Northern Ireland’s devolved government, the Stormont Assembly, has entered into another crisis. The RHI debacle is the largest in a series of financial scandals – Red Sky, NAMA and the Social Investment Fund, to name only the most prominent – that have rocked the institution in recent years.
The impact of RHI has been particularly severe because of its scale, and because it occurred in the midst of an austerity programme implemented by the ruling DUP/SF Executive. Cuts have made life more difficult and insecure for people across the North, especially in areas blighted with long-term deprivation.
The DUP/SF Executive has justified cuts to vital public services on the basis that funding is scarce or non-existent. The wastage, corruption and profiteering involved in RHI blows a hole in this excuse and makes Stormont look no better than a racket where the spoils are divided up by the most powerful Nationalist and Unionist parties. As a result, cynicism and anger abound.
The ongoing and persistent nature of crisis at Stormont is rooted in its origins. It’s not designed to resolve issues but simply to manage them. This means it often appears fragile or on the verge of potential chaos and collapse.
The Stormont Assembly came into existence in 1998 following the Good Friday Agreement designed to end the ‘Troubles’. Since then it has been suspended four times, the longest suspension lasting from 2002-7 when ‘Direct Rule’ from Westminster was reintroduced.
Power-sharing between parties representing ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ is at the core of the agreement. Unionist parties supposedly represent one community and Nationalist or Republican parties represent the other. Because this logic is wired into the GFA, it produces an acceptance that scandals committed by the dominant parties must be tolerated and swept under the carpet for the sake of holding together power-sharing and avoiding a return to armed conflict. It is said, ‘if Stormont collapses what is the alternative?’
The very design of the power-sharing institution encourages parties to act with impunity. This explains why the DUP can risk involvement in one embarrassing financial scandal after another. They do not expect to be held to account because they know they can hold hostage the so-called institutions of power-sharing and peace.
Not only that, whenever the DUP is implicated in robbing the public purse they consistently attempt to deflect from their own culpability through sectarian appeals. This is exactly what the DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan was at when he cut the meagre £50,000 in funding for Irish language scholarships in the middle of the RHI meltdown.
His DUP colleagues claimed criticism of Arlene Foster was a Sinn Fein/IRA plot to destroy Unionism. Additionally, the DUP have used what’s called a ‘Petition of Concern’ more than 80 times to veto Equal Marriage and other progressive reforms even when a majority of Stormont MLA’s vote in favour.
Otherwise known as playing ‘the Orange card’, the point is to rile-up the Protestant people against their perceived enemies. When Sinn Fein come under pressure, the same logic applies and they appeal to their ‘community’.
This means a sectarian logic is hardwired into power-sharing at Stormont. This is why Stormont is a failure and will keep failing. Stormont, power-sharing and the GFA all exist supposedly to bring about peace and stability in the North by overcoming sectarian division but, in fact, they do the opposite. Sectarianism is encouraged and used by the ruling parties to stay in power.
The 2015 ‘Fresh Start Agreement’ represented a commitment by both the DUP and Sinn Fein to function as a real governing coalition. The two parties, led by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, attempted to present themselves with one coherent voice, despite ongoing disagreements.
Agreement on reducing the size of the public sector and encouraging the development of the private sector stood at the centre of the new partnership. This required cuts, privatisation of assets, the reduction of the Corporate Tax rate, and, the acceptance of Welfare Reform.
Sinn Fein were forced into a u-turn on Welfare Reform by an all-out one day public sector union strike across the North on 13 March 2015. As a result, instead of Stormont introducing unpopular benefits cuts it will be implemented over time by Westminster.
The point is that, the continual deadlocks and sectarian flare-ups emanating from Stormont and flowing from the power-sharing framework allow the Northern economy to be consistently pushed in a neoliberal direction.
Northern Ireland’s partners in the peace process, the US government, the European Union, the British and Irish governments, influenced the framework of the agreement to make sure it encouraged privatisation at the expense of the public sector.
Neoliberal austerity doesn’t benefit the vast majority of people in the North but sectarian division can be used to push it through. Sectarianism from Stormont pollutes the potential for developing united working class resistance in Creggan, the Fountain, the Falls and Shankill.
Stormont’s crises aren’t by accident but are necessary for implementing austerity and maintaining the status quo in the North. This makes building an alternative based on challenging austerity and austerity all the more necessary and urgent. That is what People Before Profit is all about.
Vote People Before Profit on 2 March!