Britain  •  International

The return of Stormont

06 March 2024

By Bernie McAdam

TWO YEARS ago the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) pulled the plug on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and walked out of Stormont. The devolved institutions of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly thereby collapsed. The DUP insisted that this would continue so long as the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the Irish Sea border existed, claiming this was a threat to the Union with Britain. The new deal ‘Safeguarding the Union’, which all parties have signed up to, has ensured the return of Stormont.

So, have the DUP got what they want? Of course, they say they have and that no sea border now exists between GB and Northern Ireland. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s main gain is an agreement to remove routine checks on goods from GB to the North that are not bound for sale in the Irish Republic and, thus, the EU. However, the existing ‘green’ and ‘red’ lanes for goods had already established a similar procedure and the fact remains that, to prevent potential smuggling into the EU, checks can still be made before goods are landed in NI. In other words, there is still an Irish Sea customs border though less visible; the Protocol is still intact.

Donaldson’s main achievement, perhaps, is that he won over his party, the largest voice within Unionism, to this very minor procedural change. Even the loyalist umbrella group, the Loyalist Community Council, including loyalist paramilitaries, has backed the deal. That means accepting a nationalist First Minister for the first time ever in Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill. This is obviously painful for the DUP to accept but they managed to dig out a willing Deputy First Minister in the unelected Emma Little-Pengelly. Here, too, however, there is little of real substance since all decisions have to be supported by both ministers, who have equal powers.

Sinn Fein delight
A jubilant Sinn Fein claims that a united Ireland is now ‘within touching distance’ and O’Neill talks of ‘having the referendums in this decade’ to determine the future of the Union. The GFA does have such a provision but—as with a referendum on Scottish independence—it is entirely within the gift of the British government to grant such a border poll. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, does not expect to see such a poll in his lifetime. If anyone thought that Labour would be more sympathetic, then listen to Starmer’s playing down of a prospective referendum by calling it ‘absolutely hypothetical’ and ‘not even on the horizon’.

The deal does exactly as it says in ‘safeguarding the Union’, just as the GFA did by giving a ‘democratic’ veneer to a grossly undemocratic state. For US, European and UK imperialisms, the power sharing structure of the GFA is the only show in town and Sinn Fein are perfectly happy to go along with that. For the Unionists, power sharing is the price they must pay for continued union with Britain.
However, the state is still an affront to the democratic aspirations of the Irish people as a whole, and it is they who should determine the future of the six counties, free of any British veto. Stormont is still a sectarian structure; it will continue to share out patronage on a sectarian basis in a state that exists to police capitalism and preserve partition. A state that presides over the most deprived region in the UK.

Working class candidate
What really changed the situation was the public sector general strike in January, when 150,000 workers took to the streets. That concentrated the minds of the DUP wonderfully as they reflected on this working class challenge. The region was brought to a standstill as Catholic and Protestant workers united in demanding their outstanding pay claims. Quite apart from the anger at declining pay and services, the impact was magnified by the British government’s ploy of ‘we’ll pay you when you get the Executive back up and running’.

If we look at the real value of public sector pay, the difference between pay awards and inflation, it declined by more than 4% between April 2021 and April 2022. The following year the decline reached 7%. Added to this is the startling fact that workers in Northern Ireland receive less pay than equivalent workers in the rest of the UK. Pay parity is obviously a vital demand but not in itself sufficient to keep up with inflation.

The public sector has been subject to years of savage cuts by the Tories. ‘On almost every measure, Northern Ireland’s health and care system performs worse than anywhere else in the UK’ (British Medical Association). Waiting lists are proportionally much higher and rising. The 23–24 budget for education was cut by 2.5% with the Education Authority announcing that a considerable number of schools are facing ‘an unsustainable financial position’. Teachers’ pay has not been increased for three years, with a huge gap opening up with the rest of the UK.

What next?
Now that ‘the union is safeguarded’ and the British government has released £3.3 billion, it falls to the Executive led by Sinn Fein and the DUP to negotiate pay awards with the unions. This was what the GFA was all about, devolving British rule with all its economic attacks. Of course, the limited funding from Britain is the nub of the problem but devolution absolves the British government from direct involvement.

The anger on the streets in January has not gone away. As we go to press, Unite, GMB and SIPTU have rejected a pay offer of 5% for transport workers and have called a three day strike for 27-29 February. Junior doctors will go on strike in March for one day, after 97% voted for action. In a dispute going back to 2018, the GMB have warned of strike action as Education Minister Paul Girvan says no new money is available to address pay and grading for school support staff.

Whilst January’s strike shows the enormous power of workers striking together, it is clear that more action is needed. Carmel Gates, NIPSA General Secretary, said ‘this is the beginning, we will escalate’. But these words must be turned into a definite strategy for victory. There can be no reliance on our leaders to do this. The rank and file must assert control of the disputes by building strike committees and mass meetings in order to hold their leaders to account. Joint union councils of action need to coordinate an escalating programme of action all the way up to an indefinite strike.

Back to Stormont
So, the new Executive will be back to implementing British rule and doing so with all the financial constraints flowing from the government’s policies. The only ‘advantage’ of Stormont’s return will be to expose Sinn Fein and the DUP’s role in collaborating with the British government’s attacks on workers. Yes, they will demand more money and deny responsibility, but they will not fight or defy the government to satisfy workers’ demands on pay. It will be interesting to see if the Executive even refuses to raise the extra £113 million in revenue which the Treasury is now demanding!

The trade union leaders will do their best to limit the action and negotiate bad deals below the rate of inflation. They too are pro partition and will not want to rock the power sharing structures. What is clear is that a determined struggle by workers to defend and improve their living standards will test and shake up the institutionalised sectarianism that permeates society in the six counties.

If Brexit has shown to many how disruptive a border is in Ireland, then a militant challenge to austerity by Catholic and Protestant workers can start to open eyes to a future in which all workers in Ireland realise their common interests against British imperialist or Irish capitalist bosses. Capitalist governments north and south will have no qualms in beating back working class resistance, that’s why we need unity across the sectarian divide, the better to organise a more powerful fight against the bosses. That fight will not be ended until we have society owned and controlled by the working class in a Workers’ Republic in Ireland.

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