Northern Ireland: New assembly will not solve economic and social problems

International experience of power-sharing governments

Will the Assembly make a difference?

Ciaran Mulholland, Socialist Party, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The government of Northern Ireland is once again in the hands of the local political parties. A new Executive is up and running, dominated by Sinn Fein and the DUP. The fact that Sinn Fein and the DUP have come together is trumpeted by many commentators, and the British and Irish governments, as a turning point.

The argument is that if the "extremes" are in government, there is no one left outside to stir up trouble and to bring the Executive down. The presence of the DUP and Sinn Fein around the Executive table provides the cement which will make it work this time around.

The DUP and in particular Sinn Fein have committed themselves to making the Executive work for now. Both parties are seeking to avoid major confrontations at this time. Both parties are however based on sectarian division and sectarian squabbling is never far away.

When torrential rain led to flooding in Belfast on 12 June the Executive provided a paltry £5 million in aid to householders. This move was immediately met with grumbling about which community gained more. Every issue, especially issues around imminent cuts in the public sector, will become mired in the same sectarian quicksand.

Every time the Executive closes a school, for example, sectarian politicians will not stand up to oppose all school closures but will instead argue the case for "our" school to stay open, if necessary at the expense of "their" school.

The analysis that says we are on the threshold of a new era of stability and prosperity is profoundly wrong. The Assembly and the Executive will always be shaky structures, full of contradictions and prone to collapse. The main parties are based on sectarian division and are united only in their support for neo-liberal policies.

There are undoubtedly fewer sectarian attacks and clashes than several years ago. In part this is because the paramilitary groups who encouraged and organised many of the attacks have pulled back, eager to get their share of the spoils of peace. It is partly because Sinn Fein and the DUP have no interest in street confrontation at the present time. In the main it is because of a reaction in working class communities to the almost continuous sectarian clashes of the late 1990s and the first few years of this century.

None of this means however that sectarian division has lessened. There are more peace lines now than at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and a majority of the population now lives in highly segregated areas.

The first political crisis, for example a sharp division within the Executive over a contentious parade this summer, could bring the whole edifice crashing down. It is more likely however that it will stumble on for a period, perhaps even a prolonged period, but the reality of sectarian division on the ground will intrude into the corridors of power again and again. The result will be an Executive divided and unable to function at times of crisis. Not exactly a recipe for stability.

Water charges… cuts… privatisation…
The things they all agree on

Ciaran Mulholland, Socialist Party, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The new Executive has adopted an unashamed neo-liberal tone from the outset. Politicians from all the main parties, prominent business people and commentators all agree that business pays too much tax and that working people don’t pay enough. All agree that we are "too dependent" on the public sector and our salvation lies in private sector growth.

Their solution is clear: carrots for business in the form of low tax rates and other incentives and bribes to do business here, and the stick for working people in the form of higher taxes and charges, the active promotion of a low wage economy and the shrinkage of the public sector through job cuts and privatisation.

The Executive will not improve the day-to-day lives of working class people. Direct Rule ministers initiated huge attacks on living standards and on the public sector before they handed over the reins of power.

A further round of privatisation of public assets has begun. Workplace 2010 involves the selling off of government buildings which are then rented back from private companies at exorbitant prices and more and more hospitals and school buildings are being built through the Private Finance Initiative. The Review of Public Administration (RPA) will lead to major job losses. An effective pay freeze has been imposed on most public sector workers. Widespread school closures are imminent.

In response to this onslaught, the local establishment politicians have issued a few muted words of criticism or said nothing at all. It is absolutely clear that the main local parties will continue to implement these policies.

The priorities of the main parties are not the same as the priorities of most working class people. The two Unionist parties want to retain academic selection at age 11 and are likely to push hard on this issue in the Assembly and the Executive. All the parties are keen to cushion business from the imposition of the full business rate. All the parties are keen to see a rates’ cap for people on fixed incomes who live in houses with a high rateable value.

The key social issue facing the Executive will be water charges. None of the Assembly parties have committed themselves to the abolition of water charges. They may come up with "concessions", reducing the level of the charges, phasing them in over five or even ten years, or introducing meters more widely. Any such concessions will be unacceptable.

Working people cannot rely on the sectarian parties. They can only rely on their own strength. The imposition of water charges must be met by organised mass non-payment in all areas. Similarly attacks on public services and on public service workers must be resisted. We need to build for a day of action, including strike action, to defend pubic services.

The existence of the Executive can have one unexpected benefit; despite its sectarian makeup it can unite working class communities – in opposition to its policies!!

A new voice for the working class is needed

Gary Mulcahy, Socialist Party, Belfast, Northern Ireland

There is no opposition within the Assembly to the right-wing agenda the Executive will try to implement. But outside of Stormont, hundreds of thousands of working people will be forced to come out in opposition to attacks on pay and conditions, privatisation, water charges and cuts in public services.

Workers will be left with no choice but to organise to fight to defend their conditions. These struggles will immediately pose the need for a new party which can challenge the right wing parties and which can represent the common interests of working class people.

Such a party, basing itself on the ranks of the trade union movement, on the working class communities and amongst young people could attract broad support from a growing layer of people repelled by the sectarian and pro-capitalist nature of the Assembly parties.

It could offer a real alternative to the right wing agenda of the main parties. It could fight for an immediate end to all privatisation projects such as the PPP and PFI schemes which all cost the taxpayer more. Hospitals, schools, water & sewerage, libraries and all other public services should be kept fully public.

The Strategic Investment Board which was set up by the main four parties in the previous Assembly has awarded more than £4.4 billion to private companies in less than four years to "run" public services. It should be scrapped.

