The socialist alternative to right-wing, sectarian politics

Socialist Party Statement November 2010

The deep problems facing capitalism worldwide continue to reverberate through the economy. The financial crisis has exposed the underlying weakness in the “real economy”. In turn the economic downturn has rebounded back on the financial sector and has caused a crisis of governmental debt. The austerity measures being carried out by governments across the globe will undermine any chance of “recovery” and threaten to deepen the economic crisis, to the extent that many countries could be on the same road which led to Japan’s “lost decade” in the 1990’s.

The effect of the on-going crisis of the system in Ireland, North & South, and Britain will be profound. The purpose of this document is to outline the economic, political and social perspectives for Northern Ireland so that socialists can foresee the main trends and processes which will influence the workers’ movement.

Unlike the establishment politicians and economists and, it has to be said, many on the Left, the Socialist Party and our sister sections in the Committee for a Workers’ International have not been caught unawares by the crisis. Our analysis of the world economy over the past 10 years and more has been proved correct by events. We take no joy from seeing the disaster of the capitalist crisis unfolding internationally and what it means for workers and the poor. Nonetheless, we should take confidence from the fact that while the overwhelming majority of establishment economists and politicians were completely intoxicated and carried away by the “miracle” economic growth in the “noughties” (famously leading Gordon Brown to proclaim we had reached an end to the boom and bust cycle of capitalism), we stood firmly to our analysis, warning that the massive bubbles which had developed in the world economy would eventually burst, opening a major crisis of world capitalism.

The crisis has shocked those who went along with the neo-liberal agenda. The Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘Programme for Government’ was voted through unanimously by all the parties in the Executive in 2007. It is a document which commits the Executive to pursue a neo-liberal agenda – cutting the public sector to “grow” the private sector, privatising public services, and implementing pro-business policies. Even children were to be targeted by promoting a pro-enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit in schools and colleges.

The savage cuts coming from the Tory / Lib Dem coalition government have dominated the media and conversations in workplaces, communities and homes. For socialists and trade union activists, the question of how to fight the cuts is of upmost importance. The scale of the cuts will be devastating for public sector workers, communities and workers in the private sector which relies heavily on public sector spending. £4billion is to be cut from the Northern Ireland budget in real terms after the 40% cut in capital spending and the £112million cut announced in the emergency budget this year are factored into the equation. Northern Ireland will be the worst affected area due to the relative size of the public sector. One-third of all workers are directly employed in the public sector – a higher rate than anywhere else in Scotland, England and Wales. Public spending in Northern Ireland accounts for 63% of the economy.

The extremely weak private sector will be hit hard by the cuts. 84% of jobs in the private sector are in companies which employ 10 people or less – mostly service sector jobs, and often reliant on public sector contracts and spending.

The knock-on effects of cuts will be huge. A report published by PriceWaterhouseCoopers before the announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review estimated 16,000 private sector jobs could be lost in the North as a result of the cuts in public spending, but this figure has been subsequently revised upwards to 20,000.

Manufacturing has been in historic decline for decades. There won’t be a double dip recession in the North – for that to happen it would mean there would need to be a period of growth to be followed by a return to negative growth, but there has been no growth at all for the past three years. The economy shrank by 4.5% in 2009. The overall impact of the cuts will be to plunge the economy in the North even deeper into a depressionary crisis. The results will be devastating for the working class and also the middle class.

The Tories have announced that consideration will be given to establishing Northern Ireland as a special economic enterprise zone. In recent years big business has won the support of all the parties in the Assembly for their proposal that corporation tax should be lowered towards the level in the South, claiming it would attract Foreign Direct Investment and boost competitiveness. Corporation tax (tax on profits) currently stands at 28% in Britain though many companies pay the lower rate of corporation tax of 21%. In the North, only 4% of companies pay the higher rate. At a time when the Executive is carrying out cuts to public services, all the Executive parties agree that corporation tax should be lowered at least to the same rate as the South. The former Tory candidate, UUP MLA, and now senior economist at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Esmond Birnie has even called for corporation tax to be slashed to 0%! The proponents of low corporation tax rates base their argument on the “success” of the Celtic Tiger economy in the South. Fiscal measures were only a small part of the reason for the high growth of the Southern Irish economy in the 90’s however. There are many other important differences between the North and the South including membership of the Eurozone, rules on taxation of subsidiary companies, taxation of dividends and rules on ‘thin capitalisation’. Richard Murphy, the author of “Lowering Northern Ireland’s Corporation Tax: Pot of Gold or Fool’s Gold?” a report jointly commissioned by the ICTU and TUC, explains “whatever Northern Ireland’s pressing needs (and they are considerable) they cannot be met by reducing its corporation tax rate to 12.5%. Far from resolving its problems such a tax rate could only increase the isolation, uncertainty and cost of trading from Northern Ireland”. He points out that despite having a lower corporation tax rate “in five quarters in 2009/10 Ireland had inward investment of $31.1bn. Outward investment in that period was $31bn. In other words, Ireland is not the location in which foreign direct investment is taking place.” None of the economists though look at the international trends where most Foreign Direct Investment is heading towards the East – to China, India and other low-wage economies, not to Western Europe or Northern Ireland. The North cannot compete with these economies. On the day the Chancellor George Osbourne was announcing the details of the Comprehensive Spending Review, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were joined by Hilary Clinton and a host of top executives of major multi-national companies in Washington at the US:NI Economic Conference. The idea was that this conference would result in US companies investing in the North to create jobs. The end result in Washington was the announcement of 60 jobs while in London tens of thousands of job losses were announced in the form of cuts.

It is acknowledged that the lost revenue involved in reducing corporation tax in the North would have to be compensated from the budget of the Executive –meaning more cuts to public services. The Economic Reform Group Northern Ireland (ERGNI) wrote a paper in 2010 arguing for a reduction in corporation tax and put the cost of this at £200m. The Varney Report, another right-wing paper written in 2007, put the figure at £300m. The main parties support cutting tax on profits for big business which would be compensated by cuts to public services. There is still a major question mark over whether the Tories will support this measure given the serious complications it would cause and the added costs for trading between Northern Ireland and Britain. European Commission conditions also place hurdles in the way of the British government granting autonomy on corporation tax rates to any region or regions.

Unemployment crisis reaching boiling point

There are currently approximately 220,000 workers employed directly in the public sector in the North. Economist John Simpson has estimated the cuts could mean between 33,000 and 40,000 public sector jobs being lost over the next four years. PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates 30,000 jobs will be cut in the public sector. That is on top of the number of jobs already cut as a result of ‘natural wastage’ (posts not being filled) in recent years. The Confederation of British Industry has championed cuts to the public sector. They have also called for a pay “freeze” (ie. a pay cut) for public sector workers, as well as the introduction of water charges and increases in household rates. All these options are being considered by the parties in the Assembly.

The 40% cut in capital spending, which includes the building of schools, hospitals, roads etc. will pulverise the construction industry. Construction is already in a slump as a result of the crash in the property market over three years ago. Since an orgy of speculation drove property prices to unprecedented highs, peaking in 2007, house prices have tumbled ever since, some by as much as 60%. The average house in the North has lost £87,000 in value in three years and prices are expected to fall further as a result of rising unemployment. Mortgage specialists estimate 95% of first-time buyers in 2007 and 2008 are in negative equity. As purchases of houses have dried up, landlords have increased rents (by an estimated 7% between January and September of 2010).

Spending on infrastructure was sustained until early in 2010, but capital spending has nosedived as a result of the cuts already announced by the Executive, resulting in accelerated job losses in construction this year. The over-reliance on construction across the North has led to an upsurge in unemployment in many towns, particularly West of the Bann. Because of the nature of construction sector jobs – many workers are either in the black economy or self-employed – there are no accurate records for jobs lost in the sector, but construction specialists have estimated between 21,000 – 30,000 construction jobs have been lost as a result of the crash. The cut in capital spending will further erode the construction industry.

Since the recession began in 2007 more than 30,000 people have officially joined the dole queues though this is far below the actual number of people who have lost their jobs. Unemployment has increased from 4.2% in May 2007 to 7.1% in September 2010. The official figures mask a horrendous reality. 58,000 people were officially unemployed in September 2010. Of those 43% have been unemployed for more than a year – a 13% rise from a year earlier. Another 557,000 are classified as economically inactive (28.5%) – the highest rate in the UK. Approximately 78% of this group is made up of students, the sick/disabled and those who look after family/home. 8% (44,560) are looking for work, but are not included in the official unemployment figures. Taking this into account, the actual number of unemployed looking for work is 102,560 – bringing the real unemployment rate to just under 13%. In addition, while official statistics on emigration are not available, there is no doubt that more young people are emigrating or considering emigrating.

