Northern Ireland - The political process is suspended, but not the plans of British capital

Mar 2000

Despite the "outrage" expressed by the media, the suspension of Northern Ireland's devolved Executive and Assembly, on February 11th , was entirely predictable. And contrary to what the same media claimed, this suspension is neither a shattering event nor a loss - at least not for the working people and the jobless in the province whose interests were never represented in these institutions.

In fact, right from the beginning, this outcome was built into the convoluted process that led to the setting up of the Northern Ireland Executive on December 1st last year.

The 1998 "peace agreement" had originally set November 1st , 1998 as a deadline for the Northern Ireland Executive to be set up. This deadline was missed, as well as five others which were set subsequently. Finally, in September 1999, Blair resolved to set up a "review" - to all intents and purposes, a full renegotiation of the "peace agreement" - under former US senator George Mitchell.

Officially the whole shenanigan was, once again, over the unionists' demand that the IRA should decommission its weapons before any Sinn Fein minister was allowed to sit in the future Executive - a prerequisite which had never been part of the "peace agreement" signed by the unionist parties in April 1998.

Nevertheless a new "agreement" was eventually reached at the end of November, paving the way for the setting up of the Executive. But at the last minute, the main unionist party, Trimble 's United Unionist Party (UUP), issued an ultimatum: if the IRA failed to give "convincing" proof of its commitment to decommissioning its weapons by February 12th, Trimble would resign his position as first minister rather than carry on presiding over an Executive which included Sinn Fein ministers. By implication this meant that the Executive would be in tatters, since no first minister (to replace Trimble) could be elected without winning a majority, among the Assembly as a whole, of course, but also among its 58 registered protestant members.

It was clear that the vague wording of this ultimatum ensured that anything short of a capitulation on the part of the IRA would fail the test. It was also clear that faced with such an ultimatum the IRA would be even more reluctant to make a gesture which the UUP would be quick to hail as a surrender. However, this did not prevent Blair from endorsing the unionists' ultimatum. So that, right from the first meeting of the new Executive, on December 1st, 1999, its fate was already sealed.

Blair displayed the same indulgent attitude towards Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP had confined its participation in the negotiations to political gesticulation in front of the TV cameras, while refusing systematically to participate in the talks. Nevertheless it was offered two ministerial posts and fought tooth and nail to get the Regional Development portfolio (another channel for substantial grants from London and the European Union) and that of Social Development - which was rather cynical, given Paisley's militant bigotry. Then, having secured these positions, the DUP took the unprecedented step of moving into their ministries while refusing to attend the meetings of the Executive, since, as they screamed in front of the TV crews, they would "never ever" sit around a table with "terrorists". It was obvious that the attitude of the DUP alone was bound to paralyse the limited activity of the Executive. Blair did nothing about what amounted to deliberate sabotage. But maybe this was also because London did not expect the Executive to last anyway.

In any case, once the Labour government had adopted this indulgent attitude towards the unionist parties, by the time Trimble's deadline came, it could only take one of three courses of action: it could expel the Sinn Fein ministers, thereby breaking its own agreement and risking a backlash from the Catholic ghettos; it could keep the Executive going, but without a majority in the Assembly, since its sectarian voting rules allows the anti- agreement unionists to veto any important decision; or it could suspend the devolved institutions for another round of renegotiation of the "peace agreement". To all intents and purposes, the UUP, and to a lesser extent the DUP, was therefore allowed, once again, to impose its veto on the process.

Blair and the "unionist veto"

This new twist in the "peace process" illustrates once again the contradiction which has left the policy of the British state in Northern Ireland stranded so many times already over the past decade. On the one hand the Labour government, just like its Tory predecessors, went out of its way to bribe the main Northern Irish parties into sharing the responsibility for its policy in the province. On the other hand, whenever unionist politicians have raised new obstacles at the bargaining table or produced new demands, Blair has yielded to them.

And yet, unlike John Major in 1994-97, Blair does not even have the "excuse" of needing the unionist MPs' votes in order to reinforce a shrinking majority in the Commons. Nor is the fact that the UUP is the province's largest single party in electoral terms a decisive factor. After all, following its success in the 1997 general election, the Labour Party had the opportunity to challenge the domination of the UUP by using its weight to rebuild a "Labour" electoral machinery in Northern Ireland. Within the UUP itself, there was a whole current of "modernisers" who would have readily switched allegiance to Blair's New Labour rather than stick with the outdated and bigoted parochialism of the unionist parties. If Blair failed to grab this opportunity, choosing instead to leave the tiny Northern Ireland Labour Party to its own devices, it was primarily in order to avoid upsetting the unionist parties' leaders.

