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.