It is likely that the official unemployment figures (measured from 2007) will treble by 2012. The social consequences of mass unemployment will be severe, especially as benefits will be cut over the same period. In total, the British government has announced £18billion cuts to benefits. The effect of these cuts will mean taking another £1billion out of the economy in the North, on top of the £4billion in cuts. 184,000 people in Northern Ireland (10% of the population) claim Disability Living Allowance. 20% of people in West Belfast receive this benefit. Housing benefit, working tax credits, pensions benefits are all to be cut. Funding for childcare will also be cut, which will be particularly felt by working class women. Those on Jobseekers Allowance for more than a year will see their benefits cut. The social crisis which will result from this attack on the poor will be enormous. Alienation caused by unemployment and poverty is already scarring communities. Suicide has risen dramatically in the North. Between 1997 and 2006, suicide figures fell by 7.5% across Britain and Ireland. The rate in England fell by 10%, Scotland fell by 12.5%, Southern Ireland fell by 14.5% and Wales increased by 1%. In the North suicides increased by 111% in the same period. Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate (21 per 100,000 population over the age of 14) across Britain and Ireland.

Effect of recession on Youth

Official youth unemployment currently stands at 19%. Young people are already targeted for mandatory participation in Steps to Work – the work-for-your-benefits programme. This programme does not involve any real training. Over the past year, the number of young people forced to take part in such schemes has doubled to 12,447. Between September 2008 and June 2010, 22,839 young people left the Steps to Work programme. Only 19% found employment, 40% returned to benefits and 40% were unaccounted for – they neither found a job nor continued to receive benefits. The harassment of the young unemployed is set to continue and intensify with the Tories/Lib-Dems and right-wing press demonizing those on benefits as “scroungers”. The Tory/Lib Dem government of millionaires launching a war against the unemployed will have a profound impact on the attitudes of the unemployed, in particular the youth.

The proposals contained in the Browne Report on university tuition fees will bring about educational apartheid in Britain. It is not clear at this time which aspects of the Report will be implemented but it is clear that the changes will close the door to education for working class and many middle class young people. The current cap of £3,290 will certainly be lifted. Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable has suggested increasing fees to £7,000 a year, but it is possible fees could rise to as much as £12,000 a year (though this now seems less likely in the short term). For the Lib Dems, this is the stuff of nightmares – their official policy is that fees should be scrapped. All their leading MPs now in cabinet with the Tories, including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are on record before the election promising they would not support an increase in tuition fees. Former leaders Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy have publically spoken out against rises in tuition fees. An open revolt from backbench Lib Dems is possible and reveals the instability of the coalition government. It is possible some backbench Lib Dem MP’s could desert the party and join the Labour Party. A movement of students against rises in tuition fees is now possible. At a time of growing dole queues, the question of access to education, not just to universities but also technical colleges which are seeing major cuts, can become a battleground between young people and the Assembly. The question of occupations and walk-outs to defend the right to education will come on to the agenda. It is young people who are being hit the hardest. In the recent period there has been little struggle of young people. The exception was the mass opposition against the Iraq war. The Socialist Party, through Youth Against the War, led the school student strikes against the war on Iraq in 2003. 15,000 school students across the North walked out of school, in defiance of school management. The crisis which is unfolding will have a major impact on the outlook of young people. Young people will not meekly accept a life of poverty on the dole, in and out of low-paid jobs, being deprived of a right to education. They will instinctively see the need to fight for their future and will seek political answers and explanations.

NIC-ICTU and the cuts

The trade union movement is confronted with a major battle – a battle which will require mass resistance and general strike action if the cuts are to be defeated. Under pressure, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) has launched a ‘There is a Better, Fairer Way – People, Jobs and Services Campaign’ in response to the cuts. As part of this campaign, many leaflets, posters and booklets have been produced countering some of the right-wing arguments of the Tory / Lib Dem government being parroted daily in the media. NIC-ICTU has also planned a series of public meetings across Northern Ireland and a strategy of linking up with regional centres of the TUC in Scotland and Wales amongst other initiatives. Socialist and trade union activists have a responsibility to critically discuss this strategy by NIC-ICTU. It is necessary for activists in the movement to appropriately take up incorrect strategies, tactics and methods by the trade union leadership and NIC-ICTU in order to strengthen the ability of workers and communities to resist the cuts.

The NIC-ICTU document ‘There is a Better Fairer Way – Building an alternative strategy for the protection of people, jobs and services’ outlines the response of the trade union leaders in the North to the cuts. The key element of this strategy though is not to prepare trade union members and the working class in general to fight the cuts, but is to appeal for unity with the NI Executive – the same Executive which has already imposed cuts (or efficiency savings as they are technically called) of between 3-5% every year. These cuts have led to a crisis in the health service, crucial services in the education system being cut and the destruction of jobs across all Departments. There is an attempt by the politicians in the Assembly to portray these cuts as not impacting on “frontline services”. The reality is that accident and emergency services are being closed, courses in regional colleges are being shut, much needed investment in new school buildings is being scrapped, budgets of schools are being squeezed to the point that there is no oil to heat classrooms, funding is being withdrawn from childcare facilities, women’s refuge services etc. These cuts are a result of the cuts agreed by all the parties in the NI Executive, not as a result of cuts being imposed by the Tories and Lib Dems. In January 2010, five months before the formation of the Coalition government in Westminster, the Executive unanimously voted for £367m cuts to services this year. Since the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to form the Executive, public spending has been cut by approximately £500m. The parties in the Executive are guilty of carrying out cuts to public services – a policy they set before the economic crisis and recession. Despite this, it does not prevent some of the parties pretending to “oppose” or “resist” cuts being imposed from Westminster. Statements from Sinn Fein that “British Tory cuts” should be resisted are nothing but grandstanding on the issue and are empty of any substance. When questioned on Sinn Fein’s position, spokesperson Mitchell McLaughlin argued that the other parties in the Executive (in reality the DUP) should not be arguing before the Comprehensive Spending Review in October that cuts need to be made. He went on to argue that the Executive parties should put their case and negotiate the amount of cuts with the Tories / Lib Dems – not oppose cuts. Sinn Fein has already accepted cuts. In the Andersonstown News in September, West Belfast MLA Jennifer McCann wrote “the Executive is forced to reduce spending in accordance with London’s cuts” and continued to state that cuts will have to be managed “to ensure that the impact of public expenditure is maximised and the most vulnerable people in society are not forced to cope with any further financial hardship.”

In October, Sinn Fein publically launched a policy paper entitled “There is a better way – Sinn Fein Proposals for the Economy” claiming it could find £1.9bn in savings. It should be entitled “There is a better way to cut public services” as it accepts the “need” for cuts and outlines in broad strokes where cuts should be made. Under the section ‘Fiscal Powers’ it states “We fundamentally disagree with the Tory government’s slash and burn approach to the economic crisis, but we are nevertheless forced to deal with the consequences of its approach”. In other words, Sinn Fein will carry out the cuts ‘under protest’.

In this paper, Sinn Fein has called for £480 million cuts to be carried out to education and health services via the Review of Public Administration (RPA) and the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority (ESA). Socialists are opposed to the bureaucratic control of services by existing bodies such as education boards and health trusts. Public services should be delivered and managed under democratic control of workers, communities and elected representatives. Neither the RPA nor the ESA will eradicate bureaucracy. The bulk of “savings” will come in the form of staff reductions. Both these steps involve job losses in local government and education boards which will have a direct impact on services. The paper also calls for the introduction of a stealth tax in the form of a levy on plastic bags. At the same time as carrying out cuts to services, Sinn Fein is for “greater use of procurement”- greater use of outsourcing work to the private sector so firms can make profits from “providing” public services. This is summed up as “Rebalancing the economy and growing the private sector”. The ultimate paragraph in the policy paper is headed “Responsible Asset Realisation” and states “Many public assets are not being properly utilized for the benefit of the community and options have to be considered to maximize such benefit, which may include careful and socially responsible asset realization….  Any sale of public assets must be conditional on the application of strict criteria to ensure that benefits are maximized in the interests of the public.” Publicly owned companies and assets such as Translink (public transport) and Belfast Harbour are now under threat of being privatised which will further cut revenue in the long term.

Sinn Fein’s answer to the crisis is to speed up the privatisation of public assets. Their answer is to respond to the crisis of right-wing neo-liberal policies with more right-wing neo-liberal policies! The paper lacks credibility. Sinn Fein wants to “seek agreement from the four main banks to establish a Sustainable Economic Development Bond of £400 million over the next 4 years as their contribution to the recovery from the economic crisis” as if the banks would voluntarily give the Assembly millions of pounds with no strings attached. A proposal to place a tax on phone masts amounting to £160million over 4 years was quickly opposed by the phone companies and the DUP who correctly argued that the companies would simply pass the tax on to customers’ bills. In order to cover over what is essentially a right-wing set of proposals to introduce cuts and sell-off public assets, some populist measures have also been raised such as cutting MLA’s wages and salaries by 15%, ending remuneration for Chairs/Vice-chairs of Assembly Committees, freezing the salaries of top civil servants, cut back on the use of consultants etc. What is most important about Sinn Fein’s policy paper is that they accept the Tories and Lib Dems position that cuts “have to be made”.

