Friday, March 28, 2008

Ta bron orm (I’m sorry) Republican spat ends in tears and forgetfulness

The full-barrelled attack by Andersonstown News correspondent “Squinter” on Gerry Adams in the run-up to Easter shows the extreme political fragility of the Sinn Fein political structure. If anything the grovelling front-page apology in the post-Easter edition simply accentuates that fragility and the shock effect of a direct attack on Adams from the ‘Belly of the Beast’ – from the centre of the Sinn Fein propaganda machine. A process that has eaten Ian Paisley and son within ten months could yet devour Adams.

The movement is growing more fragile from a number of directions which appear as sudden shocks or crises. The stability that is left rests on the utter demoralisation of their membership, of a layer who are directly employed or employed as ‘community activists’ and in the utter absence of a convincing political alternative from within republicanism.

The most immediate shock here comes from the winding up of the IRA military structure. The political collapse of republicanism massively increased the layer of demoralised youth inhabiting areas like the Lower Falls. These youth, so deeply demoralised that they have no great concern about their own lives or the lives of those around them, feel they have no reason to be afraid of ex-prisoners or of those with close IRA connections. The IRA still have the capacity to kill these youths, but doing so they put themselves at the mercy of the DUP and the British and increase the likelihood of the expulsion of Sinn Fein from Stormont. Keeping their bums on Stormont seats is nearly the only policy that the Shinners have left. The result is that the Sinn Fein base suddenly find themselves defenceless, without the natural immunity that connection with the IRA conferred and dependent on the RUC/PSNI for defence. Naturally the RUC/PSNI have no deep concern about the protection of Sinn Fein or of working-class communities.

The Squinter article explores that raw nerve and ties it to a growing realisation that in fact Sinn Fein have achieved nothing through their rapprochement with imperialism and unionism. The Andersonstown News represents a small business class, mostly a middle class ‘Sinn Fein Nua’, who have done quite well from the grants that have been targeted at them, but expected it to be followed by major investment that never came. The fact that Sinn Fein have lost out on issues like the Irish language, police devolution and the new sports complex have not gone unnoticed, nor has the weakness and incoherence of their response.

A new and more burning irritation has emerged since the Dromore by-election, the DUP, seriously rattled by the success of Jim Allister and anti-agreement unionism, feel the need to humiliate Sinn Fein and demonstrate unionist triumphalism. This led to the serious backfire of an attempt by Sinn Fein to wrap the green flag around them by commemorating the deaths of IRA volunteers in Gibraltar and at the Funeral after. The DUP responded by forcing Sinn Fein to meet in the equivalent of a broom cupboard – squeezed into their Stormont office. This humiliation is becoming a daily occurrence and Adams threats of retaliation are tired and unconvincing.

Finally there is the outcome of the Southern election. Sinn Fein’s practice was to speak out of both sides of its mouth at once, with vague radical blather for the working class constituencies and hard right wing policies for its business backers. Under the pressure of election Adams tore up the blather and unveiled a party of the far right committed to economic policies dictated by big business – a party with no policies of its own and nowhere to go in a political landscape crowded with far right nationalist parties.

The attack on Adams stops well short of a critique of the St. Andrews agreement. The assumption is that there are nationalist gains to be made but that the Sinn Fein leadership are too incompetent to make them. In fact the Andersonstown News attack was an attack from the right. The paper was well ahead of Sinn Fein in pushing the present deal. Its ‘independent’ stance in the republican apparatus consists precisely of having the freedom to strike out to the right of Sinn Fein and express views that are not yet current in the mainstream. It was this paper that led the drive to establish sporting relations with the police and then to give the police an open platform in the paper. It was this paper that constantly distorted its reporting and slandered it opponents to win support for Adam’s policies and push the police into nationalist areas. These right-wing forces are now impatient. The old relics of the military campaign are an obstacle to a modern, middle-class Catholic party, able to push sectarian privilege and cut deals with the Unionists and British.

