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History Repeating itself as farce

Policies of the Stormont Executive parties converging


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How often have we heard the phrase from Marx's ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, that history repeats itself ‘... first as tragedy, then as farce’? That the axiom is overused is hardly surprising since it has been proven accurate so often and rarely more so than when applied to the current administration in Stormont. Once we were afflicted with an uncompromising Unionist regime that governed the six counties with scant regard for democracy and creating misery for many.  In its place we now have an administration that appears intent, instead, on making itself a byword for banality and ridicule.

The Lords Craig and Brookeborough must be turning in their marble tombs as the state they created is now home to what might charitably be described as a political circus. For pure farce it would be difficult to out-do the most recent brouhaha following revelations that a Sinn Fein MLA had coached flag waving loyalist Jamie Bryson prior to the young unionist giving evidence at a committee hearing investigating the Nama scandal. The only redeeming feature of the affair was the MLA’s immediate and exemplary resignation when found to have transgressed; an act of integrity almost unprecedented in northern political life where a mule-headed refusal to accept blame for any misconduct is more often the norm.

As well as the titillation provided by the Namagate coaching scandal, Stormont’s second coming contributes daily to the surrealism that surrounds Assembly business, indicating that it is more about optics than substance. Deprived of overall or full authority, due in large part to the absence of fiscal control, the Assembly (or the Executive at any rate) is now striving to maintain its existence at all costs, often paying less attention to living conditions for its electorate than to its own fortunes.

One result of this is that the two main parties have agreed on a curious modus vivendi that provides for a distinctly Northern Irish version of bicameralism. Instead of having two chambers, Stormont has effectively two arenas, one for designated areas of public disagreement and the other providing for an underlying consensus on economic policy. Readers of this newspaper hardly need reminding of the often-reported areas of disagreement in the North. Less obvious perhaps is the extent to which a neoliberal consensus underpinning the political institutions has led to a virtual policy convergence on economic matters. 

Just how close the two main parties are in these terms was highlighted recently in a joint letter[1] from First Minster Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to British Prime Minister Theresa May. In spite of angry denials, the First Minster had apparently performed a dramatic u-turn in relation to the European Union. Notwithstanding her enthusiastic support (and that of her party) for the Brexit campaign to leave the EU, Ms Foster has, in the letter to Downing Street, shifted her position on Brussels to one that appears not unlike that of Sinn Fein. The extent of the DUP leader’s about-turn is evidenced by no less than four references in the letter to the benefits supposedly accruing to Northern Ireland from EU membership.

While the First Minister was being ridiculed by her political opponents and some media outlets for her remarkable political somersault, the Deputy First Minister’s party had managed to perform a no less dexterous manoeuvre albeit one that drew much less public attention. As well as reversing its long-standing opposition to the free-market driven European Union, the letter to Theresa appears to indicate that Sinn Fein has adopted a pro-business position vis-à-vis workers and wages.

The jointly agreed and signed communiqué contains a request for policies that, it states, should be, ‘…sufficiently flexible to allow access to unskilled as well as highly skilled labour’. Elaborating on this point, the letter said that this was necessary because employers in the private and public sectors are heavily dependent on EU and other migrant labour.

Whether Sinn Fein care to admit it or not, there is nothing transformative or progressive about this stance. There is little doubt that this will not play out as an enlightened appeal to welcome workers from abroad. In Northern Ireland's depressed economy this is a strategy for lowering wages that are already among the lowest in the United Kingdom.

Both parties in the Stormont executive would probably claim, with some little justification, that they are restricted by the terms of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act[2] (i.e. devolved powers) and the amount in their annual block grant from London. Nevertheless this is to ignore the fact that there are several areas such as health, housing and economic development (among other areas) over which the local assembly has authority. Significant improvements could be made in all of these areas were it not for this unspoken but undisguised neoliberal consensus.

Take just one area, that of the National Health Service in the Six-Counties. Even allowing for financial restrictions imposed by the finite block grant, there is no good reason why Stormont doesn't act to remove privatisation from this service. Nor is this a purely ideologically inspired suggestion. Late last year BBC in Belfast reported[3] that care services for the elderly in their home environment were at breaking point. The report makes for grim reading with one care worker reporting that all too often they can only spend a bare 15 minutes per day with their elderly and often weak patients.

Disturbingly, the report also stated that there are more than 300 local private domiciliary contractors in Northern Ireland while care workers experienced the lowest average hourly rate paid for domiciliary care in the UK. This surely begs the question, what need is served by having 300 private middlemen (or any middlemen) and at what cost to patients and care workers?

Supporters of the Executive will claim that this is the price to be paid for maintaining the political institutions in the North and implying by extension, a necessary part of maintaining peace. However well intentioned, this is a mistaken argument since the current status quo in Stormont is above all else, preserving sectarianised institutions serving a failing state. Ultimately the solution to this problem rests in replacing the flawed and failed institutions on both sides of the border with the establishment of a workers republic.

Nevertheless, this should not be interpreted to mean that we have to postpone challenging the Northern Executive's neoliberal programme in the here and now. Building a workers state is not something that comes about spontaneously or without struggle. Highlighting the flaws within capitalism and campaigning to overcome, even some of them, are important aspects of that struggle. The northern state’s political institutions may indeed have become something of a farce but the real tragedy would be if we fail to expose them and or hesitate to organise resistance to these injustices.


Tommy McKearney …… This article first appeared in Socialist Voice September 2016


[1] Letter to PM from FM & dFM - 10 August 2016:  http://bit.ly/2b2LFPL

[2] Devolution Settlement: Northern Ireland. http://bit.ly/2cdLZ1F

[3] Elderly home care services in NI 'at breaking point'. Marie-Louise Connolly. BBC News NI Health Correspondent…29 October 2015

© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com