In this respect, the strategy of NIC-ICTU in seeking unity with the NI Executive and encourage them to link up with other right wing parties in power in the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies to oppose the Tory/Lib Dem cuts is utopian. Cuts are being imposed by the ruling parties in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The SNP in Scotland has appointed a special committee to identify where cuts can be made. According to the committee’s “super axe” Crawford Beveridge, the former head of Scottish Enterprise and Executive Vice President of computer giant Sun Microsystems, the only way out is by cutting up to 60,000 jobs in Scottish public services by 2014. The Labour Party in Wales, like the NI Executive, also imposed cuts before the Tories and Liberal Democrats came to power and stated that they were in favour of carrying out cuts to bring down the deficit. The parties in the NI Executive, the SNP and the Welsh Labour Party cannot see beyond the limits of capitalism and therefore see no alternative to the cuts.

Stormont and the cuts

“But what else can the Assembly parties do? The British Government controls the purse strings” say the ‘pragmatists’. This is a question which will come to the fore, especially in the run-up to local and Assembly elections next May. Many genuine workers will raise this question. It is true Westminster does control the purse strings. The Assembly has very little powers to raise revenue. IThe cuts announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review will cut the funding to the Assembly. Some trade union leaders may echo this fact as justification for not taking action and will try to use it to disorientate workers. But the fact that the Tories will cut funding does not justify the parties in the Assembly implementing the cuts. The trade unions should demand that the parties in the Executive defy the cuts and refuse to implement them. They can either take the side of workers and working class communities in fighting the cuts or they implement the cuts together with the Tories and Lib Dems. That is the message that we need to communicate throughout the trade union membership and in working class communities across Northern Ireland.

Socialists and trade unionists should study the mass struggle of the Liverpool working class and the socialist-led Liverpool City Council against Thatcher’s cuts between 1983 and 1987 to see how to fight the Tories today. In 1983, the Labour Party was at base a mass workers party. The overwhelming majority of the working class in Britain looked towards the Labour Party as their party, albeit always being led by right-wing leaders vehemently opposed to the struggle for socialism. Unlike the Labour Party of today, it was possible for local branches and members to debate and decide the policy of the party. The Labour Party’s recent conference was a fine example of how big business has hoovered up the last remaining crumbs of democracy. If there are any workers left in the Labour Party, they were denied the opportunity to vote for the only principled left wing candidate John McDonnell MP for the leadership election. Gone are the days when workers had the opportunity to influence Labour Party policy.

Liverpool City Council, under the leadership of Militant forced Thatcher to concede an extra £30million in funding to the council. This was achieved through the mobilisation of the council workers and major demonstrations of the Liverpool working class in support of the Council and against the Thatcher government. This example shows it is possible for local councils or even regional administrations to resist the cuts, if the working class is mobilised. The parties in the Assembly though have no intention of arousing the opposition of the working class against the cuts – that would demonstrate the organic unity of working class people in struggle and would expose the need to tackle sectarian division which the Assembly parties thrive on. Action against the cuts would also have to be closely linked up with workers across Britain and the South of Ireland, whose interests in this crisis are identical.

The Tories are despised in working class communities in Northern Ireland, in both Catholic and Protestant communities. The punishment the UUP received for linking up with the Tories in the general election is proof that the Tories have no support. If the parties in the Executive were genuinely opposed to cuts, then they should stand together with the millions of workers across Britain and the North in fighting the cuts. Instead, statements made by some trade union leaders and NIC-ICTU have in effect allowed the parties off the hook by heavily emphasising the cuts as being Westminster cuts – in some cases referring to “British Tory cuts”, a phrase being used by Sinn Fein to inject sectarianism into the debate.

The approach of NIC-ICTU sows illusions in the parties in Stormont that they are opposed to cuts, they will fight the cuts and that workers have common cause with these parties. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Socialist Party supports maximum devolution of powers as it strengthens the ability of workers to fight for their interests. The trade unions should call for extra powers, such as tax-varying powers, for the Assembly to decide locally. However, that is completely different to uniting with the politicians who have already stated they are in favour of cutting corporation tax for big business, which will have to be compensated by further cuts to public services!

Unity of the working class – not with the bosses and their parties

Sinn Fein has developed a position on the cuts almost identical to NIC-ICTU. In the same article mentioned above Jennifer McCann MLA wrote “Sinn Féin is calling on the various parties in the North, the trade unions and community and voluntary sector to put forward a united demand to London that the Executive receive a sufficient block grant, which has already been cut by almost half a billion pounds.” The NIC-ICTU is attempting to construct a cross-class “unity” with right wing parties, the scandal-hit churches and big business against the cuts.

In a press statement released from the TUC Conference in Manchester, the TUC, the Scottish and Welsh TUC and ICTU made a joint call on “the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to collaborate in emphasizing to the UK Government the consequences of its policies for the economies of the devolved nations and the English regions, particularly for jobs in both private and public sectors, and in making the case for a more sensible timescale for deficit reduction”.

ICTU Assistant General Secretary Peter Bunting stated in the same press release “There is no mandate for these cuts which are too deep and too fast.” He went on to state “We urge all sectors of our society, from large businesses to small local community groups, to unite in opposition and to support realistic and fairer alternatives to this misguided strategy.” The scale and timescale of the Tory / Lib Dem cuts, despite being opposed by a minority of bourgeois economists out of fear of a double-dip recession, is wholeheartedly backed by big business and the super-rich. The unions should not be pleading with employers to oppose cuts. The organised working class and working class communities have enormous potential to defeat the cuts. Workers can only rely on their own collective strength. Seeking to unite with disgraced and bigoted church leaders and with big business who have sacked workers, driven down wages and eroded terms and conditions during the recession, serves to diminish workers’ confidence in their own ability to fight independently and to sow illusions that ‘we are all in this together’.

There needs to be a clear rejection of all cuts from the unions, not the ambiguous message about “realistic and fairer alternatives”. Stating that the cuts are “too deep and too fast” immediately suggests that NIC-ICTU does not oppose cuts – they should simply be introduced over a longer timescale – “a more sensible timescale for deficit reduction” (ICTU press release 14 Sept 2010).

In October, a Joint Declaration signed by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, called on the British government not to introduce cuts “too deep and too fast”. It was signed by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. It stated the following “While we recognise that a credible budget strategy is vital in returning the public finances to a sustainable footing and maintaining the confidence of the wider community including the financial markets, it is essential that we do not put the recovery at risk.” In other words, they recognise that cuts have to be made to satisfy the financial markets. It continued “Only when there is clear evidence that the recovery is well established, and can be sustained, should significant fiscal tightening be implemented.” In other words the Declaration agrees that massive cuts need to be made, but over a longer period of time than the Tories and Lib Dems plan. Peter Bunting gave the Declaration NIC-ICTU’s full support. In a press release on 7th October 2010, Bunting stated “This pragmatic and unprecedented Joint Declaration from the three devolved administrations is welcomed by the trade union Congresses of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who have advocated such a collective approach to the threatened cuts. This is a significant challenge for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It exposes the deeply ideological nature of their agenda of cuts and it underlines the importance of Devolved Administrations speaking out for the people who elected them.”

To think that the Tories and Lib Dems see such a Declaration as a significant challenge is delusional. When the cuts are imposed and the devolved administrations start to implement the cuts, it will be clear that workers have no friends in any of the devolved Assemblies. The national question will come to the fore in Britain in tandem with class struggle, as opposition to the Tory/Lib Dem cuts develops. The Tories only managed to win one seat in Scotland in the general election. 20,000 workers marched through Edinburgh on 23 October against the cuts – a massive demonstration considering the cuts have yet to be fully implemented on the ground.

Dangers of Sectarianism

Already the politicians have begun to use sectarian arguments over where cuts should be made. First Minister Peter Robinson has led from the front in calling for a cut in funding to Catholic schools, an argument unconvincingly dressed up as ending segregated education and having one integrated state education system. Robinson’s sudden conversion and ‘support’ for integrated education hasn’t fooled anyone. The DUP’s Jimmy Spratt has also attempted to use statistics on Disability Living Allowance to imply that Catholics are receiving the bulk of benefits and that many are involved in benefit fraud – adding a sectarian twist to the scapegoating of the unemployed which is underway in the right-wing press and media across Britain. Sinn Fein have also attempted to portray the cuts as being “British” cuts. Both sets of sectarian politicians will play the sectarian card as they come under increasing pressure, but they will face opposition. It is essential that socialists completely reject these arguments which are designed to divide the working class and cut across a mass movement against the cuts.

In the early days of the peace process the hopes of working class people that the sectarian conflict could be left behind was accompanied by a certain openness to discussing new ideas. There was an increase in mixing socially between the communities and sectarianism was pushed back to an extent. This process was reflected politically in the support for parties outside the traditional unionist and nationalist camps, such as the Women’s Coalition and the Labour Coalition (which the Socialist Party played a role in initiating). If the leadership of the trade unions had moved at the time a new mass party, which could have united the working class on the common social and economic questions, as well as providing an independent working class voice on the more divisive issues, could have been launched successfully. The union leaders did not move in this direction and in effect refused to support the creation of a new party. This meant that sectarian parties and sectarian issues dominated the all-party talks. The sectarian parties were not challenged in a serious way in the subsequent elections to the first Assembly, despite the mood for a real alternative to sectarian politics amongst a significant layer. The openness which had existed in the early days of the peace process began to be overtaken by sectarian reaction. Major conflicts over parades, in particular the tense dispute over Drumcree over several years, at different points threatened to tip Northern Ireland into outright conflict.

