Brick Walls, Sectarianism and Citizenship

Political, social and economic life here has come to an almost complete stop.

Twenty-five years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and its overwhelming endorsement by the vast majority of people on this island we are left facing a brick wall with little, if any, prospect of progress.

The Agreement offered new hope and optimism, but the vicious and deadly battles between British and Irish nationalism, played out on our streets for thirty years, is now being replicated in Stormont and the Assembly, characterised by the all too familiar debasements of negativity, tribal confrontation and, sectarianism.

Perhaps now is the time to review our relationships and seek a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have been forced down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

More than fifty years ago thousands of people in Northern Ireland took to the streets campaigning for a better, more equitable, society. Their demands were not devalued by issues of cultural identity, community background or tribal loyalties.


Perhaps now is the time to review our relationships and seek a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have been forced down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

If there is no way through the wall then we must go around it. Not as Catholics, or Protestants, not as unionists or nationalists. Not as British, Irish, Northern Irish or any other origin. Those of us who believe that better is possible and who refuse to sit and wallow in the sectarian status quo need a basis, a platform, on which to progress and to move society forward.

The concept of socialist citizenship, based on class politics, working class unity and solidarity, would help to re-define our relationships and responsibilities to each other and to the institutions of government through clear and guaranteed relationships underpinned by a Bill of Rights.

Tribal positions

Of course, there will be those who will not want to avail of such an opportunity. There will be those who will actively oppose it in an attempt to tie the rest of us into their tribal positions. But the choice is there for those of us who want to explore the possibilities offered on the other side of the political brick wall that we have been facing for the last twenty-five years. Citizenship offers a way forward.

Unless we re-calibrate our relationships and understanding of each other we, and our children, will be facing this same brick wall in twenty-five and fifty-years time.

The Sinn Fein / DUP strategy has been to manipulate and manage sectarianism, rather than seeking to eradicate it. The failure to tackle sectarianism therefore has nullified much of the good intent contained within the God Friday Agreement.

Tackling sectarianism

We cannot afford to do nothing and hope that time alone will resolve this issue. Unless, and until, the issue of sectarianism is comprehensively tackled, we will never realise the vision of a new society which leaves behind the out-dated attitudes and prejudices which have been the cause of so much misery and despair.

Those of us who oppose sectarianism must organise as strongly and as stubbornly as those who promote and profit from it. The concept of socialist citizenship gives us that commonality and base camp from which to progress

Socialist citizenship is not a silver bullet. It is not a quick fix panacea.

However, it could form the basis for a constructive, respectful and forward looking society, as an alternative to backward, parochial ethnocentricity. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP can hold out that hope

Grotesque attempt to rewrite history

To argue, as Michelle O’Neill has done, that the Provisional IRA’s bloody campaign was justifiable and unavoidable is not only a lie, it is yet another grotesque attempt by Sinn Fein to rewrite history.

Unfortunately, that is a project that has brought them some reward. Such is the ‘greenwashing’ of the period of The Troubles that today, twenty five years after they ended, a generation of young nationalists, which knew nothing of their terror, butchery and ultimate futility, blithely chant pro IRA slogans as they play out their odious tribal rituals.

Michelle O’Neill and the Sinn Fein machine knows exactly what they are doing when they glorify three decades of atrocities, sectarianism and barbarity.

They are playing to their own gallery, consolidating the lowest denominator in their support base and, using very specifically tailored language, constructing a counterfeit history in which everyone else is to blame.

It is worth remembering that the Provos were no friends of the Civil Rights campaign. They opposed it, they attacked it, they condemned it. But they did not support it. Nor did they support the efforts of all those who were working for a better and more democratic society.

They rejected the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 only to, eventually, sign up to the Good Friday Agreement twentyfive years and three and a half thousand deaths later.

The only inevitability about the IRA’s actions was that, like all forms of militant nationalism, British and Irish, they will always revert to the elitism of violence rather than join with others in a united approach to tackling the injustices of society.

There was no justification for what the IRA did over three decades. There is no legitimacy in its glorification or in attempts at its justification today.

Hugh Scullion is Chair of the MId-Ulster Branch of the Workers Party

Childcare Scandal

Two years ago the then Executive parties signed up to the New Decade New Approach initiative. One of the commitments was to produce a Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland.

Two years later on and we are still waiting. We have no strategy and we have no Executive.

Currently parents in England, Scotland and Wales can benefit from 30 hours of free childcare, for thirty-nine weeks each year. Not in Northern Ireland though. Neither it, nor any similar scheme, has ever been introduced by the Assembly.

The Assembly’s lack of urgency and action demonstrates the value the main parties here place on the contribution of working parents and on the development of society’s greatest asset: its children.

