The new northern state: a stable solution?

The article below is reprinted from the March/April 2012 issue of Socialist Democracy’s bulletin: available here.  There are a couple of other very good articles in it, so do go and read it.  I’ll be posting a couple more pieces from it here and it would be good to get some discussion going, as there isn’t a mechanism on their site for discussion.  Although I think the article below is very good, one thing I disagree with is the silly pretence by SD that the gas-and-water socialists, who basically collude in partition, are “the socialist movement” in the north, while the clearly anti-capitalist organisation éirígí is merely republican.  I can appreciate that SD was suspicious of éirígí at first, but it should be very clear by now that this is a militant, socialist-republican organisation with far better politics than the twenty-first century Walkerites who SD refer to as “the socialist movement” in the six counties.


The 2011 elections in the North of Ireland marked a substantial victory for capitalism.  It marked the first point where one Stormont administration morphed to another via election without the collapse of the government.

That modest success quickly became a much more substantial victory. The election was preceded by the killing of a Catholic police constable by republicans and the election was settled in advance in a wave of hysteria where church, state, political parties, sporting and cultural bodies and trade unions all uniting to indicate rabid support for the new dispensation and to assert, yet again, that the only alternative to the sectarian and colonial settlement was bloody war.  The election result saw the consolidation of Sinn Fein and the DUP in power and the continuing decay of the other capitalist parties. The small socialist movement no longer opposes the settlement and the candidates looked to be left representatives in the assembly rather than a focus of opposition to it. The republican organisation Eirigi staged a political opposition in some limited areas but has yet to consolidate that base.

The election victory was all the more substantial when one considers that the DUP and Sinn Fein went into the election promising an austerity programme of £400 million. The new administration faced into a major public sector strike and mass demonstrations  in November , but the union leaderships, with a long history of partnership, quickly returned to negotiating the implementation of the cuts. 

So on neither the grounds of the national question and democracy nor on grounds of austerity and class oppression does the Northern administration face any serious opposition.  This however is not enough to guarantee the final victory of imperialism.  To assess the stability of the settlement  we need to look at the underlying mechanisms.

One element of instability is the increasing sectarian polarisation of Northern society. In a political system organized around sectarian rights, support gravitates towards the most effective exponents of these rights. As a result the SDLP and Ulster unionist parties are in terminal decline, with the most recent leader of the unionists resigning after 18 months in office.

Politics has simplified to two large confessional blocks of the DUP and Sinn Fein. The Alliance party, which claimed to stand outside sectarianism, has been plugged in as permanent “neutral” holders of the justice ministry. In fact they act as proxies for the DUP.

The sectarian structure is usually in a state of paralysis. Only reactionary legislation which is in the class interest of both groups gets through – relaxation of planning laws, reduced rates for small business, a plan to subsidize corporation tax and, of course, a £400 million austerity programme. A promised “peace dividend”  boom turned out to be a property bubble that has now imploded.

The original claim of Sinn Fein, that the settlement was a stepping stone to a united Ireland, has been discredited. Owen Paterson, British Secretary of State, announced that there were no plans of any sort to hold a referendum on the ending of partition, much to the displeasure of Sinn Fein. The news caused hardly a ripple. In the aftermath of the election Sinn Fein came out of the closet as a fully formed bourgeois Catholic party. The evolution is exactly in line with the new middle class, who accept British rule and that Unionists will get the majority of any share-out, but are perfectly content as long as their share of patronage is guaranteed.

The general view is that the northern statelet will gradually evolve through slow reforms towards a less sectarian society.  The evidence is against this also. A programme of cohesion, meant to be top of the agenda, has been stalled for years and initial drafts heavily criticized for their sectarian content and indifference to human rights. Provocative Orange marches lead to annual crises. The jewel in Sinn Fein’s crown – a non-selective education system – has proved impossible to deliver.