The policy of offering massive grants and subsidies to big business should be ended. This year over £171 million in subsidies will be given to big business, in many cases to companies who employ workers on poverty wages. When the public money runs out these companies are prepared to re-locate to exploit workers in countries where labour is cheaper. In 2006 alone, the board members of Invest NI incredibly awarded £4.3 million of public money to companies on which they sit on the board of directors!

The Assembly politicians often refer to cutting bureaucracy to free up funds for "front-line" services. In most cases this amounts to more attacks on workers providing essential services. But there are areas where savings could easily be made and services improved at the same time – more than £50 million was wasted between 2004 and 2006 on consultancy and hospitality fees alone.

Instead of services being run by unelected trusts or over-paid bureaucrats like the head of the civil service Nigel Hamilton who receives £165,000 a year, public services should be democratically run with boards that are elected and fully accountable.

The parties in Stormont will blame Gordon Brown for refusing to provide adequate funding. But this is just an excuse. The Assembly should set a needs based budget and spend the money to help provide for people’s needs. Instead of appealing to other right-wing First Ministers in Scotland and Wales, the Assembly should mobilise working class people in Northern Ireland to fight to force the Treasury to provide the money that is needed for decent services. An essential part of this struggle would be to link up with working class people across Britain who are also feeling the brunt of neo-liberal capitalism and fight for decent services for all.

Power-sharing internationally – How and why it has failed

Peter Hadden, Socialist Party, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The idea that power sharing, as now exists at Stormont, will end the conflict and lay the national question once and for all to rest, is not borne out by international experience.

What is now happening in Gaza and the West Bank is but one of many examples of agreements reached between political and militia leaders that have very quickly unravelled.

A year and a half ago, Hamas scored a narrow victory over its Fatah rival in the Palestinian Authority elections. Clashes broke out and civil war seemed on the cards. The Hamas and Fatah leadership, tried to avert this by setting up a "Government of National Unity" with a Fatah President and an Hamas Prime Minister.

But, while the Hamas and Fatah leaders shared power, the conflict on the ground between rival militias and sections of the security apparatus linked to each group continued. More that 620 people died in these clashes.

Now the conflict has gone a stage further with Hamas able to exploit divisions among Fatah and seize control of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority has now effectively dissolved into two separate entities; Gaza run by Hamas and the West Bank run by Fatah and with a new, more openly pro- western government appointed by Fatah President, Abbas.

Other examples of failure

Palestine is not the only case of leaders of political parties/militias who sit together in government while the forces broadly under their control carry on the conflict. Basically this is what is happening in Iraq, where the supposedly "national" government made up mainly of Shia and Kurdish groups, but with some Sunni participation, is suspended in mid air while rival militias, including those linked to the parties in government carry on with, not one, but a whole number of bloody inter-ethnic conflicts.

The Rwandan civil war and genocide of 1994 that left 800,000 dead was preceded by a deal between the Hutu dominated government and the Tutsi based Rwandan Patriotic Front on power sharing. In the case of Cyprus the withdrawal of the British and the gaining of independence in 1960 was followed by several uneasy power sharing deals between Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders.

This all collapsed when, in 1974, an attempted coup orchestrated by the military junta then in power in Athens provoked civil war, Turkish invasion and the partition of the Island.

Power sharing is not a step to the elimination of divisions along ethnic/religious/national lines. Rather it is an accommodation between the forces that are the architects and expressions of these divisions as to how they can carve things up between them.

In some cases, as in Palestine, they can sit together in Cabinet while the forces they control continue to aggressively flex their military muscles on the ground. Or, where for example a conflict has reached a situation of temporary stalemate, representatives of contenting groups can share power relatively peacefully for a period.

The common factor is that in all cases power sharing is a recipe for maintaining division, not for achieving "reconciliation" or for bringing divided communities together. Whether it quickly flies apart or whether it can be maintained in a relatively stable form for a time will be determined by the intensity of the conflict on the ground, and not fundamentally by whatever political pirouettes are performed by those who take their seats in government.

Even if power sharing arrangements survive for a lengthy period, this does not necessarily indicate any resolution. The Lebanon, through its troubled history, has had a number of power sharing administrations. The longest lasting and, in its first period, most "stable" followed the National Pact of 1943.

This was an agreement between the largest Christian and Muslim groups which set a fixed ratio of seats in the parliament and guaranteed that the President would be a Christian and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim. It was later added that the post of Speaker of the parliament would go to a Shia.

Civil war

Demographic changes, particularly the numerical growth of the Shia, the most oppressed of the main religious groups, eventually eroded the basis of this accord. The influx of Palestinian refugees and their armed presence in the refugee camps was a further destabilising factor. Eventually in 1975 it all came to pieces in the civil war that lasted for 15 years.

During the 1990s a new power sharing administration was set up but, in reality, it was not the authority of this government, but the presence of Syrian troops, that held the country together. Now, with the Syrian troops withdrawn, and the growing power of the mainly Shia based Hezbollah, there is a question over how long the current uneasy "peace" will last.

Northern Ireland’s politicians defend themselves from the accusation that the current power sharing arrangements only institutionalise sectarianism and thereby perpetuate the conflict in some form, by saying that these are temporary measures which should give way to "normal" politics "as soon as possible". The politicians who drew up the 1943 Lebanon pact likewise declared it to be a temporary arrangement.

Power sharing between right wing sectarian politicians is not a solution; not is it a step to a solution. A socialist approach would guarantee the rights of all minorities, but would be based on the unity of the working class and all the oppressed in a common struggle for a society in which both poverty and discrimination, whether on grounds of race, nationality, religion, culture, gender or sexual orientation, become things of the past.

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