Monday, 20 March 2017

WIN INDEPENDENCE FOR WORKERS' RIGHTS: don't rely on EU bosses bearing gifts!

The SNP government's declaration of a second Referendum, including its timing - and the brutal, dictatorial response of unelected Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May - has framed the whole debate about independence around EU membership and Brexit. 

As the Scottish Greens, rightly, help the SNP vote for Indy Ref2 in the Scottish parliament, they both - wrongly - make Brexit and membership of the EU and its Single Market the centrepiece of the case for Scottish independence.

Socialists unequivocally support Scottish independence - but not as a means of making life more comfortable, more obscenely profitable for the capitalist elite, whether home-grown or multinational.
We want to win independence as a means to end Tory dictatorship from Westminster, on behalf of the bankers and billionaires, wielding the butchers' knife to public services, pay, job security, rights at work, and our civil rights. 

The SSP's call for an independent socialist Scotland is an inspiring goal that would transform the lives of the working class majority of the population, from the cradle to the grave. Independence would empower a Scottish government – provided it was a government with the principles, policies and political will to confront the capitalist powers at home and abroad – to redistribute wealth and power from top to bottom.

That also makes the case for a socialist Scotland an indispensable weapon of persuasion in the battle for self-rule. Without that message being heard loud and clear, working class people won't be inspired to vote for change, and could be thereby imprisoned in at least another decade of Tory savagery, especially given the enfeebled, war-torn state of Labour. 

Separate Fight for Indy from the EU 

Socialists and trade unionists need to wrestle the case for independence away from being about membership of capitalist Brexit Britain or the capitalist EU. 

It's true enough indeed that the 62% Remain vote in Scotland being ignored by the Blue Brexiteers adds to the case for the Scottish people being empowered to make their own decisions, through independence. But that alone will never win independence; for starters, calling on the 400,000 pro-Indy voters who chose Leave to now vote for independence so Scotland can Remain in the EU is utterly divisive and counterproductive.

I strongly believe we need to demand two key things alongside describing the transformational vision of what could be achieved in an independent socialist Scotland, to decouple the case for Indy from the divisive, confusing issue of the EU. 

Firstly, call for a separate decision on an independent Scotland's relationship to the EU to be fully debated in democratic forums AFTER winning independence, including a post-independence Referendum on the options then available. 

And secondly, here and now broadcast that we want an independent socialist Scotland to help forge cooperation between equals, on the basis of an alliance of socialist democracies across Europe - instead of either the Blue Brexiteers' capitalist, isolationist hell-house, or the EU of brutal big business interests. 

Tell the Truth - about Brexit

In fighting to convince a majority of working class people to vote Yes, we need to tell the truth - including on what needs to be done to defend and vastly enhance workers' rights, at work and in their communities. 

Those who imagined a Brexit vote would turbocharge a wave of united workers' struggle against the Tories and capitalist bosses are indulging in a dystopian version of La La Land. Whilst for many the Leave vote was a raging against years of neglect by the capitalist machine, the Brexit outcome has sown even more confusion and division, including the scapegoating of migrant workers, and handed the Tories an unexpected golden opportunity to bludgeon to death the flimsy rights workers cling onto. If we let them away with it!

Tell the Truth - about the EU 

But when the SNP and Scottish Greens advocate the gushing glories of Scotland keeping its place in the EU, they are at bottom advocating a continuation of the capitalist Age of Austerity, and the interlinked attacks on workers' rights. 

Whilst most ordinary people who voted to Remain in the EU did so for honourable, internationalist ideals – and in rejection of the axe-wielding, service-slashing, pay-cutting Tories, plus the ugly racism of Farage, Boris Johnston and their Leave leadership - many also shared the SSP's view that it was the lesser of two evil choices in the binary EU Referendum. 

One of the key tasks of socialists, including in our workplaces and unions, is to unmask the debilitating, demobilizing nonsense peddled not only by the SNP and Greens, but especially (and more importantly) by most trade union leaders, that membership of the EU is the road to salvation for workers' rights. 

