Above: Photographer Giuseppe Milo captures this piece of graffiti in the Bogside. Check out more of his work here.
Well, that was pointless. To borrow a McGregorism. It should come as a surprise “to absolutely nobody” that talks intended to produce a new power-sharing executive in the North ended in failure last week. Tommy Downshire takes us through what’s happening up the road.
The two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, went into the three-week-long talks period at loggerheads and emerged the same way. According to negotiators on both sides progress was impossible on a number of traditional sticking points including Irish language rights, LGBT marriage, and the ongoing legal legacy of the Troubles.
But probably the main source of contention this time around is the more mundane (by Northern Irish standards at least) dispute over the ongoing fallout from the “cash-for-ash” corruption scandal in which former First Minister (and current DUP Leader) Arlene Foster is centrally implicated.
Foster in her role as Minister for Enterprise not only oversaw the launch of the Renewable Heating Initiative in 2012, but later intervened several times to keep it open, over and above the objections of civil servants and whistleblowers who eventually cottoned on to the fact the government was in effect handing out free money for burning fuel.
Examples of the scheme’s more egregious abuses include luxury car showrooms heated 24/7, and empty sheds with the radiators kept on full-blast with the windows open.
And, of course, several of the leaked claimants possess intimate family and business connections to senior DUP figures.
When these revelations came to light around the turn of the year Sinn Fein – despite being aware of the scheme’s troubles for over a year, with their ministers operating workshops promoting it during that time period – were forced by a wave of populist anger to issue an ultimatum to the DUP: that Foster stand down for the duration of an independent inquiry into the affair.
This remains the major Sinn Fein ‘redline’ in negotiations, and they can cite the support (explicit or implicit) of most of the other parties in the Assembly. It was also the rallying call on which they fought the election, along with a populist cry of ‘no return to the status quo’, and they will remain aware of that mass of pressure on them from below.
Foster for her part has remained intransigent throughout, and has mischievously portrayed the criticism she has received as either a product of misogyny (ironic given her own party’s Biblical approach to gender equality), jealously, or that mythical beast, the ‘radical republican agenda’.
It eventually fell to the late Martin McGuinness to conclusively bring an ignominious end to the previous Assembly – and in doing so trigger a new election – when he tendered his resignation in January.
As it happened Sinn Fein emerged the biggest winners from that contest – which was preceded by a reduction in the size of the Assembly from 108 to 90 seats – while the the DUP (and Unionism generally) were severely weakened.
Sinn Fein not only added 64,000 votes, they managed those votes expertly, experiencing the loss of just one seat in the reduced Assembly. With 27 MLAs, this places them almost neck-and-neck with the DUP who experienced a disastrous reduction from 38 to 28 seats.
Those losses also (thankfully) mean the DUP have at last lost the capacity to trigger the Petition of Concern, a Stormont veto mechanism, at least on their own bat. Depending on if there is a do-over election, this should at least see some welcome progress on Equal Marriage legislation.
Meanwhile the Nationalist SDLP and middle-of-the-road liberals of the Alliance Party both made par, holding on to their tally of 12 and 10 seats respectively. However the equally disastrous showing of the DUP’s more ‘moderate’ cousins in the UUP – who lost 6 seats – means that if an Assembly is to be called prior to another election it will be the first in the history of the northern statelet to lack a Unionist majority.
The practical significance of this remains ambivalent as long as the pro-Union Alliance Party retain the balance of seats (the 2 Green MLAs could also probably be classified as soft-unionist) but it’s a clear symbolic boost to northern Irish Nationalism, as well as a historic marker considering the northern state’s basis in naked sectarian gerrymandering.
Sinn Fein’s dramatic electoral surge can be attributed mainly to the fallout from the RHI fiasco, and Foster’s disastrous handling of it, which enraged large swathes of the public already pissed off at repeated Stormont corruption scandals (Red Sky, NAMA, Research Services Ireland…), while dampening the enthusiasm of otherwise ardent Unionists.
However Foster and her cronies proceeded to compound their dropping of an initial colossal bollock via a series of bigoted remarks and actions directed against Irish language speakers and Gaelic culture, driving otherwise apathetic or ambivalent Nationalists back into the welcoming arms of Sinn Fein.
