Northern Ireland goes to the polls, for the second time within a year, in snap elections to decide the make-up of its Stormont Assembly on 2 March. James Brokenshire, Northern Ireland Secretary of State, was legally obliged to call the election after the ‘power-sharing’ Stormont Executive, made up of the DUP and Sinn Féin, fell apart.
Daniel Waldron, from the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland), looks at the background to the latest crisis in the North and argues the case for a left, anti-sectarian alternative.
In Northern Ireland, the non-domestic Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme was introduced in 2012 by now Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Investment. Modelled on a scheme introduced in England, the installation and use of alternative, green heating equipment by businesses and landowners was subsidised by public funds. Unlike in England, however, the subsidy per unit of energy was set higher than the cost of the fuel and there was no cap on payments. Therefore, the more you burned, the larger a profit could be made. So much for environmental sustainability!
The ‘cash for ash’ scandal broke in early December 2016, when it emerged that this flaw would lead to a projected £490 million ‘overspend’ which would have to be compensated for through cuts to public spending. The whistle-blower who made this public had approached Arlene Foster in 2013 but was ignored. Foster’s ministerial successor and DUP colleague Jonathan Bell alleged that when he moved to close applications to the scheme, he was blocked from doing so by Foster and other senior figures in the party. During this period, there was a spike in applications. The scheme was backed by all the main parties and the scale of the financial black hole in the scheme was known at Stormont from early last year but was not brought to the public by any of them.
The RHI scandal will mean that while little is done to help the 42% of people in Northern Ireland who live in fuel poverty, Northern Ireland’s Ferrari showroom will be kept cosy at a profit using public funds for the next 20 years. In Arlene Foster’s own mainly rural constituency of Fermanagh & South Tyrone, 75% of GP surgeries face closure but Viscount Brookeborough will receive £1.6 million to heat his 1,000 acre estate from this botched scheme.
Series of scandals
RHI is not a one-off. A series of scandals have exposed the DUP’s cosy relationships with bosses and property developers. The scandal, however, is reflective of the right-wing, neo-liberal approach of all the main parties, who go out of their way to give handouts to big business. They are united in supporting cutting corporation tax. This is the equivalent of an RHI scandal, every year, transferring hundreds of millions of pounds from public services to companies’ profit margins. At the same time, teachers striking against a 0% pay offer were told there is “no more money.”
Only weeks ago, politicians were boasting of how well the DUP and Sinn Féin were working together in government. On 8th January, however, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, which forced the calling of fresh elections. McGuinness claimed that he was calling a “halt to the DUP's arrogance.” In truth, Sinn Féin was very slow to take a stand. In December, they abstained on a motion in the Assembly calling for Foster’s resignation and were nervous about calling for an independent, public inquiry. It was only pressure from the public and Sinn Féin’s base that forced the party to take a harder position.
In the course of the scandal, Arlene Foster tried to muddy the waters over why people called for her resignation, including claiming that attacks on her were misogynistic. As a woman in a public position, there is no doubt she has been subject to sexist attitudes – including from her DUP colleagues – but Arlene Foster is the leader of a sexist party which, like all the main parties, opposes a woman’s right to choose.
Since McGuinness’s resignation, Foster claimed to have “done nothing wrong” and that this is really about attacking the leader of “strong Unionism” who will not “roll-over to Sinn Féin.” The resignation has provoked a war of words between the two parties. Ministers have clashed over whether a suspension of the institutions will mean the introduction of the hated “bedroom tax” already in place in England. Emergency legislation will suspend the introduction of this policy attack on the poor but only until 2020. This year, other welfare cuts agreed by Sinn Féin and DUP will mean over 100,000 people will see cuts in their welfare benefits. Some families will lose as much as £2,000 a year, as a result.
‘Orange’ versus ‘Green’ headcount
Both parties have also engaged in various sectarian provocations in order to turn the election into an ‘Orange’ versus ‘Green’ headcount rather than a real discussion on the political issues at stake.
On 23 December, Paul Givan, DUP minister for communities, cut the Líofa bursary scheme for young people to learn the Irish language by £50,000, although he was subsequently forced into a U-turn. While Givan’s decision to cut the funding was certainly sectarian in its nature, Sinn Féin cynically exploited this issue and their own ministers have overseen cuts to Irish language funding in the past.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, has suddenly decided to remove the British Union flag from his department’s buildings - a contentious decision that is clearly aimed at whipping up sectarianism.
Some politicians have claimed that there will be “no return to the status quo” but that is precisely what any agreement between the parties of sectarian division will mean, whatever superficial changes are made. Neither is direct rule from the Tories in Westminster nor the nationalist SDLP’s proposal of joint rule between the right-wing governments in London and Dublin in any solution. In fact, similar to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, this proposal would provide a rallying call for sectarian forces. Only by building an alternative that can unite working class people in struggle against this rotten establishment can a real way forward be found.
Even before the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, people in the North had a correctly cynical attitude to the Stormont institutions. They are seen as ineffective and the politicians within them aloof and self-interested. Before the latest debacle, a poll showed only 28% trusted Stormont politicians. In particular, young people are turned off by the sectarian and backward politics which currently dominate in Northern Ireland, with marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose both denied, despite the wishes of the majority in society.
This disillusionment – which will only have been deepened by the latest scandal - has been reflected in consistently falling turnouts in elections but also by an increasing space for candidates from outside the unionist and nationalist camps, including those offering a left alternative. In last year’s Assembly elections, the Green Party – which, in the North, is critical of austerity and seen as radical – boosted its vote and won its second seat, while People Before Profit made a breakthrough by winning seats in the overwhelmingly Catholic areas of West Belfast and Derry.
The Socialist Party worked with others to launch Labour Alternative ahead of last May’s election, recognising that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party on an anti-austerity platform had raised the sights of an important section of workers and young people. This represented a break with the unashamedly pro-capitalist politics which have dominated the Labour Parties in both Britain and Ireland for decades. While British Labour does not allow official candidates to stand in the North, the party’s membership has increased from 400 to over 3,000 since the advent of Corbyn’s campaign, making it probably the second largest membership party in Northern Ireland.
Historically, the labour and trade union movement has been the key force able to unite working class people in the North to fight for their common interests and to challenge sectarianism. Labour Alternative represents a step forward in building the kind of left which is needed to really change society in the North: resolutely opposed to cuts and the race to the bottom, bold in demanding LGBT and women’s rights and, crucially, based in both Protestant and Catholic communities and advocating compromise and mutual respect on the divisive issues.
Last year, Labour Alternative’s three young candidates – drawn from across the sectarian divide – won the best results in decades for any left candidate in those constituencies. Their election slogans, such as, ‘Don’t vote for dinosaurs’, captured the attention of a layer of young people. In the incoming Assembly election, Labour Alternative will again field candidates to provide a cross-community opposition to austerity, inequality and sectarianism. Alongside trade unionists and other activists, we will also work to ensure that the broad labour movement presents the most credible challenge possible to the Stormont establishment in this election.