The ceasefires and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement may have brought an end to the “Troubles” in one sense but the conflict did not end. Clearly there was an “improvement” in the situation but “peace” did not break out. In particular there was an increase in sectarian attacks and intimidation as the conflict became increasingly a war of attrition over territory. For example, between 1996 and 2004 there were a recorded 6623 sectarian attacks in North Belfast alone. In every year since 1968 there have been deaths due to political and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, including this year. In the decade 1983 to 1993 there were 857 conflict related deaths (575 civilians and 272 army/police). In the decade 1994 to 2004 there were 225 deaths (212 civilians and 13 army/police). In the decade 1983 to 1993 there were 5204 shootings and 3660 bombing incidents. In the following decade there were 2505 shootings and 1660 bombing incidents. (Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh. Belfast. Segregation, violence and the city. Pluto Press, 2006). Since 2004 violence has continued.

Throughout the 90’s a sectarian battle for control of streets, estates, villages and towns took place. A drawn out war of attrition over territory, symbolised by the claiming of areas by the erection of flags and the painting of kerbs and murals polarised society to unprecedented levels. The conflict over parades was part and parcel of this sectarian claiming of territory. A redrawing of the sectarian map was taking place. This redrawing outlined the geography a future re-partition of the North would result in the event of outright conflict. The east of the Bann has become increasingly Protestant, while the west of the Bann and the border counties have became more and more Catholic. Within cities and towns, sectarian polarisation has led to new ghettoisation along sectarian lines. Towns such as Ballymena which always had a scattered Catholic minority began to see the development of “Catholic” estates for the first time. The Dunclug estate in Ballymena is a case in point. According to the 2001 Census, of the 2,611 Dunclug residents, 48.9% were Catholic and 46.1% were Protestant. Today, the Dunclug estate is overwhelmingly Catholic. Most Protestants have moved out of the area. Likewise, many Catholics have moved out of other parts of Ballymena. Today the town is roughly split along sectarian lines with the northern end mostly Catholic and the rest of the town mainly Protestant. This polarisation reflects a growth in sectarianism amongst both Catholics and Protestants. The murder of 15 year old Catholic Michael McIlveen from Dunclug in 2006 near the centre of Ballymena is a manifestation of the rise in sectarianism and has intensified the situation even further. An estimated 30 Protestant families were intimidated or felt compelled to leave the Dunclug estate in the weeks after the murder. As in most towns and cities, there is very little mixing between Catholic and Protestant youth in Ballymena. Similar processes have occurred in other large towns adjacent to Ballymena, such as Antrim, Larne and Coleraine.

This process of segregation means that housing is even more divided along sectarian grounds than during the worst days of the Troubles. In 1999 the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) estimated that 98% of its estates in Belfast were either more than 90% Catholic or more than 90% Protestant. In the rest of Northern Ireland 71% of NIHE estates were similarly segregated. Moreover in 1999 the NIHE considered segregation to be worsening, and it certainly has since. According to a Northern Ireland Housing Executive report from 2004, 92.5% of all social housing is segregated. In Belfast 98% of social housing is segregated. The process has been less marked in areas of private housing but the same trends are in evidence. The majority of people in Belfast live in areas which are at least 81% Catholic or 81% Protestant. This applies to 67.3% of Catholics and 73% of Protestants. Only 10.7% of Catholics and 7.0% of Protestants live in genuinely mixed areas (that is areas which are between 41 and 60% Catholic or Protestant).

The conclusion that under the peace process society has been polarised along sectarian lines has not just been drawn by the Socialist Party. According to the study Segregated Lives: Social Division, Sectarianism and Everyday Life in Northern Ireland (September 2008) , for example,  “The end of the conflict did not bring an end to sectarian violence, and during 2006-2007 the PSNI recorded 1,695 sectarian incidents across Northern Ireland (PSNI 2007), an indication of the depth and scale of sectarianism”. In 2009-10 sectarian incidents reported to the PSNI increased 15.4% from the previous year to 1,840 – “this is only the tip of the iceberg” according to the Community Relations Council. Given the lack of support for the PSNI in the working class areas most affected by sectarian attacks and the consequent fact that not all incidents are reported, this figure represents only a fraction of the scale of attacks.

The very first peace line constructed in Belfast by the British army in 1969 (separating communities around the Falls Rd from the Shankill Rd) stood about six foot high. At the time a senior British army commander Lt. Gen. Ian Freeland, predicted: “The peace line will be a very, very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city.” The same peace line has grown to a height of more than six metres of concrete and steel today. There is widespread support for the idea of the peace lines being taken down eventually, but residents on both sides fear the consequences of the peace lines being removed in the short or medium term.

There are 53 official peace lines (maintained by the Northern Ireland Office) today. That does not include other structures and strips of wasteland which divide communities. (Some are marked out by a boundary of derelict houses and flags, for example Skegoniel Avenue in North Belfast. Others are marked out by main roads, by industrial estates (for example New Lodge/Tigers Bay) and even by parks). According to a survey by the Institute for Conflict Research (commissioned by the Community Relations Council) there are 88 peace lines in the North. This figure is possibly still an underestimate. Since the peace process, the number of peace lines has risen, not fallen. The same survey found that half of the 42 peace lines in Belfast have either been built or heightened in the past ten years – a real indictment of the “peace process”.

There has been no attempt by the parties in Stormont to end the sectarian segregation of children in education. Today, less than 3% of children attend integrated schools, and some of these schools are integrated in name only. Even at integrated schools sectarian tensions and conflict are not uncommon and Catholic and Protestant school students find ways of demonstrating their background despite their common uniform. The idea that young Catholics and Protestants are mixing more now than before flies in the face of the evidence on the ground. In some areas it is possible that there has been an increase in mixing over the recent period. The graph of sectarianism isn’t curving upwards inexorably and there are ebbs and flows in the process. A significant minority of young people are consciously anti-sectarian. We must however endeavour to identify the general trends in society and it is clear that sectarian attitudes exist amongst the majority of young people. In general, the older generation who remember when communities were mixed before the Troubles differ starkly in their attitudes compared to the younger generation who have no memory of mixed communities. Giving an interview in 2002, the academic Dr Pete Shirlow said of a recent survey “We found that pensioners, who have lots of memories of 30 years of war and before, were the least sectarian group, while teenagers had the most bigoted attitudes to those from the other religious group.”

The struggles against the cuts will undoubtedly build the unity of working class people. The one place where the two communities meet more than any other is in the workplace. Surveys of major workplaces suggest increased integration over the last twenty years. Such surveys, by definition, do not include smaller workplaces, which are often located in segregated areas and which often draw their workforce from the surrounding area. In addition tens of thousands now work in the “community sector” which by definition is likely to recruit from the local community. Indeed in a study of communities close to interfaces around 60% of respondents had worked in an area dominated by the “other community” at some time but only one in eight still did so. Only 10% of those aged under 35 years had experience of working in an area dominated by the “other community” compared to 74% of pensioners. Despite these caveats the trade unions are by far and away the most significant unifying force in Northern Ireland. The percentage of the workforce in unions in Northern Ireland is 39.7% compared to 35.9% in Wales, 34.6% in Scotland and 27% in England (2006 figures). Part of the reason for this is that union membership in general is higher in the public sector and in Northern Ireland the public sector accounts for 63% of the economy compared to the 43% UK average. Thirty-four percent of the workforce is employed in the public sector compared to 20% in the UK.

Political polarisation

This polarisation has also been reflected politically in the rise of the more hardline parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – and the decline of the what were perceived as the “moderate” parties – the SDLP and UUP – and smaller parties such as the Women’s Coalition and the PUP. In the first Assembly elections in 1998, the two biggest parties – the UUP and SDLP received 21.3% and 22.0% of the vote respectively. The DUP vote climbed from 18.0% in 1998 to 25.7% in 2003, which resulted in the UUP and other smaller unionist parties losing seats. The SDLP vote fell to 17% in 2003, losing six seats to Sinn Fein whose share of the vote rose to 23.5% from 17.6% in 1998. This trend continued in the local elections in 2005, where the DUP gained 51 seats and the UUP lost 39 seats, while Sinn Fein won 18 seats and the SDLP lost 16. The Womens’ Coalition vote collapsed from 1.6% share of the vote in 1998 to 0.8% in 2003, losing both their Assembly seats and was soon followed by the dissolution of the party. The PUP vote also collapsed from 2.6% to 1.2%, losing one of their two Assembly seats. The DUP and Sinn Fein have gained their pre-eminent positions by being the most strident representatives of their communities and because of the lack of a mass working class alternative. Between the 1997 and 2005 Westminster elections the DUP vote grew by 125% (from 107,348 to 241,856) and the Sinn Fein vote grew by 37.5% (from 126,921 to 174,530). The UUP lost 50.7% of its vote (from 258,439 to 127,314) and the SDLP 34.7% (from 190,844 to 125,626).