But Sinn Fein appears too fragile for this logical development to take place. The only stable base they have is Adams and the former military structure. The fragility was shown up by the initial panicky reaction, where Adams attacked the police and announced yet another multi-agency solution, followed by the counter-attack of the grovelling apology enforced on the Andersonstown News, followed by the Stalinist air-brush that took the squinter column from the paper’s archives and from the journalists own blog. The final outcome is that Sinn Fein are given a direct phone line to the police so that they can rush to the defence of the workers!

The Andersonstown News has got too big for its boots. Its idea that the suits, led by the group's managing director Mairtín Ó Muilleoir, can deliver real gains is simply a pipedream. However the unsayable has been said and no amount of file deletion can put the genie back in the bottle. In fact Squinter may have said too much. In arguing that the police do not protect communities and that the agreement has not generated prosperity and investment he is inviting his readers to draw the conclusion, not that they need a sharper suit at the head of the party, but that its time to reject an agreement that has revived the sectarian hell-hole in the North and met none of the needs of the working people who inhabit it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Days Like These No. 2

I begin with a memo that was recently posted on the financial pages of CNN online. It was a test that it advised readers give their financial advisors. Now some may say that we would have little to learn from such people and you would be right. For it turns out that the previously mentioned test was designed to determine if the financial advisor knew anything at all about finance or was just – as the memo put it simply ‘a salesman’ . The worse case scenario was when the ‘advisor’ refused to answer the questions and replied that ‘figures are the back offices concern’.

Today of course that can’t be the right answer as figures are everybody’s concern – from the price of wheat, petrol and – money. But in these days of so many turning points the financial adviser, who knows nothing about finance, is yet another indicator of the melt down in the economy. After all what one needed before now was to keep the faith that every thing was on the up. Financial advisers then gave no advice they just promoted stock options. Now many will be transferring to the back office to have a look at those same figures not to brush up their knowledge of the market but to avoid the people on the phones worried how much money they will loose as a result of the recent advice they received. Those who replace them will of course have the additional personal skills to be able to impart bad news and sympathise with the client in distress - rather like bereavement councillors.

If there was any shock at the news that the government had finally nationalised the British bank Northern Rock after a death agony of some four months it had all but dissipated by the final act. For we have now moved on form the ‘free market’ (which was neither free or a market) to free money that is costing us all packet (£100billion to be precise). Because as it transpired there simply was no effective way that the regulators (the people we pay to monitor the banks) could establish the truth behind the web of Off Shore companies that was Northern Rock. Not under the current law or management at any rate.

Not that the other Atlantic government is doing any better than it’s British subsidiary which just recently gave a present of $200 billion dollars to the four most sub prim exposed banks. Once that had been done, in the hope of halting the effects of more bank failures in the deadlines - the world wide stock market and the dollar tumbled in any case some 2.5%. The Federal Reserve or ‘the fed’, as it is affectionately known on Wall Street, had made matters worse. What now?

That’s not just a question for government financial advisers but for every one of us.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Posturing or Prophesy?

The resignation of Ian Paisley has been widely reported as representing no threat to the power sharing institutions of the St. Andrews Agreement. This is something of a puzzle since Paisley’s resignation is in no small part a result of the Dromore by-election, which saw a substantial minority of unionist voters register their complete opposition to power sharing. It is not much of a surprise therefore that the London ‘Times’ has revealed the British government’s real concern for the future of the power sharing deal.

It stated that ‘The timing of his [Paisley’s] loss is profoundly unfortunate. The new institutions have been reasonably well established but cannot be described as secure. It would have been in the best interests of Northern Ireland if the First Minister could have stayed in place for at least another six months, entrenching the DUP-Sinn Fein accord further in the process, dealing with the controversial transfer of policing and justice to the Province and seeing through the summer marching season.’ The ‘Times’ went on ‘If Mr Robinson starts to find artificial fights with those who should be his partners then this will be reciprocated. And if that occurs, a fragile political bargain that serves the wider interests of Protestants and Catholics alike may be imperilled. Mr Robinson needs to state unequivocally that he intends to make the new arrangements work and that extremists who disagree with him can take their leave of the DUP.’

