronage.

Despite the claims of the #wedeservebetter campaign neither community has changed its position. For Unionists rejection of the Good Friday Agreement and defence of the union is all. For nationalists some concessions from the DUP are regarded as necessary for further progress. Rather than demanding the return of Stormont the prevailing mood is one of apathetic indifference.

So why does there #wedeservebetter continue to have a hold? It has broad sympathy. There was widespread media support for what turned out to be an imaginary mobilisation based on a Facebook rant. Alongside the campaign came support from Belfast's leading luxury hotelier. In the van was NIVCA, representing a range of charities and NGOs poised to assist in the privatisation of many public services in the name of community and anxiously waiting allocation of funds from Stormont. There was some representation of public sector workers at the Derry demonstration and this represents constant reassurance by the trade union leadership that the collapse of local services and of workers conditions will be repaired when Stormont resumes. In typical cowardly fashion the union leaderships went into hiding at the first sign of controversy. Above all the source of the #wedeservebetter sentiment lies with Sinn Fein itself who, while they refuse to surrender immediately to the DUP, have made it absolutely clear that they are committed to the return of Stormont and that is what everybody else should be supporting.

There is an alternative, spelt out by Bernadette McAliskey, as #bulldozestormont. As explained above this has had little traction because the vast majority of the political forces outside unionism are committed to the return of Stormont and even within the DUP there is a strategic debate about which road will best maintain their position -  direct rule or a return to devolution. The other issue is that #bulldozestormont can only be implemented as part of a drive for United Ireland. The capitalist parties in Ireland are in fact going in the opposite direction and flirting with a return to the Commonwealth. As Brexit looms a United Ireland inside Europe is the best option for Irish workers in the absence of an international workers movement able to overthrow European capital. In the absence of the independent action of the workers all sorts of fantasies such as #wedeservebetter will gain currency only to be exposed as illusions.

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