The British Government and the European Union have agreed a deal on the Protocol. Somhairle Mag Uidhir analyses what The Windsor Framework might mean for the DUP, and for politics in the North more generally.
Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework may have a grander title than its predecessor, The Protocol, but it remains to be seen whether the DUP will accept the deal or persist with their boycott of the institutions.
Either way, the latest saga has shone a light on Unionism’s permanent crisis, the fundamental contradictions running through northern politics, and the extent to which the British Government legitimises loyalist agitation in DUP dress.
And it isn’t over yet.
A Dangerous Precedent
According to their official statements, the DUP collapsed the Assembly because they were unhappy with the protocol. They didn’t like the extent to which it created a trade border in the Irish Sea.
In reality, they collapsed the Assembly as a stunt to stem their tide of support being lost to the TUV and to buy themselves time in the face of a narrowing set of strategic alternatives brought about by the permanent crisis of unionism.
No one should argue that the protocol was perfect. It was never going to be, given it was essentially a fudge, laden with ‘constructive ambiguity’, agreed by two imperial blocs.
But the fact that the DUP gave it a cautious welcome in the early days is clear evidence that their grievances lie elsewhere. The claim that any divergence from the rest of the UK is an ‘affront’ is belied by the DUP’s desire for different laws governing women’s bodies and minoritised languages from those across the water.
Since May’s Assembly election, the DUP have been content to continue their obstruction as they can’t stomach the idea of supporting the entirely symbolic role of a Nationalist First Minister. Polling suggests that the party’s numbers are up, largely at the expense of the TUV, showing that the rightwards move has borne some very short-term fruits.
I say short-term because it is only a loose plaster on the permanent crisis mentioned above. Lurching further to the right leads only to depreciating returns for the DUP and unionism more generally. It exacerbates their downward spiral by alienating moderates and young people from the ‘PUL’ community – a phenomenon which has had a significant impact on the rise of Alliance – while being unable to secure decent material standards for Unionism’s base, and certainly its working class component, in our post-shipyards, post Good Friday Agreement (GFA) society.
And now the fundamental conundrums the DUP have been studiously avoiding since pulling down the institutions are back with a bang in the form of the Windsor Framework.
Donaldson has said they will take their time and mull it over. Ian Paisley Jnr, ever the poundshop Boris, has jumped the gun with some vocal criticisms. Jim Allister reacted as expected: “This is a deal which falls far short… No Thanks!”
To reject the Framework would provide brief insulation for Donaldson’s party from the TUV as local elections beckon, but would further entrench mainstream unionism’s journey to isolation. To accept, however, would be riskier still given the extent to which the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) and the paramilitaries they ‘represent’ are propping them up.
This process will have provided them with at least one source of solace: a dangerous precedent has been set by the British Government.
By legitimising, if not fully integrating, the DUP demands in the form of the Framework, Downing Street has shown it will back them, even when they are dancing to loyalism’s sectarian tune.
The Windsor Framework contains a mechanism called ‘The Stormont Brake’.
If 30 MLAs from more than one party vote to block new or updated EU rules relating to the North, they won’t take effect until the British Government and the EU discuss them. The British Government can decide against implementing these updated rules, but if the EU feels that’s unwarranted, it can take ‘remedial action’.
This ‘brake’ is a reward for the DUP’s reactionary antics, a second petition of concern on top of the one they gleefully wield already.
At a time when loyalist violence is on the rise, loyalism will conclude from the Windsor Framework that they can veto democratic decisions for trumped-up, largely sectarian reasons.
The fact that 30 MLAs is the requisite number, not a simple Assembly majority of 46, points to the fact it was consciously crafted, not with democratic ideals in mind, but as another Unionist veto. Indeed, if Stormont returns at any future point, it won’t be a question of if but when Allister and hardline Unionists use the ‘brake’ to pick a fight and keep the protocol question open.
The clamour to re-establish the institutions has led to little outrage, or even scrutiny, on this aspect of the deal.
It would be naive to expect the North’s media establishment to interrogate this latest example of the institutionalisation of sectarianism. But that the leadership of nationalism has remained largely silent and focused exclusively on ‘let’s get to work’ arguably indicates the extent that institutionalised sectarianism can work for them – even when faced with a batch of recalcitrant Tories such as this.
The Stormont ‘brake’ should be opposed and called out for what it is: a crude sop to LCC intimidation.1
The British Government
Rishi Sunak and the latest gruesome-twosome heading the Northern Ireland Office, Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker, have continuously refused to single out the DUP for any attention when calling for the return of the institutions.