The downward trajectory continued for the SDLP and the UUP in the 2010 general election. The SDLP vote fell by 1% as Sinn Fein increased by 1.2%. A large chunk of the SDLP vote is concentrated in areas where they hold seats. 33% of the entire SDLP vote across all 18 parliamentary constituencies is in the two areas it holds seats – Foyle and Down South. In Fermanagh / South Tyrone, where the UUP and the DUP fielded a united unionist candidate, the SDLP vote collapsed from 14.8% to 7.6%, while Sinn Fein’s vote increased by 7.3%. It is likely that if there are moves towards the unionist parties standing “unity” candidates, this would further squeeze the SDLP as the minor nationalist party. The chance of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party at the next Assembly election could also motivate Catholics to switch to Sinn Fein, which could have serious consequences for the SDLP.

Despite the influx of Tory money into the election coffers, the UUP (standing as Ulster Conservative and Unionist – New Force) vote fell 2.6%, losing its sole MP who was re-elected as an independent. The DUP vote fell 8.7% due to a 19.6% fall in Peter Robinsons vote in East Belfast and the TUV gaining 3.9% of the vote.

When the first Assembly Executive formed in 1998 the sectarian parties took over the wheel from direct rule Ministers in implementing a neo-liberal programme of privatisation and supporting bug business. One of the very first decisions made by the members of the new Assembly was to award themselves a 30% wage rise! The first Minister for Education, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, launched and signed Private Finance Initiative contracts which opened up schools to private companies to make profit. McGuinness also attempted to cut classroom assistants wages by essentially withdrawing payment over the full year to term-time. This led to an important campaign by classroom assistants, led by members of the Socialist Party, which ended in victory. In May 2002, First Minister David Trimble and Minister for Finance Mark Durkan signed the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative with the UK Treasury, where a deal was reached to privatise public services in return for the option of further borrowing of £200 million a year. The Initiative included plans to privatise the water service and to introduce household water charges. These few examples give a taste of the anti-working class policies of the first Executive. There was no voice to represent the interest of workers in the Assembly. Anger and cynicism towards the politicians in the Assembly replaced any hopes or illusions which may have existed after the ceasefires.

Rather than functioning like a ‘normal’ capitalist government, the Assembly is under constant threat of collapse. It is rarely mentioned today that the first Assembly Executive collapsed not once, not twice, but four times. On each occasion, the Executive was stitched back together after weeks and sometimes months of intense negotiations. While so-called agreements were made to resuscitate the Executive, the issues were in reality fudged on key questions such as decommissioning and parades. Some political pundits have argued that since the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two extreme parties, have agreed to “share power” as the two largest parties, that this would create a more stable Executive. There is an element of truth in this. The analysis which states that this means that the Executive is now a more stable entity is utterly flawed however and it is still prone to fracture and collapse despite the wish of both the DUP and Sinn Fein to hold it together.

Unionist division and unity

The formation of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a new party based mainly on disaffected DUP members, including local councillors and led by the reactionary ex-DUP MEP Jim Allister, who oppose power-sharing with what they describe as the “unrepentant terrorists” of Sinn Fein, represents a threat to the DUP. The fact that Allister managed to win 14% in the European elections in 2008, reducing the DUP’s share of the vote from 32% to 18%, has given the DUP plenty to be concerned about. The three-way split in the unionist vote in the European elections saw Sinn Fein topping the poll.

The TUV failed to secure as high a vote in the general election in May 2010, but even still, based on the vote it did achieve it is possible that it could win as many as seven or eight seats in the Assembly next May. If this was to happen, Sinn Fein would most likely become the largest party in the Assembly, automatically entitling them to the position of First Minister. Such an outcome would be unpalatable for most unionists, who would refuse to accept a former IRA leader becoming the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Under the original rules of the Good Friday Agreement, the First Minister had to come from the largest designated ‘community’ and receive majority support from both nationalist and unionists in the Assembly. The irony is that it was the DUP who negotiated a change in the mechanism of choosing the First Minister in the St. Andrews Agreement. Now the position of First Minister must automatically go to the largest party. Peter Robinson claims that this was not agreed and that the British government included it in the legislation without their knowledge or consent – a position which holds no water.

Concerned at the danger of Sinn Fein emerging from the next Assembly elections as the largest party the Orange Order has been very vocal about the need for unity between the unionist parties. In reality this means unity between the UUP and DUP. The Orange Order has chaired talks between the parties in order to facilitate a process of co-operation. The parties are currently co-operating on Belfast City Council and now both leaders, Peter Robinson and the newly elected UUP leader Tom Elliott, speak publically about the need for greater unity. Given the historic vitriol between the parties, not least when the David Trimble formed the first Executive with Sinn Fein, it will not be an easy or natural courtship. Senior DUP figures such as Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson came over from the UUP and may play a key role in the process. Given Robinson’s role in undermining the UUP over many years as Paisley’s right-hand man, it is possible the UUP would be prepared to do a deal if Robinson was removed as leader and replaced by a figure like Arlene Foster, who took over as interim First Minster when Robinson was on the verge of stepping down as a result of the scandal involving his MP and MLA wife Iris. Peter Robinson has been deeply wounded as leader. His intimate links with property developers, his lavish and luxurious lifestyle and arrogance were all factors leading to him losing his Westminster seat in May. It is likely he will manage to limp on as leader until the elections next May, but it cannot be ruled out that other scandals could surface in the meantime.

The perspective of the DUP and UUP merging to form one major unionist party is ruled out in the short-term but it is possible that the two parties could agree to become a technical grouping in the next Assembly. It is likely that a non-aggression pact will operate next May so that UUP and DUP candidates don’t run against each other where nationalists may win extra seats or the two parties may work more closely to manage the unionist vote. Such arrangements will not necessarily proceed smoothly however. A unity deal could yet meet opposition from more hardline sections of the DUP looking over their shoulders at the TUV. It is also very possible that the weakened “liberal” wing of the UUP would baulk at the prospect of a closer relationship with the DUP.

Inherent instability

Since the European elections, the dynamic of a split in the unionist vote has added to the instability of the Executive. In 2008, aware of the DUP’s fear of a snap election, Sinn Fein pressed for movement on the devolution of policing and justice powers and on other issues such as an Irish Language Act, which the DUP have opposed. They refused to attend Executive meetings for more than three months in protest at the DUP refusing to commit to any timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers. In reality, this dispute led to the informal suspension of the Executive for three months. In the end, Sinn Fein backed down under pressure of the economic crisis which was leading to major job losses in manufacturing and the construction sector. The fact that the Executive was not meeting at a time of economic crisis caused outrage from workers and employers, forcing the Executive to meet again.

For Sinn Fein, the devolution of policing was of crucial importance and they decided to make another stand in 2009, publically stating that they were prepared to pull out of the Executive unless there was a date set for the devolution of policing powers. Support for the PSNI was a hugely controversial issue for Sinn Fein and represented a real challenge to the party. Many republicans in the ranks of Sinn Fein viewed the PSNI as fundamentally being little more than a renamed RUC, and not a genuine policing service. At public meetings held across the country to debate the question of policing, the Sinn Fein leadership faced opposition from its ranks and also from dissident republican groups. The dissidents also organised their own public meetings to argue against supporting the PSNI. Sinn Fein took political risks in pushing the party to commit to support the PSNI, leading to a small but significant layer to walk from the party in opposition. Several councillors resigned as well as Gerry McHugh MLA for Fermanagh/South Tyrone (who went on to join Fianna Fail, a party which supported the PSNI from the very beginning!).

The majority of Sinn Fein supporters are not convinced that the dissidents offer a viable alternative strategy on policing. Anti-social behaviour and crime is a real problem in many Catholic working class communities. In the past, the IRA literally acted as judge, jury and executioner in Catholic areas, meting out brutal “punishment shootings” against anti-social elements but also to innocent suspects. The leadership of Sinn Fein has climbed too far up the peace process ladder to risk allowing the Provisional IRA to take action to deal with anti-social behaviour. Dissident republicans are attempting to step in to fill the vacuum and are carrying out regular “punishment shootings”, mostly against young people. The barbaric methods of the dissidents are shown not just by these shootings but also by the killing of their own members who have fallen foul of the groups in one way or the other. This was most graphically seen in 2007 when two Continuity IRA members who had fallen out with the paramilitary group were killed. One was found in an alleyway in Ardoyne after being almost decapitated with a spade.

Sinn Fein justified its support for policing on the ‘agreement’ made at St Andrews that policing and justice powers were to be devolved to the Assembly. They argued these matters would now be ‘controlled by people on the island of Ireland and not in London’. For Sinn Fein to be seen to have gone through such a historic turnaround on policing (an extremely emotive issue for republicans which required the support of a special, and heavily orchestrated, Ard Fheis), and then to be met with refusal from the DUP to devolve powers to the Assembly, was at best humiliating and at worse threatened to seriously undermine Sinn Fein’s authority and credibility. Of course, for the DUP this was also an issue on which they had to be seen to play hardball. The TUV and a significant section of the DUP, including at leadership level, were opposed to devolving policing and justice to an Executive where Sinn Fein was the second largest party. Under the rules of the Assembly, Sinn Fein was entitled to take the Justice Minister responsible for policing and justice. Gerry Kelly, the former IRA bomber of the Old Bailey in London and an escapee of the Maze Prison was lined up to take the position of Minister for Justice – anathema for unionists and most Protestants. The negotiations on policing and justice powers in January 2010 came very close to collapsing and with it the Executive. In fact after days of intense negotiations, 14 DUP MLA’s, including most of the party’s MPs, met with Peter Robinson to announce their opposition to a deal which had been drafted with Sinn Fein. In the end, the parties eventually agreed a formulation and process towards devolving policing powers, on the basis that the Alliance Party took the position of Minister for Justice. It was not in the interests of the DUP to trigger an election on this issue and risk the TUV eating into their vote, especially with a wounded Peter Robinson reeling from damaging scandals. Senior DUP members, including  deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell and party whip Lord Morrow, are known to have been opposed to the deal, despite the DUP public position that there was unanimous support for it. These divisions within the DUP could open up again in the next period.