Struggle is the only Guarantee 

Our fundamental message needs to be that united, collective struggles by workers is what's won the all-too-limited rights we have; not some benign handouts from the EU and its ruling, unelected executive, the European Commission (the selected heads of 28 Member states). 

And whether in or out of the EU, it will require massive resistance and action by workers and their organizations to halt and reverse the tide of assaults on our rights and conditions. Just as we need to hoist high the case for a Scotland run by its working class majority, a socialist Scottish republic, so too we need to enhance people's understanding that class-based struggle is the only guarantee of decent wages, workplace conditions, equality, humane public services, environmental protection...

Evolution of the capitalist EU 

Like any institution, the EU has changed over time, reflecting wider trends throughout the capitalist societies it was founded to uphold and develop in the first place. And those changes are reflected in the EU Directives, Regulations and policies - issued by the European Commission, or sometimes ruled on by the EU's Court of Justice (ECJ). Some have been helpful to those struggling for better rights andconditions for working class people in the various member states; others have been downright dangerous, obstructive and regressive. 

Space prevents a full description, but suffice to say in an earlier period of the EU, particularly from the late-1980s - some progressive regulations were issued, encapsulated in the term 'Social Chapter'. But the EU never pretended to be a socialist institution; it preferred the term 'Social Market' - the model of post-War Germany, with some limited state regulations over the excesses of the capitalist market.

Social Chapter - a Passing Phase

Compared to the red-in-tooth-and-claw savagery of Maggie Thatcher’s monetarists of the 1980s, EU President of the time, Jacques Delors, won rapturous applause at the 1988 TUC conference, for his promises of what became the Social Chapter at the following year’s Strasbourg Summit. What Delors carefully concealed, of course, to the assembled TUC delegates, was his role – as its Finance Minister - in helping the ‘Socialist’ Mitterand government of France abandon all the promised reforms that had enthused millions in the previous elections.

In the face of subsequent defeats at the hands of Thatcher’s civil war against workers’ rights and livelihoods, culminating in the defeat of the 1984/5 miners’ strike, a big majority of union leaders sheltered behind the mildly progressive rules and Directives issuing from the EU Commission in that period. It was a substitute for giving leadership in struggle. It ran in tandem with their constant refrain during the 13 wasted years of Tory rule: “Wait for a Labour government”. It was one feature of the defeatist, class-collaborationist philosophy of far too many union leaders at the time – which aided and abetted the biggest wealth transfusion to the rich from the rest of us over 30 years of them discouraging a more combative course by workers.

As the crisis of capitalism intensified, the EU’s phase described as the Social Chapter died; morphed from being a sweetener to bitter pills, to being the poison of austerity and deregulation of the market itself; from being a partial shield from Thatcherism in Britain to being a vehicle for the spread of ‘Thatcherism’ across the EU.

The EU's lifelong adherence to the interests of monopoly capitalism has increasingly meant the Commission, European Central Bank, and European Court Justice have helped national governments enforce vicious austerity, particularly since the 2008 bankers' crisis. 

European Decency Threshold Downgraded 

A few examples illustrate the general trends, and the central lesson that we need to rely on working class struggle, not the EU, to resist the savagery of the capitalist class and their pliant politicians. 

In the past, the European Decency Threshold, which called for the national minimum wage in each EU country to match 68% of the national average wage, was a very useful weapon in the hands of those of us fighting against the growing theft of wages for profit. But it was only ever an aspiration, not legally enforceable on each state's government. And as social democratic parties and governments converged with the traditional conservatives in unabashed defence of capitalism - as in New Labour - the EU reflected this and drastically downgraded the Decency Threshold, rendering it almost useless in the fight for a decent living wage here or abroad.

Workers Won Reforms, not EU bosses 

Many of the positive rights attributed to the EU by its zealous advocates are either the product of class struggles by workers in one or more EU state, or actually have nothing whatsoever to do with the EU! 

When the TUC General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, last year wrote that "It's the EU that guarantees workers paid holidays, parental leave and equal treatment of part timers" - a claim repeated almost verbatim by Jeremy Corbyn, who added "equal pay" to the list - they were at best misleading workers.
Dangerously misleading, in a fashion almost designed to make workers rely on the benign EU Commissioners rather than defend our rights and conditions through the organised trade unions and their allies. 