In fact, the Tories have used the DUP’s intransigence as a wedge in talks with the EU. As the 25th anniversary of the GFA approaches, dysfunction in the Stormont institutions over the protocol arguably strengthened their hand, providing a perverse incentive for them to keep that dysfunction ticking over during the course of negotiations.
Most of the time the Tories cast the people of the North aside. See their reluctance to intervene on Dáithí’s Law, or health worker pay, or any of the other burning crises facing us in the North.
Every so often though, they remember that we are a conveniently shaped brick to pick up and lob at the EU negotiating team. It’s nice to be valued.
The business community is trumpeting the Windsor Framework. On the ground it has also been welcomed, but in a more abstract way.
Given the extent of hardship facing people, the Framework is seen as a route to a functioning Stormont and possibly some overdue action on the cost of living crisis.
But contradictions abound. Hand-in-hand with any surface-level optimism exists simultaneously a more rooted despondency. Across communities there is little faith in our institutions holding together for any sufficient length of time – nevermind having the capacity to solve the sprawling social crises gripping northern society.
The question facing people in the North is how to break free of this loop? How to navigate na tinte Bealtaine of broken power-sharing on the one hand, and the record of Stormont functioning to decimate working class communities on the other.
The communities which were the most deprived before the GFA remain so today, after decades of neoliberalism from Stormont.
The recent cost of living crisis has only compounded existing financial peril. 100,000 children live in poverty and a quarter of the population has no savings. In August, a staggering 73,803 people in the North had their benefits deducted to cover ‘debt recovery’.
Rents are soaring again but our long-term housing crisis is ultimately caused by the failure of our public housing system, overseen by successive Stormont administrations, with upwards 43,000 currently on waiting lists, and a 60% increase in the last three years in the numbers of young people living in temporary accommodation.
Over 500 of our schools are in serious debt, with teachers chronically underpaid and forking from their wages to pay for basic teaching supplies.
The wider pay crisis in the public and private sector is years in the making and a leading cause of our mental health epidemic. 1 in 5 adults are on antidepressants and the prescription rate for young people is increasing. More people have died by suicide since the Agreement was signed than died during the conflict and meanwhile mental health care is chronically underfunded.
One in four people are on a health waiting list, with this set to worsen. NHS Dentistry, in the words of dentists who aren’t known for radical pronouncements, “is on the brink of collapse.” And you can’t get a GP appointment for love nor money.
I could go on. Socially and economically, the North is on fire. People are doubtful about a restored Executive being able to manage the flames. Nobody believes they can put them out.
The Blame Game
We can group the north’s political forces in terms of how they explain the causes of these issues.
One excuse from the DUP and loyalism is that having less to go around for ‘PUL’ communities is a result of a growing bias shown towards nationalism. Sometimes this charge is only subtle, but more often it’s along the conspiratorial and sectarian lines of the Kate Hoey controversy from last year: explicit accusations of nationalist networks shafting ‘PUL’ communities while ensuring the ‘other side’ are getting all the goods.
For Sinn Féin, they make a conscious effort to distance themselves from such blatant sectarianism. Instead, the blame is always put on a combination of DUP obstructionism, Tory austerity and partition.
Northern Irish liberalism, best expressed by the Alliance Party, has traditionally argued that both sides are as bad as each other and that it isn’t really neoliberal policies which are causing the pain, but politicians’ inability to ‘work together.’ While the intractability of northern politics can be exhausting, the ‘mature’ centre-ground promises the same economic misery which is a breeding ground for the very sectarianism it purports to reject.
There is a fourth strand of politics on the North’s political scene. It is one which unabashedly rejects the bigotry at the heart of sectarian explanations and recognises the ruinous effect of the Tories, the DUP and partition, all the while pointing out the active complicity of both the ‘middle-ground’ and nationalism in the dire straits we find ourselves in.
This is the perspective of People Before Profit, a project dedicated to rebuilding a fighting and anti-sectarian socialist tradition organised across the whole of Ireland.
Nationalism’s answer to the charge of complicity in the running down of our public services and crumbling welfare system is that its hands are tied, one by London, the other by Unionist veto. No one should deny the devastating effect that over a decade of Tory rule has had, nor that they’ve been cheered on enthusiastically by the free-marketeers in the DUP.
