One of the reasons Gerry Adams is in difficulties over revelations that he covered up charges of child rape against his brother and fellow Sinn Fein (SF) activist Liam is that people in Catholic working class areas who have given a lifetime to Republican ideals now see SF leaders in cahoots with their once-deadly Unionist enemies in implementing British rule. Why should they continue to suffer in silence when the cause has been abandoned?
Likewise, working class Loyalists are less likely to stand by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as it deals with the fallout from the sex-and-money antics of Iris Robinson when they observe the DUP, which her husband leads, sitting comfortably with former IRA commanders in the Northern Ireland Executive.
The political system enshrined in the so-called Good Friday Agreement – based on the mass of the people voting for the party which will most vigorously represent their interests vis-à-vis the interests of the other community in a power-sharing arrangement – may not be in crisis. But its hold has been loosened.
The immediate issue threatening the SF-DUP talks is the devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont. SF leaders persuaded the IRA to complete arms decommissioning with an assurance that, in return, control of the police and the courts would be taken out of British hands. But the DUP, under pressure from hard-liners for sharing power with Republicans in the first place, has refused to agree a date for the handover.
This paralysis, the fact that neither of the two dominant parties is able to deliver on its own agenda, opens up the possibility – no more – of class politics coming to the fore. The possibility is boosted by the fact that the government the two communal parties want to stabilise is committed to a programme of cutbacks, job losses and privatisation.
DUP finance minister Sammy Wilson has announced that all ten Executive departments – four held by the DUP, three by SF – have accepted their share of a £370 million reduction in expenditure over the next year. These cuts are on top of the 3 percent year-on-year “efficiency savings” imposed by the treasury. SF ministers are on record saying that they will not shrink from the “hard decisions”.
Neoliberal economics hold sway across all the executive departments. Plans for transport “reform” make the point.
At the moment buses and trains in Northern Ireland remain in the public sector, under SF minister Conor Murphy’s Department of Regional Development (DRD). Holding company Translink presides over Northern Ireland Rail, Ulsterbus and Metro, which runs Belfast’s buses. Now a DRD consultation paper proposes “to move towards a performance-based contracting regime with Translink and other operators, [providing] opportunities for private operators to identify potential gaps in the market and to apply for a permit to deliver services on those routes”. Translink would bid for contracts for routes against the private companies. The private operators would enjoy equal access to stations and depots built with public money, as well as to bus stops and provision of travel information.
In 2008 Murphy hired consultants FGS McClure Watters to advise on implementation of the plan. They have advised that Translink should try “to enter the new environment as a leaner operator, and avoid entrenching any current inefficiencies in terms of working practices”. Towards that end, salary costs at Ulsterbus should be slashed by 11 percent, wages at Metro by 5.5 percent, 236 support jobs at Ulsterbus should be cut and so on.
The proposals follow the pattern of piece by piece privatisation of public transport in Britain.
Thus, while neither SF nor the DUP is able to deliver in Republican or Loyalist terms, neither do they defend the interests of workers in either community.
It is against this background that both parties find themselves unable to call on the fierce sense of communal loyalism which once would have helped them contain the scandals now engulfing their leaders. A credible challenge from a broad left formation at the imminent Westminster and (if the executive collapses) Stormont elections could see the beginning of a fundamental realignment.
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