Nothing to do with the EU!

Entitlements to paid holidays vastly predate the very existence of the EU, or even its EEC predecessor. French workers won guaranteed annual paid leave of 12 days back in 1936, when they forced the elected Left Front government to take action by occupying the factories and striking! 

Trade union struggles in the UK won the Holidays Pay Act in 1938. 

And even today, organised union pressure has meant UK workers are guaranteed 5.6 weeks paid holidays, well better than the 4 weeks the EU demands.

Equal Pay 

Equal pay - still disgracefully denied to millions of women in practice - was legislated for in the UK in 1970, well before Britain even joined the Common Market/EEC, in 1973. And the Equal Pay Act was forced upon the British government by the ground-breaking strike action of women workers in Fords Dagenham plant in 1968. Furthermore, the same women had to launch a more prolonged strike years after the Act was passed, to actually get the equal pay it promised! 

So whilst anti-discrimination Directives from the EU are welcome, they merely reaffirmed what was won on the picket lines and workers' demonstrations. 

The EU Directives guarantee 14 weeks paid maternity leave; decades of campaigning has won the concession of 37 weeks here. 

Health and Safety laws in Scotland are based on the 1974 Act that was conceded on the wave of industrial struggles that overthrew Ted Heath's Tory government in February 1974; it was not a generous handout from either British capitalists nor their EU co-thinkers. 

Some EU Regulations, like the Working Time Directives, acted as a dented, limited shield in the face of savage attacks by Thatcher's, and subsequently Blair's governments. In terms of capping compulsory hours of work at 48 and insisting on guaranteed minimum break times during and between shifts, they are welcome reforms. 

But all along the British government insisted on opt-out clauses, and can do so entirely legally, within the framework of EU regulations and rulings. For instance, the Tories' railroading laws to remove doctors and nurses from the 48-hour limit underlay the Junior Doctors' strike last year. And all workers in Scotland can 'choose' - often under 'subtle' duress from employers - to waive that right anyway, fuelling the life-threatening long hours culture we are cursed by.

Capitalists Pick and Choose 

The positive EU measures are often ferociously resisted and bypassed by the Westminster club of capitalist politicians, but the equally numerous anti-working class EU Directives and regulations are eagerly seized upon to back up their drive to privatize, slash public expenditure and make workers pay for a capitalist crisis caused by bankers and the profit system. 

And in the case of Scotland, these EU Directives have been frequently used as an excuse for inaction, or regressive measures, by the SNP government. We shouldn't forget that as an added reason to decouple the case for Scottish independence from the SNP's advocacy of the EU as a land of milk and honey.

Strangling Public Spending 

For decades, and increasingly in recent years, the EU has framed laws to aid the privateers and the help enforce the capitalists' chosen path of austerity. 

The EU Stability and Growth Pact prohibits government budget deficits above 3% of GDP, thereby banning state expenditure to provide jobs, houses and services, reinforcing the downward spiral of cuts. 

A 2008 Directive called for postal services to be "fully open to competition by December 2012", adding to the Tory (and Labour) armoury in shedding the 400-year-old, public sector Royal Mail. 

From the EU's First Rail Directive in 1991, to its more recent Fourth, the EU Commissioners seek to break up and privatize the entire rail networks of all EU states. 

Successive British Tory and Labour governments needed no encouragement from the EU to privatise all and sundry, or apply a scorched earth policy to public services. But they certainly got encouragement, as increasingly anti-working class governments in the member states huddled together in the one and only EU institution with the powers to initiate rules and Directives - the unelected European Commission.  

SNP Hide Behind EU Directives 

That's an example of where the SNP government chooses to comply rather than defy all that's reactionary and regressive about the EU. 

On both the issues of railway renationalisation and Scotland's ferries, they chose to obey the laws of the capitalist market, including its EU bureaucracy, and hide behind them instead of proceeding to implement the oft-expressed wishes of the overwhelming majority of Scottish people by taking the entire transport system into public, democratic ownership. 

