Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Executive budget starts to bite

As the practical implications of the Executive’s first budget begin to filter through its neo-liberal and anti-working class character becomes ever clearer. For example, last week the Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie told her Assembly scrutiny committee the draft budget allocated to her department was completely inadequate and not sufficient to tackle homelessness or the number of people in housing stress. She revealed that the Housing Executive maintenance and upgrade budget could be slashed by fifty per cent.

Another organisation, also within the Department for Social Development, whose budget is facing cuts, is National Energy Action (NEA). It has responsibility for tackling fuel poverty. This is a particularly pressing issue in the north which has the highest level of fuel poverty in the UK. There are 154,000 households classed as fuel-poor, and each year more than 2,000 people die because of the cold. Fuel poverty also has a disproportionate impact on the elderly with over 50 per cent of cold homes occupied by older people. It is a problem which is escalating. The results from the 2006 House Condition Survey, which are out soon, are expected to say that this figure has risen to above 210,000 households. That means that 36 per cent of all households in Northern Ireland are experiencing fuel poverty - a jump of 5 percent from 2001. NEA’s director Pat Austin has described the decision to halve its budget as a "dangerous" and "draconian". The clear implication is that suffering will increase and people more people will die.

Another area to feel the squeeze has been health. Spending on the health service in the north is already the lowest in the UK, and the allocation of funds in the budget means it will fall even further behind. This is despite the fact that the population is in poorer state of health and demands on services are greater. Budget restraints mean that the Department’s new mental health strategy cannot be launched, and that the new women and children's hospital, promised for Belfast since 2000, will be further delayed.

Some of the proposals in the Executive’s budget wouldn’t seem out of place in Swift’s Modest Proposal (maybe the finance minister is hoping that more elderly people dying of cold will ease pressure on health service!). Unfortunately, Peter Robinson is no Jonathon Swift. His proposals aren’t biting satire designed to expose injustice, but his vision of how society in north should develop.

What is at the heart of this vision is inequality. So alongside the parsimonious approach to addressing health and housing needs, we have the business class being encouraged to milk the public purse for all its worth. Recent examples of this include the revelation that the fees paid to by Government departments to consultancy firms have gone up from £13m per year to just over £40m. NI Water alone has spent than £16m on consultancy fees since April.

Often the people awarding these contracts are directly linked to the companies that benefit. In one case, the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), which is overseeing the roll out of PFIs in the north, paid the company of one of its own board members more than £2m in fees for his and a colleague's services. By happy coincidence (for him) James Stewart is the chief executive of Partnerships UK plc (PUK), a company which provides public and private sector commercial expertise for public private partnerships.

These examples of the soaking of the poor and the featherbedding of the wealthy are scandalous. But they are not apparitions or mistakes. Rather, they are a direct and deliberate result of the policy, which all the parties have signed up to, of shifting the north’s economy in a neo-liberal direction. They exemplify what glib phrases such as “rebalancing the economy” or “growing the private sector” (which flow feely from the mouths of minsters) actually mean in practice. And this is just the start!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What the ****'s an ethos?

The sectarianism that is so much a part of Irish society now and then proves embarrassing. The most recent example is the reaction of Protestant schools in the South who have objected to a provision in the latest social partnership deal. This allows for the Department of Education to fill vacancies in schools from a list of teachers displaced by the closure of other schools. The department looks at the vacancy and then matches the teacher from the list who most closely tallies with the vacant post. One of the bodies representing Protestant controlled schools has objected to this and is going to take its case to court to challenge the process, claiming it was never consulted and never agreed to it, although another body representing these schools was part of the process.

Their complaint is that the process stops them from selecting teacher candidates that will foster and protect their ‘ethos.’ In other words they want to retain their prerogative to select teachers on sectarian grounds. Either the teacher will have to be a Protestant or they will have to accept that Protestantism will be the distinctive character of the school. They must accept this, no matter what their own religious views are, or indeed whether they have any religious views at all. Just what this ‘ethos’ adds to a child’s education in maths, English, geography, and physics etc. is never spelt out, except that it is usually claimed that some moral content will be given to their education through this ‘ethos’.

This moral content seems to differ little between the churches although they all of course think that others are in error or are heresies. No one is under any illusion but that the real purpose of church control is to inculcate a particular religious dogma into the impressionable brains of young children. They are however far too calculating to admit this, or to go about asserting their own claims to moral superiority too loudly. The distinctive morality at play is therefore hypocrisy.