Early childhood is a key period for brain development. During the early years of life, and especially in the first 1000 days, a child’s brain develops rapidly. What happens in the early years, matters for a lifetime.

Now, the Westminster government is proposing to reduce the ratio of childcare workers to children from 1:4 to 1:5. Although this currently will apply only in England, it is nonetheless a dangerous and retrograde step that others might find attractive to include in their long overdue childcare strategy.

Just like health, education and housing, childcare is viewed and treated as a commodity which can be successfully exploited and profited from.

Northern Ireland has some of the lowest levels of childcare provision in these islands, and many of our near neighbours could make significant improvements in their provision.

Compared to many other European countries we are light years behind, in our funding, our services and our understanding of the significance universal, flexible, accessible and affordable childcare services can have for a child’s early and future development, for parents and for the economy.

If and when the Assembly ever gets around to progressing a Childcare Strategy for Northern Ireland, it could do worse than to look at the Cuban model. In its recent report on ‘Early Childhood Development in CubaUNICEF praised its world class approach and noted that 99.5% of Cuban youngsters had a nursery placement.

In the meantime, yet another generation of children here will go without the benefits, the opportunities and the enhanced development that progressive childcare brings.

Remember when we were “all in this together”?

Throughout the recent, and still with us, pandemic our NHS and its staff struggled heroically to contain and overcome the coronavirus COVID 19.

They fought the virus at great personal cost, often without adequate or appropriate resources, frequently without clear political direction and against a backdrop of a decade and more of cuts to the service.

Having turned the tide, the NHS then went on an incredible vaccination offensive, unparalleled in our collective lifetimes and once again delivered through superhuman efforts and in the face of naysayers and deniers.

Society went in to lock down. Routines, lifestyles and work patterns were turned on their heads but, of course, all of this was secondary to the almost 190,000 deaths across these islands and the more than six million worldwide.

If we ever really were ‘all in this together’, then some of us have come out the other side a lot better off than others.

While the NHS laboured and students, families and essential workers knuckled down to keep systems and society functioning and hundreds of thousands of lives were cut short, the Covid Crisis also saw the creation of an additional 573 new billionaires.

It’s been said before that capitalism, and capitalists, never waste a crisis. During the two-year pandemic period the combined wealth of the billionaire class rose more than it had done over the previous 23 years. Billionaires now own 14% of the world’s wealth Twenty years ago that figure was under 5%.

Food and agribusiness billionaires saw a 45% increase in their wealth

The five largest energy companies, including BP, Shell, Exxon, and Chevron, made a combined profit of $82 billion last year alone. The oil sector saw its profit margins double during the pandemic 

The pandemic created 40 new pharmaceutical billionaires as companies like Moderna and Pfizer enjoyed a bonanza from their vaccines against Covid-19.

The development of their products was funded by public investment, but despite this they are charging governments up to 24 times more than the cost of generic production. It is estimated that the vaccines alone brought the big pharmaceutical companies profits of $1,000 a second

Likewise, tech sector enjoyed rapid growth amid the pandemic and produced some of the wealthiest individuals as a result. Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, Amazon, and Alphabet made $271 billion in profit in 2021, – twice as much as they recorded in 2019

The views of Oxfam’s International Director, Gabriela Bucher are worth noting.

Billionaires’ fortunes have not increased because they are now smarter or working harder. Workers are working harder, for less pay and in worse conditions. The super-rich have rigged the system with impunity for decades and they are now reaping the benefits,

They have seized a shocking amount of the world’s wealth as a result of privatization and monopolies, gutting regulation and workers’ rights while stashing their cash in tax havens – all with the complicity of governments,” she says.

It’s hard to argue otherwise, but doesn’t that all make demands for windfall taxes, VAT reductions and one-off cost of living payments seem little more than a token gesture in the current circumstances?

If we want to solve these problems, rather than accommodate them, then we need to take what should be public utilities, into public ownership and democratic control.

Who can look at the obscene wealth accumulated by private individuals, at the expense of working people, during a period of public adversity and not be convinced that only the radical transformation of this society and a planned socialist economy can deliver security, opportunities and a better quality of life for all?


There is an alternative to the politics of austerity

Far from addressing the cost-of-living crisis, Tory proposals to cut 91,000 jobs in the civil service will worsen the situation.

Workers, including key workers and those occupying frontline roles, are likely to be targeted. Many of those who risked their lives during the pandemic are now facing a loss of their jobs. 

Public services, already under pressure, will be adversely affected with longer waiting lists for passports and driving licences. This proposal is connected with the earlier announcement that various agencies such as the DVLA would be considered for closure or privatisation.

