Stormont falls amid the stench of decay
The reactions to the collapse of the Good Friday structures in the North of Ireland have drawn heavily on the language of soap opera. Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party were too stubborn, Sinn Fein were too reckless.
But what if each group had no choice?
Sinn Fein's strategy after all, up to this point, has not been to confront their government partners in the Democratic Unionist Party but rather to offer an escape route that would mitigate the fallout from the £500 million "Cash for Ash'' heating scam.
Their proposal, that Foster "stand aside" for a few weeks while a perfunctory investigation took place, and then re-turn as First Minister, has no democratic traction. It was based on an earlier scandal involving former DUP leader Peter Robinson that saw his rapid return to office. There is no need for any enquiry or standing aside. Foster was in charge and oversaw a £500 million scam. She should go.
When Sinn Fein’s plan was contemptuously rejected they found themselves in a vice. The support of their base was dependent on establishing that the peace process had delivered power. Not only were they insulted by Foster, DUP minister Paul Girvan gleefully cancelled a tiny grant that was a remnant of the pledge in the Good Friday Agreement to bring forward an Irish Language Act. When it was revealed that McGuinness and his ministers were in government but not in power their supporters revolted and they had no choice but to collapse the structures of the dual administration by resigning the deputy first minister position.
That explains Sinn Fein's actions. What then of the DUP?
It is easy to forget the toll that the peace process has taken on the leadership of the DUP. Their own programme is majority rule and military suppression of nationalism. They bitterly resent being forced by the British to share the administration with Sinn Fein. Each change in leader represents a new strategy to deal with the problem of joint administration. Ian Paisley pleaded the necessity of avoiding Dublin intervention and was ousted. Peter Robinson, with a strategy of striking businesslike deals, went in his turn when a section of his party, working with Orangemen and paramilitaries, organized against him in the "Flag" protests.
Arlene Foster was to administer "Fresh Start." The latest in a long line of revisions of the Good Friday Agreement, it was to usher in a "mature and realistic" peace process. Essentially this gave the DUP the majority of their demands. Sinn Fein signed off on a savage austerity programme and agreed that they would accept the sectarian intimidation of flag displays and Orange marches. The Irish language was forgotten. Historical issues relating to state assassinations and collaboration were kicked into the long grass.
The size of the assembly was to be reduced. The justice ministry, originally to be awarded to Sinn Fein, had been held as part of a sectarian balance by the Alliance party. It now went to a unionist factotum. Rotation and re-designation of departments meant that areas where Sinn Fein had made weak claims to be bringing forward reform, such as culture and education, were quickly thrown into reverse by DUP ministers.
In the face of these gains Foster managed to unite the various factions of the DUP. Unfortunately for the stability of the assembly, it is not enough to achieve a level of sectarian dominance. It needs to be reasserted every day.
The DUP embarked on a bizarre groundhog day; aping the Stormont regime of the 1950s, where scandal and corruption were allied to arrogant declarations of impunity.
In terms of the negation of democratic norms the most recent scandal, a DUP alliance with the paramilitary UDA and the pumping of public funds to the paramilitaries, was far worse than the RHI scandal. Suggestions by Sinn Fein that one of the UDA participants consider their position was arrogantly slapped down by Foster, but such is the acceptance of the sectarian division of society that the scandal remained largely invisible.
Against this background Arlene could not
be seen to respond to Sinn Fein calls for her to step aside, nor did any-one
see any need to restrain culture minister Paul Girvan when he abolished
a tiny Irish language grant and provided the straw that broke the back
of Sinn Fein appeasement. He had earlier showered lavish funds on loyalist
bands and a scheme to fund rural communities went largely to Orange halls
and excluded nationalist groups.
The DUP have rowed back somewhat. They have reinstated the small language grant, put forward proposals for clawing back money from the heating scam and even supported a public enquiry. However in the absence of a Foster step-aside an election was inevitable. The DUP have indicated that they will rally their support with a ferocious display of sectarianism. Constrained within the sectarian structures of the Good Friday agreement the result will be the return of both parties facing the same issues.
The big losers will be Sinn Fein.
Having gone from military resistance to attempts to reform the North they reached the last card in Irish nationalism's deck when Martin McGuinness called on the Irish and British governments to act.
The results were not encouraging.
Both Dublin and London are reasonably content. The Irish insurgency is long past. The continued instability is irritating but the sectarianism was deliberately built in to the agreement.
The governments will oversee talks. If they fail there will be an election which will see the same parties return. There will be more talks and their failure will lead to the suspension of Stormont.