A couple of years ago the Catholic Church in the North was also making public warnings about its intent to defend the ‘ethos’ of its schools, how this taught the children a distinctive and morally right way of living. A week later a report revealed the record number of very young women who had become pregnant or were single parents coming from the very areas dominated by Catholic schools.

The same reactionaries who defend sectarian schooling are also the most vocal condemning the pereceived widespread delinquent and anti-social behaviour of young people. But of course sectarian schooling has nothing to do with sectarianism and these schools have nothing to do with young people’s behaviour, and organisations exposed as perpetrators of institutionalised child abuse are just the right ones to be entrusted with children’s care and education.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Eamonn McCann, the zeitgeist and the RIRA

In the Belfast telegraph of November 22nd ) Eamonn McCann wrote a piece ‘How five deaths in 1957 are still echoing today’. The article has caused some comment, interpreted as McCann supporting or defending republicanism. The comments miss the point. McCann is doing what the SWP does best – sensing the zeitgeist. In the process he is yet again moving sharply to the right.

The central argument contrasts Adams support for the 1957 Edentubber martyrs with his condemnation of real IRA attacks on the RUC/PSNI today. For McCann, Derry today is no different from Edentubber in the past. The problem is republicanism, he concludes, quoting Adams hypocritical attack on the RIRA: "These groups have no strategy, no programmes, no popular support and no real capacity - militarily or otherwise. They have chosen random acts of intimidation and isolated acts of individual violence which are politically ineffective and result only in pain and suffering for the individuals targeted and their families. The overall effect is retrograde at every level and in every sense."

But what is the context? Is there a current debate about strategy among republicans or a debate in the socialist movement where the important thing is to put forward a socialist critique of militarism? No there is not. What there is, is an attempt by the remaining republicans to relaunch their military campaign, countered by hysterical demands for their repression, led by Dublin, Sinn Fein and the northern Catholic bourgeoisie, with the Derry journal labelling the RIRA fascist.

Socialists oppose the militarist tactics of the RIRA, but we believe that republicans and socialists should oppose a settlement that is sectarian and undemocratic. We should oppose Sinn Fein’s lick-spittle hypocrisy, the calls for repression by the nationalist reactionaries and the attempts to advance further a police offensive in nationalist areas.

Although Eamonn knows all this, like all economist socialists he falls behind the popular mood. The fact that the next day he finds himself protesting when the RUC/PSNI refuse medical treatment to a republican whose arm they have broken in three places just shows the confusion that this position can get you into, a confusion magnified by McCann’s place in court as a defendant in the Raytheon 9 case – McCann’s own milder version of the direct action he decries in RIRA

The current imperialist settlement is no longer up than it is decaying from its own corruption. It so bad that even a movement as politically bankrupt as republican militarism can begin to revive. In no small measure this is due to the reluctance of the left to lead any principled opposition to the reactionary Stormont regime. Once Eamonn would have told us that that imperialism was responsible for the endemic violence in Ireland – no more.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sinn Fein strike breakers

The idea that Sinn Fein represents some kind of progressive political force becomes ever more ridiculous with each passing day of devolution and power sharing. Even by its own low standards the party’s call for classroom assistants to abandon their strike plumbs new depths.

Classroom assistants have resumed industrial action after weeks of fruitless talks with the employers at the Labour Relations. These talks had come on the back of an all about strike by classroom assistants belonging to the Nipsa union in response to a proposal from the Education Boards to reduce their pay and conditions. This supposedly represented a settlement of a twelve-year dispute over job evaluation.

Throughout this current phase dispute the Sinn Fein education minister Caitriona Rune has consistently backed the Boards and done everything in her power to put down the strikers. This started almost immediately from when she took office and endorsed a financial package from the Boards to settle the long running dispute. This “settlement” was based on funding any pay arrears due to classroom assistants by reducing their current and future pay and conditions. The essentials of this offer remain on the table toady despite claims by the minister that it has been “vastly improved”. Despite it being overwhelmingly rejected Ruane wants to press ahead and impose it. The negotiations that have taken place have really been a facade as there is nothing more on offer. Their purpose is to demobilise the strikers and give the impression that the minister is doing something to resolve the despite.

However, with the resumption of strike action, these populist gestures have given way to outright hostility. The minister and the Boards have went on the offensive, misleading the public about what’s on offer and making scurrilous claims that the strikers are exploiting disabled children. Ruane has even gone so far has to write to every Nipsa classroom assistants urging them to abandon their strike. This is unashamed attempt at strike breaking.

