July 2017        

End the carnival of failure

Tommy McKearney

Almost lost amid the frantic scrutinising of the £1 billion bribe offered by Theresa May to the DUP in order to keep a minority Tory government in power was a statement of intent in relation to British foreign policy objectives.
     Along with the financial package for the North, both parties agreed to make a commitment to NATO that the Tory government would spend 2 per cent of GDP on the armed forces. To put this in context we must compare it with the DUP’s pay-off, because 2 per cent of British GDP for 2016 would amount to more than £37 billion.1 In a nutshell, the British ruling class is content to pay a relatively modest price in order to protect and maintain its imperial interests while allowing the ten Northern MPs to feel self-satisfied.
     That the DUP thinks it has secured a historic deal for Ulster unionism should come as no surprise. After all, several leading members of this party believe that the earth was created over a seven-day period 4,652 years ago.
     Undoubtedly, while additional expenditure will be welcome in an area of high deprivation, this money will not be a panacea for the North’s lengthy list of problems. Take the region’s health service as just one example: it has been run down for many years, and, as the BBC’s Northern Ireland health correspondent, Marie-Louise Connelly, pointed out, the extra money offered will only allow the service some breathing space.2 This new money could be used up quickly, she said, just tackling hospital waiting-lists alone.
     Of course this is before the inevitable disputes arise over where the money is to be spent. Interestingly, the only infrastructure project to be specified is the York Street intersection in Belfast, which happens to be in the constituency of the DUP negotiator Nigel Dodds.
     This deal will prove to be a mixed blessing for the DUP as it finds its London triumph to be temporary. While the pot of money puts Sinn Féin on the back foot in the short term, it will prove damaging for the DUP’s long-term aim of maintaining the union with Britain. The Conservative Party has little or no interest in the people of Northern Ireland and views the arrangement with Arlene Foster’s party as a necessary political expedient in order to implement its wider policies.
     In time, the DUP will come to be little more than a party of crackpots (the Daily Mirror’s description), endorsing imperialist aggression and helping perpetuate neo-liberal economics damaging to working-class communities.
     This is unlikely to cause the party much damage in its electoral heartlands. However, it will not endear it to its republican and nationalist neighbours in the six counties, or to the British working class. Moreover, by lining up beside the Conservatives and making a unilateral financial arrangement for Northern Ireland, Foster has created divisions between her party and the Scots, Welsh and northern English. As the Guardian said in a recent analysis, “this weakens the internal solidarity of the UK.”
     This is an unwelcome observation for the DUP but one that is nevertheless accurate. Moreover, it not only weakens solidarity within the United Kingdom but undermines the political entity that is Northern Ireland. Twice this year the electorate has gone to the polls, and on both occasions it has given an ominous verdict on the future stability and longevity of the six counties.
     The assembly elections in March resulted in overtly unionist parties losing an absolute majority in Stormont, for the first time in its history. This has to be qualified by recognising that the balance of power at the devolved-government level remained with parties that support the union. Nevertheless the lesson was clear: old certainties about the status quo are no longer quite so secure. Even the Financial Times published a front-page article in April referring to the potential for a united Ireland.3
     Three months later the British general election provided further evidence of the shifting sands. While almost all eyes have been on the DUP and its new-found bargaining position vis-à-vis Westminster, less attention was paid to the implication of Sinn Féin’s result. Seven of the North’s eighteen Westminster constituencies returned abstentionist candidates, mandated to boycott central government in London.
     It is over-simplistic to dismiss this outcome simply as the result of a sectarian head count. In several constituencies, such as Foyle (Derry) and West Belfast, where abstentionist MPs were returned, the nationalist majority was sufficiently large to make the contest a straight fight between Sinn Féin abstentionists and parties committed to taking their seats. Clearly this is not an outcome as momentous as the 1918 general election, yet it should not be dismissed as insignificant when 30 per cent of the North’s electorate vote to boycott central government.
     As a consequence, Sinn Féin will face something of a dilemma if it attempts to form an administration in Stormont with the DUP. How can Michelle O’Neill argue that a British government, supported by the DUP, can meet the demand of the Belfast Agreement that London maintain rigorous impartiality in relation to all matters in the North? Even the Tory bigwig Chris Patten said it would be “difficult for the UK government to show neutrality” when it has done a close political deal with the DUP.4
     This problem will only be compounded by the fact that many Sinn Féin supporters have now opted to boycott Parliament as well.
     In the absence of widespread consensus concerning governance of the area, it is difficult to see how the failed political entity that is Northern Ireland can endure in the long run in the face of changing demographics at home and a disdainful population in Britain.
     What has to be avoided, however, is falling into the trap of engaging in the politics of sectarian head-counting, or advocating the nationalist objective of politically uniting Ireland without changing the present economic fundamentals. A workers’ republic is the only realistic option for bringing about a united working class throughout Ireland. To make this more than a cliché, though, it is necessary for socialists to be honest about where the present situation will lead, transparent in our analysis of what is needed, and frank about our ambition to create a workers’ state.
     All the while socialists must search for means of struggle that will transform Irish society, north and south, in a progressive direction. With Stormont possibly collapsing once again, there is both the need and the opportunity to create a vehicle capable of identifying the issues on which a successful campaign for a socialist transformation can be built. State-funded public housing, a secure health service, proper care for the elderly, workers’ rights and a decent public transport system are all issues that urgently need addressing.
     Nor should we ignore the misappropriation of 2 per cent of GDP that will be used to pay for imperialist aggression and the slaughter that inevitably follows in its wake.
     Above all, we need to state the obvious. The northern Irish state has failed entirely, and the southern Irish state as at present constituted has failed the working class. Time to end the carnival of failure and set our compass for a workers’ republic!
  1. Office for National Statistics, “Gross domestic product: Chained volume measures . . .” at www.ons.gov.uk.
  2. BBC News, “DUP-Tory deal secures extra spending in Northern Ireland” (www.bbc.com/news).
  3. Alex Barker, Arthur Beesley, and Vincent Boland, “EU signal over a united Ireland stokes fear of post-Brexit UK,” Financial Times, 28 June 2017 (http://on.ft.com/2t4ZNzK).
  4. BBC News, “DUP-Tory deal ‘may make peace process difficult’—Patten,” 28 June 2017 (www.bbc.com/news).

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