Assembly Election – Groundhog Day

What exactly would an Assembly election in December resolve?

There should, of course, be an immediate restoration of devolution, the election of a Speaker and First and Deputy First Ministers, and the return of a fully functioning Executive.

That can only be done if the DUP returns to Stormont.

The Realpolitik, then, is that the DUP is not going to return until there is significant and fundamental movement on the Northern Ireland Protocol. They remain as adamant on that as Sinn Fein was on its demands when they collapsed the Executive for three years between January 2017 and January 2020.

The DUP will refuse to participate in a new Executive for precisely the same reasons that they are abstaining now.

Technically, and legally, the Secretary of State is required to call another election if, six months after an election, no Executive has been formed. The DUP will refuse to participate in a new Executive for precisely the same reasons that they are abstaining now.

A December election will not resolve that situation and , arguably, will further polarise the community as both Sinn Fein and the DUP mount yet another divisive, sectarian and diversionary campaign.

We will end up in the same place we started but with the real issues effecting working people – the cost of living, austerity, cuts to services and benefits, lack of child care, low paid, part time, precarious employment, housing shortages and rapidly rising heating bills all side lined by their sectarian power struggles.

A restored Assembly will not address, let alone resolve, the major problems facing this community. In its chequered twenty year ‘on/off’ history it has been responsible for very little social, economic or political progress. The importance of a devolved administration is that it allows the major parties to be scrutinised and held to account, and, in progressive hands holds out the possibility of at least alleviating some of the hardships currently being experienced.

Neither a continued boycotting of the Executive, nor spending £6 million on an unnecessary election will do either.

Only Major Reform Can Deliver a Working Government

For the second time in five years the Northern Ireland Assembly has no Executive. Sinn Fein collapsed it with a walk out in 2017 and now the DUP have refused to walk in and allow a new Executive to be formed: people, public services and any prospect of progress are being held to ransom.

Both parties are allowed to perform in this reckless manner by the original provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Agreement provides that the largest unionist and the largest nationalist party must nominate a First and Deputy First Minister before an Executive can be formed.

 If either or both refuses to do so then no Executive can be formed and the Assembly can’t operate.

Whatever merit those arrangements might have had when the Agreement was signed in 1998, it no longer makes practical or political sense in 2022. They are no longer fit for purpose and now stand in the way of effective devolved government.

The route to a working Executive is root and branch reform of the Assembly’s structures.

The starting point has to be:

  • getting rid of the sectarian and inoperable structures that the two main parties in particular continue to use, abuse and hide behind.
  • a move from mandatory to voluntary coalition,
  • abolition of the Community Designation requirements
  • reform of the Petition of Concern to ensure that it can never again be used to veto social or equality legislation.

We cannot endure another five years of stop / start government. Immediate and far reaching reform is the only way in which a new Assembly can function effectively.

Joint letter spells out the harsh realities

The Workers Party’s six Assembly candidates have written a joint letter to the editors of Northern Ireland’s three daily newspapers questioning how the election results will change, for the better, the lives of working class people, the young, the old and the vulnerable.

Dear Editor,

The major parties and most of the media have hailed the outcome of the Assembly elections as one of major change. How have they come to that conclusion?

Exactly the same parties that were elected the last time have been returned this time. The same parties that, when they weren’t collapsing the Executive, were responsible for growing waiting lists, a lack of public housing, economic stagnation and pay cuts to public sector workers.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill even went as far as claiming that the election results were “…  a defining moment for our politics and for our people. Really?

Throughout the election campaign we made the point that, when the polls closed, the priorities for working class people would remain the cost of living, health, education and low pay. That certainly hasn’t changed.

Given the re-election of the same parties, and in most cases the same people, there seems little chance that it will.

The hype, the self-congratulations and the media circus will fade and the realities of the outcome will kick in. Twenty-four years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement we still have no Bill of Rights, we continue to educate our children separately, we have developed a low wage, part time, zero hours economy, our public services are run down, underfunded and fragmented and we are living with a mental health crisis.

The task of socialists and progressives must to continue to present the alternatives, stay on the backs of the new Executive, if one is ever formed, and hold them to account at every turn.