On the other hand, Blair's indulgence towards the UUP is not due either to the fact that the British state still needs to use the "unionist veto" in order to enforce its rule over Northern Ireland, as it has done ever since Partition. After all, it was this instrument of British rule which backfired in the 1960s - by alienating a significant section of the Catholic petty- bourgeoisie and pushing them towards militant nationalism. Today, on the contrary, British capital is seeking to defuse the Irish powder keg, once and for all, by shifting part of the political responsibility for Northern Ireland to Dublin - in order to turn the province into a safe playground for British and multinational companies. As far as it is concerned, the "unionist veto" has passed its sell-by date.

However, the social interests on which the "unionist veto" was based still remain. The interests of the unionist establishment - particularly the protestant bourgeoisie - remain intertwined with those of the British bourgeoisie, both at family and business levels. If it has a choice, the British state prefers to deal with the political personnel who come out of the ranks of this establishment, rather than with untested politicians such as those in Sinn Fein and even in the DLP, despite the latter's middle-class social basis.

And the fact is, that for the time being, the British state has a choice, insofar as it is under no real pressure to make political concessions to anyone other than the unionist establishment itself.

Indeed, the main objective of the "peace process" was, of course, to get the paramilitaries to stop their terrorist activities, but also at the same time to cooperate in keeping the lid on any risk of rebellion from the working class ghettos. In both respects the paramilitaries have delivered more than their part of the deal.

Neither the on-going feud among loyalist gangs nor the odd botched-up bombing claimed by Republican splinter groups, presents London with any real problem. As to the working class districts, they have been mostly quiet over the past two years, with the exception of a few flashpoints, which the paramilitaries focused successfully on the "safe" issue of sectarian marches. Social issues, particularly the degradation of conditions for a large section of the ghetto population, have been swept safely under the carpet, together with the issue of harassment and repression by the British army as well as by the RUC.

In short, the Labour government may feel now that it can safely impose its policy on the province's working class without taking the risk of a backlash. All the more so, of course, as the paramilitaries themselves have no policy other than to hold out their hands and gratefully receive the crumbs which Blair may or may not give them. And the loyalty displayed by the paramilitaries towards the "peace process", particularly their obvious reluctance to alter the balance of forces to their advantage through even the smallest mobilisation in the ghettos, can only encourage Blair's indulgence towards the UUP and unionist politicians in general.

An exercise in parasitism

If there were any doubts about the Assembly and the Executive in the minds of ordinary people, their short-lived existence (just 72 days) was more than enough to expose their parasitic nature. Predictably so. The primary purpose of these institutions was always to provide the British government with a convenient cover for its policy. In return the main local parties were to be rewarded with comfortable positions and the means to build up their own patronage - and this is just what they did, without the slightest restraint.

Even during the 17-month long build-up to the launch of the Executive, the negotiations were not just about so-called "questions of principle" as the unionists claimed. Behind the veil of secrecy which surrounded the talks, there were indications that much more down-to-earth issues were being discussed - particularly the allocation of the various ministries to the main parties, as well as the chairs of the Assembly sub- committees and the responsibilities and composition of the six cross-border bodies.

It took, for instance, a lot of horse-trading for the UUP, to concede the Finance ministry to the SDLP in exchange for both the Trade and Environment portfolios. But the UUP also wanted to retain sole control of transport - an industry which is expected to expand considerably due to the growth of North-South traffic and tourism, meaning a lot of contracts and state funding for the boys. So, to ensure that they did retain control, the UUP demanded that the cross-border body dealing with transport which had been originally planned (quite logically) by the "peace agreement" should be scrapped. And instead the UUP proposed, and won, the setting up of another cross-border body in charge of... languages, which they managed to portray as a "concession" to the SDLP and Sinn Fein - although to keep the balance "equal", the languages in question are supposed to be the Irish language and an "Ulste-Scots" language. But unionist politicians would probably have some difficulty finding fluent speakers of this alleged "language"!