The deal included a DUP demand that Sinn Fein agree to the scrapping of the Parades Commission – a long held demand of the Orange Order. The agreement reached between Sinn Fein on this question though was yet another fudge. A working group of six people was established – three appointed by the DUP and three by Sinn Fein – to come up with proposals on how to deal with parades. In the end, the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed that the Public Assemblies, Parades and Protests Bill (Northern Ireland) would be put out for consultation – a draconian bill which would have criminalised the right to protest. Under the cover of introducing legislation to deal with contentious parades, the parties attempted to use it to severely limit the right to protest, not just against parades, but on all issues. The Bill contained restrictions on all protests of at least 50 people and, protests could only take place if they received permission from the PSNI (applied for 37 days in advance). Failure to receive permission could result in six months in prison and/or a fine of £5,000! The old Unionist state would have been proud to have proposed such legislation – so much for Sinn Fein’s vision of an “Ireland of equals”. There is no doubt that the DUP and Sinn Fein are aware of the opposition they will face to the cuts and they had hoped that they would be able to introduce repressive legislation against workers resistance. The Explanatory Guide which accompanied the draft Bill specifically targeted trade unions and anti-cuts campaigns. It defined “Third Party” in the legislation as “any group independent of the organiser but notified by them as taking party (such as bands, trade unions or campaign groups.)”. It continued to give an example of how the legislation could be used in practice “if a group wanted to protest against the closure of a local sports facility… the group’s activity would fall under the definition of a public meeting and would therefore be subject to the notification procedures for a public assembly”.

Senior Sinn Fein officials such as John O’Dowd MLA came out defending the Bill against opponents in the media, attempting to blame unnamed “residents groups” for demanding the inclusion of such repressive powers. They had gambled that they could get away with repeating the grievances of Catholic residents opposed to Orange Order parades as a distraction to the actual content of the Bill. Not even the rank and file of Sinn Fein could justify the Bill and the Executive were forced to change the proposed legislation. Now the Orange Order have also come out in opposition to the legislation, leaving the question of parades completely unresolved.

Dissident republicans

The parades issue continues to haunt the peace process. The intense rioting over the Twelfth of July period across Belfast, Derry, Lurgan and Armagh involved hundreds of young people, many mobilised by dissident republican groups. It had been anticipated for months that dissident republicans were preparing to block the route of the Orange Order on the Crumlin Rd at Ardoyne in North Belfast. Many of those who took part in the rioting were not residents of Ardoyne, but were mobilised from across the North and even the South. This tactic however is not new. Sinn Fein representatives attacked those who had mobilised people from outside Ardoyne to take part in the roadblock and participating in the rioting, but throughout the 90’s this was precisely the tactic Sinn Fein used to stir up tension. The creation and exploitation of residents groups in Catholic communities was a strategy used by Sinn Fein to prevent Orange Order parades in certain areas – in effect the sectarian claiming of territory.

Genuine grievances held by Catholic residents about sectarian intimidation from the bigoted Orange Order were played upon by Sinn Fein not to reach a solution but to send a message that certain areas were now “nationalist”. Hence “Orange feet” were not welcome down certain streets and roads – another way of saying Protestants are not welcome. In the case of Ardoyne, the Orange Order does not go directly through any Catholic area – it skirts the edges of Ardoyne along the main arterial route used every day by both Catholics and Protestants. It is totally hypocritical of Sinn Fein today, who now see violent conflict over parades as a source of destabilisation for the Assembly, to attack those involved in rioting. Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein today claims that local dialogue is required between the Orange Order and residents groups in order to reach compromise on the question of parades yet he and his party are responsible for whipping up sectarian opposition to Orange Order parades. Dissident republicans have aped Sinn Fein’s approach by forming the Greater Ardoyne Residents Group as a dissident rival to the Sinn Fein controlled Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association. What is without doubt is Sinn Fein is no longer capable of controlling Catholic working class communities as they once could. They have lost much support and cannot get away with intimidating opponents as before.

From the point of view of many republicans Sinn Fein has abandoned its republican “principles” and capitulated to the demands of unionism (from decommissioning, entering the Stormont Executive, to supporting the PSNI). Sinn Fein is increasingly seen in Catholic areas to have sold out on the national question. The shift to the right of Sinn Fein has also weakened their base considerably in Catholic working class communities. Because of the lack of a mass working class political alternative dissident republican groups have been able to grow, in particular amongst the most deprived Catholic youth. But up to now, their support has been very limited. Their tactics of car bombs, which have increased in sophistication and deadliness, have come close to killing innocent civilians, such as the three young children who were injured by a bomb blast in Lurgan. The conditions which gave rise to the IRA’s military campaign do not exist today. The overwhelming majority of working class people are completely opposed to a return to sectarian conflict. The capitalist establishment recognises that the state’s use of repression strengthened the IRA and other republican paramilitaries in Catholic areas. The state will not lightly return to these counter-productive methods. However, the dissidents are not reliant on mass support and are determined to continue their “armed struggle” including bringing their campaign across the Irish Sea to Britain.

The dissidents have limited support but their support base is growing. A survey carried out by the University of Liverpool and published in July revealed that 14% of Catholics have some “sympathy” for the dissident paramilitary groups. Sympathy does not necessarily equate with support, either passive or active, but it is also possible that this survey underestimates the real level of support given that some respondents will be reluctant to disclose their true feelings. The highest levels of sympathy were found amongst young men who are too young to remember the ceasefires or the signing of the GFA. Whilst dissident support is limited they are more than capable of provoking sectarianism. As long as a vacuum exists and unless a new mass working class party is launched to provide an alternative, dissident republican groups will recruit, especially amongst young Catholics. This will not be a straight forward process. The immediate aim of the dissidents is to continue their campaign to kill police and army personnel (and workers associated with the police and army) in order to destabilise the North and the political institutions, and stir up sectarian conflict at interfaces and over contentious parades. It is possible that the dissidents could repeat an Omagh-type massacre which would be met with huge opposition amongst the working class, further isolating and weakening them for a period.

Loyalist regroupment

The same danger exists in Protestant areas where loyalist forces are capable of mobilising young people in response to the dissident republican threat. The recent return of the use of pipe bombs, such as that placed by loyalists in a Catholic school yard in Antrim in September, is also a real warning. The tops of the loyalist paramilitaries have been bought off by the state. A cottage industry of “community workers” was cultivated after the ceasefires which provided many jobs for ex-prisoners. “Peace money” in the form of European grants and funds established in the US, were used to fund many ex-prisoners, republican and loyalist. Many of these community groups are not genuine, in the sense of being democratically controlled by the community, although there are exceptions, including ex-prisoners who are genuinely committed to fighting for more facilities for working class communities and also combating sectarianism. The establishment has gone out of its way to seduce the leaders of the loyalist paramilitaries. But for working class and young Protestants, the social conditions continue to worsen. The collapse of manufacturing in Northern Ireland has seen once thriving industrial centres such as East Belfast turn to unemployment blackspots. In the absence of a mass working class party, the lumpenisation which will arise as a result of the recession in both communities will create ripe conditions for the growth of paramilitary organisations opposed to the peace process. The hope and optimism that once existed in the peace process is largely gone in many areas. It has been replaced with a cynicism and burning anger with the politicians. There is no support for a return to sectarian conflict. But as it becomes clearer to people that the Assembly will not deliver jobs and a decent future, support for the peace process as it currently exists can be undermined. Increasingly, the question will be asked (especially by the youth) – what has the Assembly done for me? Appeals for people not to risk destabilising the Assembly will not receive the same patient response as before.

The massive cuts being prepared by the Tory/Lib Dem government will meet huge opposition. The potential exists to build a mass movement in the coming period against the cuts implemented by the parties in Stormont. However, that in itself does not guarantee that sectarian forces will not gain in the coming years. During the early 80s, big struggles of workers, such as health workers, took on the then Tory government. In the North, these class struggles forged unity between workers. During this period our party experienced significant growth and proved that despite the complications of sectarianism the ideas of socialism can gain support in both communities. The impact of class struggle in the early eighties had a major effect in pushing back sectarianism even at times of heightened violence. Throughout the Troubles, the majority of workers remained united in their unions, struggling together on the common economic and social issues which affected them. Not once has a strike been defeated by sectarianism. The interests of workers to unite against attacks from bosses and the government runs in complete opposition to the sectarian forces in society. While sectarian forces can grow at the same time as workers unite in struggle, this will not last forever. At some point one trend, either towards workers unity or towards sectarian division, will win out. The key to overcoming the danger of sectarian conflict lies in the leadership of the working class movement and the development of a mass socialist alternative. The Socialist Party can play a crucial role in the coming years in advancing a socialist alternative. The struggles which will be fought against the cuts will organically raise the need for political representation of working people and the unemployed. International events and the action of workers in the South and Britain will leave an imprint in the North. Just as the revolutionary events in France in 1968 and the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war movement in the US inspired and politicised young people and workers in Northern Ireland, the movements which are taking shape internationally today will be felt in the North.

