Monday, September 22, 2008

Damning report on Historical Enquiries Team

One of the areas where the peace process has most obviously failed has been in the various attempts to tackle the legacy of the "Troubles". A number of mechanisms and institutions, such as the Victims Commission, the Office of the Police Ombudsman and various ongoing public inquiries, have been established in order to deal with unresolved issues. However, none of them have produced any resolutions, only more discord and dispute.

An insight into why this is the case came this week in a leaked report on another of these bodies – the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The HET is a special police unit which was set in 2005 up by the PSNI chief constable to re-examine murders committed during the Troubles. A report by a University of Ulster academic, who was given unprecedented access to the team for two years, has called now called its independence and effectiveness into question.

The main point of the report by Dr Patricia Lundy is that that the HET has been compromised by the presence of so many former RUC and Special Branch officers in senior positions. This is despite assurances given at the time of the establishment of the HET that it would recruit the majority of detectives from outside Northern Ireland and would limit the involvement of former members of the RUC, particularly Special Branch.

According to Dr Lundy the HET is over reliant on former RUC officers. "It appears that ‘the old guard’ play a key role in the management and access to intelligence and perform a censoring role in respect of disclosure," she writes. "All aspects of intelligence are managed by former RUC and Special Branch officers". At the time of the research, the Intelligence Unit (IU) was staffed by 18 former RUC and Special Branch officers.

In November 2007 the HET had 166 staff, including 67 former RUC officers. Two former RUC Special Branch officers and a former British army soldier hold key senior positions within the HET. It is the view of Dr Lundy’s that such "strategic positioning" of former RUC officers, and particularly those with a Special Branch background, "not only undermines actual but perceived independence".

One PSNI officer who had been seconded to the HET was Detective Chief Inspector Philip Marshall, who was later accused of "deliberate and calculated deception" during the Omagh bomb trial. The British army was found to have regularly failed to pass on the names of former soldiers identified in controversial killings to HET investigators. HET requests to the British army were "invariably returned with a negative trace ", the report said. Only one fifth of senior RUC detectives who originally investigated Troubles-related killings had "positively engaged" with the HET.

While the unit was reported to be investigating more than 1,000 cases during the two-year study, Dr Lundy said the figure actually referred to the number of cases that had ‘gone into the system’. "It is my opinion that a very creative use of language has been employed to describe a process which in the majority of cases is essentially a ‘desktop review’," she writes.
It is also Dr Lundy’s assessment that "political considerations" have impacted HET’s decision-making process. Her report states: "HET are acutely aware of the extreme sensitivity of the cases under review and their likely political ramifications" and that there has been a "reluctance on the part of senior management to make difficult decisions and deliver perceived unpopular findings."

This report is damning of the HET, but the criticisms it makes are applicable to all the other resolution efforts and to the peace process more broadly. The problem is that the past is very much the present, and that any attempt to uncover the truth has the potential to call into question the credentials of those who are holding up the current settlement. This is true for both the unionists and Sinn Fein, but most of all for the British who want to perpetuate the myth that they are above the conflict. They cannot allow efforts to resolve the past to be truly independent and run the risk of producing the "unpopular findings" that would serve to undermine the settlement.

A good example of this came in the same week as the leaked report on the HET, when it was revealed on BBC’s Panorama that Britain’s electronic intelligence agency GCHQ recorded mobile phone exchanges between the Omagh bombers on the day of the attack. This information was neither used to prevent the attack or to aid the investigation into those who carried it out. The victims’ relatives rightly ask why, and reiterate their call for a public inquiry. But the British aren’t going to agree to anything that could expose their complicity in the atrocity. It really shows up the fundamental rottenness of the peace process that its preservation is dependent on the denial of truth and justice.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Searching for Plan B

The growing sense of disillusionment over the peace process among the republican grassroots found expression in this week’s Andersonstown News. This took the form of a letter from one B. Maguire. In the opening paragraph he describes himself as a “life long republican” who “voted for the Good Friday Agreement and supported the Sinn Fein strategy”. But now he is “completely disillusioned and angry”.

He goes on make a number of complaints about the settlement, and to pose a series of questions to the Sinn Fein leadership. His primary complaint is over the existence of a DUP veto. He notes that the DUP have used this to block any movement on a sports stadium, the Irish Language Act and the devolution of policing and justice powers. The fact the DUP “can veto anything thing they don’t like” raises for him the obvious question of what republicans can ever get from the power sharing executive.

B Maguire also notes a change in the Sinn Fein rhetoric on the St Andrews Agreement, which has gone from assertions that it included provisions for an Irish Language Act to a claim that an act will be in place at some undefined date in the future because it is somehow inevitable. For him “the leadership have lost their revolutionary politics for the politics of appeasement”. He cites as an example of this Belfast Mayor Tom Hartley’s opposition to the City Council hosting a home coming parade for the RIR on the basis of his personal opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than the role that regiment, and the British army as a whole, have played in Ireland.

B Maguire rounds off by stating that it is obvious to him that “the unionists are not up to power sharing. Stormont has failed. It will not work”. Rather than continue to prop up Stormont he urges Sinn Fein “walk away now and go to the Plan B” (which he believes to be joint sovereignty). His letter concludes with a plea for Gerry Adams to “give us answers”.

While many of the points in this letter are familiar, and have been made by others, it is now significant that they are being echoed by mainstream republicans who had up until recently supported the peace process. The fact that such people are starting to fall away is an indicator of the declining credibility of the Sinn Fein leadership.

The letter from B Maguire prompted a quick response from Sinn Fein, with a reply of sorts from Gerry Adams appearing in the following edition of the Andersonstown News. Much of this was a restatement of the equality provisions within the settlement, though with view examples of them operating. Adams claims that Sinn Fein had an agreement with the British on an Irish Language Act, but that this was now being blocked by the DUP. He concedes that the DUP does indeed have a veto, but that this is countered by Sinn Fein’s own veto, though they “have little need” to use it because of their “positive agenda”.

Adams says that though unionists may not be up for power sharing, Sinn Fein had a responsibility the make the political institutions work. For him “being strategic, planning for the future, keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the prize is the only way forward.” Adams concludes with the claim that the only way to move unionism is to build “a stronger Sinn Fein”.

This reply is completely disingenuous, ignoring the major points of the original letter, and making claims for the settlement that are completely baseless. The fact is that Sinn Fein signed up to a settlement that has a built in unionist veto. While formally nationalists do have a veto, to use it on any substantial issue would bring the whole edifice crashing down. There is no pressure on the DUP to concede anything, certainly not from the British and Irish governments. An assembly were Sinn Fein had a hundred per cent of the nationalist seats would make no difference. If anything it would hasten the collapse of the settlement as no unionist would be prepared to sit under a Sinn Fein first minister. Its stability depends on unionists having the upper hand and nationalists accepting that.

In his letter B Maguire displayed some naivety in his belief in the existence of a Plan B for joint authority. This does not exist - Sinn Fein aren’t going to walk away. Their only strategy is to hang on to their ministerial seats at all costs and hope that things will get better. If there is a Plan B it is the return to majority rule that has been proposed recently by SDLP leader!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SDLP leader calls for end to power sharing

The call from the SDLP leader for an end of power sharing arrangements at Stormont is another indication of how far the minimal reforms associated contained the Good Friday Agreement have been eroded. Ten years ago power sharing Government was hailed at the centrepiece of the political settlement. For the twenty-five prior to that the SDLP had championed power sharing as a means of resolving the conflict in the north. Now we have the leader of that party calling for it to be abandoned.

This was the message that Mark Durkan delivered at the British Irish Association conference at New College, Oxford over the weekend. He called for compulsory power-sharing between nationalists and unionists at Stormont to be scrapped, and the rules requiring cross community support for legislation to be removed. For him these mechanisms were the "ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice." The assumption is that such mechanisms, which were supposedly designed to protect nationalists from the abuse of power by unionists, are no longer needed in this new era because the peace process has been so successful in promoting reconciliation and stability.