This is a further attack by capital and its representatives on the working class, a mechanism to weaken the public sector and to further the privatisation agenda – an attempt by capital to consolidate class power. It also reopresents continuing confrontation with the trade unions seeking to protect the livelihood of their members.

The continuing erosion of workers’ pay and conditions, cuts to essential services, privatisation, the proposed reduction of taxation on income and an increasing number of direct charges imposed on those least able to pay is all the current social order has to offer.

As we made clear our recent Election Manifesto there is another way.

There is an alternative to the politics of austerity. It is an immediate programme of progressive, publicly funded investment in the public sector and the replacement of the current noxious social system by a new, centrally planned, socialist society as the only way to a better future.

The Crisis in Childcare

Childcare in Northern Ireland is in crisis. Costs here are the second highest in Europe, there are not enough places to cope with demand and one third of local parents say that childcare costs are their largest monthly outgoing, exceeding their rent or mortgage.

Parents are having to cut back on their hours, leave their jobs or make ad hoc and short-term arrangements.

And the response from the DUP/ Sinn Fein led Executive? Almost ten years after it first started to discuss a Childcare Strategy, unbelievably, it is still at the consultation stage.

‘Towards a Childcare Strategy’ was first drafted in 2012. The consultation period ended a year later in December 2013.

The Programme for Government (2011-2015) committed the Executive to publish and implement a childcare strategy with key actions to provide integrated and affordable childcare. That consultation ended in November 2015.

Then, the New Decade, New Approach agreement committed the Executive to publish the strategy and to “deliver extended, affordable and high-quality provision of early education and care initiatives for families with children aged 3-4”.

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen now promises to finally deliver the strategy, but, depressingly, says that this will involve re-engaging with key stakeholders on the objectives and priorities, feasibility testing and a public consultation. Don’t hold your breath.

Socialist countries, like the German Democratic Republic, pioneered comprehensive childcare schemes as long ago as the 1940s and 50s. Other countries are now belatedly addressing their childcare responsibiities.

Parents in England and Scotland can access 30 hours of free childcare during term time.

In Finland every child under the age of seven has the right to childcare and pre-school by law,

Sweden spends more money on its pre-school budget than it does on its defence budget. Each child is guaranteed a place at a public pre-school.

Nurseries in France are free and children aged from three upwards can attend

Since 2013 every child over the age of one in Germany has a legal right to a place in a public childcare facility. 

The lack of available places and the cost of childcare remain major factors in discouraging women, in particular, from participating in the workforce. Many have no choice but to work reduced hours, enter casual employment or give up work altogether.

If women are to achieve equality in the workplace then child care must be a priority

In the absence of publicly run nurseries, the government’s go-to solution is to use tax-payers’ money as a subsidy to private nurseries through working tax credits, vouchers and a myriad of complex and complicated funding schemes riddled with caveats, exceptions and exclusion clauses. It doesn’t even kick the problem further down the road. The crisis remains and is getting worse.

Is it really such an earth-shattering demand to call for fully publicly funded, affordable, flexible nursery and childcare services?

If we are serious about gender equality, developing the economy, maximising the input of women and implementing a post covid revival plan then we must ensure that a flexible childcare network is available from birth and includes pre and after-school, and holiday care.

 If we are serious about a first-class childcare strategy then we must guarantee quality of care through ensuring that all those working in the childcare sector are fully qualified, have training and development opportunities, a career path and are paid a real living wage.

And while we are at it, why should we not consider childcare as the major investment in the future that it unquestionably is? Why should we not rank it alongside other major social policy initiatives and make it free at the point of delivery?

Too often, critics dismiss socialists and socialism as always wanting something for nothing. Of course, a free at the point of use childcare system would cost money and it should be paid for.

We could start with collecting the billions of pounds of unpaid taxes, raising corporation tax in recognition of the benefits employers will reap from future generations or we could stop waging wars around the world. The estimated £40 billion plus spent on the war in Afghanistan would be a good start and a much better use of public money.

Stealth and health – the next big battle

There’s a lot we can learn from the treatment of our health and social care staff and the derisory 1% pay award being considered for front line workers.

Without the NHS, and without the professionalism and dedication of its staff, the outcome of the Covid pandemic, horrendous as it has been, would have been much worse.

The work they have done and the results they have achieved, including the outstanding roll out of the vaccination programme, has been acknowledged in popular support and sustained applause.

But despite their rhetoric and the public commitments to supporting the NHS that respect and adulation has not been matched by government actions.