Opportunity for socialist opposition

There is no serious attempt by the majority of the trade union leadership to organise workers to resist the cuts. In fact, in many workplaces, right-wing union representatives are actually facilitating cuts. Health workers at the Mid-Ulster hospital were actively discouraged by union leaders to become involved in the campaign against the closure of accident and emergency services. In the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, the leadership of Unison has told staff that there is no alternative to working in “partnership” with management as they implement cuts, even though they publically state they are opposed to cuts. The right-wing in NIPSA in education is also willing to accept voluntary redundancies. Right-wing Unite representatives at Belfast City Council are also playing the same role, allowing management to implement cuts. At the same time, there are workers like medical secretaries in the Belfast Health Trust who won a victory by forcing the Trust to retreat from carrying out an effective wage cut and compulsory redundancies. Their militancy is ahead of most workers today, but they represent the music of the future.

Organising in the unions

The Socialist Party can take credit for pressurising NIC-ICTU into calling the successful demonstration on 29th September. If it was not for our decision to establish the Stop the Cuts Alliance and call a city centre protest, there would have been no demonstration. NIC-ICTU felt compelled to call the demonstration only because they feared being outflanked by the Stop the Cuts Alliance and the support we would have received from workers for a demonstration. All NIC-ICTU had planned was to send a delegation to visit Stormont – no workers protest was planned. It is important that the Stop the Cuts Alliance is built to prepare workers and communities to fight the cuts on the ground, but that does not mean we ignore developments within the unions. We support Trades Councils and NIC-ICTU’s decision to hold public meetings and organise street stalls against the cuts. However, we are opposed to the bureaucratic control of these meetings and activities. At a meeting held in Unison’s offices on 11th September, NIC-ICTU invited affiliated unions to a meeting to discuss their ‘Fairer, Better Way’ strategy. However, only Full-Time officials and officers of Trades Councils were permitted to attend!

The pressure on the British union leaders is mounting. Our comrades’ in Scotland, England and Wales call for a major demonstration has been resolutely opposed by the TUC, but is gaining support amongst rank and file trade unionists and the leaders of some unions such as the RMT, PCS and FBU. The TUC are opposed to generalised action as they and their partners in the Labour Party fear a movement developing which could gain momentum and raise confidence amongst workers who will not be afraid to take on a future Labour government or the cuts being carried out by Labour-controlled councils. Their message is to wait for a Labour government – as if workers can afford to. A number of left-leaning unions in Britain such as the RMT, PCS and the FBU have supported our call for the TUC to call a major demonstration against the cuts in order to build confidence amongst workers that the cuts can be resisted and send a message to the government that they have a fight on their hands. Such demands on how to fight the cuts will attract the best fighters and activists across the unions.

The potential exists in the coming period to bring together Left activists across different unions and lay the basis for genuine broad left organisations to develop in the unions, including in Northern Ireland. The objective economic crisis, the avalanche of cuts will shatter the contradictions between the need for a generalised mass movement against the cuts and the obstacle of the conservative trade union leaders. The Socialist Party will play an important role in building broad Lefts within the unions. Our comrades in NIPSA have succeeded over many years in raising the political consciousness of activists. The increased vote in favour of establishing a political fund at this years NIPSA conference is a consequence of the right-wing policies being implemented by the Assembly parties, but also because of the determined active intervention of our comrades in fighting for NIPSA to support the establishment of a political alternative. No other party or group on the Left is campaigning within the unions for political representation.

The trade union bureaucracy, despite their inert conservatism and comfortable posts will come under huge pressure from below and will be forced to call action, organise protests and meetings etc. Some can be pushed much further as a result of the pressure. Many trade union leaders, though not all, are out of touch with workers, living on wages more comparable with management than the average member. Even though the unions and the different wings of the bureaucracy will be hit by cuts in the form of fewer members, the trade union bureaucracy are incapable of leading a struggle to defeat the cuts. The role of the right-wing union leaders in many countries has caused complications. In Greece, the trade union leaders have been forced under pressure from below to call six general strikes and many major demonstrations, but have used these to ‘let off steam’ instead of developing a strategy to develop the movement. As a result, the PASOK government has succeeded in implementing cuts, despite the mass opposition.

Leadership is crucial. The treacherous role of the trade union leaders in the South has had a temporary demoralizing effect on the advanced activists. The rotten Croke Park deal hatched between the unions and the Irish Government has been observed closely by the British government and the trade union leaders in the North and Britain. Reports that the TUC has been holding secret talks with the Tories is ominous. It cannot be excluded that the union leaders will pursue talks to reach agreement on how cuts are implemented. In Northern Ireland, there has been in effect an unofficial “social partnership” relationship between the unions and the parties in the Assembly. The tendency of the trade union leaders will be to seek co-operation in how cuts are to be made, under the logic of ‘protecting the most vulnerable’. Any move by the leadership of the unions towards seeking an accommodation with the Executive would have to be immediately met by a broad campaign of opposition throughout the unions against any deal with the parties and opposition to all cuts.

Such is the scale of cuts on the cards, it is inevitable workers will resist the cuts. In the absence of a mass party of the working class which could clearly reject the arguments for cuts, and given the weak “opposition” of the right-wing union leadership, it is not surprising that many people accept the “need” for cuts. However, this acceptance is a theoretical acceptance. When cuts are concretely felt – the closure of the local school, the local schools bus services being withdrawn, confronted with losing your job etc. then it is an entirely different matter. Most workers are already angry at how those who are responsible for the deficit and the recession – the greedy bankers and multi-millionaire financial speculators who were bailed out to the tune of trillions – continue to receive massive bonuses and make big profits. No matter how much hysteria is whipped up over the deficit, workers will not be fooled into thinking that they are responsible for the crisis.

The findings of the BBC Spotlight survey on cuts are very significant. More than 1,000 people were polled about the cuts. When asked if people agreed that cuts were necessary to deal with the current economic situation 55% agreed, 28% disagreed and 15% strongly disagreed. Considering the constant pro-cuts propaganda in the media and from economists and politicians for months, the fact that 43% of people do not agree that cuts are needed is very significant. 65% were concerned that they or someone in their household risked losing their job as a result of the cuts. People were also asked if they were willing to pay water charges if introduced next year in order to protect frontline services, 64% said they were not prepared to pay, 12% were not sure and only 24% said they were prepared to pay! Again, considering that the water service is perceived as a less crucial service than health or education, it is of great credit to the Socialist Party and the We Won’t Pay Campaign that such opposition remains against water charges. This survey is an indication of the mood of opposition which exists even before the major cuts are carried out.

The United Front and the Stop the Cuts Alliance

The Socialist Party has initiated the Stop the Cuts Alliance (SCA) in order to provide a vehicle for workers, trade unionists, socialists, community activists etc. to unite and co-ordinate struggles against cuts. It is early days for the Alliance, but it has been able to make an impact in forcing NIC-ICTU to call a protest in Belfast and Derry on 29th September and has received the support of important trade union activists in NIPSA, the INTO and FBU. It has been the only campaign to call for all groups and unions to come together to build a united campaign against the cuts. The SCA has already justified its existence by pressurising NIC-ICTU into calling the 29th September protest, and should continue to play that role, but that is not its primary raison d’etre. The SCA has so far brought prominent leading trade union activists together, but the aim is for the Alliance to develop in the communities, and to link local anti-cuts campaigns together. It is also important that a principled opposition to the cuts is developed and built through the SCA. The SCA can enable socialists to counter the arguments of right-wing trade union leaders such as Unison’s Patricia McKeown that certain services should be “prioritised” over others. McKeown’s call for the health service to be prioritised is a recipe for division amongst workers, potentially turning workers against each other on where the cuts should be made. Neither is it a call for protection of the health service – by calling for health to be prioritised, McKeown is calling for health to be at the bottom of the pile to be hit by cuts.

Need for new working class party

The NI Executive has taken a decision to try and delay as many cuts as possible until after the Assembly and local elections next May. It remains to be seen how successful they will be in this. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. Legally they are required to agree a budget for the next four years before the local and Assembly elections next May. It is possible they may agree a budget for 2011/12 and agree the rest of the budget which will contain the bulk of cuts until after the elections. But this is easier said than done – it will be extremely difficult for the parties to agree even a one year budget without significant cuts.

