As the Stormont crisis trundles on, anger is beginning to grow. People Before Profit activist Fiona Ferguson gives her take.
Another week, another squabble about talks at Stormont. This week, Leo Varadkar suggested that talks would reconvene soon, an act condemned by Arlene Foster who again reiterated that there would be ‘no stand-alone Irish language act’. Michelle O’Neill, in reply, found this ‘disappointing’. Now back to days of nothing before the next spat.
In the meantime, the public’s frustrations continue to grow. Some are organising #wedeservebetter protests across the North to ‘tell those in charge to get back to work’. Others continue to call for MLA salaries to be cut while Stormont is defunct. And campaign groups continue to demand that basic rights are enacted—including for the LGBTQ community, Irish speakers, and victims—despite the continuing obstruction of the Tory/DUP collation, who seem intent on blocking even the most meager reforms.
Genuine concerns have arisen, as well, that public services are in dire straits. Campaigners have pointed to the state of the health service and the arts sector, amongst others, which are suffering because cuts are being proposed and implemented by unelected civil servants. On the streets, racists are attempting to fill the political vacuum by winning people to their divisive politics—scapegoating migrants and Muslims for society’s ills, whilst claiming to represent the white working class here. And the spectre of sectarianism continues to haunt, as the violence around last month’s marching season will attest.
Undoubtedly, then, a political vacuum has formed. The worst example of this, and there are many, was the failure of establishment parties particularly within Unionism to oppose the development of Far-Right racist protests in Belfast of late. While Jolene Bunting was calling on loyalists, working class protestants and all other ‘patriots’ to join her on the streets, the silence from the DUP, the UUP and the PUP was deafening. Within this vacuum otherwise marginal racist forces can grow. It is a worrying situation.
Get them back to work?
Many people, therefore, are grappling with the question of how we get ourselves out of this mess. Naturally, many look to our blundering politicians for change. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. But while the call for salaries to be cut seems to be a universal one, it would be remiss not to question the logic of simply returning the same politicians to Stormont and expecting different results. After all, most of the recent cuts to the arts sector here were implemented through Stormont, with large cuts being delivered by government departments DETI and DCAL to the tune of up to 10% at a time. Campaigning groups led by local trades council, such as #ArtsMatterNI, were set up at the time to campaign against them.
The same is true for the local health service, which has been systematically cut back and privatised by Stormont, on behalf of the Tories, over the past ten years. Waiting lists are as bad as they have ever been while the Assembly was up and running. Meanwhile, health service staff continue to be denied a much needed pay rise, something that a sitting Stormont refused to do as well.
Beyond arts, health and education—the public sector more generally was viciously attacked by the Executive through the Fresh Start Agreement; with 20,000 public sector redundancies and a corporation tax reduction commitment for big businesses, while the rest of us were being told to tighten our belts. I’ve yet to meet someone who wants unelected civil service bureaucrats in suits taking decisions to make cuts in the absence of a functioning Assembly, but no one should be fooled by the idea that elected bureaucrats in suits would have a vastly different agenda. In fact, they are only following spending commitments set by the previous SF/DUP coalition.
Deal or no Deal
This all begs another question. If we are demanding the return of politicians to work, we have to be clear; what is it we want them to do? Do we simply want a return to the austerity of the past? Do we want the DUP to lord over us while they continue to deny reproductive rights or rights to Irish speakers and others? And who in their right mind wants to see Arlene Foster waltz back into power, without even a slap on the wrist for squandering hundreds of millions of pounds in the RHI disgrace?
Consider the ‘deal or no deal’ fiasco earlier this year. Much of the coverage of this debacle focused on the DUP, because of their unwillingness to countenance any kind of Irish Language act, after a call or two from the Orange Order mind you. But was this proposed deal—promoted by Michelle O’Neill and her party—really a positive step? Despite adorned billboards and lampposts in West Belfast reading ‘No Return to the Status Quo’, that is exactly what this draft agreement in February would have delivered. And if implemented, it would have been a betrayal by those who stood in front of those signs posing for press photo shoots and talking of red lines. The deal contained no guarantee for Equal Marriage, and proposals which fell far short of what 12,000 Irish language activists marched for in an Irish language act. No mention was made of the red line which said Arlene Foster shouldn’t return as First Minister because of RHI. Worse still, was that the deal stipulated that a new Executive would adhere to Tory spending commitments. A return to the status quo if I’ve ever seen one.