It was only after strike action and legal challenges by the RMT union that the SNP government conceded on keeping some of the ferries in the public sector, and retreated on implementing their contract clause for ScotRail that insists on driver only trains - in itself the product of their refusal to nationalise the railways, regardless of EU rules.

Undermining Wages 

Another major weapon used by employers and national governments in their war on wages is the EU Posted Workers Directive (PWD). This, and associated ECJ rulings, allows profiteers to set up shop abroad, or post workers from one EU country to another branch of their operations, to undermine wage rates. 

In its actual wording, the EU PWD states: "Member states shall guarantee workers posted to their territory the terms and conditions of employment...which in the member state where the work is carried out...are laid down by law, regulation or administrative provision." 

On the surface, harmless sounding? On the contrary, it means bosses paying only the national minimum wage to migrant workers, not the rate for the job negotiated and fought for through the unions in the host nation.
For instance, last year construction workers' unions in Rotherham, Yorkshire, waged a battle against a Croatian subcontractor company hiring Croatian workers to build a power station on £7 an hour, undercutting the national industry collective agreement rate of £16.64 an hour. The unions rightly fought to organise the migrant workers and win equality, the rate for the job, rather than fall prey to the racist division this Posted Workers Directive inevitably triggers. 

Tory Brexiteers Wage Class War 

The Tories are hell-bent on inciting division during the Brexit process, to ease the path to further crush workers' rights, public services and wages as a share of national wealth.
It's no accident their recently-implemented Trade Union Act has taken full effect in March 2017, with barely a whisper of protest, as the white noise around Brexit lets rip. 

But to counter this reactionary plan by the Tories and employing class, it's worse than useless, indeed downright dangerous, to counter-pose it with claims of the EU being some Nirvana of workers' rights and protection of all that's civilized. 

We need to advocate Scottish independence as the best, quickest escape route from Tory dictatorship.

An opening to demand and enforce a Charter of Workers’ Rights, alongside other key measures like a £10 minimum wage for all at 16 (in 2017 figures); a maximum wage no more than 10 times the minimum to help close the chasm of inequality; the union-negotiated rate and rights for the job for migrant workers; guaranteed minimum 16-hour contracts instead of zero hours serfdom; public ownership of all services, energy, banks and landed estates.

Greek Tragedy 

But that's got nothing to do with false claims that EU membership would gift the Scottish people a secure, pleasant future. 

On the contrary: not only will that claim drastically undermine the case for independence, but it is selling a lie to the working class. And underneath it all is the pernicious message that we don't need to organise in an almighty class struggle for transformational change, but that we should just rely on benign politicians to hand out workers and communities rights and services like sweeties issued by kindly grandparents. 

Try telling that tale of 'EU bosses bearing gifts' to the Greek people, who voted massively against austerity, and then were told by the EU to slash spending even further, despite starvation on the streets and hospitals running out of painkillers, and to tax the poorest as part of a grossly misnamed 'rescue package'. 

For an Independent Socialist Scotland - In a socialist Europe

We need to decouple the issues of independence and the EU.

For an independent Scotland that can then proceed to debate and decide its place in Europe and the wider world after gaining self government.

For an independent socialist Scotland that could help pioneer collaboration between equals in a future alliance of socialist democracies across Europe.

Most important of all perhaps, we need to unmask the demobilizing myth that Scottish people should rely on the EU and its benign regulations to protect us from capitalist exploitation.

Anything protective, however limited and feeble, that the EU calls for is the result of struggle by workers' organizations, and in any case hedged with umpteen opt-out clauses.

And as the populist right and hard-faced capitalism holds more and more sway across Europe, the EU act as thuggish enforcers for the Age of Austerity. 

Working class people need to rely on their own organised strength, demanding all that's best in Europe for the people of Scotland, and likewise defying all that's worst in the EU capitalist club. 