However, any examination of the current political situation exposes such assumption to be baseless. The north is more sectarian and polarised than ever, and the political institutions increasingly unstable. The Executive has not met for months due to disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

It is this current instability and deadlock, rather than optimistic for the future, that has prompted Durkan’s comments. This is revealed in his appeal for nationalists "to reflect on the dangers of the decision-making protections acting as decision making prevention on more and more important issues". It is recognition that a power sharing government between nationalists and unionists is unworkable. The corollary of this position, and what is being implied by Durkan’s proposed changes to the Agreement, is that nationalist parties give up their right to be in government in order to have a functioning government at all. The fig leaf for this abandonment of power sharing is his call for a 'strong and robust' bill of rights to protect minorities. What this amounts to is an acceptance of a return to unionist majority rule for the sake of stability.

Mark Durkan’s speech is a signal of the desperation of nationalists for the settlement to work no matter how diminished. It is also a reflection of the elitist approach of the SDLP which looks to the law as a counter to sectarianism. But such faith in the law is misplaced. It completely ignores the fact that there was a formal equality before the law under the old Stormont regime that existed alongside rampant discrimination. For unionists the point of being in power is to have the power to discriminate. This is also why the unionists are totally against a Bill of Rights. Sinn Fein strongly attacked Durkan’s comments, but their own strategy, of hanging unto their places in the Executive at all costs, isn’t anymore successful success. Even the minimal gestures in the St Andrew’s Agreement - an Irish Language Act and the devolution of policing and justice powers – are being blocked by the DUP.

Sinn Fein has been reduced to issuing empty threats to bring down the Executive - threats which are immediately withdrawn when challenged. If Sinn Fein wants the Executive to function it will have to subordinate itself the the DUP agenda. Whether nationalists are in of out of the executive unionist will still be ion a dominant position. The comments by Mark Durkan indicate that a section of nationalist population is prepared to accept this as the price of stability. However, is this any different to what existed during the 50 years of the old Stormont regime?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Days Like These No9

Who Are The Irish What Do They Want?

By Guest Bolger Gerry Fitzpatrick
We stand at the beginning of a new brutal era as the world’s Empire’s - old and new fight it out for control of the world’s resources. The invasions of Iraq and Georgia show that the pretence about ‘bringing democracy’ to other counties is well and truly over. Iraq and Georgia have the privilege of joining Pakistan, South Korea and Egypt as client regimes no matter how its people’s are ruled. And what are our interests? That’s not just a question for the conservative President of France it is a question for us all and it is not just because a government has again lost a crucial European vote. (It is also a question for a certain young man sitting under a tree in Africa. We all know him and you should keep him in mind as I will return to him later.)

Some time ago our comrade - Dr Terry Eagleton wrote in a rather mournful way about how the new generation of Irish students had appeared to have forgotten Ireland’s own radical history in their headlong dash to be modern. And it worth quoting his words from 1996:

Modernization in Ireland today means a host of precious things: pluralism secularization, flexible notions of sovereignty [but it can also mean] being shame faced and sarcastic about your historical as to as to leap, suitably streamlined and amnesiac, into the heat of the European order characterized by racism, structural unemployment, urban barbarism, military campaigns against the Third World and abandonment of Irish small farmers and working class to a brutally neo-liberal polity.
(Eagleton, ‘The Ideology of Irish Studies’)

It’s odd then that Revisionists and Tories often joke about how the Irish see themselves as being the most oppressed people in the world and they are probably right about that, for it has consequences and effects that are worthwhile. We aspire to invert imperial chauvinism and that is a struggle in itself which, as we’ve seen - we don’t always succeed, but that did not and should not stop us. Because we share a kinship with those who have been brutally occupied and forced into starvation and emigration.
Let’s return to the youngman sitting under a tree in Africa. He’s there to do the simple and the good – build a school, install a water pump, repair a road, put together a transport link – fight hunger and disease. We shouldn’t romanticise him – he is after all probably there on a gap year and I’m sure he wishes sometimes that he never agreed to travel and work in a place where the great powers cut a swathe to their one interest. But he will stay on - for the rewards will far outweigh the discomfort and the doubts. It is a mission and a duty – political quasi-religious in nature but democratic and just nonetheless. And that is whether we like it or not. Our comrade Dr Eagleton may have despaired of the generation that appeared ready to forget that the cause of Ireland is labour. But our relation to Europe and the world doesn’t end with a government giving taxes to support NGO’s and their faltering programmes. The truth is that countless thousands have gone abroad to labour against hunger, disease and oppression. The cause of Ireland is labour - it is not ‘national’ or practiced by nationalists - it is international. For we stand for and with the starving, the oppressed and against imperial occupation. We have said ‘NO’ twice to those in power who think that an economy works best when regulated in favour of the fantastically rich and which pays farmers not to grow food while the cost of meagre rations is forced skyward. These too are crimes against humanity which we must do all we can to fight and work against.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

They haven’t gone away y’know

‘Nationalist family’ assemble for one last roundup

The Independent monitoring committee is a creature of the British government. It has no independent investigation structures but simply takes government intelligence and presents it in a way most useful to the government. Its report concluded: "The mechanism which they (the army council) have chosen to bring the armed conflict to a complete end has been the standing down of the structures which engaged in the armed campaign and the conscious decision to allow the army council to fall into disuse. By taking these steps PIRA has completely relinquished the leadership and other structures appropriate to a time of armed conflict."

This is a very carefully worded statement. It does not say that there is no army council or no IRA, but essentially argues that they no longer exist in the context of any threat to British structures and that the IRA have done everything that the DUP can expect that equates to surrender and enough to allow Peter Robinson to sign up to the transfer of policing powers

Gordon Brown made this clear when he declared “It is now time for all the political parties to work together to complete the final stages of the peace process - to complete the devolution of policing and justice” Secretary of state Shaun Woodward argued that “This ground-breaking report by the IMC makes clear that the Army Council is now redundant”. Dermot Aherne, Fianna Fail Justice Minister, said that “I hope that the political parties in the north can now complete the process of devolution by assuming responsibility for policing and justice powers.” Paula Dobrainsky, US special envoy declared; “This report underscores the transformation that has taken place in today's Northern Ireland, and signals that all parties should move forward to create a fully-functioning political environment.”

From a distance it all looks very reassuring. All the components of a ‘Nationalist family’ a virtual body imagined by Gerry Adams, comprising Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and the SDLP and stretching out to encompass the Bush White house and even the British – all the forces that were to face down unionist reaction and bring modernity to Ireland – they are all together again to defend Sinn Fein and face down the DUP.

As in the days of yore, Sinn Fein has support. But it is worth looking more closely. The support, as in the past, is designed to allow capitulation. The problem with republicanism is that it offered an armed resistance to imperialism. The solution is that they embrace their oppressors. In the process the problem is defined. The problem is not the bigotry of the unionists, nor the British endorsement of unionist reaction. The problem is the IRA. There is not the slightest hint that, if the DUP refuse to play ball, the British will apply sanctions to them. If the republicans have not done enough today then they must do more in the coming days.

A few questions are in order.

Peter Robinson has already said that 95% disbandment is not enough. Surely the simplest solution would be 100% disbandment?

If the maximum humiliation of Sinn Fein is demanded now will that be the end of humiliation or will it be a routine, unending part of administration in the North?

Will the Shinners get all the elements they were supposed to have already as part of the St. Andrews deal or is the reward of disbandment only a limited, truncated version?

With another victory under their belt, will the DUP then turn the other cheek and aim to tone down the drive for sectarian domination?

To ask these questions is to answer them. Nationalists can have a minor and subordinate role in a sectarian society while supporting a government of some of the most reactionary political forces in Europe. Their role will be to endlessly capitulate to sectarian reaction and in the process lend stability to a process fundamentally unstable. The endemic crises and collapses of the peace process are not minor glitches but fundamental flaws in an imperialist settlement doomed to eventual collapse

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The mouse that roared

The Sinn Fein rebellion that wasn't.

Rush into a meeting. Shout loudly "long live the Workers Republic"! Rush into another meeting and explain calmly that you can provide stability in a colonial administration. Now increase the frequency of the meetings. At some point speaking out of both sides of your mouth at once will prove too great a strain and a stammer will develop.

