Tony Blair flew into Belfast this week to witness the handing over of control of Northern Ireland to an executive led by Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionists with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness serving as his deputy. The retiring prime minister is keen to claim peace in Northern Ireland as part of his legacy.
The peace process is portrayed as something handed down to reluctant natives by British and Irish prime ministers. But when 71 percent of Northern Ireland’s voters endorsed the Good Friday agreement in 1998 it reflected a grassroots desire for peace and change in a society blighted by poverty and division.
Yet the Northern Ireland assembly born then is based on sectarianism. Elected representatives have to define themselves as Nationalist or Unionist – anyone else is marginalised.
Tragically, sectarianism is alive and thriving. In 1998 there were 18 “peace walls” permanently dividing Catholic and Protestant areas. Today there are 37.
The curse of sectarianism is a product of a deliberate divide and rule policy.
This dates back to the carving out of the state by the British government in 1921 and its endorsement of 50 years of one-party Unionist rule which institutionalised that division.
Ian Paisley has made a career out of sectarianism. Despite its radical past Sinn Fein accepts that this divide cannot be eroded.
Hopes of a better society look set to be dashed by the new executive’s rush to embrace a full blooded neoliberal agenda. Paisley and McGuinness have demanded Gordon Brown sanction a cut in corporation tax to just 12.5 percent – the rate in the Irish Republic.
Both want Northern Ireland to be a place to invest in with low taxes, wages 27 percent lower than in Britain and a compliant workforce.
Last Saturday the Belfast May Day march marked the centenary of a mass strike in the city. This march united Protestants and Catholics by tracing the route of a strike procession up the Shankill Road and down the Falls Road. Unity in struggle is the only way to remove the cancer of sectarianism, then and now.
Our resistance is key
Will Gordon Brown get away with a neoliberal offensive against the public sector? Or will the Tories make a comeback and do the job for him? These questions will have troubled many since last week’s elections.
Official politics rests on the idea that all the important decisions are made in parliament by the parties that dominate it. This view deliberately misses out the possibility of ordinary people taking matters into their own hands.
Whether the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of jobs are lost in the civil service, or the government can impose a pay cut on millions of public sector workers will not be decided by a vote in parliament.
These matters, and many others besides, will be decided by what action workers themselves are prepared to take in their own defence.
It is our resistance that is the critical factor.
Across the public sector there is a mood for struggle and for unity with other workers facing similar attacks. The task for socialists is to turn that mood into a reality. United action can throw back the plans of the mainstream politicians.
The ability of Respect to build on its electoral successes of last week can also help revitalise the unions and increase the spirit of resistance.