It must be said in passing, that, in terms of taking care of their own interests, the province's politicians were given a clear lead by the man who was so often portrayed by the media as a totally disinterested and neutral referee - retired US senator George Mitchell. No sooner was his last review of the "peace agreement" completed, than he was head-hunted by Thames Water to help them prepare the ground for future acquisitions of water companies in the USA. Just a coincidence, of course!

But the most revealing illustration of what these institutions are really about is the record of the Assembly itself. In its short life- span, the Assembly had put just four bills on its schedule. The first deals with the allowances and salaries of current and former Assembly members - obviously, if the Assembly was soon to be dismantled, its members did not want to miss the chance of getting something out of it first! The second bill is about the pensions of Assembly members. The third lays down the rules for the financial "assistance" awarded by the state to all political parties represented in the Assembly - a not insignificant total of £141,000 for the four months up to the end of March 2000, which comes on top of the salaries, secretarial and staffing allowances and other travel expenditure paid to assembly members. Only the fourth bill deals with an issue concerning the population - the extension of the Equality Commission's responsibility to monitor discrimination over disability.

More generally, political patronage has been given a major boost by the "peace process" over the recent period. Patronage in the field of employment is an old tradition in Northern Ireland. The staffing of public sector jobs in particular - still by far the largest provider of employee jobs despite Blair's efforts to trim it down - has always been the preserve of established politicians, mostly unionists but not only. Today, in addition, there is a blossoming of semi-casual jobs in the community, with charities, voluntary organisations, community and advice centres, etc.. In working class areas, the allocation of most of these jobs is now directly controlled by loyalist groups or by Sinn Fein, depending on the area. And given the level of unemployment in the working class ghettos, even a semi-casual job like this is as precious as a real one. For the paramilitaries, such economic patronage becomes a means of keeping the most militant elements under control - a means which is as effective, if not more so, than punishment beatings.

Behind the "peace process"

How long will the stalling of the negotiations and the suspension of the devolved institutions last? No-one knows, of course. And given the media's obvious determination to gloss over Blair's failures, it is hard to take seriously the rumours they spread about new contacts being made between the British government and the IRA and imminent new negotiations with Sinn Fein.

For the time being, the fact is that given the blatant way in which London gave in to the unionists' manoeuvres, the Republicans had no choice other than to walk out of all negotiations. If only because not doing so would have meant losing face in front of their supporters.

No matter how many times Gerry Adams repeats in newspaper interviews that unlike the loyalists, Sinn Fein knows how to deal with dissidents "democratically", he cannot simply dismiss the existence of at least three dissident Republican groups. Nor can Adams ignore the ambitions and rivalries within the leadership of his own party. On the basis of the same social- democratic policies - in search of a space to occupy in the political institutions of the bourgeoisie both in the North and in the South - there is no shortage of "modernisers" within Sinn Fein, who dream of becoming the voice of the aspiring petty- bourgeoisie rather than having to bother with the anger felt in the poor ghettos. Stuck between these two pressures, the present leadership of Sinn Fein is treading a narrow path. But at least Adams knows that the only thing that can give his party any value in the eyes of the British government, is its continuing hold over the Catholic working class areas.

So this may mean that the political process itself will be stalled for some time, at least until Blair gets the unionists to make some sort of concession - one that can at least be presented as substantial by Sinn Fein to its supporters.

This does not mean, however, that British capital's plans for Northern Ireland are stalled altogether. In fact frantic activity has developed in the background ever since the peace agreement was signed. And there is no reason for it to be slowed down by the stalling of the political process.

In March last year, Gordon Brown introduced a number of financial reforms for Northern Ireland. These included, in particular, the transformation of a significant part of the province's block grant into a comprehensive system of tax rebates for companies - and since there is no question of cutting the grants already paid to private companies, this can only mean a corresponding reduction in grants allocated to public services. Thus the 100% tax rebate for capital investment already enjoyed by small and medium businesses would be extended to all businesses. But at the same time, corporate tax for inward investors will be brought into line with that in the Republic (10% until 2005 and 12.5% afterwards - the lowest in Europe) and this would include for instance financial companies dealing from offices located in Northern Ireland.