However, the cuts agreed earlier this year are being felt on the ground and could continue to meet opposition in communities and workplaces in the coming months before the elections. As in the case of the Mid-Ulster hospital campaign, it is possible that local campaign groups will consider standing candidates against local cuts. This would be a very important development, which would represent the first steps towards political representation for the working class. We cannot predict exactly how the tempo of struggle against cuts will develop, but we would be making a political mistake if we did not prepare for such developments. We would not necessarily support any call for people to stand in the elections against the cuts – there would need to be certain criteria in place before we would advocate whether campaigns should stand candidates. For example, candidates and campaigns would have to be credible, representing real campaigns and forces on the ground, not just any Tom, Dick or Harry standing. We would also oppose potential candidates with career ambitions or who would be prepared to do deals with the right-wing parties.

The need for a political voice for the working class will become more apparent to more workers as the Executive carries out the cuts. The pressure on the trade union leaders will also increase – not just to call action – but also to support the creation of a new working class party. The vote at this years NIPSA conference for our motion on the establishment of a political fund saw a significant increase in support. Because it requires a constitutional change in order to establish a political fund, a two-third majority is needed at conference in order to be carried. Nevertheless, the fact that just under 50% of delegates voted in favour of allowing a constitutional change to set up a political fund is significant. About 20% of delegates abstained. Even though the motion dealt with a technical constitutional issue, the debate centered on the need for NIPSA to support the need for a party of the working class so workers had a party to vote for against the right-wing and sectarian parties. No matter how much the right-wing in NIPSA attempt to paint the issue to delegates as a means of the Socialist Party getting their hands on members money via a political fund or that if the union was to get involved in politics it would somehow split the union along sectarian lines – there is no avoiding the reality that all the parties in the Assembly are attacking workers jobs, wages and conditions and public services. The Irish regional committee of the PCS has recently carried out a consultation where a majority of reps have supported the idea of backing candidates in elections in Northern Ireland. Our case for a new party of the working class based on the trade union movement, will increasingly find an echo in the coming years.

The comments made by Peter Bunting at the NIC-ICTU Biennial conference in May illustrate that the bureaucracy feel under pressure from below on the question of the unions relationship with the parties in the Assembly. He stated “It seems to me that at some stage we need to have a conversation within this movement – do we continually support political parties in Northern Ireland and it may well be time in the near future to think of some other political movement to represent working class people and as an alternative to the stagnation and the failed policies. There is a better, fairer way – it’s articulated in the Congress document Campaigning for Jobs and Services. It is rooted in non-sectarian politics, working class politics and perhaps it’s time, comrades, that we got back to building a working class political movement.” It is not a minor issue that a prominent union leader in Northern Ireland made these comments. But we should not get carried away with such statements, as it is clear that there is no intention by Bunting or any of the trade union leaders in the North to give any serious consideration to the launching of a new party. Let’s look at some of the key unions’ positions on this question. NIPSA, the largest union in the North, has historically resisted any discussion on politics. The current right-wing leadership is opposed to the union supporting a political initiative. The leadership of Unite would also fiercely oppose any move to establish a new party in Northern Ireland as it would undermine the link with the British Labour Party. The union donated millions to the Labour Party before the last general election and ploughed resources into the election of Ed Miliband. Likewise, UNISON is a close ally of the Labour Party, but in the North prominent leaders are close to Sinn Fein.

NIC-ICTU has been opposed to the trade unions supporting an independent workers political alternative for decades. One of the reasons has been because of a fear of sectarianism. That does not mean that the unions are not involved in politics. The trade union leaders have been engaged in a political approach behind the scenes of working with the political parties in the Assembly and building a coalition between the Assembly parties and the trade unions. NIC-ICTU’s position on the cuts reflects this approach. Any serious attempt by Bunting to open a real discussion on the building of a political party would not get past first base in NIC-ICTU. It is possible his comments were made to send a ‘warning’ to the parties in the Assembly, especially Sinn Fein, seeking co-operation with the unions on how the cuts are implemented. Even so, it is an example of how the objective need of a political party for workers will put the union leaders under pressure and can gain support in workplaces.

The turnout at the general election at 57% was very low by Northern Ireland standards, a fall of 7.8% from the previous general election. Hundreds of thousands of people do not support any of the parties. The inability of the unionist parties to generate sufficient support to mobilise working class Protestants during elections has caused consternation in unionist circles. Even though the DUP and the UUP agreed a joint candidate in Fermanagh/South Tyrone (a majority Protestant constituency) they failed to take the seat back off Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew – even if only by four votes. The satisfying punishment the working class voters of East Belfast meted out to Peter Robinson in the general election by electing the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long, was a protest against the corruption and sleaze the Robinsons thrived on while taking the people of East Belfast for granted. The fact that unionism lost East Belfast is significant. The swing to Long is not an endorsement of the Alliance Party’s neo-liberal programme, it was an anti-Robinson vote. The resignations of leader Dawn Purvis and other leading members from the PUP following the UVF murder of Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Rd spells the effective end of the PUP as a party. Purvis and other former leading PUP members though opportunistically jumped after the shooting of Moffitt and saw a link to the UVF as being a hindrance to electoral “respectability” rather than a principled break from sectarianism and paramilitarism. The decision of the UVF to carry out the shooting in broad daylight on a busy shopping street on a Friday afternoon was deliberately designed to send a message to the local community that the UVF were not going away. The reaction of the local community to the murder showed that there is no mood or support for a return to the days when paramilitaries and sectarian thugs intimidated the community. Despite death threats, the local community felt determined enough to show their disgust at the murder by organising a vigil. After further threats from the UVF warning people not to line the Shankill Rd for the funeral thousands of people turned in defiance and in solidarity with the family.

All this demonstrates the political vacuum which exists in Protestant working class areas but the same vacuum exists in Catholic areas and is partially disguised because of the lack of a credible electoral alternative to Sinn Fein. It is likely Sinn Fein’s vote will hold up or even increase. It is possible that dissident republican groups could begin to see a slight rise in support electorally, but it does not come near to filling the vacuum which exists.

As struggles against the cuts develop the material forces needed to construct new formations or pre-formations will assemble. Any step towards the building of a new working class party would very quickly be challenged by the reality of sectarianism and the national question. To make compromises on a principled socialist approach to the national question would ensure any new formation would not have much of a future. The decision of the Socialist Workers Party to allow the participation of the Irish Republican Socialist Party in Eamonn McCann’s general election campaign in Derry standing under the People Before Profit Alliance risks tarnishing People Before Profit as a republican and sectarian organisation, limiting its appeal solely to Catholics.

Reformism and Socialism

Ultimately, the crisis will ensure that a growing layer of workers and youth come to realise that capitalism is incapable of delivering the basic needs of everyone. The right reformist programme of the unions will be increasingly questioned by layers. The Socialist Party supports and calls for an increase in taxation of the rich. We would also support the introduction of a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions and other progressive fiscal policies. However, all reforms in favour of the working class will be resisted by the ruling class and will require mass struggle to secure concessions. Any concessions made are temporary in character as the capitalist class will attempt to claw back any concessions made. If a pro-worker government was to be elected in Britain, attempts to impose higher taxation on the rich and other steps which would encroach on profits would be met with resistance by the capitalist class, including the threat of a flight of capital out of the country. It would be necessary to carry through socialist policies of nationalisation of the banks and the major companies which dominate the economy under democratic workers control and management in order to achieve permanent reforms. A state monopoly would need to be placed on foreign trade. This in effect would mean removing the capitalist system and replacing it with a socialist economy.

The transitional method

Of course, we do not answer every question working class people raise about the alternative to cuts by crudely asserting “Socialism is the only alternative”. Even though this statement is true, it means little or nothing to most workers and is an abstraction if it is not linked to how people can fight the cuts in the here and now. Transitional demands such as nationalising the banks and major companies under democratic workers control and management even have to be refined today and require more explanation. Our call for a cut in the working week to 35 hours, with a guaranteed living wage, in order to end unemployment should now be raised more prominently. This demand of “sharing out the work” can get a response especially from youth and many workers who are trying to hold down two or three (low-paid) jobs. It will also become more and more obvious to workers that there is no national solution to the economic crisis. In the recent past even the major capitalist powers across the world recognised the need for synchronised action – for example the bail-outs and stimulus packages carried out in the immediate aftermath of the financial meltdown in 2007-2008. At the same time however the rival interests of national capitalist classes, illustrated by the use of protectionist measures such as Obama’s tariffs on tyre imports, limits the ability of capitalism to plan on an international scale. This again highlights the need for socialist planning on an international scale as it is in the interests of workers to co-operate internationally.

Twenty years of interminable talks and endless “agreements” have not produced peace, stability or prosperity. The entire peace process has been about cementing division. Any agreement is an agreement to carve up power, not to share power. The parties on each side of the sectarian divide thrive on sectarian division and maintain sectarian division. To break the sectarian log jam we need a new politics based on class and the fight for socialism. Working class people have more in common than divides them. They unite in their trade unions to defend their jobs and services and across the peacelines in opposition to water charges. Action on economic and social issues alone is not enough however. United working class action is ultimately required to fight sectarianism in all its manifestations and to combat sectarian attacks and the working class and young people need an independent mass party which seeks to build unity across the peacelines.

There is no doubt that the ideas of socialism will resonate with growing layers of workers and youth as capitalism reveals itself to be incapable of delivering decent jobs and a future. The Socialist Party will find a growing audience in the coming period for socialist solutions to the crisis of the capitalist system which the parties in the Assembly are committed to.