Sinn Fein have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth for over a decade. It is hardly surprising if TD Caoimhghin O'Caolin stumbled and a message for his terminally confused and demoralised members declaring Sinn Fein's willingness to collapse the Stormont assembly leaked into the outside world.

A stunned silence was followed by bursts of hilarity from the SDLP and then contempt, followed by increased pressure to come to heel from the DUP.

In fact what O'Caolin was demanding was far from clear. It was far short of any immediate demand, more a plea for the DUP to give them something and a pathetic threat to go to the British and complain.

The last time that the Shinners pulled this trick was when they threatened not to nominate a deputy first minister and prevent Robinson taking office. They ended up giving way on the issue of a Sinn Fein justice minister.

The mechanism is simple enough. Having signed up to a colonial and sectarian deal, tied by a thousand bribes and implied threats to London and Dublin, Sinn Fein have no choice but to make the deal look good no matter what it throws up. The task of the DUP is to prove to their supporters that they hold the whip hand and have conceded nothing to the Fenians. They can play hard ball in the knowledge that, in a decade of negotiation, the British have never wavered in seeing the unionist base as the guarantee of their presence in Ireland and have never felt it necessary to withdraw support no matter how extreme their demands. We have to remember that the present problem is about concessions to Sinn Fein in the St. Andrews agreement that they are trying desperately to have implemented – some of the sweeteners are on the table for the third time, constantly appearing and disappearing like carrots before a dazed donkey.

Today we have Mary Lou McDonald repudiating the O'Caolin comments and Alex Maskey pleading for "engagement" while Robinson lays down the law, demanding a massive climbdown at the upcoming executive meeting.

The only fatality in the whole process is Sinn Fein's credibility. The sooner that goes and a genuine political opposition forms, the better.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Discord over Omagh anniversary

The controversy surrounding the tenth anniversary of the Omagh bombing has highlighted once again the difficultly in dealing politically with such events. While there is a political settlement and a power sharing government there has been no honest examination the past or a resolution the legacy of the Troubles.

The basic fact of the atrocity is that the Real IRA detonated a bomb in Omagh town centre that resulted in the deaths of twenty-nine people. But the various political parties place their own interpretations this event. This has come out more strongly over the years with revelations that the bombing could have been prevented, and that there was no proper investigation. There were also the failed prosecutions in the north and south that revealed police corruption and raised suspicions over the role state agents may have played in the atrocity.

Sinn Fein for its part has tried to completeley dissociate itself from the bombing, using it to draw a line between the activities of the provisionals and the Real IRA. This was in demonstrated in the row over the wording on the Omagh memorial, with the Sinn Fein controlled council insisting that the organisation responsible was not identified. Mentioning the Real IRA would have highlighted the fact that those responsible for the bombing had only recently broken from the provisionals, and that the provisional movement itself had endorsed such tactics. The catch all term "dissident republicans" that was finally used in the memorial is one that allows Sinn Fein to distance itself from the event and also to portray any critics of its strategy as being associated with mass murder.

The British, whatever their role in the Omagh bombing, certainly saw benefits from its political fallout . It served to discredit the republican opposition, solidify support for the the GFA and bind the provisionals into the political process. The threat of a return to the armed campaign by the provisionls, though never credible, was made impossible.

It suits both Sinn Fein and the British to propagate the line that Omagh was an atrocity carried out by dissidents, and that if such atrocities are to be prevented in the future people must support the peace process. This was very much the message of the official remembrance ceremony which gathered together the great and the good. These included the police chiefs and political leaders who have been responsible in denying justice to the victims.

Within this "official" view on the Omagh bombing there is no room for dissent. This meant that those victims relatives who are struggling to find the truth of what happened were effectively excluded from the remembrance events. At least 10 of the victim's families, members of the Omagh Support and Self Help Group, boycotted the official memorial service. Its chairman Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aiden in the bombing, summed up their feelings on the event: "There are, not a small number of people, but a large number of people who feel very uncomfortable about what happened and they rather we`d all go away and forget about it." Kevin Skelton, vice chair of the group, was particularly scathing of politicians, accusing them of doing "nothing for the families of the Omagh atrocity".

The families reiterated their call for a full cross-border public inquiry into the atrocity. But once again this met with rejection. The strongest opposition to his call came from Taoiseach Brian Cowan - just hours after he had laid a wreath in memory of the victims.

Ten years on from the Omagh bombing the search for the truth of what happened that day remains as elusive as ever. Like many other events from the history of the Troubles it is not really in the past but very much of the present. For the stability of the peace process depends on people not rocking the boat and raising questions over controversial events and the bona fides of its main sponsors. Despite the rhetoric the nature of the political settlement means that justice and reconciliation can never be delivered.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Workers flag is deepest white -

Irish TU bureaucracy ride to war?

‘Possibly the end of social partnership’ intoned Jack O'Connor of SIPTU following the collapse of wage talks with the Irish government and bosses.

‘This isn't a phoney war’, one of his colleagues assured us.

That comment indicates that the bureaucracy are aware of the scepticism that will greet any war cries following decades of social partnership. But is it true? Will the bureaucracy do a U-turn and launch class war against the Irish capitalists?

There are reasons to doubt this.

Social partnership hasn't collapsed. The current social partnership deal, towards 2016, was built over a ten-year time period precisely to avoid embarrassing issues such as pay cuts breaking the umbilical connections between the bureaucracy, bosses and government.

In case we get confused, union leaders immediately rowed back. O’Connor indicated that relations with the social partners remained good and ICTU leader David Beggs indicated that he remained hopeful that social partnership could be preserved and that the failure to agree a deal did not mean the end of social partnership as a project, going on to remark that 'under certain circumstances', the bureaucracy would agree a wage rise below the rate of inflation.

In the good old days the bureaucracy used to keep the fact that they were preparing to sell out a secret. This crowd tell us up front!

The trade union leaders intend to stage a pantomime. The want to move into limited, staged confrontations that they hope will strengthen their hand when they go back to the table in September. Workers can take advantage of the pantomime and aim to win the confrontations, but only to the extent that they organize independently of the bureaucracy rather than following blindly behind them.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Poison Iris

The recent anti-gay comments by Iris Robinson (DUP MP, wife of the party leader and first monster, and chair of the Assembly’s health committee) have highlighted for the umpteenth time the thoroughly reactionary nature of politics in the north.

This latest bout of bile was sparked a number of weeks ago when was Robinson appeared on Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show to comment on a homophobic attack on a man in the Newtownabbey area. Given the DUP’s well-known and long-standing position on homosexuality, and the presenter’s own publicity seeking approach, some sort of controversy was probably inevitable. In this respect Iris certainly delivered. After a halfhearted condemnation of the assault, she lunched into an anti-gay tirade that could only have given comfort to those who carried it out, describing homosexuality as “vile,” “disgusting,” “nauseating” and “an abomination”. She topped this off with an offer to refer homosexuals to the care of a psychiatrist friend who had helped gays to “turn away from what they are engaged in.”

These comments were a media sensation for a few days and drew some mild criticism from gay groups and politicians. But if people thought this was going to blow over they were wrong. Just a few weeks later Robinson was courting more controversy. Taking part in a radio discussion on whether the severe restrictions on abortion in the north should be relaxed, she argued that they should not on the basis that government had “a responsibility to uphold God’s laws”. This conjured up images of a Free Presbyterian version of Iran, with DUP ministers framing legislation in accordance with Ayatollah Paisley’s interpretation of the scriptures.

However, Iris still wasn’t finished. Just last week it was revealed that the First Minister’s wife told a House of Commons committe, during a debate on the assessment and management of sex offenders, that “there can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children”. Maybe this was a little too strong even for the DUP, with Iris forced to back track, first claiming that her comments had been misreported (thy hadn’t) and then issuing a clarification. It turns out that what she meant to say was that homosexuality was only “comparable” to child abuse, and that she was “totally repulsed by both.” Well that’s a big improvement. The fact is that Robinson’s comments are a form of incitement that can lead directly to the type of assault carried out against the young man in Newtownabbey. All this pious baloney about loving the sinner but hating the sin is just a cover for pure hatred and bigotry.