Behind this reform is, among other things, a plan to turn Belfast into a major financial centre enjoying the same tax haven status as Dublin within the European Union. The Republic was able to wangle this special status from Brussels on the grounds of its economic deprivation. The British government would find it difficult to use this line of argument for London, of course, but it could use it for Northern Ireland. For the City of London, Belfast could then become a convenient alternative to tiny antiquated offshore centres like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, whose status is threatened by European regulations anyway. In any case this is clearly what Brown hopes to be able to achieve.

As a result, British banks and financial institutions have been flocking to Belfast and setting up offices there, in preparation for what some commentators have already called Northern Ireland's "Big Bang". Real estate developers have also been rushing to grab the cheap land available for fancy redevelopment aimed at middle-class professionals, while trendy wine bars and expensive fashion shops are mushrooming in central Belfast.

At the same time, sector by sector, the whole of Ireland is being turned into an integrated playing field for big companies. Electricity has pioneered this development. Up to 1975, there was already an interconnection between the Northern and Southern networks, until it was closed down following a series of bomb attacks. In 1995 this interconnection was re-opened and its capacity was increased thanks to European Union grants. Since then, both the Northern and Southern electricity markets have been opened up to competition, with four companies licensed so far - Premier Power (a subsidiary of British Gas), PowerGen UK, Energia (a subsidiary of the privatised Northern electricity company Viridian) and the Southern state-controlled Electricity Supply Board. Needless to say, the next step will be the privatisation of the state company in the South and, probably, its absorption by one of the British electricity giants.

Mergers and takeovers provide another mechanism for the economic integration of the whole island. Easons, for instance, the Republic's equivalent of W.H.Smith, is now everywhere to be seen in the North where it has swallowed many independent newsagents while opening large stores in shopping centres. The Belfast Telegraph, the North's largest daily paper, which was recently acquired by the Mirror Group, is likely to be bought by the Republic's Independent News and Media group. And to calm the outrage this news has provoked among unionist politicians, the Southern group announced that not only would it retain the present unionist line of the paper, but as a guarantee, it was setting aside a boardroom seat for Lord Rogan, the UUP chairman, and another one for Sir George Quigley, the Ulster Bank chairman and prominent representative of the Catholic bourgeoisie. Ulster Bank itself, which was so far a subsidiary of NatWest, has developed its network in the Republic and could be soon sold off to the Southern privatised Bank of Ireland, under a similar deal - despite, there again, the demagogic protests of unionist politicians proclaiming hypocritically their "concern" for the resulting job cuts in Northern Ireland (but not in the Republic).

These are only a few examples, among many others of cross- border concentration in various industries. Whether the lead company in these cross-border deals is Southern or Northern, is of course irrelevant, as in most cases these companies are dominated by British and American capital anyway.

The situation of working class

This economic integration is an on-going process which can carry on regardless of the ups and downs of the political negotiations, under the auspices of London and Dublin. And ultimately, it is probably the outcome of this economic integration which is now the main issue behind the gesture politics of the Northern UUP. Indeed, for the Northern establishment and for its political representatives, the question is what positions they will be able to take in an integrated Irish economy and what income they will be able to extract from it. And by freezing any political change in the North for the time being, they get the best of both worlds: they retain almost total control of the Northern state machinery and a strong bargaining position, while spreading their tentacles across Ireland thanks to their links with British companies.

The working class of Northern Ireland, on the other hand, has nothing to gain in maintaining the political status quo. Whether Protestant or Catholic, it has no privileges to protect, but only its class interests to defend. And at present, these class interests are under attack, as workers are confronted with a degradation of their conditions.

Of course new jobs are being created, even if their numbers are grossly overestimated by official statistics. But a large proportion of these new jobs are of the professional type, particularly those which have been created around the new devolved institutions and in the finance sector. Those who take these jobs would probably have gone to work abroad in the previous decade. On the other hand the growth of this layer of well-paid professional employees is driving housing costs up at the expense of those in the poorer sections of the population who are already struggling to pay their mortgages and private sector rents.

These new jobs are not for the ordinary workers who have been pushed onto the dole by closures in manufacturing and more importantly by cuts in the public sector.

In manufacturing, the scale of parasitism of the province's companies is illustrated by the fact that each manufacturing job attracted a £1,331 subsidy last year, compared with £622 in Wales and £403 in Scotland. But this does not prevent these companies from closing down factories and pocketing the subsidies while cutting jobs. Last year, for instance, Mackies, the province's last big manufacturer of textile machinery, closed down just after having made a £20m investment in machinery, which was mostly paid for by the Industrial Development Board.