But as Eamonn McCann said in his maiden Stormont speech, given the reality of Tory rule, “Stormont isn’t fighting hard enough.”
And as I’ve argued previously, the nefariousness of the Conservatives and the intolerable nature of the DUP can allow other political parties to appear pretty decent in comparison.
But being better than the Tories/DUP is a very low bar, and too often Sinn Féin fails to clear it. The hole in nationalism’s defence appears most visibly when the DUP veto and Tory orthodoxy don’t apply.
In March last year, when Stormont was operational, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll proposed a modest amendment to a housing bill seeking a rent reduction and freeze in the face of a spiralling rental crisis.
First, the Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey, appealed to MLAs not to support it, dubbing it reckless. When it came to the vote however, only the DUP vocally voted ‘No’ and the amendment passed.
A week later, MLAs embarked on a shameless u-turn. Led by Sinn Féin’s Hargey, the five big parties closed ranks, undoing a rare progressive resolution, with the landlords in the chamber refusing to abstain. This wasn’t the doing of either the Conservatives or Jeffrey’s crowd; here was a rare chance to bypass them completely and it was rejected.
The stated excuse was that it wouldn’t be possible for Stormont as a devolved administration to implement ‘competently’, something that was embarrassingly exposed a few months later when Scotland enacted their own rent freeze.
This episode is only one example in a long-running pattern, where behind protests about a DUP/Tory straightjacket lies a plethora of other such ‘missed opportunities’. Stacked together they point to nationalism’s own commitment to the economic status-quo, to the logic of capitalism and its demands for allegiance to the market.
‘The World’s Most Exciting Economic Zone’
Speaking about the Windsor Framework, Rishi Sunak has said that it would make “Northern Ireland the world’s most exciting economic zone”.
Given that he is one of the wealthiest MPs in history, Sunak’s idea of an economic good news story isn’t the same as an NHS worker’s, or someone on a housing waiting list.
This is one of the enduring contradictions of the whole protocol soap opera. It is right to recognise the loathsome duplicity and self-interest motivating the ERG side of the Tories. In contrast, the ‘sensible’, ‘compromising’ brand of politics projected by Sunak appears appealing, almost a relief.
But when it comes to capitalism, what is good for those at the top usually isn’t good for the rest of us. The arguments around the protocol too often implicitly accept the premise of trickle-down economics.
This is a discredited idea which claims that success for the economic elite will ‘trickle down’ to working class people. In reality, the entire trend of wealth distribution across the last half century has been a concentration of wealth at the very top of society, with increasing inequality for the rest of us.
Just because Protocol 1.0 offered a section of the Northern Irish business class improved opportunities doesn’t mean that it was automatically great for ordinary people. In this cost of living crisis, most of us are experiencing hiked bills and increased financial insecurity. Meanwhile, the profits of North’s top 100 companies have gone up by 46% in the last year.
Some will attribute such headlines to the protocol, and even if this is the case, I’m not sure that egregious profits among widespread misery is something to celebrate.2
We should maintain a thorough scepticism about the avalanche of economic cheerleading around this Windsor Framework. Much of it is a massive propaganda offensive to convince us that what’s good for business must be good for us.
Particularly, we should be deeply worried when someone like Rishi Sunak lauds the North as ‘the world’s most exciting economic zone’, contrary to what Michelle O’Neill believes.3
Caught In The Crossfire
Back in the early days of the Brexit process, the EU were quick to emphasise the importance of ensuring there was no hard border in Ireland. Such a border would have been a regressive and reactionary step, and massively out of kilter with the wishes of the vast majority of people in the North.
The demand for no hard border is no less valid if we recognise that the EU took it up for strategic reasons rather than principled ones. Indeed, democracy was a million miles away from the EU’s response when Greece voted overwhelmingly to reject austerity or Irish people opposed the bankers’ debt. Leo Varadkar and his party hadn’t given two hoots about the effects of partition in the decades before Brexit either.
Their concern about a hard border became so central to their stance precisely because it was such a strong argument against the Tories’ vision of a hard Brexit. While on the right side of the argument, it is worth being vigilant of the EU when its reason appearing to be ‘in Ireland’s corner’, is a strategic one.
The recent experience of Catalonia is instructive here, with the EU unapologetically siding with Spain over its violent and anti-democratic repression of the independence movement. In other words, strategies can change, and when you’re on the wrong side of them, it’s not pleasant.