That’s not entirely surprising. From the earliest days of the NHS the Tory party,  in particular, has been committed to undermining and dismantling the health service as we know it, as it has with much of the welfare state initiatives brought in after the second world war.

Sentimentality, it seems, plays no part in strategic projects like privatising healthcare.

You won’t find it in their election manifestos, it wont be admitted publicly, but  privatising the NHS is a policy that sits comfortably with Tory ideology and with the mindsets of many local parties – including those who claim otherwise.

Privatisation by stealth is probably the best description of what is happening and ironically the pressures of the pandemic and the way in which the NHS has responded has left it more vunerable.

Up to £10bn is being made available in England to buy treatment from private providers so that the NHS can clear the backlog of diagnostic tests and treatments that have built up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than half a million people in England now have their primary healthcare provided by private GP consortiums funded by American health insurance companies.

Hiving off NHS services bit by bit to the private sector is creeping privatisation. It is privatisation by stealth.

The second line of threat is equally covert. The longer that waiting lists become, and that is a particular problem in Northern Ireland, the more that people with the means to pay for private healthcare will do so.

Deliberately underfunding the NHS has the effect of accelerating privatisation.

Refusing to recognise the contribution and worth of its staff, by offering a 1% pay award for example, will further demoralise a dedicated workforce and contribute to a potential workforce exodus to better paid and less stressful employment.

Overcoming Covid 19 is a battle that will be won eventually with the help of the NHS and its staff. The battle to save the NHS may prove to be an even bigger task. We should prepare for that now.

“Join the conversation”? I don’t think so.

I have become increasingly suspicious of people asking me to “join the conversation”

There’s a lot of it going on. In almost all cases I get the distinct impression that, by the time the “invitation” is extended, the real discussion has already taken place and that the conclusions have already been reached. It seems like the “invitation” is only being extended to help make up the numbers. Or, more cynically it’s an attempt to take the bad look off an already suspect project.

This is certainly true of the “conversation” around calls for a Border Poll.

The ‘civic nationalists’, ‘concerned democrats’ and ‘Ireland’s Futurists’ promoting this particular ‘conversation’ are a diverse group from all classes but with a single objective: redrawing the geography and declaring a ‘united’ Ireland.

There is no conversation

The stark reality is that there is no conversation and there never has been, at least not one that those outside of Sinn Fein and civic nationalism have been involved in. No. In their minds the deal has been done and everyone else now needs to get on board or get lost. So, actually there is no need for discussions or ‘conversations’. It seems that we are way past that stage already.

Interestingly there seems to be a number of other ‘certainties’ submerged just beneath the surface of their ‘unity’ argument, not least of which is the implied assumption that, not only is everyone – except unionists – in favour of an immediate Border Poll and geographical unity but that any new united Ireland would also be a member of the European Union.

Real intentions

Try as they might to disguise the fact, the real intentions of the Border Poll campaigners are too frequently exposed by their own use of language. The Ireland’s Future group talks of – ‘Our Rights – Our Future’. You can’t get much more inclusive than that! We are also told that nationalists will not be told that their “fundamental aspiration is divisive”. Really?

Anyone naïve enough to join in this group’s ‘conversation’ will be sucked up, consumed and paraded around in a demonstration of the inclusive and accommodating nature of the nationalist agenda. They may as well be the fairy on the Christmas tree – for decoration only.

No matter how it’s dressed up or explained away, the clamour by nationalists to hold a border poll is nothing short of an attempt to secure a deliberately divisive sectarian head count.

That’s one of the reasons that I was pleased to see the recent statement by Cllr Ted Tynan from Cork and Hugh Scullion from Bellaghy in which they said  – “…what the border poll campaigners don’t want to consider, and don’t want raised, is the necessary discussion on the fundamental restructuring of Irish society to ensure that working people control their own destinies”.

It’s not as if Border Poll campaigners are unaware of the nature of class and how it dictates the character of our society. In fact, they are very conscious and acutely aware of it. That’s why they are so keen to deliberately avoid discussing it. Their ‘united’ Ireland would be a world of exploitation, division, systemic poverty, triumphalism gombeenism and capitalism.

However, one benefit this clamour for a border poll has produced is that it has flushed out the pseudo socialists, the trendy lefties and the weekend revolutionaries. The indecent haste which many of those claiming to be on the Left have shown in jumping on the Sinn Fein / Civic Nationalism bandwagon should be repulsive to many.

All it takes is someone waving a green flag in their general direction and the fundamental, non-negotiable principles of working-class unity, anti-sectarianism and class politics are all ditched, dumped and discarded.

The same fate awaits anyone foolish enough to join their Border Poll conversation.