Peter Robinson however might recall that previous unionist leaders have come a cropper by going along with British demands, and that Paisley didn’t get where he was - to be top of the unionist pile - by compromising with Irish nationalism. The Dromore by-election was simply a reminder of this. The votes for the most blistering opponents of the current deal were of course a minority but Paisley also stated off in a much smaller minority.

No sooner had this warning been issued but Robinson revealed the end game of the DUP, indeed of all unionism, by stating that they aimed to dispense with power sharing altogether and head towards majority rule, i.e. unionist rule – ‘a far more normal democracy‘ he said. This is one hell of a sham fight to pick. The media have stayed true to their servile support for British policy by passing over this statement almost in silence. Certainly the threat to destroy the existing institutions by the putative leader of the biggest party has hardly received the attention it deserves. Nationalism has closed its eyes and hopes it’s all posturing. I think however this might be what SDLP politicians call ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’, thinking themselves ever so smart, but totally forgetting what happened to Sunningdale in the end.

It would also have been better for Sinn Fein if it too pretended that Robinson hadn’t said what he actually did say. Their response has been so weak as to reveal nakedly their limp prostration in front of the DUP. With Paisley having just revealed that the ‘chuckle brothers’ of himself and Martin McGuinness were not getting on quite so famously – he never refereed to McGuinness by name but only as ‘deputy’ and never once shook his hand; Paisley also crowed that he had in fact achieved his long standing election battle cry of "smashing Sinn Fein."

Much ridiculed because the Sinners are now in government, Paisley’s logic is pretty compelling. ‘I did smash them because I took away their main plank. Their main plank was that they would not recognise the British government. They can’t be true republicans when they now accept the right of Britain to govern this country and to take part in that government.’ As the ‘Times’ put it: ‘Bobby Sands and nine other men did not starve themselves to death so that Mr McGuinness could play the lesser role in a Chuckle Brothers routine within the United Kingdom,’ except that is what has happened.

Gerry Adams warned the DUP not to pick ‘sham and phoney fights with Sinn Fein.’ Why? Because this would frighten away foreign investment! The same foreign investment that isn’t coming in the first place. So no mention of what Sinn Fein would actually do to protect its position in government. Instead Adams stated, after having even been prevented from holding a commemoration for a republican volunteer at Stormont, that ‘republicans have been banned and censored and excluded before. Banned as a political party; banned from our city centre; banned from the airways; banned and demonised and vilified, and we came through it all.’

But isn’t all that supposed to belong to the past? Aren’t they now in government? Isn’t that supposed to mean an end to such things? Why are they now banned from certain places – Stormont’s Long Gallery; banned from the airways – unionist prevented cameras from accessing any attempt to film their commemoration anywhere else at Stormont? And what about the constant vilification, not to mention of humiliation, of Sinn Fein by the DUP – who continue to boast that they have ‘smashed’ the republicans?

Anyone who wants to write all this off as simple posturing hasn’t been paying attention over the last forty years. What do they call it? The triumph of wishful thinking over experience?

Monday, March 10, 2008

UDA make over – from the Grim Reaper to King Billy

Taken on face value, reports that a notorious UDA mural in south Belfast was to be removed, may have been welcomed. However, when the story is examined further we find yet another example of the legitimisation of sectarianism and loyalism. It turns out that the “Grim Reaper” mural in the Village area of Donegal Rd is to be replaced by a portrait King William of Orange (hardly a step forward). Moreover, we find that this only came about as a result of negotiations with the UDA!

The most significant aspect of this story is that the negotiations with the UDA were being conducted out by two statutory bodies - Greater Village Regeneration Trust (GVRT) and the Arts Council. Paula Bradshaw of the GVRT was quite open about the nature of these talks. She said that the UDA had only agreed to the replacement of the mural when the Arts Council offered an inducement of £18,000. Of course the UDA’s agreement was not unconditional. According the Paula Bradshaw it came "with the proviso that they decided what would be the replacement”. Despite this the GVRT and the Arts Council “went along with their wishes”.