In January 2019, Leo Varadkar admitted that the Irish Government would have to deploy police and create physical infrastructures along the border in the event of a No-Deal Brexit driven by jingoistic Brexiteers. This showed that when push came to shove the EU’s primary aim would be to defend its economic markets, and they would force the implementation of a hard border themselves, if necessary.
All this is to say that if the Tories are a scourge, a toxic and despicable influence on us in the North, then whatever you may think about the EU it is critical not to see them as any kind of saviour.
As the Windsor Framework was being drafted behind closed doors, on the ground in communities across the North workers have been striking in growing numbers.
It is the largest strike wave we have seen in years. Health workers, teachers, maintenance workers, public sector staff, higher education workers and more have all taken action over derisory pay and are leading the way against the cost of living crisis. The view that the strikes should be united and coordinated across different unions and sectors is gaining hold, a sign of the potential militancy of our current moment.
Even the mainstream parties which claim to support the strikes are terrified that they will continue. They don’t have the stomach to take the fight to the Tories in the way that is necessary – see the recent rates debate on Belfast City Council as a timely example of this. And they know prolonged struggle would expose their own record, having failed to do anything other than implement the Tories’ economic agenda, with workers now pushed to breaking point as a result.
For them, the latest twist in the protocol wrangle couldn’t have come at a better time. It is being put to work in two ways to undermine the outbreak of workers fighting back.
Firstly, it is being used to stifle people’s activity. Sinn Féin are the most guilty of this. Their incessant emphasis on restoring Stormont is combined with the message that the main cause of all our troubles is its defunct state. ‘Let’s get Stormont working so that workers don’t need to strike’ is the call and it is both disingenuous and demobilising.
Secondly, the narrow parameters of the protocol debate allows the big parties to polarise our politics, to reduce all the pressing political problems of today into disputes about very limited conceptions of identity, doing a disservice to both. Even Alliance benefits from this, as they can then present themselves as the ‘responsible’ alternative while conveniently avoiding how neoliberal their economic policies are.
The protocol can be opposed without being driven by sectarianism. Not every unionist who is against the protocol is sectarian, despite what has been hinted by some commentators. But the method that political unionism and their fellow travellers in the LCC have used to lead opposition is one of whipping up tensions along sectarian lines.
The counter to this isn’t appeasement (e.g. the Windsor Framework). Nor is it through simply restarting power-sharing in order to pick up where we left off.
The seeds of anti-sectarianism are sown in the common struggle on picket lines, in the activity of ordinary people standing together against an economic system which consistently puts us last.
As past struggles show us, it is through a united fight to defend pay, services and a dignified existence that ideas can shift around who the enemy is, and how little actually divides us.
Supporting and politicising today’s fledgling strike wave is not only the best way to put it up to the Tories, it also carries real potential to undercut the sectarianism espoused by those at the top. Raising demands which challenge the economic status-quo have the unique capacity to break through the suffocating nature of northern politics.
The Exit Ramp
The DUP should end its boycott. Not because having them anywhere near Stormont is a good thing, but because their motive is anti-democratic, reactionary and sectarian.
But whoever ends up making political decisions – be it Westminster or Stormont or even local councils – strikes and movements should be intensified so that they are under no illusions that ‘enough is enough’.
It is with a burgeoning movement based on working class unity that real hope lies for an exit from the crises we face.
With an economic programme dripping in neoliberalism, implemented through a political setup of institutionalised sectarianism, Stormont is destined to limp from crisis to crisis.
And as capitalism’s steady march to mass immiseration and planetary destruction continues, there does exist one framework for a better future which is worth talking about: a socialist Ireland.
- There is one, unintended, quirk to the ‘Brake’. At the heart of the EU exists a democratic deficit of staggering proportions. EU single market rules are written by unelected commissioners within the European Commission, with virtually no say given to member state populations. The sole aim of those rules are to protect the ability of European (especially German and French) capital to make a profit – they are neoliberal to their core. Public services are opened up to ‘competition’, the banks are bailed out, Greece is subjected to economic terrorism. While maintaining that the Stormont Brake’s core function is as a blatant act of appeasement to anti-democratic loyalist agitation, it doesn’t reflect well on the EU that such a regressive mechanism might mean that a regional sub-parliament on the edge of Europe could end up having marginally more of a say about its economic strictures than any of its actual member populations.
- In reality, it is far more likely to be a result of profiteering under the cover of an inflationary crisis.
- See ‘Mary Lou McDonald calls for return of Stormont executive after Windsor Framework deal’, Irish News, 01/03/2023