One reaction to the comments by Robinson is to portray them as an outburst from a particularly bitter individual. However, even a glance at the public record shows that such attitudes run right through the DUP. It was party founder and former chuckle brother Ian Paisley who pushed to stop homosexuality being decriminalised in the north with the ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign. It was Paisley’s wife, the recently ennobled Eileen, who led the campaign in the House of Lords to oppose anti-discrimination legislation. Their son Ian Jnr also got in on the act when, as a junior minister with responsibility for equality, he stated that he was ‘repulsed’ by gay men and lesbians

And there’s more - such as DUP councillor Arthur Templeton, who was found guilty of harassing a gay colleague and ordered to pay £4,000 in damages. There’s Edwin Poots, who as a councillor in Lisburn tried to ban gay and lesbian couples from holding civil partnerships. During his period as sports minister he called the presence of Ulster’s only gay rugby team - the Ulster Titans- a form of “apartheid”. While in 2005 he remarked that homosexuality needed to be “overcome just like alcoholism and drug addiction”.

The views of the DUP on homosexuality, and on equality issues more generally, are consistent. They are, and continue to be, opposed to the very concept of equality, whether that is in relation to religion, race, politics, class, sexuality, gender or anything else. That they are now heading the Government really makes a mockery of claims, from Sinn Fein in particular, that equality is at the heart of the settlement. Indeed, its very stability depends on the DUP demonstrating that this is not the case. In this context Iris Robinson’s comments, rather than a rash outburst, can be seen as a calculated signal to its supporters than they have nothing to fear.

What this recent controversy has also demonstrated the extent to which gay rights activists have accepted the political approach of the peace process. In this schema the most bigoted views are legitimatised and their promoters accommodated. It is notable that there were very few calls for Iris Robinson to resign her position as Assembly health committee chair. In any liberal democratic system she wouldn’t have survived. But in the north she continues. Those who are the subject of her hate speech call not for her resignation but for her to engage in debate. They have even invited her to a Gay Pride event!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Exporting peace

The recent mission by Martin McGuinness to Iraq is an indication of the extent to which Sinn Fein has been incorporated into imperialism. Once its implacable enemy they are now the trusted promoters of pro-imperialist settlements for conflicts around the world. The Irish peace process and their own political strategy are held up as models for others to follow.

The underlying assumption is that the peace process represents a resolution of conflict. Yet the reality is that it represents the complete defeat of the republican struggle for self determination. The traditional programme Irish republicanism has been completely turned inside out with Sinn Fein helping to administer British rule in the north. If there is a peace then it is because the British and unionist position is no longer being challenged. Indeed, the British state is now seen as a force for progressive change. In return for their acquiescence Sinn Fein gets a slice of the sectarian pie.

It is the airbrushing of imperialism and the definition of the conflict as one between two communities that makes the Irish peace processes a particularly appealing model for Iraq. This is reflected in the content of the McGuinness mission to Iraq with its emphasis on Sunni-Shia reconciliation. In this framework the occupation of the country by the US and Britain does not feature.

Although nominally independent this mission has the full support of the US and Britain. The Helsinki process (it took this name because first meeting of the group took place in the Finnish capital) has been carefully nurtured for over a year. In addition to Sinn Fein it also involves the ANC. The South Africans are veterans at advising on conflict resolution, having in earlier periods promoted their own settlement as a model for Ireland and Palestine to follow.

The culmination of this process was the meeting that took place in the Al-Rashid hotel within Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. Attended by the Irish, South Africans and a number of Iraqi factions, this produced an agreement that commits all groups to disband unlawful armed groups, respect the independence of the judiciary, combat corruption and support the constitution. It also says that factions should resolve discord by peaceful and democratic means and uphold equality for all citizens.

On the face of it this would seem to represent be some form of progress, but set against the reality of what is going on in Iraq it is a mockery. There is massive corruption, widespread sectarian violence and intimidation, and systematic abuses by the Iraqi Government. The greatest offence though is that the main cause of the strife that afflicts Iraq – its occupation by US and Britain – is ignored. This is particularly blatant at a time when the US is pressing Iraqis to accept a permanent military presence and open their oil industry to foreign ownership.

Unbelievably, Mac Maharaj of the ANC has described the process as providing Iraqi’s with a “platform to speak to each other without factoring in outside interests”. While Martin McGuinness predicts a groundswell of support that “may lead to a total end of the conflict in that country.” These are deceptions and dangerous ones at that as they can only advance the imperialist agenda for Iraq.

It is a testimony to the degeneration of the ANC and Sinn Fein that they should lend themselves to this. This particularly pertinent for the ANC whose settlement has been exposed by the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence. For its part Sinn Fein seem to be suffering from self deception as they trumpet the achievements of the Irish peace process. Flattered by being given the role of imperialism’s useful idiots they have completely lost any sense of political reality. This is reflected in the ludicrous boast by Martin McGuinness that pictures of himself with Ian Paisley “had a profound impact in Iraq”. Please!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ding! Ding! Lisbon Treaty round 2 has started already!

Well that didn’t take long did it? Hardly had we a chance to pause for breath but Brian Cowan has told EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso that he is going to call another referendum because they didn’t get the result they wanted, although they won’t be so quick to admit it.

We don’t really need to labour the point about how undemocratic this is. No, hold on a minute – yes we do! There will be all sorts of dust kicked up about declarations and protocols attached to the Treaty when it is eventually put to the vote again but they will all mean nothing. How do we know that? Because when the French and Dutch workers told the EU constitution to get stuffed they gave them the Lisbon Treaty instead, with next to no significant difference except that the French and Dutch weren’t allowed to vote again.

It’s also undemocratic because the Irish vote was a vote of EU citizens which, if the EU really was democratic, would count in a Europe-wide vote. In other words it’s not a matter of the Irish being given this or that assurance. Despite the largely nationalistic content of the No campaign this was a European vote against militarism and neoliberal economic policies across Europe. It was a defence mechanism not just for Irish workers but for all European workers.

This means we should say to Sinn Fein and anyone else who wants to negotiate, or rather get Cowan to negotiate, a series of opt outs on our behalf – and what a joke that idea is –that that’s not what we voted for. We voted for all of us to be spared the race to the bottom that the EU has planned in the name of competitiveness.

This means we immediately need to start building a truly internationalist, a really democratic and necessarily socialist opposition.

The No camp has now been told – rhetorically because they would never dream of letting us do it in reality - that we should put forward what we want the EU to do now. Well let's start with determining what this means.

First we now realise, if anyone was ever in any doubt, that the idea that the Irish State was now out of the domination of an empire is nonsense. Ireland is not France as they say. We can get stuffed but this could never be said to one of the major imperialist EU powers. This means we must unite with workers across Europe also opposed to Lisbon because we will not defeat it by ourselves.

It means demanding a really democratic European organisation - a Constituent Assembly to decide how we really want to be governed. This would mean putting together a constitution that embodied not the rights of free markets, of money, but the rights of workers, women, youth and immigrants to real freedom, and control of resources to deliver a Europe dedicated to its people and not profit. But a Europe for thoseat the bottom will have to be built from the bottom - from mobilising workers in Ireland and across Europe.

The fight has only begun. We have been told by our enemies we don’t have an alternative. Socialists need to put forward exactly what it is. No more hiding behind broad campaigns. It’s time to fight for the socialist No, and also a socialist Yes to what we really want.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Internment vote puts DUP in driving seat

The passage of the 42 day detention law through the Commons on the votes of the DUP may have caused consternation in Britain, but it can hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with their record. The DUP and its counterparts in the UUP have consistently backed the use of repressive laws. Historically, this was epitomised most clearly under the old Stormont regime. Its Special Powers Act allowed for the suspension of fundamental democratic rights and legal principles. This law and the repressive apparatus that enforced it operated freely under the gaze of successive British governments. Of course as it applied only to the north of Ireland few objections were raised. Indeed, there is an anti Irish element to the current outrage, with the Government being accused by its opponents of using "Irish votes" to abolish English civil liberties.