The Council's Chief Executive, Roisín McDonough, claimed that the replacement of the mural was a “huge first step in a very positive transformation process.” She further claimed that its replacement by King William was “not an act of triumphalism" as “King William is not offensive to people in this area.” Rather it was a “part of their legitimate Orange cultural heritage.” The unstated yet obvious corollary is that people who don’t belong to this “heritage” have no place in that area.

This episode exemplifies the thoroughly reactionary nature the peace process. We have official state sanction being given sectarian intimidation and the organisations that are responsible for it. Money is thrown at loyalists to erect murals that have no other purpose than to mark out territory and warn off nationalists from moving there or even passing through. Indeed, it’s not just nationalists. In recent years the Village area has seen numerous attacks on racial minorities and migrants. To define a whole area as part of an “Orange cultural heritage”, as Roisín McDonough does, can only legitimise sectarianism and racism. In this she is articulating the assumptions that underpin the peace process as a whole.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Paisley Won the War

The following article has been sent to us by US socialist Matt Siegfried. He is a regular contributor to the SD website.

After 45 years as Northern Ireland’s leading demagogue the 82 year old sectarian preacher Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley has exited the political stage. He has resigned, as of May, his position as Stormont’s First Minister as well as Leader of his Democratic Unionist Party. He is Reverend of the Free Presbyterian Church, which can only be described as a shrill caricature of fundamentalist hokum and evangelical brimstone. He will hold on to his honorary Doctorate in Divinity bestowed upon him by the racist Bob Jones University.

Since his rival David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists along with the Good Friday Agreement fell, in large part, to his opposition, Paisley reconstructed the GFA with the pliant agreement of Sinn Fein into an even more sectarian and unionist agreement. Through the provisions of the October, 2006 Saint Andrew’s Agreement Ian Paisley became First Minister in a devolved Stormont regime. The structures of this regime are premised on a sectarian division. To create positions to fill it has more ministers, more members and more expenses than any other political entity its size. This large bureaucracy is perfect for handing out positions and sweetening pots. The Welsh and Scottish Assemblies have much more self rule than the one that sits in Ireland. Northern Ireland’s union with Britain is guaranteed by the Agreement and the Assembly itself carries a dual Unionist/British veto. It’s always potentially only a phone call away from collapsing if the Fenians ever get out of line.

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has taken the job of Ian Paisley’s Deputy. Together they have become known as the “Chuckle Brothers” as they knee slap with George Bush and cut the opening ribbon to tacky shopping developments in Belfast. McGuinness’s lack of dignity not withstanding, the former IRA Commander sits as a Minister of the British Crown. This erstwhile revolutionary who once was at war with the very idea of a Stormont administers its rule. Sinn Fein still have the shamelessness to claim to be socialists as they partner with Ian Paisley, who believes the world is four thousand years old, the pope is the anti-Christ and who once led a “Save Ulster from Sodomy” campaign. The DUP is the most right-wing party in power in Western Europe and Sinn Fein “chuckle” as they administer the rule of a thoroughly capitalist British state with them.

Ireland of today, North and South, is vastly different than it was even ten years ago. The war the IRA waged against British rule is clearly over. Southern Ireland’s integration into the European Union has seen it grow economically. This once economic basket case now has one of the highest standards of living in Europe. Immigration trends have reversed and instead of Ireland being a point of departure it for the New World or Australia it has become a place of arrival for hundreds of thousands of workers from the newly EU countries of the east like Poland and Lithuania.

But Ireland remains partitioned and Northern Ireland remains firmly British. Northern Ireland cannot help but be based on sectarianism because partition, British rule, requires it. What has been achieved in the North is a rebalancing of sectarian privilege not its destruction. Sinn Fein has readily accepted this formula which necessitated their abandonment of all but the title of Irish Republicanism. But the problem with basing solutions on sectarian privilege is that it requires consensus and in the Stormont context that means a reactionary neo-liberal policy with no opposition.