In fact the stabilizing mechanism in the current set-up is the willingness of Sinn Fein, and nationalists generally, to recognize unionism as top dog.  A British commission suggested that there be a reform of the prison officers, almost entirely Protestant, mired in brutality and sectarianism. That reform would be purely symbolic. It was immediately ruled out by first minister Peter Robinson, who indicated that traditional imperialist symbols would remain. 

The prison reform was supposed to mirror the Patton reforms of the police, but just how spurious that reform was, was revealed when it was disclosed that 500 officers, at the heart of an organisation seen to be involved in sectarian killing and removed by the payment of what was described as the world’s most lavish redundancy package, had immediately been rehired as civilian advisors in the same posts.  A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in February has indicated that the composition of the police force is in any case falling from the high point of 33% Catholic recruitment, with Catholic police more likely to leave the force.

Niall Ó Donnghaile

The freedom for the DUP to set the agenda is not reflected in similar freedom for Sinn Fein.  Shortly after the police row the Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, Niall Ó Donnghaile, was forced to make an abject apology when, while awarding Duke of Edinburgh medals, he arranged for someone else  to present an award to a British army cadet. In case the apology did not stick, Martin McGuinness repeated it in Stormont.

The top dog mechanism does not stop in the Assembly.  It extends to the streets. In June last year the UVF staged a mass attack on the nationalist enclave of Short Strand. The organizers were rushed to meetings with the first and deputy first ministers and offered major concessions.  UVF trials, involving almost the entire leadership, collapsed when the judge interpreted the evidence on the narrowest of grounds, allowing them to continue as the “representatives of the protestant working class” and set up to head civic society and receive grants in loyalist areas. Recently a feud has broken out in the UVF, with attempted assassinations and bomb attacks ignored by the authorities. A shocking event, where a film crew were attacked by a mob because some extras were Catholics and one young man almost beaten to death, was quickly covered up. One unionist MLA dismissed it as a storm in a teacup.

Similar tolerance is not extended to republicans. Protestors against Orange demonstrations face punitive sentences. Marian Price is interned in solitary confinement for holding a piece of paper.

The picture painted above is one of corruption but not of collapse. There are many mechanisms supporting the settlement.

Much of the complacency in the face of corruption is based on widespread bribery and the distribution of peace funds. 

The system has the frantic support of the Irish bourgeoisie, as evidenced by their hysteric adulation of the British Queen and by the campaign to support the Shinners by joining Ireland’s foremost cultural event, the Fleadh Cheoil, to the British city of culture in Derry.

The nationalist population, who used to have an anti-imperialist and democratic tradition, have largely internalised the confessional understanding on which the political institutions are based.  Many believe in a benign sectarianism where resources can be shared out while avoiding violence and conflict. Capitulation is presented as cultural reconciliation.

The Irish trade union movement is highly bureaucratised and linked to the state. It gives unconditional support to the new institutions and is rabidly hostile to any challenge.

There are elements that indicate that the life-span of the new statelet is not indefinite. 

The prestige of the Irish bourgeoisie is in decline. At the time of the peace process they rode the Celtic Tiger. Now they lead a merciless offensive on Irish workers.

The price paid by Sinn Fein has been the decay of their northern working class base. This has expressed itself as apathy, but there are signs of a minor resurgence in republicanism that may eat away at the Shinners. They hope to continue their advance by becoming the new Fianna Fail party in the South, but even in the remote event they are successful they will quickly be forced to give up their attempts to base themselves in working-class areas.

The dominant factor is the crisis of the working-class organisations. The traditional organisations have been unable to adapt to the crisis of capitalism.  A new movement is on its way that will head a massive confrontation between labour and capital on a world scale. This renewal, expressed in Ireland, will pose a major challenge to the imperialist settlement.