Much of the media speculation has been about the nature of the deal between the DUP and the Brown government. This has covered such things as the money raised from the sale of army bases being retained by the Executive; a further delay in the introduction of water charges and a commentator not to extend abortion laws to the north. The deal appears to be a hodgepodge of patronage and reaction.

However, the details of what was agreed between the DUP and the government are secondary to the fact that there was a deal at all. The critical point is that the Brown government is now dependent on the DUP for its survival. The implications of this were spelt out clearly in the boast by Gregory Campbell that his party "now holds the balance of power at Westminster and we will use it to force the pace".

The DUP’s coup over the detention vote puts into stark relief the attempt by Sinn Fein to win concessions through engineering a mini crisis over the nomination of the new First Minister. This collapsed in ignominy with Sinn Fein agreeing to nominate with only a commitment from the British and the unionists to discuss their concerns. The Gordon Brown-DUP deal shoots a hole in the Sinn Fein belief that the British will put pressure on the DUP to move on issues such as an Irish language act and and the devolution of policing and justice powers. One consequence of the Brown-DUP deal will be the return of a form of internment to the north. As part of the UK, 42 day detention will apply here as well. Weren't we promised that repressive laws were a thing of the past?

Monday, June 9, 2008

DUP Iris Does It Again

Days Like These No7

by Guest Blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

I'll not be commenting on the precise details Mrs R's recent outburst but wish to look at it's political consequences. What the Belfast Agreement and the St Andrew's Agreement was about for the British and Irish governments and Sinn Fein was to present the the DUP as new 'shiney happy people' (as the Irish Times described IPsnr) and every thing in the new DUP/SF future will be fine and if not fine - manageable.

After several incidents involving the DUP bigotry and malpractice SF's condemnations of their partners in government are waring pretty thin, because they are the ones who have vested interest in the fantasy that DUP can be what they want them to be - and not what they are.

The difference between this latest DUP instance of homophobia and previous instances is that the DUP via Iris are now telling us loud and clear 'they will not be silenced' not by anyone and have a right to their views. She has now been reported to the police by various groups - including the Alliance party for her hate speech. That will, if nothing else show us just how strong the DUP and Loyalist bigotry is here, as she is turned into a Loyalist hero -a 'victim' of 'liberal left political correctness' as one of her supporters put it .

The endorsement given by Iris to Dr Miller who is still practices aversion therapy in the province is now official as Mrs Robinsion is not only the chair of the Stormont health committee she also sat on the the special committee on suicide prevention. Now we know her solution for people who have suffered as a result of homophobia 'I know a Dr, who can help you change your sexual orientation...'. The person she offered that advise to had just been beaten and left for dead in Carmoney a few days ago.

Sinn Fein seem to think that they are dealing with a New DUP when they are the same as when they first started - an organisation devoted to reaction pure and simple. And it is Sinn Fein that we all have to thank for putting the DUP and that reaction into government.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Siptu Gets Stuck In

The recent painful history of union collaboration with employer attacks on workers’ conditions in Aer Lingus is so blatant that it could almost be forgiven if anyone with the least concern about the issues turned away in embarrassment and disgust.

SIPTU supported privatisation of the state-owned company on condition that workers conditions were protected. Ever since there have been unremitting attacks on these conditions while those at the top of the company have given themselves extravagant bonuses for having successfully pushed them through. In truth they have received these under false pretences. Those really responsible for their successful implementation are the trade union leaders who first of all sold privatisation and then imposed the attacks on workers when they were initially rejected.

Having made an agreement for pay rises under the latest social partnership umbrella – ‘Towards 2016’ – Aer Lingus management then tore this deal up and refused to pass the pay increases on to their workers. Then they demanded €20m cuts. What was SIPTU’s reaction? When workers rejected the cuts they made them vote again. Just as they did during the Nice Treaty referendum when they supported the government when it too demanded another vote when the first one didn’t go their way.

In this case however the union bureaucracy’s treachery is worse. When they voted for a second time, according to the union’s rules, the workers again rejected the deal. This time their leaders just tore up their own rule book and imposed the new terms and conditions on those sections of the workforce where a majority had been brow-beaten into accepting them in the second ballot. The remaining sections have been left isolated. They will no doubt receive short shrift if they too decide to fight back and ignore, by-pass or circumvent the union rule book, which is so often the bureaucracy’s weapon against its own members.

This whole rotten story has now been repeated with handlers at the aircraft maintenance firm SR Technics, an earlier victim of government and union false promises. Having voted against changes to their terms and conditions SIPTU again imposed another vote and forced another rotten ‘compromise’ on the workers. The nature of this compromise and the union’s sorry record has been made so clear in a SIPTU statement that it hardly requires socialists to comment further.

The SIPTU statement reads: “The handlers are willing to be trained up to undertake the task while awaiting the outcome of the arbitration. I would also like to point out that these men have undertaken additional productivity in the past without any monetary reward. They have had to forego the seven per cent increase due to them under the Sustaining Progress agreement and the last phase of Towards 2016, which was worth another 2.5 per cent, making a cumulative total of ten per cent. This latest change was introduced at the last minute in negotiations which had focused on the craft group of workers and we were given very little time to deal with the issue.”

So SIPTU dealt with it by mugging the workforce.

These are by no means isolated examples of the role of union bureaucracies, but rather fit neatly into a pattern that is so evident that it is overwhelming. Yet still many on the left regard these people as misguided reformists who share the same goal but just differ in ideas or methods. Like brass monkeys they see, hear and speak no evil as they hoist these people onto platforms in whatever single issue campaign is their latest hobby horse – giving them radical credentials so radically false we turn away in embarrassment and disgust.

But that is where we came in.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Man bites dog

Irish trade unionism – the home of the young conservative fogey

Aficionados of Irish trade unionism may well have missed a recent gem by Sean Fryers, member of Unite executive and a youth member of the Irish Congress of Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In the Irish News on 28th May he bemoans the plight of local business facing inflation, increased energy costs, a climate change levy and water charges. His members face all these to a much greater extent than their bosses, but Sean chooses to write about the plight of the capitalists.

He worries about all these “as local companies will be unable to increase the pay of the working class people”.

The solution is for the local capitalist administration to lobby the Brown government to obtain a reduction in energy costs “for local employers”.

This is one of these “Man bites dog” stories, where the trade union representative demonstrates on behalf of the bosses, ignores the needs of the workers and gives a green light for a pay freeze before negotiations even begin.

It provoked no comment, but perhaps that’s hardly surprising in a week where the Trade union leadership are involved in yet another partnership sellout, one group of workers were on hunger strike outside ‘Unite’ offices because of alleged union collusion in their sacking and another group had split completely from Unite, alleging that their officers were in collusion with the employers.

Reading Sean Fryers offering, they may well have a point.

Days Like These No6

‘When are filmmakers going to make unionism ‘sexy’?’

by Guest Blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

The above question was the large print headline to a news feature that appeared in the Irish News 27.05.08 prompted by a complaint by the playwright Garry Mitchell ‘It has been said to me’, the playwright told the paper, ‘that Catholics are ‘sexier’, that they’re far more interesting and far more entertaining and that the leads [main actors] are more interesting if they’re Catholic’.

This response was solicited from the playwright as part of the papers reaction to the news that a film Hunger by the black director Alexander McQueen depicting the last days of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, had just won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes film festival. ‘Is the success of Hunger’, the paper asked, ‘evidence that ‘the troubles movie’ had turned the corner?’ In the two articles what followed the answer ‘no’ was given by those opposed to the film.

Now it may well be expecting too much of the a Belfast based newspaper to try and answer their own question by asking the director Alexander McQueen why he would even want to direct a film about Bobby Sands. The article only reported hostile unionist reaction. Publishing comment that ranged from anti-Agreement unionist James Dixon who accused the film of ‘glorifying some of the worst criminals in hell’ to the DUP’s Robin Newton who said that Alexander McQueen didn’t understand the truth about ‘the fanatical nature of terrorists’ – who along with other unionist members of Belfast City Council had opposed the making of the film in Belfast. These were the only people quoted. The balance of the article -if one could call it that - didn’t appear to be an issue.