As to the public sector, it still provides directly one job in three in the province and many more indirectly. More than half the jobs in the building industry, for instance, depend on state procurement. And with Blair's programme of cuts in public expenditure and concealed privatisation through so-called public-private partnerships, more and more public sector-dependent jobs are disappearing.

Of course, the Labour government has fancy plans to create new jobs, even for this mostly unskilled workforce. The solution, just like in Britain, is for the working class to "get on its bike" and to make itself cheap and flexible. This is highlighted, for instance, in a report - "Strategy 2010" - published by the Department of Economic Development in late 1999. One of the main areas of future development pointed out by this report is what it calls "tradeable services", that is, mainly call centres and so-called "back-office" services - such as non-skilled data processing jobs usually contracted out by companies in the rich countries to low-wage countries.

Whatever Blair may say, these mostly part-time office jobs will not provide employment for the mostly manual workers of the poorest ghettos, even assuming they materialise. As to new manual jobs, there are none. The much trumpeted announcement that the US arms manufacturers Raytheon intended to build a new factory in Derry, for instance, failed to mention that the 150 jobs that it will eventually create (and this still depends on London ordering a new generation of Raytheon missiles for the British Eurofighter jets) will be for highly-qualified technicians and engineers. Meanwhile, in West Belfast, the province's area with the largest proportion of unemployed - over 50% - long-term unemployment is still increasing. In fact only six new projects have opened in the area since the IRA ceasefire. And the only sizeable one among them is... a new RUC barracks!

For working class unity

In this context, it is hardly surprising that the saga of the "peace process" should make no sense whatsoever in the working class ghettos. But it does generate a certain amount of anger and frustration. This is what the splinter paramilitary groups on both sides of the divide are banking on. On the Catholic side, for instance, there are three such groups, which are waiting on the sidelines for the right time to raise their profile in order to recruit from the Republican milieu on the basis of a return to the old "armed struggle". But of course, these groups have nothing to offer, except the same murderous spiral all over again - without the support that the IRA enjoyed in the past, but with the same isolating and bloody consequences for those who will allow themselves to fall again for these kind of illusions.

On the other hand, the direct and indirect consequences of public sector cuts are affecting the working class in much the same way on both sides of the sectarian divide. The poorest Catholic and Protestant working class areas were already as badly hit by unemployment. Now it is the conditions of those still in work which are being undermined in the same way.

At the same time, the economic integration of Ireland is bringing to light more and more the common problems that the working class is facing North and South of the border. On both sides, workers are confronted to the capitalists' vicious offensive to drive down labour costs by cutting jobs and real wages, while aggravating working conditions. The "booming" economy of the so-called "Celtic Tiger" as the newspapers still call the Republic, has been paid for by massive redundancies, the casualisation of jobs and a drastic reduction in social protection. The artificial boom of financial services in Dublin has brought nothing to the population outside a small fringe of professionals. The same process is being repeated now in the North. On both sides of the border, a growing section of the working class is being marginalised. In the North, youth homelessness is now reaching the same alarming level as in the South.

This parallel between working class conditions on both sides of the border can only be reinforced by the on-going integration of Ireland's economy. More and more often workers in large companies will find that whether in Belfast or in Dublin, they are exploited by the same bosses and the same shareholders and that they have to fight against the same attacks at the same time. More and more they will see the state in the Republic colluding with the British state and the Northern Ireland establishment to turn the screw on the working class across the island.

In its own ruthless way, the capitalist market is bringing the divided sections of the Irish working class together, across the sectarian divide in the North, and across the artificial divide of the North-South border. These circumstances may be painful. But they may also offer a unique opportunity for the working class of Ireland to re-unite its ranks, which have been split for most of the 20th century. Whether this opportunity is used will depend on today's activists, on those among the working class and the youth who can no longer tolerate the running down of society for the sole benefit of a tiny minority of rich shareholders. It will depend on the determination of those who, having drawn the lessons from the nationalist dead-ends of the past decades, will seek to build up the struggle on the basis of the class interests of the working class as a whole, across Ireland and internationally.

6 March 2000