In any case Marxists have the duty we have tried to express in this article, to strip away the mask of  hypocrisy and pretence that obscures the Irish peace process and unveil the savage mechanisms of sectarianism, colonialism and class interest that lie beneath.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Democratic rights - general, Economy and workers' resistance, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - current, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, six counties, Trade unions, twenty-six counties, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism, Women prisoners. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think you are too optimistic. I think SF are more like the PCF and PCI who retained their credit for decades after WW2.In the South they are in pole position to replace FF and provide an alternative to the troika government. And they are prepared to compromise unfortunately. Vincent Brown teases them on this.
    Eirigi are in a strong position and have potential if they avoid the temptation of militarism and its shortcuts. CIRA and RIRA are filling up jails with people practically totally isolated and unknown.In the worst of daysthe Provos had an element of mass support.
    The domination of anti republican socialist sects has an objective basis in the sense that the national struggle is on the back burner for the moment ( a moment being a historical period that is difficult to determine). It will arise again andcatch people out to currently seek to avoid it. There was a little debate at the ULA conference where Gerry Ruddy, Paddy Healy and myself were essentially sing from similar hymn sheets on this.

  2. On the too optimistic thing. Jim, this is SD article, not me. But I think they’re right about the decay of SF’s working class base. What has happened is that quite a sizeable chunk of the working class base has gone, replaced by a big chunk of the old SDLP base. Unfortunately, the section of workers who have stopped voting and supporting SF have not gone towards the alternatives – which I see as eirigi and the IRSP. They’ve just gone home and withdrawn, don’t vote etc.

    The only way SF can continue to grow electorally in the north is by continuing to eat away at the SDLP base. And, certainly if I was a middle-class or wealthy Catholic in the north and wanted to advance my class interests along those lines, I’d vote SF rather than SDLP. So SF is not about to crumble. But it’s hold in working class nationalist areas is not, in my view, anywhere near as solid as the PCF’s grip remained after WW2, despite all its sellouts.

    I disagree about the anti-republican socialist sects “domination”. They amount to bugger all in the north; both eirigi and the IRSP outpolled them in the recent elections there. In the south they’re filling the gap that has always existed to the left of the Labour Party, but that gap is limited due to their anti-republicanism. The Sticks got to 7 Leinster House seats before they reached the limit; my guess is that the ULA won’t do any better. In fact, the tensions within the ULA may well break it apart before it gets to the same number of Leinster House seats achieved by the Sticks.

    It seems to me that eirigi is potentially much more attractive to working class people, especially the worst-off sections of the working class, than the gas-and-water socialists in the south. The southern working class is republican, with a small ‘r’. That’s an important part of why FF has always had a bigger working class following than Labour. The ULA is a radical version of the LP, and some of it is not particularly radical even in those terms. Being in Leinster House is also likely to be pulling part of the ULA to the right.

    eirigi has two further advantages in the south.

    One is that there are *a lot* of socialist-republicans around in the 26 counties without a political home. If eirigi can regroup a chunk of those people – and it would require a conscious effort on eirigi’s part, not just waiting for individuals to come to them – then, along with ‘normal’ recruitment of new people – the possibility exists to build a fairly strong base in the south.

    The other is that eirigi can grow in the north and thus build a truly national political current. I think this makes them more attractive in the south than the gas-and-water socialists.

    In my view, however, the most important political challenge for socialist-republicans right now is regroupment. With the INLA gone, the possibilities for collaboration between eirigi and the IRSP must surely increase. I can’t see any serious political differences between them – they are basically both working in a Connolly direction and, for all intents and purposes, eirigi is very much on a Costello-type orientation as well, *in practice*, from what I can see. I’m very supportive of them.

    Joint work to *at least* test the waters would surely be worthwhile, although I can appreciate that aspects of the IRSP/INLA past make people in eirigi very cautious. But putting the needs of the struggle first must at least make people in both groups think about exploring the possibilities of collaboration.

    If a merger did become feasible as a result – and I’m not talking about it being on the agenda immediately, but maybe as a result of joint work, a couple of years down the track – the resulting organisation would be pretty damn impressive and very attractive to a lot of currently politically homeless leftists.


    • PS: It may sound a bit corny, but I think there’s also a sort of historical symmetry to the left of the Officials and the left of the Provos uniting, while the ‘mainstream’ of both the Provos and Sticks got absorbed into the system.


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