It is also the nature of sectarian division to be unequal, otherwise there is no justification for the division. The unionist will always have the veto and the British state to back them up on whatever question should arise. The use of that veto to scuttle the attempt at an Irish Language act late last year proves the point. If even the Irish language isn’t to be recognized how can Irish speakers? Sectarian benefits are doled out with precision. EU funds in particular are apportioned out to any number of projects defined by community or intercommunity, which can amount to the same thing since it is also premised on sectarian division. More than a few former guerillas now man these well funded community centers. Foreign investment and economic growth have not led to a single integrated school in Ireland or a single one of the “Peace Walls” to come down.

As I watched BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight on Tuesday as the substance of Paisley resignation began to seep in I was struck at the tone of the Unionists about Paisley’s legacy. Nigel Dodds of Paisley’s DUP and potential successor as party leader made it perfectly clear that from his perspective what was to celebrate about Paisley’s life was Paisley’s commitment to the Union and Unionist dominance within that Union. Far from a surrender to Sinn Fein, Dodds said, Paisley and the DUP had got them to not only drop their opposition to British rule but to be junior partners in its administration thus tying them politically to the fate of the union. Ironically, this is the same critique that many Republicans who disagree with the strategy Adams and McGuinness would invoke. His tone was one of bigoted triumphalism over the defeated nationalists. They would never see a united Ireland he said, and their leaders had even agreed to it.

There is nothing to celebrate in the life or politics of Ian Paisley. He has represented the worst kinds of divisions wrought by imperialism on Ireland. And no attempt to stand on the St. Andrews Agreement as history’s vindication will work. The agreement institutionalized a state that is a labyrinth of sectarianism and meaningless dispensations. It closes hospitals, cuts funding to education and pursues all of the devastating policies of neo-liberalism. Paisley’s gift to Ireland was almost 50 years of fighting for Protestant supremacy and Unionist rejection. That he became First Minister in his old age of a state with his former enemies that enshrined supremacy and rejection is no sign of change.

Though the war is over and I can’t imagine the circumstances that could reignite it, the state in the North is unstable. The pressures from within one side or the other could break down the consensus required to the balancing act. Due in large part to Sinn Fein’s malleability the balancing act may continue to work for a time. No balancing act lasts forever.

Unlike another Ian in another British colony Paisley wouldn’t go down like Rhodesia’s Ian Smith. Whatever clouds he may leave under and whatever may befall his party and their government one thing is clear after thirty-five years of strife; Ian Paisley won the war.

Matt Siegfried

Days Like These No. 1

A regular contributor, Gerry Fitzpatrick, has asked Socialist Democracy for space for a regular opinion piece entitled “Days like these”. Below we carry the first in the series.

The great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus at the height of WW1 was sitting at his desk trying to write one afternoon. He eventually began - ‘For those of you who want, or expect some thoughtful prose from me I’m afraid that these days, I just compare headlines’, he then went on to reproduce some of those headlines. One was a war report of recent casualities – the numbers of dead and how they had died, the numbers of injured, and how they had been maimed. The other was of a banquet held in Vienna – who was there, who the host was and what they all had eaten. Beginning a regular column for this site I recall that story from Kraus’s time.

For we have reached the height and perhaps the end of the war that our politicians have been fighting against all things social. It manifests itself in many ways from our headlining days. The Northern Rock story could only choose itself here of course (I shall return to the Rock and the fissure it sits in in future columns). But it is the details of another recent story, one that indicated the faltering nature of our revamped imperium, that I must turn to first. It too began with a headline. ‘Harry the Fighting Prince’ it read. The media had ‘discovered’ that his majesty was not out of harms way, but at the front - on active service in Afghanistan. It wasn’t unexpected that the ‘human interest’ approach of the BBC and ITN would be displaced by the majestic tabloid celebrations.

But the celebrations were short lived, as the next headline informed us ‘Prince Harry To Be Brought Home’. The reason, we learn, is that he would, as a result of this very same media attention ‘become a target’. Apart from the fact that you could be forgiven for thinking that there was something of a co-incidence between the celebrations and Prince Harry’s withdrawal; I’m very sure it did absolutely nothing for the morale of those left behind. If only they could go home just as easily.