A defence offered for such behaviour is that the Sinn Fein minister is bound into the Executive. Such arguments implicitly recognises the reactionary nature of the Executive. But the anti-strike posture of Sinn Fein is not confined to those with ministerial responsibility. The west Belfast MLA Paul Butler has also been vocal in his denunciations of the strike, claiming that “industrial action by classroom assistants will achieve anything accept to create more hardship for children.” This is particularly ironic, as he had joined a picket line only a few weeks earlier during the previous strike. He didn’t explain the reason for his U-turn.

However, independent thinking is not something Sinn Finn MLAs are noted for. Ruane and Butler are just ciphers for the leadership. They are part of a government that has already laid out its plans for an assault on public services and the working class; and are determined to stay in that government no matter what. By putting down strikers Sinn Fein can demonstrate its credentials as a party of government and its fitness for the battles to come.

When classroom assistants held a demonstration outside Sinn Fein offices west Belfast, Paul Butler was indignant that they held placards comparing Catriona Ruane with Margaret Thatcher. But given Sinn Fein’s current right wing trajectory it is one that is apt.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Lord Mayor of Belfast supports racist march

In any other city in the UK the prospect of a racist march through an area with a significant ethnic minority population would have provoked widespread condemnation. But not in Belfast. Here the Lord Mayor, whose role is supposedly to offer civic leadership, actually voices support for it.

This was the response of the UUP’s Jim Rodgers to the Parades Commission determination that a loyalist march against the north’s sole MLA from an ethnic minority background (the Alliance Party’s Anna Lo) could not proceed along Donegall Pass. The origins of the march lie in a complaint the MLA made on behalf of a constituent who was held up by a band parade on her way to work at the Ulster Hospital. Anna Lo was provided with the name and address of the parade organiser by the PSNI and sent him a letter outlining her constituent’s concerns. In response, George Spence of the Pride of the Raven FB issued a press release to the local media condemning her and announcing that loyalists planned to stage a protest march through the city centre and part of south Belfast. The route of the march was to include the Donegall Pass area in which a significant number of the city’s Chinese population live and work.

The organisers denied there was any connection between Anna Lo being Chinese and their march taking this route. A claim that many bandsmen enjoyed a Chinese meal was offered as evidence of their anti-racist credentials. However, an examination of the facts demonstrates clearly the racist motivation of the march. There is no link between Doneagll Pass and the incident that provoked the initial complaint. That happened in east Belfast; also the name and address of the parade organiser were provided by police at Strandtown PSNI station in east Belfast. The organisers also claimed that they thought Anna Lo had her office in Donegall Pass. But this is wrong. The Chinese Welfare Association, for which Lo had worked before being elected, had an office there in the past but moved a number of years ago. That the organisers should think of targeting such an organisation is more evidence of their racist intent. The only reason to route a march through Donegall Pass is to intimidate the Chinese population who live and work there. They were going to pay the price for Anna Lo daring to question a loyalist display of sectarian supremacy.

Of course the racists themselves recognised this straight away. That is why the march won the fulsome endorsement of the BNP; an endorsement the organisers did not reject. The unionists also recognise this. However, they frame their prejudices in terms of community rights. While they do not overtly endorse racism, they defend loyalists “right” to march and to intimidate anyone who dares challenge them. Jim Rodgers could therefore ring his hands over the “big disappointment” of the Parades Commission decision and assure everyone that the organisers of the parade were “very respectable” and not “trying to cause offence”. He even offered some friendly advice to the organisers, urging them to move the parade to after Christmas so as not to disrupt the business of city centre traders. Obviously, the Lord Mayor is more concerned with the profits of high street stores than the victims of racist intimidation.

While this episode is sickening it is not unique. Over the last number of years loyalists have regularly engaged in acts of racist violence and intimidation, always accompanied by justifications from unionists. However, because of the imperatives of the peace process which demand that every prejudice be accepted as some form legitimate community expression, racism goes largely unchallenged.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Welcome to the Socialist Democracy blog. It will offer commentary from a socialist perspective on Irish society and politics. The articles on this blog will be shorter than those on our website and will be updated on a more regular basis. However, like our website, the articles posted will reflect the viewpoint of our organisation. We hope than our readers will take advantage of the interactive features of the blog format and post their own comments on what appears.