Some may think it a rather glib point to make but it is important –given the nature of the subject – that it is now considered a cliché to refer to a serious matter as interesting (or not) due to the fact of it being ‘sexy’ or not. The English novelist A.S Byatt made that point rather poignantly over ten years ago when she said that one of most offensive traits of the 1980s was the intrusion of city yuppie jargon into common speech. So it was not uncommon to hear things like mortgages being referred to as ‘sexy’ deals when it had, as she said, ‘got nothing to do with sex’ or sex appeal. The above quoted headline ‘When are filmmakers going to make unionism’ sexy’’ not only does the paper a disservice, it does Gary Mitchell a disservice also. For he was reporting the speech of film industry people, he has never seen it as his job to make unionism or Loyalism sexy and he has had a good deal of success in portraying it as anything but!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where are They and What Do They Believe In Now? - Part 2 the BBC & The SWP

Days like these Part. 5

Guest blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

First, an update on previous entries: The Labour revolt over the abolition of 10p lower tax band lead by back bencher Frank Field is now at an end, as he announced in the House of Commons. After having secured a pledge that its negative effects will be removed, Mr Field said that his war with the government ‘is now over’ (the Labour Lefts’ mini is now safely back in neutral mode). Unfortunately it will be of little help to the poor as the price of oil, wheat and rice sky rocket. Labour after the May council elections and the Crewe by-election will not be able to remain in power by seeking more advice from the free market Gurus. A parliamentary researcher friend tells me that those government ministers, who have managed to give up the gurus, have given up being Labour politicians as well.

I see that Mr Brendan Barber and the TUC have managed at last to kick their way into the headlines (well into the London Independent at least). He has promised a Summer of Discontent for the government – interesting that the Independent put it like that - weren’t the workers of the Winter of Discontent defeated? The question now is, can Mr Barber become the new Frank Field? Watch this space!


Rather than debate the value if this publicly owned institution, an evaluation of its effectiveness in aftermath of the disaster of the Hutton Report would be more in order. For it is clear that the Hutton Report was the largest political defeat for the corporation in its history. It was also the most obvious political white-wash of a government since the Bloody Sunday Widgery Tribunal into the Derry killings in 1972 (Hutton, as is widely known, played a controversial role in condemning the coroner after the bloody Sunday Killings for expressing a view that the victims were unlawfully killed). When his report on the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly was published, it avoided the question of what may have caused his death - such as the government leaking the scientists’ name to the press - and condemning the BBC for helping the scientist express his views anonymously. However, BBC unions missed their chance when it would have been very easy to get public support for a political strike against Hutton and the Government and to protest against one of the most blatant political whitewashes in recent history.

Since then, post the Hutton report, the BBC has tried to recover some of its political influence. To a certain extent it has regained that influence, mostly as a consequence of the UK public moving to oppose and protest against the New Labour disaster. However, the BBC has also retained the right to run the usual immigrant scare stories – thus maintaining the Corporation dubious sense of ‘balance.’


The Socialist Workers Party, or the International Socialists as the organisation was before 1976, have managed to become what they used to campaign against – an organisation devoted to identity politics. If anyone was in any doubt as to the change or what it means for socialist campaigns, they should listen to the SWP mayoral candidate Lindsey German speaking at the last Stop the War Conference. Rather than emphasize the collective action of all groups and the international role of the War and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the anti war leader repeatedly infers that the war is also a Muslim issue. It is only a Muslim issue in so far as the minority of Muslims say that it is. The wars and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are not a Muslim issue - in the same way the occupation of the North of Ireland is a not catholic (or a protestant) issue.

It is anti-imperialist issue and the socialist aim in any anti-imperialist campaign is the forging of links between all those who oppose the imperial project. As a consequence of the SWP line the involvement of millions was thrown away in the hope that appealing to one group –the Muslim community (no matter how important) would help expand the group’s political influence. That strategy has failed, but the SWP like New Labour and the New Labour leadership, will continue to pile up disaster on disaster - thoroughly convinced that it is everyone else ‘who doesn’t get it’. And that’s one thing the SWP and New Labour are right about.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bankrolling bigotry – another example

Another example of the official promotion of sectarian (one of the key elements of the peace process) came to light this week when it was revealed that public bodies were helping to finance loyalist marching bands.

In response to a freedom of information request, Stormont’s Department of Culture revealed that sixty five bands received funds totally more than £166,100 last year. The Arts Council gave about £102,500 to 24 bands; the Ulster Scots Agency gave £56,000 to 38 bands; and the Big Lottery Fund gave £6,980 to three bands (this was under its Awards for All scheme).

Among the bands receiving support (£4,600 from the Lottery) was the Pride of the Ardoyne. It takes part in the flashpoint parade past the Ardoyne shops every year displaying a banner bearing emblem of the Young Citizen Volunteers – the UVF’s youth wing - and the names of two deceased UVF members. The Mourne Young Defenders Flute Band received £1,800 from the Ulster Scots Agency for musical tuition and a further £1,219 for an ‘Ulster Scots summer school’ run by its members. In 2006 it took part in the Love Ulster parade in Dublin that provoked a riot.

That loyalist bands should be involved in sectarian intimidation is hardly a surprise – this is the very reason for their existence. The most sinister element is that they are being legitimised by the state; their coat trailing antics repackaged as cultural expression.

In justifying this the funding bodies corrupt the very principles they are supposedly there to promote. For example, on its support for loyalist bands, a spokesman of Arts Council claimed that it “monitors the artistic quality of applicants and is aware of its obligations under ‘Good Relations’ and Section 75 legislation.” He also claimed that the Council was “actively encouraging applicants to develop and expand their audiences and to break down barriers in society, in line with the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement”. A spokeswoman for National Lottery said that it helped “organisations to run projects which will bring people together and increase community activity”. Of course the whole ethos and activity of loyalists stands in direct opposition to breaking down barriers and bringing people together. They are there to fan sectarian sentiment and maintain divisions.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is revealed by the Arts Council spokesperson when he said that it was acting “in line with the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement”. The official bankrolling of bigotry is an inevitable consequence of the politics that underpin the peace process - that the struggle in the north is not about self determination or imperialism but the competing aspirations of two communities. Once this has been accepted, as it has by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, how can the demands of loyalists, such as the right to march anywhere they please, be denied? Sure isn’t part of their culture?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Where are They And What Do They Believe In Now?

Days Like These No4

Guest blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

‘Policies not Personalities’ is still one of Tony Benn’s most memorable sayings which I would like to suspend for the duration of this and the next few columns. For it is time to take stock and provide a who’s who of the crisis in socialist ideas and ask who is operating in reverse gear?

For although thinks are moving slowly and some change is taking place I want to suggest why it isn’t happening faster.

The Labour Party

First an epiphany – not mine but watching someone have one. This was Frank Field MP on The Daily Politics programme talk about China and the Olympics. British athletes, he said, should not boycott the Beijing Olympics. They should go and protest at the opening ceremony by carrying Tibetan flags. When he was reminded by Andrew Neil that this would not be allowed, he got quite angry and said that it should done anyway and that Britain should encourage as many other countries to follow suit as doing nothing would give the Chinese Communist Party a propaganda triumph, similar to Hitler’s Olympics of 1936.

He is right of course; the international protests against the brutality in Tibet will be a focus for all the radical (anti-Stalinist) forces and may help rekindle the pro-democracy campaigners within the country. This time the Tibetan and pro-democracy campaigners will not receive official support from America or Britain as China now controls most of their debt.

The next I heard of F. Field was on Channel Four protesting at the abolition of the 10 pence tax rate for those on low incomes. He made a contribution as his former self – the Child Poverty Action campaigner and not as the ideological prisoner of neo‑liberal gurus who insisted that Social Security systems should be cut back to help employment and the economy grow.

Either he has been listening to others or has just told himself that he should never have believed Brown on helping ‘children out of poverty’ while his government bails out more failing banks. Say what you like, but if old FF has now a problem with Brown and his policies, how many will also ditch the gurus and oppose those policies? That depends on how badly New Labour losses are in the May elections. Then Mr Field will hold another meeting with his back bench colleagues about Mr Brown’s polices and decide if they will or will not move from a position of neutrality or into first gear. One to watch!

