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Westminster legislation: A new phase of direct rule

25 October 2018

The political ideology in common currency concerning the North of Ireland - that there is no Assembly because the political parties do not agree and it is the fault of the politicians that services are failing -  is on the point of collapse with the new Westminster legislation, introduced by British secretary of state Karen Bradley on 24th October, amending the law to allow civil servants to make decisions that would normally require political supervision and to remove the requirement in the Good Friday Agreement that elections have to be held following failure to construct an executive.

The blind spot in the lack of government theory is the fact that in no time in the two years since the failure of the local executive has the north of Ireland been without a government. Britain is the ultimate authority in the North of Ireland and has been the ultimate authority throughout the whole period before, during and after the Good Friday experiment and in the period since Stormont collapsed.

In an historical footnote to the current peace process the Westminster legislation will come to mark the date when the Good Friday Agreement collapsed. The whole point of the changes is to continue the increasingly threadbare fiction of a political process that hides an invisible direct rule. The civil servants given new roles smokescreen the fact that they will be directed by Bradley.  No one questions this strange arrangement even though the senior officials involved have been shown (in the evidence presented at the Renewable Heat Incentive enquiry) to be unable to carry out the basic functions of their jobs.

Just how reactionary the process is, is indicated by the fact that the government fought off an attempt to correct the fundamentalist denial of abortion rights in the North while continuing to deny their responsibility for the lack of rights.

What history will have to explain is the  bizarre reality of Irish politics in which the British - nor any of the  Irish parties - will not acknowledge that direct rule has returned.  In the case of the Dublin government and Sinn Fein it is because they have lost out to Britain and can’t oppose the present policy without drawing attention to their own failure. The unionists are silent because they have themselves rejected devolution and the British government are effectively carrying out the policy that they support.

In the North  this ideology of denial is exemplified by the claim that services are under attack because of the lack of a local administration.  Proponents of this sort of argument include the local trade union leadership who operate through a model that equates non sectarianism with neutrality.  Where this ends up is support for the status-quo and the promotion of the idea that working the system by lobbying the local administration is a way to achieve gains for their members.   In fact the Stormont administration has no record of any form of progressive administration or social justice, spending it’s days mired in sectarian horse trading and corruption. The union leaders carried this sort of ideology so far that they accepted widespread austerity and welfare cuts as the price of preserving the Stormont administration.  Close sympathisers of the trade union movement even collaborated in operating the mitigation schemes that helped ease in the cuts.

So the harsh austerity and welfare cuts were agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein and are part of the wider Tory welfare offensive that is rolling out unopposed because both the unions and political parties have accepted it. The actual role of direct rule in this process is that the British are operating a policy of “old king log”, implementing policy only when they require it and allowing  problems to build up either because it speeds up the austerity process or because it builds up pressure on Sinn Fein to return to the administration.

The result is a zombie society. Workers are facing an unending assault yet they continue to cling desperately to their respective parties and to the trade union leadership even though the political parties and the union bureaucracy are unable and unwilling to defend them. The result is a sort of Trumpian dream where things that are clearly untrue are accepted as gospel. So for example we are told that the absence of the administration is because the parties cannot agree when the truth is that Sinn Fein made a humiliating agreement that the DUP refused to honour. There are small demonstrations (#wedeservebetter) calling for the return of the executive, even though that would involve accepting the open and public corruption of the DUP and the sectarian reaction that makes up their  programme.

Yet the decay of the Good Friday Agreement extends well beyond the absence of an executive. Most of the accompanying structures are no longer functioning.  The British are avoiding any consultation with the Irish government, have consistently torn up elements of the agreement to operate  undeclared direct rule and have embarked upon a frenzy of English chauvinism, declaring for the unity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rejecting any possibility of Irish unity and ruling out any further questioning of the Dirty War that they fought in Ireland or the impunity given to its armed forces.

This is both a cause and a consequence of the Brexit movement in Britain. The most likely outcome of Brexit is a hard border in Ireland and return to the ‘50s inside that border as economic activity shrinks even further towards that of a peripheral region.  The Brexit story shows up the incapacity of Irish politics today. Opposition seems in most cases to involve support for the European Union, an entity that was responsible for the utterly  harsh austerity inflicted on Ireland to pay banks and bondholders. Sinn Fein, once the party of revolutionary nationalism, finds itself unable to advocate for a united Ireland as a self-evident solution to the crisis and instead calls for a border poll inside the structures of a largely non-existent Good Friday Agreement.

At some point the growing crisis and contradictions of a failed political settlement will lead to the disintegration of the current structures and of the political and trade union leaderships that support the settlement. Never has the need for a working class party, a working class political program, and a fighting trade union structure been more evident.

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