Austin Kelly

Time to tackle Hate Crime

The news that a deliberate fire has practically destroyed the Belfast Multicultural building in South Belfast should bring shame to us all. The centre is a vital space for Northern Ireland’s many minority groupings to come together.  

The fact that Muhammed Atif from the Belfast Multi Cultural Association now says that this attack will prevent them opening a community centre at the building demonstrates clearly that this is an attack on the entire community, not just those minority groups using the centre. 

Regular incidents

The PSNI and political representatives in the area must be asked if more could have been done to protect the centre, given the regular racist and Islamophobic incidents that the centre and its users have been subjected to. All hate crime – whether it is racism, sectarian, homophobic or any other – is completely unacceptable and we all must stand in solidarity with the centre users and those managing this space in what must be an extremely worrying and distressing time. 

The people involved in this hateful attack offer nothing to the people of Northern Ireland, and do not speak for us. 

Education and legislation

It is time for empty condolences to end. Hate crime is on the rise and Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without specific hate crime laws – this must be rectified immediately. Scotland, for example, has recently introduced new robust hate crime law which allows stricter sentencing for those involved in hate crimes. The bill also allows prosecution of those who intend to ‘stir up hatred’. While the specifics of that term continue to be ironed out by the Scottish Government, there is no doubt it would have been useful here in Northern Ireland, given the campaign of racism that many ethnic minorities suffer, including the Multicultural Association.

Along with a wider public education plan around bigotry and hatred, stricter laws would be a vital tool in preventing further crime. 

Real hate crime figures

In the last PSNI annual report on hate crime from October 2019 to September 2020, there were 881 hate related incidents or crimes. This is a completely shameful number of incidents. PSNI and other police forces also accept that reporting numbers in hate related crimes is low, so the true number is likely to be much higher than this. Much of the reason for this is due to distrust of the criminal justice system, given the lower conviction rates for hate crimes, compared to other crime. 

Rebuild and relocate

It is also vital that the executive takes the lead on publicly proving its opposition to Hate Crime. The Department of Communities should immediately step in to secure funding for a rebuild of the Belfast Multicultural hub, and in the meantime, alternative premises should be secured to allow the Multicultural Association to continue its work.   

This is not the time for words of condemnation, that are not followed up by robust and clear actions. We must all show very clearly that we are strongly opposed to any form of hatred and come together with all victims of hate crime. 

All parties in the executive must unequivocally condemn those involved in this fire, and tell them loud and clear that neither hatred nor bigotry is welcome in Northern Ireland.

Sign the statement of support for the Belfast Multicultural Association


“Just when you thought our political system couldn’t get any more dysfunctional…”

This week has demonstrated that, just when we thought our political system couldn’t get any more dysfunctional the Executive goes that extra mile to prove us wrong.

The Covid death rates are increasing and the R number is rising. The medical and scientific evidence supports an extension of the current circuit breaker, and some in the hospitality and service sectors would support that if financial aid were made available.

They are clearly frustrated by this ‘stop then start’ scenario which is detrimental to the long-term survival of their business. Yet we are witnessing a farce being played out around the Executive table. When we need decision and action, we get confusion, political squabbles, and brinkmanship.

Scandalous use of Petition of Concern

The use on two occasions of the Petition of Concern, was nothing short of scandalous. It sectarianised the public health message and introduced a political veto over life in favour of livelihoods, as if there is only this binary choice. This is an unnecessary and dangerous approach.

The two big parties would seem either unable or unwilling to stick to any agreement they reach. Even when the lives of our citizens are at risk , they put their own narrow interests first: though to most rational people, it’s impossible to fathom, just what those interests are.

A strategic way forward

It would seem that a compromise was reached at the eleventh hour., but we should not have to face these continuous stand offs. We are entitled to political leadership that is capable of formulating a strategic way forward and developing plans to deal with this pandemic. Not in a haphazard or piece meal way that covers a few weeks or months, but a long-term plan that covers the duration of the pandemic.

Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein have shown leadership in relation to Covid restrictions. Both parties have, when it suited them, breeched the guidelines laid down by statue for the rest of us to follow. It’s outrageous that even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and public health crisis our they can’t put the health and safety of citizens first.

It’s always been difficult

We all know how hard it is to mange in the current pandemic, but it has always been difficult for those people on the breadline. It’s always been difficult for those with mental health issues.

Perhaps we should be glad that the Executive has now acknowledged the horrors of poverty and unemployment, and will rethink its strategy of pay freezes and cutting public sector jobs to facilitate tax cuts. I won’t hold my breath waiting though.

It’s clear that this system of government is never going to work, because if the Executive is incapable of pulling together during a worldwide pandemic , then what hope have we for the future?