THE NEW Assembly in Northern Ireland has been welcomed by nearly everyone except a tiny minority of hardline Unionists gathered around Ian Paisley. Millions of people are hoping the new Assembly will mean the dawn of a new era of peace in Northern Ireland. Many ordinary Protestants and Catholics are also hoping that the new Assembly will begin to tackle poverty, unemployment and declining welfare services. But the real question is whether the new Assembly will be able to deliver the peace and prosperity so many people in Northern Ireland are hoping for.
David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party will dominate the Assembly. The Ulster Unionists are in favour of attracting multinational investment into Northern Ireland by promising low wages and low corporate taxes. For workers that spells the continuation of crappy wages, temporary jobs, flexibility and no guarantees of trade union rights.
David Trimble sees himself as a representative of business in Northern Ireland. He has appointed former businessman Reg Emprey to the Executive (cabinet) of the Assembly. Emprey will be in charge of enterprise and investment.
The middle class Catholic-led Social and Democratic Labour Party also has three seats in the Executive. But it also has a pro-business agenda. The party recently argued that there are too many public sector jobs in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein has two seats in the Executive. Will it provide an alternative to the pro-business policies of the Unionists and the SDLP? Sinn Fein talks of implementing 'radical Republican labour policies' in the new Assembly. The appointment of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness as education minister will be a major test. Will he dismantle the elitist 11-plus and grammar school system in Northern Ireland? Will he fight for more funding for schools and stop the threatened loss of 500 school places?
And will Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun, who was appointed health and social services minister, continue with the 'rationalisation' plan for hospitals which is threatening the closure of dozens of local hospitals? Unfortunately, like the other major parties, Sinn Fein calls for cutting taxes on big corporations so they match the low levels of Southern Ireland.
None of the main parties have broken with the communal politics which has dominated Northern Ireland's history. That could mean Unionist politicians vying to protect the 'Protestant community', while the SDLP and Sinn Fein argue for more investments and government grants to go to Catholic areas.
But there is the possibility of an alternative. The rejection of sectarianism and the desire for wider change among working class people opens up the possibility of the re-emergence of class politics. Colm Brice from the SWP's sister organisation in Ireland spoke to Socialist Worker about the mood among ordinary people and the prospects ahead:
'There is no great feeling of euphoria about the Assembly. The feeling is more of a sense of relief. Above all, people want to get on with what they call 'real' politics. 'There has been a fall in unemployment recently but the new jobs are low paid and temporary. There was a mass walkout of the mainly Protestant workforce at the Harland and Wolff shipyard last month. This helped reprieve the yard from closure.'
'There was also a march of 2,000 students in Belfast against tuition fees. And we organised a march against poverty which was quite successful and which was led off by 150 firefighters. Last week we saw strike action at BT call centres in Belfast and Enniskillen. Another big issue at the moment is over the 11-plus which children still have to take in Northern Ireland. We've been part of building a campaign against it, and the Belfast branch of the NASWT [one of the main teaching unions in Northern Ireland] has just voted to call a demonstration. That means there is the potential to build a united working class movement.'
'The main political parties have no interest in furthering the struggles of workers or a fight against the whole system. That is why socialist politics are so important in making the links between workers and rejecting communal politics.'
Trimble's new obstacles to peace process
DAVID Trimble won the vote to set up the Assembly before any arms decommissioning at the Unionist Council last weekend. But the hardline bigots in his own party were only narrowly defeated by a 58 percent majority.
Along with Ian Paisley's party, these Unionists do not want to see any Catholics in power and will try to scupper the Assembly at every turn. They are planning, for example, to oppose any changes to the sectarian RUC police force, due to be announced this month. Moreover Trimble only won the vote by rewriting the agreement made during the George Mitchell review to demand IRA decommissioning by February. Then the Unionists could once again hold the peace to ransom. Disgracefully the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, immediately backed the Unionists' demand for IRA decommissioning.
The Unionists have used the issue of decommissioning as an obstacle to peace ever since the first IRA ceasefire in September 1994. They want to see the Republican movement defeated and humiliated. David Trimble understands that in order to keep hold of power he has to share government with Catholic parties. But he is also a product of the Unionist Party and boasts of a Unionist veto over any decisions made by the Assembly. Moreover he presides over a bitterly divided party, which will put him under continued pressure to demand concessions from Sinn Fein and which could again threaten to sabotage peace.