Brendan Barber and The Invisible TUC

How could you know that Brendan Barber is still the General Secretary of the TUC, other than by calling the TUC or wiking it? You wouldn’t know form the British media. I have never seen him interviewed in the way his predecessors were in the 1970s. In fact he and the TUC may just as well not exist. This is actually unfair as he is happy to work behind the scenes. After the hard work he put into betraying the Gateway and BAA unions he has earned the nickname ‘Brendan‑ Johnny‑Go‑Backwards -Barber’

Next Time: The BBC and the SWP

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Dr Varney’s prescription for the north – privatisation and wage cuts

The British Government’s grim vision for workers in the north took on some more detail this week with the publication of the second part of the Varney report. This report, the first part of which had dealt with taxation, was commissioned by the treasury in response to the pleading of local politicians for some type of economic peace dividend. Of course the expected economic package from Brown wasn’t forthcoming. As compensation Brown’s close advisor David Varney was tasked with drawing up proposals to boost the north’s economy.

Local politicians had all hung their hats on the call for a dramatic cut in corporation tax as the magical formula for economic growth. However, this was never likely to be conceded in the context of broader Treasury policy and was rejected by Varney in his first report. The second report, which sets out a broad economic prescription is therefore probably more significant, reflecting as it does British government thinking on how to reform the north’s economy.

For workers in the north Varney’s report makes grim reading. It is a programme for a complete shift towards neoliberalism. While this process has been ongoing for a number of years, under both devolution and direct rule, Varney’s proposals would mark a dramatic acceleration.

The main elements of Varney Two are privatisation and wage cuts. He calls for the Executive to increase the role of the private in the delivery of key public services while transferring other “non-core services” entirely into private ownership. The public assets he recommends selling off completely include Belfast Port, the NI Vehicle Testing Agency, car parks and the public housing stock. This last proposal is particularly harsh given the chronic housing crisis in the north and the growing waiting list for Housing Executive properties.

Alongside this privatisation programme Varney demands the lowering of wages in the north. His claim is that the marginally better pay and conditions in the public sector are hammering private sector growth. To counter this he proposes the introduction of regionalised pay for public servants, breaking the link with the rest of the UK. He also proposes a regionalised minimum wage and changes to the benefit system. The effect of all this would be to lower wages across the board, and to coerce people off benefits and into low paying jobs.

What Varney proposes would be a nightmare for workers. It would transfer massive wealth from labour to capital, and drive down the living standards of workers both in terms of their pay and conditions and the costs and quality of public services they use. Unsurprisingly Varney Two received a welcome from employers and criticism from trade union. However, the silence from local politicians was notable. While none of the parties endorsed Varney they didn’t reject it either. Their true position was probably summed up most accurately by a spokesperson for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI) who when welcoming the proposals noted that “to a very large extent they already reflect the existing aims of the Executive”.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Days Like These No 3. Will You Promise To Keep Paying The Bankers On Demand?

Guest blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

What was it they used to say about trade Unionists and the New Labour Party? - something about there being ‘no more beer and sandwiches’ for them in Downing Street any more. What that phrase meant was that there would be an end to any cosy relationship and assumptions about improving pay and conditions.

Today it has just been announced that the chiefs of the biggest five banks‑mortgage lenders have completed a two day visit to Downing Street. This ended with the Treasury agreeing another £50 billion of public money would be given to those bankers to ‘boost their confidence’. Trade Union leaders have not been heard on the airways on the subject of this new cosy relationship, which involves the exchange of bad debts for government bonds that can be then traded on the open market. Only the venerable Vince - Mr Cable of the Liberal Democrats - was given an audience by BBC to object to this. He pointed out that government have asked for nothing in return - no agreement on future regulation, no guarantees that the behaviour the bankers themselves agreed caused the chaos in the first place - would be moderated.

The problem with the Governments’ and Mr Cable’s approach, as one commentator pointed out, was that it had a built-in flaw. Because, as she explained, the £50 billion of Government subsidy to the banks would not be enough to keep the bankers confident in their own market this year and that the whole operation could carry on indefinitely year on year.

Nationalisation of bank debts has now the only dependable source of private Bank profit as they in effect become government bond dealers. No matter this is still a short term solution that will in turn cause the value of the bonds to fall. Why? Because the government got rid of its assets 20 years ago that could have been used to halt a fall in their value on the open market. Now it has only the tax payer and arms industry left to depend on and their own borrowing.

After the debacle over the abolition of the 10p rate of tax and the fate of the Aljamai Saudi arms deal the government will itself have to borrow yet more money. That money will not be supplied by the central (American) banks. The government, like the other governments of the world, will take their place in the Beijing Dole queue to avail themselves of Communist China’s Social Security Scheme for Capitalist Ruling Classes. China will be happy to wait until land prices in Britain and the world fall by 30% and then they plan to start buying as the Japanese security houses did in the 1970s.

That might be in a year from now but by that time Chinese peasants will already have begun to die from hunger due to the doubling and trebling in the price of rice. Who then can say what will happen to the Chinese government?

Let them eat cake - water bosses party as Executive looks to private equity

Given the scandals that have surrounded NI Water, a celebration of the first anniversary of its creation would have hardly seemed appropriate. However, this did not deter the company throwing a £8,000 bash birthday bash at a luxury hotel for its senior managers. This came just days after the utility regulator had lunched an investigation into a blunder that could result in customers paying an extra £20 million a year in water bills.

The shamelessness of NI Water bosses is perhaps matched only by their lack of taste. This was revealed in a leaked draft itinerary for the birthday gathering. It refers to "party bags with sweets" being available on tables, a "birthday tea" at lunchtime with "sandwiches, cakes, jelly and ice cream" and " birthday branding" including banners and balloons. A special birthday cake was scheduled to make an appearance after a morning presentation to managers on NI Water's first year by its chief executive Katharine Bryan. The draft programme said the chief executive would be asked to stay on stage to cut the cake, as the lights dimmed, music played, and birthday imagery appeared on screen. The song snippet earmarked for the start of Bryan's talk was from the U2 hit "Pride". Other songs featured included "Praise You" by Fat Boy Slim, "Little Less Conversation" by Elvis, "Shine" by Take That and the theme tune of The Office. The last is particularly appropriate as the party scene conjures up the discomforting comedy that was the hallmark of that series. Unfortunately this isn’t a satire on reality TV, this is reality. If there is a joke it’s on the public.

The bosses of NI Water can engage in such smug and contemptuous displays because there is absolutely no pressure on them from the parties in the Executive. This is despite the fact that it is nominally a government-controlled company. While there may be huffing and puffing from some MLAs, NI Water has been given a free hand to do whatever it wants. The minister for Regional Development, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, uses its status as an independent company to evade any responsibility. We therefore have a situation in which all the Executive parties claim to be against privatisation of the water service and extra water charges, while the management of NI Water moves this process on a pace.

While there may appear to be a conflict, the reality is that the Executive and the management of NI Water are actually in tune. Despite the rhetoric the whole thrust of the Executive’s programme is towards privatisation and the extension of the role of private finance within public services. The latest example of this is the agreement negotiated with the comptroller of New York City pension funds to invest around $150 million in the Emerald Infrastructure Development Fund. This fund, which will effectively act as a private equity firm, will finance projects in the north in sectors such as energy, waste management, property, healthcare and ports. Significantly, the water industry was also mentioned as a possible area of investment.

Despite the claim from Martin McGuinness that the fund represents “the ordinary people of the United States investing in the ordinary people of the North", this is certainly not charity or an act of solidarity. It is actually a form of financial speculation. New York city comptroller William Thompson was clear about the purpose of this fund when he declared that was "optimistic about the opportunities for potential strong returns" from the north.