Eoin MacNeill, Nicola Grant, Hugh Scullion, Patrick Lynn, Patrick Crossan and Lily Kerr

Assembly must stay

While there can be doubt that the Northern Ireland Protocol is causing unnecessary difficulties, politically and economically, the solutions are not to be found in brinkmanship, political posturing or in threats to collapse the Assembly.

As with most things in Northern Ireland politics, reactions to Jeffery Donaldson’s announcement have been based largely on an ‘us and them’, or a nationalist / unionist basis

The European Union’s negotiation strategy throughout this process has been, and remains unnecessarily belligerent and punitive: something that its local political fan club refuses to accept. The British government is not without blame for its approach either.

However, the reality is that beyond the tribal responses, there are issues which need to be addressed. Of course, it is possible to ensure the integrity of the EU single market by some of the means already proposed by the local business community amongst others.

Only goods which are at risk of onward travel to the Republic of Ireland pose a potential problem. Northern Ireland consumable goods do not. Workable solutions are available.

The bigger political picture however, is that the Protocol issue is being used to electioneer ahead of the Assembly poll next May. The DUP are trying to secure their position and make up ground while other parties are more than happy to do the same.

The Protocol is being used to further polarise this society, increase community tensions and consolidate the two major sectarian voting blocs.  It cannot and must not be used as an excuse to, once again, bring down the Assembly.

Our current situation demands the delivery of high-quality public services, a health and care service fit for the 21st Century, secure well-paid employment, a cleaner safer environment and a guaranteed quality of life for all. There must be no avoiding those responsibilities, no pulling the plug on the Assembly and no use of the Protocol, or any other pretext, to divert the focus away from those goals.

Precipice politics

Even by Northern Ireland standards, the past week has been a political car crash.

The DUP all but imploded, Sinn Fein went to the Westminster Parliament – which it boycotts on ‘principle’ – asking the British government to introduce an Irish Language Act, the Assembly teetered on the verge of being collapsed and all the while the living and working conditions and the quality of life of the people of Northern Ireland improved not one iota.

Precipice politics is the hall mark of nationalism, and for the past fifty years at least we have had to endure the consequences of that: on the streets, at election time, in council chambers and in the Assembly.

Never is pushing others close to the edge more exciting, for all forms of nationalism, than when the push is against their mirror image.

British nationalism in the form of the DUP and Irish nationalism as embodied by Sinn Fein are both negative and reactionary forces.

Predictability and pointed sticks

Unionism consistently reacts with an alarming predictability to provocation from Sinn Fein’s Irish nationalism. Its default position appears be to reverse up the nearest political cul-de-sac leaving its back against the wall and with nowhere to go.

Sinn Fein for its part runs around with a pointed stick prodding every sleeping unionist dog it can find until one awakens and reacts. This week has been no different. Ironically, the alleged DUP hard man Edwin Poots agreed to the Secretary of State’s plan to introduce the cultural component of the ‘New Decade – New Approach’ deal, but once again the DUP juggernaut was predictably thrown into reverse.

Everyone loses

And what has it all been for? Tribal precipice politics pushes one side to the edge. Blink first and the other one wins – but everyone else loses.

While the Assembly was being pushed nearer to the cliff edge not one single patient came off the waiting list as a result. Not one single job was created. Not a single new childcare place was funded. Not a single brick was laid for a new house and not an inch of progress was made towards creating a healthier environment.

Sinn Fein’s week was not about the Irish language or any cultural package. That just happened to be the current sleeping dog that they’ve poked. Previously Sinn Fein threatened the Assembly’s future over a lack of rights for the LGBT+ community. What ever happened to that principled stand?

The DUP’s opposition was less to do with a dislike of the Irish language and more to do with the fact that Sinn Fein are campaigning for it.

These forms of toxic nationalism are not part of the solution – they are the problem.

It amounts to a Northern Ireland version of ‘The Old Razzle Dazzle’.  Only a united working class can progress this society, but when we are continually forced to stare into the abyss it’s very hard to look up and imagine a different future.

A different future is possible, but it can only be achieved through a transformational shift to secular, socialist, anti-sectarian class politics.