At the moment the only way that can happen for the ordinary soldier before their end of tour of duty is when they are killed and their bodies are repatriated. Early on in this war when that happened, it too made headlines. Watching the BBC news on satellite, as most British commanders in field can do nowadays, they could if they chose to, plot the decline of the reporting of those fatalities – form headlines to foot notes. Even if they didn’t care to notice the men in the ranks certainly did. And I’m sure they feel about it in much the same way that we did here when a similar decline happened in the reporting and investigating of avoidable and needless death. Some may remember those news programmes well, were the decline in value placed on life here almost became a catchphrase:

“A man was found shot dead in Northern Ireland last night police say they are investigating a possible motive. - And now: cricket.”

Gerry Fitzpatrick

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sinn Fein Ard Fheis – Paisley Must Stay

There was a great deal of speculation and concern surrounding the future of the party leader at this year’s Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. However, the party in question wasn’t Sinn Fein, and leader wasn’t Gerry Adams. It was Ian Paisley’s future as leader of the DUP that was the cause for concern.

In his address to delegates Gerry Adams warned that DUP hardliners were threatening the future of the power sharing agreement by pushing out Ian Paisley. He told them that it was "a sad commentary on the state of unionism that some were seeking to force a situation where 'Paisley must go'". Despite this threat Adams assured his party that the “process will prevail”. He said that “outstanding maters” such as the passing of an Irish language act and transfer of poling and justice powers would be secured. For him there was “no doubt whatsoever about that”.

However, the fretting over Paisley, demonstrates that clearly there is a doubt. The fact that the DUP has already rejected any progress on these “outstanding matters” also casts major doubt. With this background Sinn Fein’s assertions appear to be no more than wishful thinking. There was a tone of desperation in the claim by Martin McGuinness that they had been told by an unnamed senior member of the DUP that his “party would stand by the St Andrews Agreement." This was immediately rubbished by the DUP. Ian Paisley asserted once again that policing and justice powers would only be devolved when there was confidence within unionism.

Sinn Fein is now in the position of being reliant on the political heath of Ian Paisley to deliver what meagre concessions are on offer in the St Andrews settlement. Such weakness makes the claim by Gerry Adams that "we are closer to bringing about Irish re-unification than at any time in our past" even more pathetic. The announcement of a plan to establish a task force "to drive forward the roadmap to Irish unity" is just laughable.

Alongside this parody of republicanism, the Sinn Fein leadership also took the opportunity to abandon the last vestiges of social democracy within its programme. Gerry Adams declared that: ‘‘we need to generate wealth. We need to be competitive. That is the reality. Sinn Fein is not anti-business. Sinn Fein is pro-business. Neither are we a high tax party. We are a fair tax party.” The party leadership demonstrated their pro-business credentials by putting through a motion that abandoned Sinn Fein’s mildly redistribute tax policies. This was really formalising something that had already happened, as Sinn Fein had abandoned its tax policy in the first week of campaigning in last year’s Dail election.

This motion did provoke some opposition from Dublin members, but the leadership easily smothered this. The dissenting delegates were upbraided. In one particularly crass intervention a delegate from Newry told his comrades to “just wise up”. He reminded them that “the purpose of a political party is to achieve political office”, pointing to the north as an example of where Sinn Fein “are able to do things for the marginalised.” Maybe he had in mind the classroom assistant who had a pay cut imposed on them by Caitriona Ruane, or the households who will be receiving water bills from Conor Murphy’s department! While the sentiments of this delegate may have been expressed in a crude manner, they are probably an accurate reflection of the thinking within Sinn Fein.

The Sinn Fein Ard Fheis was yet another demonstration of the degree of decay within the provisional movement. It should dispel any notion that anything progressive can emerge from it.

Coming just two days on from its Ard Fhies, the announcement that Ian Paisley is to resign as DUP leader and First Minster, dramatically exposes the weakness of Sinn Fein’s position and also of the assumptions that underpin the St Andrews Agreement. Its basic premise – that Ian Paisley could win unionists to a power sharing agreement – has fallen through. His removal, while not fatal, will inevitably have a destabilising affect on the settlement.

More on the significance of Paisley’s resignation will follow soon.