Investment of this type is also a driver of privatisation as whole areas of the public sector are opened up to private capital. This is what is behind the massive expansion of PFI schemes in the north. Under these public assets such as schools and hospitals have been transferred into private ownership and taxpayers forced to pay for their maintenance. This racket has run up hundreds of millions of pounds in public liabilities. Despite the rhetoric about additional investment, private finance actually extracts money from the public purse. And it is workers who bear the cost of the “strong returns” for the likes of Emerald Fund, whether directly through jobs losses and deteriorating working conditions if they are employed in the public sector, or through having to pay charges and higher taxes for public services. No wonder the bosses of NI Water are celebrating!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dublin Palestine march: Socialists supply the bodies, liberalism supplies the politics

An Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Committee (IPSC) march of around 300 people was held in Dublin on Saturday April 12th. The demonstration was part of a series of IPSC events to commemorate the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine which led to the establishment of the colonial-settler and apartheid state of Israel. It linked the most infamous massacre of 1948 – Deir Yassin where around 120 people were killed, and the ethic cleansing on which Israel is founded established, with the ‘collective punishment’ endured by the people of Gaza today.

It was an issue worthy of protest, but one could only blink at the role of the Dublin left. The socialist movement, along with Palestinian émigrés, made up the whole of the demonstration, hosting a platform largely dominated by forces far to their right. The most glaring example was the keynote speech by David Norris in which he indicated his support for the state of Israel, qualified with a call for more humane treatment of Palestinians. He was followed by bluster from Michael D Higgins of the Labour party and blather from SIPTU bureaucrat Mags O'Brien and Sinn Fein apparatchik Mary Lou McDonald. The only figure who could be definitely identified with socialism was Eamonn McCann.

Socialists have been holding demonstrations throughout the lifetime of the modern working class. They have hosted non-socialist speakers with very distinct ground rules. One – an attempt to broaden the movement by engaging with new forces the speakers bring with them, two – to debate issues and win workers away from liberalism, nationalism and social democracy.

These ground rules no longer apply. The grandees never bring anyone but themselves. Michael D could claim to have brought Labour youth – but they would have come anyway. Norris had no-one to bring. Sinn Fein will keep their own supporters as far away from the left as they can. As for debate – the fact that Norris can support Israel without facing anyone protesting and pointing out that that state can only survive by maintaining ethnic cleansing and apartheid is a sign of the deep demoralisation of the left.

This behaviour is clearly suicidal, Sinn Fein in particular are clearly using the issue of Palestine to re-establish a little of the leftist glitter that tarnished so quickly in the last election. If they succeed they will obliterate the left’s own pretensions to electoral success. How can we explain it?

The answer seemed to be summed up in the platform calls for the EU to suspend the Euro-med agreement that gives Israel special status. This is nothing but another call for the ‘international community’ to act. The EU is clearly with the other imperialist powers in supporting Israel. The job of the socialist movement is to try and convince workers to intervene on the side of Palestine. It appears that the left have given up trying to climb that particular mountain and are willing to allow liberalism to set the agenda.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Bertie Boy bows out

While Bertie Ahern may have claimed the announcement of his resignation as Taoiseach was made voluntarily and at a time of his own choosing, there is no doubt that the continuing revelations at the Mahon Tribunal hastened his departure. Up until last week he was showing every indication that he was set to brazen it out, even going on the offensive with his own legal challenges.

What really did for him was the admission from his former secretary that he had given her pounds sterling to exchange and deposit in his bank accounts. This was a charge that he had vehemently denied. But he had now been caught telling a blatant lie. With another appearance at the tribunal looming in May, where he would be questioned about this, he chose to resign.

Of course this was dressed up as being in the interests of the country rather than a desperate attempt to salvage some dignity from a precarious position. Not that Ahern could muster much dignity in his resignation announcement. It was a long whine about how he had been hard done by, the innocent victim of a relentless media campaign. This was a complete distortion. It was not the media that brought him down (in fact he had gotten a relatively easy ride for a long time), but all his lies and dodgy dealings. He was a corrupt politician whose luck had finally run out.

Not that you would have gained this impression from the tributes paid to him. To go by them you would have thought Bertie Ahern was a saint. The biggest claims made for him were as the architect of the peace process and social partnership. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said he “brought about the Good Friday Agreement and he deserves our thanks for that." SIPTU General President Jack O'Connor said Ahern's time in office had seen “the most dramatic enhancement of economic prosperity in our entire history”. But it really says more about the state of trade unions and the republicanism movement than Ahern that their representatives should praise the two greatest triumphs of imperialism and capitalism in Ireland.

The claims for Ahern as the architect of these is also dubious. While he may have been around, the figure most associated with social partnership was Charles Haughey. The peace process also predated his period as Fianna Fail leader and Taoiseach. The real drive for this came form the political collapse of the republican movement. The role of Irish Government was to copper fasten this by going along with the British and dropping any gestures (such as articles 2 & 3) towards democracy.

There is also an attempt to present Ahern as a symbol of the “new Ireland”. But this is a myth as well, ignoring the political milieu that created him. He attempted to spin this myth himself in his resignation speech when referring to his admiration for former Fianna Fail leaders. However, his list had one glaring omission - Charles Haughey. This is even more glaring in the case of Bertie Ahern as Haughey was his political mentor. He was part of Haughey’s inner circle and the monumental corruption of that period. It was Ahern who singed the black cheques that aided Haughey’s pilfering of the public purse.

Despite his man of the people image Ahern, like Huaghey and his other predecessors, was only concerned with looking after the interests of the rich in Ireland – from tax amnesties to low taxes on profits and privatisation. He presided over a period when inequality grew massively and billions were transferred from Ireland’s workers to the wealthy. He had done his bit to create a rich man’s paradise and expected to get his due. This is the real story behind Ahern’s “unusual” financial arrangements.

Bertie Ahern claimed that one of the reasons for delaying his resignation to the 6 May was so he could take up his invitation to address a joint sitting of the US Congress. That such an “honour” should be performed by someone leaving office because of corruption may appear unseemly. But what better representative of the Irish political class could there be?

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Levellers and Optimists

By guest blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

The ticker tape that runs across the top of my computer has just informed me that American government and the Federal Bank is in the process of changing the economic system once more. Now we are finally backed to the saner system of a failing bank being able to avail itself of extensive funds on demand. What this will mean I can only paraphrase in the style of a fellow columnist who contributes and occasional column to a UK liberal daily:

“Government Announcement: ‘Capitalism - it is a complex system and every now again the state needs to take your money, and the money from the weak, the poor, the disabled and the sick and give it to very rich people. These very rich people are like you and me – they are people who have failed to keep themselves very rich. We all depend on these people – they have committed no crime (other than acting like criminals). We owe them all a great deal and over the next few years you will see how much we are in their debt. If you are in receipt of tax allowances or pensions however small or Social Security payments how ever large, please donate to this worthwhile cause and give generously.”

I suppose any liberal or liberal comedian columnist could have written that as those who publish such broadsides believe that they are close to making a comeback. It would be glib to call them ‘Keynesians’ as they have only ever existed in theory. No, I’m actually talking about the good citizens at Goldman Sachs, CNN international, Granada Television, The London Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, and Melvin Bragg (Inc). For if there is one thing that unites them all, here and abroad, it is the belief that the state can be a great democratic leveller correcting the errors of the free market with power of regulation – once that is done they argue, society would then be both greater and more equal. Unlike the free marketers who tend to be Right Wing Populists they are Principled Democrats. Everywhere they and their ideas are poised for a comeback. From now on, we will all be reminded of the state Will Hutton is in.

But what if we had an example of a state where these notions had been the official ideology for over thirty years? Commentators used to joke that the state of Northern Ireland was the last bastion of communism in Europe. They were not of course referring to Northern Ireland’s annual security bill or the cost of replacing its slums after sixty years. They were referring to the state and its official ideology of bureaucratic optimism.

This policy was recently on more dramatic display at the launch of the consultative document on Human Rights which produced no agreement on what was a human right and who should be entitled to them. This was at the end of a ten year process of consultation. The cheerleaders of the process such as Sinn Fein and the Communist Party – the local official optimists who say they believe in the power of the state to level – were of course not downhearted.

For they have become like those who they supposedly oppose. Institutionalised liberals all, who believe in the state as a benign force that is supporting and guiding them because, as they say to whoever will listen – the process. It is the only progress that is available to them to believe in. And who could blame them, their needs as believers have been satisfied.