Of course being the only party to back (the most rightwing version of) Brexit in a UK region that voted majority in favour of Remain – and that shares a land border with the EU – undoubtedly also hurt the party. However it’s probably wiser to regard this as a secondary or third order factor within a wider anti-DUP sentiment triggered by RHI and “alligator”-gate than the committed Europhilia that it’s being portrayed as by lesser-or-more clueless varieties of liberals and leftists commentators judging from afar.
Northern Ireland unfortunately remains a Royston Vasey in macro, and its political parochialism and insularity meant this was ultimately a ‘local election for local issues’, with the RHI scandal and Unionist bigotry driving a Nationalist backlash, and Brexit fears (and hysteria) more the ambient noise in which the contest was fought.
Even less convincing are suggestions from Gerry Adams among others that this was a vote in favour of a United Ireland. Even in the midst of the worst constitutional crisis the UK has faced since 1921 (or 2014), and steady Unionist demographic decline, the numbers in favour of a United Ireland in the short-term remain shockingly low according to most polling.
Where things go from here then remains unclear, with the breakdown in talks leaving northern politics and governance in an even-deeper limbo than before. While Tory colonial viceroy James Brokenshire is now nominally back in charge, he has already declared his desire for a further extended period of negotiations – at least until after the Easter period – rather than repatriate significant decision-making powers to London.
His public declaration this week that there is a lack of public appetite for a third election in twelve months has at least nixed the prospect of yet another election in the short-term, though it remains the most likely outcome if no progress is made by Easter.
At this point that seems an almost inevitable outcome, unless the DUP’s own Iron Lady experiences either a Damascene conversion, a revolt within her own party, or serious pressure from the British Government. The Tories’ reliance on DUP votes at Westminster during this crucial period of Brexit votes and backbench revolts renders the last possibility an extremely remote one.
Nationalist calls for an ‘independent mediator’ will likewise likely fall on deaf ears, unless Slick Willy can be convinced to make a return trip on Denis O’Brien’s private jet to rescue the peace process for a second time.
Another election seems likely then, this time even more polarised along ethno-national/RHI lines as Sinn Fein aim to cannibalise the SDLP vote, while the DUP rally their troops on an explicitly sectarian flag-waving platform. In this scenario it is the latter who are the more likely to benefit from any ‘do-over’, as despite Foster’s toxic premiership, they surely can’t perform as badly as last time.
In particular the DUP could likely benefit from a formal or informal electoral pact with the newly leaderless and strategy-less UUP, with the latter’s voters last time transferring mostly to the SDLP as part of a doomed experiment in cross-community electoral relations.
In this context of polarisation, the left – in the form of People Before Profit, but also the trade union movement, and other activists (LGBT, abortion rights, environmentalists) – will likely face an even greater squeeze, with two ethnic blocs both in favour of reducing working class living standards, both with fairly centrist social views, going at it hammer and tong.
Sinn Fein in particular will promise the moon on a stick to leftist voters, only to perform the sort of U-turn a Ballymurphy joyrider would be proud of once firmly ensconced back in government, just as they did during the ‘Welfare Reform’ quote-unquote standoff in 2014-5.
Whatever the result – a restored power sharing executive or Tory Direct Rule – the material outcome won’t be pretty: welfare cuts, cuts to public services, an NHS crisis, stagnant wages, collapsing infrastructure , are the inevitable outcome of ongoing and back-loaded cuts to the Northern Ireland block grant by two successive Tory governments.
This long term increase in human misery in what was already one of the UK’s most deprived and unequal regions will continue to play out regardless of whether a Shinner-DUP coalition swings the axe or a Tory bureaucrat in London. And despite hysteria over the cost of Brexit, Stormont-implemented cutbacks dwarf any of the former’s projected losses by several orders of magnitude.
This is the bright neoliberal future Sinn Fein-DUP have created through their meek acceptance of the ‘pragmatic reality’ of implementing Tory cuts and rebalancing the economy in favour of private investors: a land where big earners are offered tax breaks and the poor are offered food banks.
So when the sectarian kayfabe ramps up to 11 three weeks from now, with one side promising a United Ireland with unicorns and a harmonised corporation tax rate and the other a Little Britain Brexit with a B-Specials theme park, just remember: vote early, vote often.