Disappointingly, recent statements and media appearances from Sinn Féin seem to confirm that they are indeed willing to renege on each of their red lines. Worse, no red line has ever been made of the welfare reform measures that are currently crippling working class communities across the North. This is because the last Executive handed our welfare powers to the Tories. No mention at all is made to the lack of housing, low paid jobs or unemployment, or the disgraceful implementation of PIP. Nothing screams ‘return to the status quo’ like a Sinn Féin/DUP deal that consigns working class communities to more of the same deprivation.
Despite SF dropping their red lines, Arlene Foster backed away from the draft agreement, amidst reports that the Orange Order and paramilitaries were consulted and rejected the terms. No one should be surprised by this. One only has to cast a glance back at the SIF scandal to see how the lines between the Executive and paramilitaries can be blurred.
What was promised in the draft agreement was so unambitious, it is incredulous that establishment unionism could not sign up to it. It beggars belief that any party could continue to deny people their basic rights. The false cries of an Irish language act costing too much, harming Britishness or being used to impose Irish on those who do not want it, have long been assuaged. What opposition remains to the Irish language, and what led Arlene Foster to say ‘no stand alone Irish language act’ this week in the press, is steeped in the same sectarianism that saw the language attacked and cut back by Stormont over the years. There is nothing to fear from Acht Gaeilge, as well its opponents know, but the bravado opposition on this issue is being used—as it was in the wake of RHI when the Líofa funding was cut—to distract from the failings of political unionism.
Of course, it is possible for an Irish language act and equal marriage to be implemented from Westminster. Indeed, even the implementation of reproductive rights is a topic of discussion these days in the House of Commons. What stops the Tories from doing so, despite their protestations of not wanting to insult devolution, is clearly not wanting to upset the DUP—who continue to prop up their crisis-prone government. The Tories cannot even commit to reducing MLA wages, despite calls from both sides of the community to do so, for fear of upsetting Arlene Foster. Maintaining their own scandal clad stint in power and dealing their Brexit plans take priority.
But there is another way. As Repeal proved, and the water charges movement before it, politicians can be swayed by the pressure of a mass movements on the streets. Even those who have been vehemently opposed to the likes of abortion or equal marriage can be found showing off the rainbow flags on their socks and welcoming Repeal as a way for Ireland to show it ‘trusts women’.
Campaigns like Repeal show that things can change, and ordinary people hold the power to that change. The majority of people have been polled time and again and they want marriage equality. They want an Irish language act and they want reproductive justice. Moreover, they want a seismic shift in the way this place is run—an end of the corruption of the DUP and the u-turns of Sinn Féin. You don’t have to walk very far in Belfast to find someone bemoaning the ‘way things are here’.
What we should remember is that the very reason the Assembly collapsed was because of public outrage and protest over RHI. In fact, it was as almost 700 people gathered outside Belfast City Hall chanting ‘Foster Out’ that Martin McGuinness declared that her position as First Minister was untenable until a public inquiry was completed. Even the Sinn Féin backing for a public inquiry was a result of public pressure and a shift from their calls for an internal inquiry. After the collapse, it was the 12,000 Gaeilgoirí who marched from the Gaeltacht Quarter to City Hall who forced an Irish Language Act onto the agenda and it was successive marriage equality rallies filling Belfast that ensured Equal Marriage was a key tenet of the Stormont talks.
When people take to the streets later this month to say #wedeservebetter, they are 100% correct. The Left in the North share this demand, but we add one more: #wehavethepower. It’s up to us, not the politicians, to enforce change on this place. We need to maintain pressure on the streets, build the movement, and link up existing campaigns for equality. Change will come from people power—not a return to the gravy train at Stormont.