In the long run the settlement will move further to the right. Britain will protect its unionist base. Dublin will be largely indifferent. Sinn Fein will suffer from the loss of income and patronage. The unionists, embedded in business, administration and civic society for generations, will suffer much less.
The most telling moment in the current crisis came in two interviews on the local Stephen Nolan radio show. Nigel Dodds of the DUP indignantly denied that his party had ever agreed to the promise of an Irish Language Act contained in the St Andrews Agreement. In a further interview Peter Hain, then British secretary of state, said that the agreement contained; “broad brushstrokes” that were; “not written in stone.” In fact the agreement says that the government (clearly the British government from the context) would bring forward an act that would be administered by Stormont. As with many other peace processes around the world, the main intent is to keep the former guerrillas in-side the tent without any real intent at reform.
For Sinn Fein Plan B is plan A all over again. Martin McGuinness doesn't call for an end to Stormont, but for an end to the status quo at Stormont. Even if Stormont is suspended they will continue to administer the North through councils and endless committees. They are vulnerable to a long suspension. Their supporters will rally before an election but that support will fall away if there are no Sinn Fein bums on Stormont seats - this is now the main evidence that they gained politically from the settlement.
There will be blowback south of the border. A large element of the Shinner's middle class support in the 26 county state is based on their success in making the Northern troubles go away. They have played to their credentials as a party of government in the North to advance their central strategy of being in government on both sides of the border. All this is at risk.
The main cushion that protects Sinn Fein from their supporters is the general collapse in political understanding that they have overseen as they advanced along the path of pacification.
A sectarian society
Before the peace process a large section of the nationalist working class would have seen British imperialism as the main force responsible for the violence. They would have opposed sectarianism and seen the demolition of the Northern state and the ousting of the British forces as the only way to overcome sectarianism and establish an Irish democracy.
Now most Sinn Fein supporters see the British as a force for good and sectarian division as perfectly natural.
The difficulty in resolving the decay of the Irish settlement is that we are dealing not just with a sectarian administration but with a sectarian society.
The most vicious sectarianism and political reaction is interpreted as cultural difference that must be respected. Being non-sectarian is seen as neutrality between Orange and Green. The "generally democratic" element of the demand for Irish unity is ignored, which means that this form of non-sectarianism is at best indifference to and at worst support for British imperialism and loyalist reaction.
It is in this context that we can understand the loudest sound in the room - the utter silence of the Trade Unions. It is only a year ago that the Irish Congress accepted an eye-watering austerity package that included welfare cuts, 20,000 public sector job cuts and mass privatisation. The grounds for their acceptance was that the workers must sacrifice themselves to prevent the British abolishing the Assembly. Now when we find that the main business of Stormont was giving away £1/2 billion to the wealthy in a pattern of sectarian share-out they are struck dumb.
A similar mechanism prevents both the trade unions and the local socialist groups from noticing the earlier scandal of the DUP alliance with the Ulster Defence Association. This alliance saw millions in public funds transferred to the UDA and large sections of Protestant workers left at their mercy. This is the case even though the UDA remains a proscribed organization and the police attest to their continued involvement in drugs, racketeering and intimidation.
The left groups jumped up and down at "ash for cash'' because they were able to interpret it as a case of economic corruption (at its roots it was also part of the sectarian division of spoils). They were unable to deal with the UDA scandal even when, in the middle of the current crisis, a former associate of UDA leader Dee Stitt was forced from his home by a group of UDA thugs issuing death threats.
No return to Stormont
The smell of Stormont's decay is everywhere, but Sinn Fein has no alternative. McGuinness's election call is not "no return to Stormont but "no return to the status quo at Stormont." If he means an end to DUP arrogance it is difficult to see how this can be legislated for. He hardly means an end to sectarian corruption. His party are still fighting hard for the £80 million pork barrel project to expand the GAA grounds in West Belfast. The St. Andrews tale on the language act indicates how little he can expect from the British.
Many will be disappointed by the performance of the two SWP/PBP MLAs. The Shinners call for Stormont sans the status quo. The Socialist Workers Party/People Before Profit call for a Stormont without corruption.
That call is a fantasy and a massive step to the right for an organisation that fought to bring down the old Stormont and opposed the peace deal. The fundamental purpose of the Stormont Assembly is to protect British rule share out sectarian patronage. The role of socialists is not to call for no return to the status quo or no return to corruption. Our call should be for "no return to Stormont," for the disbandment of the assembly and for a renewed call for the working class alternative.
"No return to Stormont!"