Socialist Worker

Class divide key issue in Northern Ireland

The peace process in Northern Ireland has been paralysed after last week's elections

Issue No. 1880

IAN PAISLEY'S Catholic-hating DUP came top of the poll in last week's assembly elections.

The crisis is a product of the way in which the peace process has been conceived.

Instead of being based on drawing Protestants and Catholics together, it is based on the assumption the British used in order to rule Ireland for centuries.

This is the assumption that there is an intrinsic divide between people who identify with opposition to British rule and a minority who were promised marginal advantages simply because they were Protestant.

This division underlay the 100 percent Unionist state that ran Northern Ireland from 1921 until 1972.

It is taken for granted in the Good Friday agreement which marked the beginning of the peace process.

So even though two thirds of the population voted for parties committed to continuing the peace process it has been paralysed by the vote for Ian Paisley's party.

Regrettably what many see as the most radical party in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, has also accepted the division between Protestants and Catholics.

Using the language of 'two tribes', it accepts that it should sit in government representing one of the tribes alongside an out and out Tory, David Trimble.

Sinn Fein even urged its supporters to use some of their votes to help him-in effect telling Protestant workers that it had nothing more to offer them than Trimble or Paisley.

Sinn Fein won a majority of the votes of Catholic workers but has no appeal at all for Protestant workers.

Fortunately there is unlikely to be the resumption of all-out war in Northern Ireland.

But that danger will always be there until real working class politics unites Catholic and Protestant workers against their rulers, both Irish and British.

There was one small sign of hope in the elections last week.

Veteran socialist and campaigner Eamonn McCann won 5.5 percent of the vote standing in the Foyle constituency. Standing as a candidate for the Socialist Environmental Alliance, he gained 2,257 first-preference votes.

'A radical alternative'

Eamonn McCann explained to Socialist Worker why he stood in the elections

'I LAST stood in an election in Northern Ireland 33 years ago. In the 1960s and 70s we took our cue from what was happening worldwide.

Today, whether it's the export of jobs to even lower waged regions of the world, or selling off public services to private financiers, or presidents and premiers preaching peace as they wage war, the connection between the local and the global is clear.

You could say it was a statistic that made me want to run.

The wealthiest quarter of people in Northern Ireland have 56 percent of income. The bottom quarter get 6 percent.

Here is the most glaring example of inequality in our society.

But the four main parties in Northern Ireland can argue about equality for hours without giving it a mention.

This is why the Irish Socialist Workers Party joined with others in the Socialist Environmental Alliance to enter the election.

We regard class divisions, not community differences between Protestants and Catholics, as the defining characteristic of our society.

We believe that the higher up the agenda we make class issues, the less difficult community problems will become.

The Socialist Environmental Alliance first came together two years ago to provide a radical alternative to sectarian politics in the local elections.

We did much better in the elections than people expected, getting 5.5 percent and saving our deposit.

Given that we opened our manifesto by declaring that, if elected, we'd register not as Nationalist or Unionist but as 'Other', and that this is the most polarised election in Northern Irish history, we reckoned the performance a significant success.

We knocked on every door in the Loyalist Fountain and Newbuildings areas, as well as in the Nationalist Bogside and Brandywell, offering the same arguments and distributing the same leaflets.

We may not have pulled proportionate votes from each area, but we asked, and offered a political basis for a positive answer.'

Put real equality on the agenda

MAINSTREAM PARTIES tend to ignore issues about class. If pushed they say they are beyond the Northern Ireland Assembly's remit.

It is true that benefit levels, for example, are decided at Westminster.

But there are specific things assembly politicians could do. For a start they could stop all privatisation and Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes, and stop promoting Northern Ireland as a low wage economy.

One expects little else from either of the main Unionist parties or the moderate SDLP, but it was the Sinn Fein ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre deBrun, who were the most enthusiastic in their support for PFI.

At the lower end of the pay scale-particularly among women-public sector workers are better paid and more secure than those in the private sector.

Any party serious about equality would declare that it won't sit in an executive which proceeds any further down the privatisation road.

Yet in the course of a Ulster Television debate before the elections, continued support for PFI was one of only two issues on which politicians from all four executive parties were able to agree.

The other was their opposition to abortion being available here on the NHS.

The Invest Northern Ireland website tells potential investors that the North offers 'employment costs that are up to 32 percent lower than in the US and 25 percent lower than the EU average'. This makes a virtue of poverty wages.

A party seriously against poverty would refuse to operate this perspective in government.

Half of all children living below the poverty line are living in families with at least one adult working. Poverty among people working, especially in one-worker households, is steadily growing.

Sinn Fein's slogan in the elections was 'For an Ireland of equals'. It seems that applies only to divisions between Catholics and Protestants, not to the far greater division between the rich and the rest of us.

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