Speculation is building in Northern Ireland that devolved government will be reestablished in the coming days. The five largest political parties have been engaged in talks with the British government over the last week. A sum of £2.5 billion is reportedly on the table as part of any deal though all the parties have rejected this initial offer as too low. The money on offer is not the real deal breaker, however. The devolved Executive will only be restored if there is a resolution to the impasse which brought it down nearly two years ago.
Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement the main parties representing the Catholic and Protestant communities respectively share power in a complex arrangement designed to ensure stability and prevent violence. The last power-sharing Executive collapsed in February 2022 when the largest party in the Protestant community, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), withdrew in protest at the imposition of new checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. For most Protestants this is means that there is a new border in the Irish Sea-the “Irish Sea Border”- which threatens their identity as British citizens.
Protestant Opposition to Irish Sea Border
The return of the Executive depends on whether the DUP is prepared to accept the Windsor Framework (an adaption of the earlier Northern Ireland Protocol) as the basis for making post-Brexit trade rules work. The Framework was agreed between negotiators from the UK government and the European Union (EU) earlier this year. The DUP were told to take it or leave it, and that negotiations were at an end. In reply the DUP make the obvious point that they were also told this when the Protocol was agreed but under pressure the EU did reopen negotiations and significant changes were made.
Everything suggests that DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and his close supporters want to return to government. They do not expect the Windsor Framework to be renegotiated but instead are hoping for legislation in the UK parliament which will reinforce the position of Northern Ireland in the UK, at least in words. There is also a significant wing of the DUP, grouped around MPs such as Ian Paisley Junior and Sammy Wilson, which is against accepting the Framework. This leaves Donaldson in a difficult place. He is concerned not just about internal DUP dissent but also about losing support to smaller unionist parties. The more moderate Ulster Unionist Party are in favour of a return to the Assembly and fighting for changes in the Framework from within. The more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice is against accepting any new Irish Sea checks, no matter how limited.
Nationalists Blame Unionists for Impasse
Nationalist politicians and commentators blame the DUP for the current crisis. They lecture and patronise the DUP, its voters, and all Protestants who express concerns about the new checks. What the relentless criticism of the DUP ignores is the opposition of the mass of Protestants to the Framework. Opinion polls (published in the most read newspaper in Northern Ireland, The Belfast Telegraph; August 21st and November 8th) demonstrate that most Protestants are opposed to the new checks in the Irish Sea. Over 60% of unionist voters are in favour of the DUP continuing to boycott Stormont until the Framework is removed or replaced. One third are in favour of re-entering Stormont without accepting the Framework and trying to force change from within. Only 3% of Protestants are in favour of accepting the Framework.
This reality is not grasped by most Catholics. In Northern Ireland there is often a gulf of understanding between the communities, and this is evident at the present time. Only 2% of non-Unionist voters (in the August poll) believe that the Framework is the real reason for the DUP staying out of government, whilst two thirds believe that reluctance to serve under a Sinn Fein First Minister is the sole or main reason (Sinn Fein are entitled to the First Minister position as it is now the largest party in the Assembly).
For Protestants opposition to a new Irish Sea border is deeply felt. It is a question not just of inconvenience but of identity. If this view is not recognised, and instead met with hostility and derision, then positions harden, and tensions rise on the streets. In the past, the views and aspirations of Catholics were similarly derided and ignored. In the mirror opposite of the comments of nationalists today, unionist politicians would sneer at the Catholic aspiration for a united Ireland. Reversing the equation helps no-one.
Workers Movement must take Independent Stance
The workers movement has a duty to put forward an alternative view on all issues that affect workers, including difficult “constitutional” questions. The starting point is to understand and acknowledge the attitudes and views of both Catholics and Protestants, without supporting one side over the other. The workers’ movement is strongest when it adopts independent political positions which are in the interests of all workers.
A clear intervention from the movement, putting forward an independent class alternative to the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of sectarian politics, is urgently needed. When no alternative is posed, support increases for the most strident political representatives of each community. The large numbers of workers and young people who are sick of the antics of the main parties lose hope in the future, give up on politics, and in many cases emigrate. An independent position, expressed clearly and taken into the workplaces and onto the airwaves, would be heard, and would introduce a new narrative into the public debate.
The movement should be the champion of all working-class people in their struggle for a better life. A better life means better pay and conditions at work and improved public services. It also means the right to live free from intimidation and intermittent violence, and the fear of increased conflict in the future.
On the question of the Windsor Framework the movement must acknowledge the reality that people from a Protestant background are opposed to any new Irish Sea border. This is a valid position, just as the opposition of Catholics to any hardening of the North-South land border is a valid position. An independent position must explicitly recognise the right of both communities to say no to new borders, in the Irish Sea or on land. The workers movement must argue for new arrangements which do not harden any border.
Workers united on the picket line
2023 is ending as it began, with the workers movement engaged in a wave of strikes, seeking to claw back years of wage cuts. On coordinated strike days in health, education and the civil service, workers from all backgrounds have stood side by side on picket lines. The workers’ movement is strongest when it brings workers together in united action. It is weakest when it avoids politics. Many trade union leaders advocate non-political unions because they fear bringing divisive sectarian issues into the workplaces and trade union branches. In reality, not to get involved in politics allows sectarian forces to flourish.
It is a fact that the workers’ movement has always been political. Engaging in strike action against employers is a political action, especially when the employer is one of the arms of government. There is nothing more political than strikes and protests in defence of workers lives, for example, when bus drivers walked off the job in 2021 after attacks on drivers. The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions issues statements regularly on a range of political issues, the problem is these statements do not always take an independent position.
There are over 250,000 trade union members in the North, where trade union membership is significantly higher than in England, Scotland, and Wales, or in the Republic of Ireland, and higher than in most European countries outside Scandinavia. Approximately 150,000 of these belong to unions which ask members to voluntarily pay extra dues which mostly goes to fund the British Labour Party, and 38,000 choose to do so. The act of paying into the political funds of their union is a clear statement from workers that they believe in political unions, and that they believe that “Labour” represents their interests. To reinforce this message, when Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the British Labour Party, membership in Northern Ireland shot up from 500 to over 3000 in a few months, even though the party does not stand candidates in the region and has no direct influence on politics.
Left activists have a duty to fill political vacuum
Nature abhors a vacuum. If there is no united political voice for working people sectarian forces gain. Left activists need to rise to the challenge. If tens of thousands of organised workers have no political voice, it needs to be created. The 3000 new members of Labour are now without a political home, and some will be seeking an avenue for their aspirations. One third of voters don’t vote at all, not because of apathy, but because they see no better alternative to abstaining. A credible left alternative will raise their sights, and in time tempt them to the polling stations. Many young people do not believe there is a party which has answers to climate change, or protects the rights of women, or argues for a life free of harassment and abuse whatever a person’s identity. They are crying out for a new vibrant, anti-sectarian, political force.
There are also many workers and young people who are unhappy with the current system but reluctantly accept the need to vote to “keep out the other side”. Left activists need to start the process of not just mobilising left-inclined voters and non-voters but of pulling unionist and nationalist voters’ away from political parties which thrive on division and deliver nothing.
Unfortunately, some left groups and parties, most noticeably People Before Profit, which has members in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Republic of Ireland Dail (parliament), echo and amplify the views of nationalist forces. It is easy to attack the DUP given its reactionary policies on almost every issue. When left groups fail to challenge the nationalist perspective but instead simply shout louder than right wing nationalists, they move into the camp of left-nationalism. A new formation can demonstrate in practice that an independent position is possible, and bring into its orbit activists who until now have found it difficult to see how a real alternative can be built.
There are several existing left groups and parties which have resolutely maintained an orientation to the workers movement, and a focus on the need to defend and build working class unity, over many difficult years. There are thousands of independent trade union and community activists who patiently, and without reward, work for the shared interest of working-class people every day. A coming together now of political activists from anti-sectarian left parties, and from the unions and communities, will form the basis of a credible left political formation, with the candidates and resources necessary to stand in a significant number of seats in every election. A new movement, or broad umbrella party or alliance, will be strengthened by the involvement of prominent trade union activists. It will be stronger again if sections of the trade union movement form organic links, but this will take time. Links with trade union branches and local trade union councils will be built as a new formation develops.
We need to build a new political movement in 2024, which consciously, actively, and enthusiastically champions the rights of all working-class people. That is our goal, and it is a realisable goal. The time to take the first steps is now.