We need independent workers' struggle, an independent socialist Scotland, and an alliance of European socialist democracies to confront and eradicate the crimes of profit against people. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

NORTHERN IRELAND: for working class unity and socialism

The March 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly Elections have thrown up all manner of questions and crises.
Will the Assembly institutions collapse? Will there be another immediate election? Will Westminster have to impose Direct Rule and risk an almighty backlash from both Catholic and Protestant communities? How did the DUP cling on - just, by one seat - as the biggest party in the midst of the stink of corruption enveloping their leader, Arlene Foster? What does the 3.9% rise in Sinn Fein's vote share signify? Will they push for an Irish border poll? And above all, what should socialists - or even active trade unionists - think of all this?

The elections arose from the Cash for Ash scandal, which eventually led to Sinn Fein's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigning, thereby collapsing the power-sharing Executive between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein (SF), triggering another Assembly election just 10 months after the previous one.

What is Cash for Ash? Rotten, stinking corruption of the highest order, costing £490million in overspend in subsidies to businesses and landowners, which will have to mean £490m additional cuts to other public services. This in a society where savage austerity is already being implemented by the outgoing DUP/Sinn Fein Executive - with, for instance, 75% of the GP surgeries in my native County Fermanagh facing closure!

The Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) was introduced in 2012 by the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster - MLA for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and subsequently Northern Ireland First Minister. The RHI is a scheme first introduced in Britain, with subsidies for non-domestic heating systems that are supposedly environmentally friendly. 

But one profound amendment to the UK scheme was made by Foster and her DUP political advisers; a quite conscious, blatantly corrupt amendment. The cap on the subsidy available was removed. This means that for every £1 spent on biomass wooden pellets to heat up barns and outhouses the likes of big farmers enjoy a subsidy of £1.60! Hence the phrase Cash for Ash; the more they burn, the more money they get off the public purse - from working- and middle-class taxpayers. 
Empty factories and barns have been heated to harvest vast sums of money for businesses and landowners. The Audit Commission for N Ireland has warned it could eventually cost the public an astonishing £1billion in handouts to these corrupt, profiteering chancers.

When some of the DUP advisers raised concerns about the scheme as far back as 2013, Arlene Foster dismissed them. Not only that, but friends and families of the DUP hierarchy proceeded to speed up their applications for RHI subsidies, with a spike in applicants in the months and years following the concerns being raised and ignored by Foster and her cohort. 
To give one more example from my home county: Viscount Brookeborough - part of the Unionist family dynasty that included the longest-serving Prime Minister in the old, post-Partition, sectarian Stormont - owns a vast landed estate of 1,000 acres in Fermanagh. He has grabbed £1.6million for heating buildings on his estate, through this monumental scam.

But until very recently the DUP/SF power-sharing Executive did nothing to combat this crass corruption. The projected £490m overspend was known to all the parties in Stormont since early 2016, but nothing was done by any of the major parties, Sinn Fein included. As recently as December 2016, a motion for Foster's resignation was put to the Assembly; Sinn Fein abstained in the vote, rather than topple the corrupt First Minister and Executive. Only the eruption of growing disgust amongst the population, aired in the local media, led to SF's Martin McGuinness eventually taking a hardline stance, resigning as Deputy First Minister on 8th January, forcing out Foster and triggering the new elections.

During the elections, SF made much of the RHI corruption scandal, with posters declaring RHI - Respect, Honesty, Integrity. Their calls for respect and equality particularly resonated with Catholic voters. 
Revulsion at Foster was by no means restricted to the Catholic community that SF are exclusively based in. Many Protestants were appalled, sickened into not turning out to vote, or in a minority of cases voting for 'others'. 
And at time of writing, rumblings within the inner sanctums of the DUP itself are growing louder, with reportedly a third of the DUP MLAs wanting Foster to resign as leader. 
This rumbling rebellion in the DUP reflects the disgust amongst their electoral base - as well as their desire to remove this human roadblock to them getting on with enjoying their over-paid positions, rather than run the risk of yet another election after the 3-week deadline for forming a Unionist-Nationalist power-sharing government.

One of the remarkable facts of the election is that the DUP managed to cling onto its absolute vote, although its share fell compared to May 2016 - for the third election in a row. How?
Fundamentally because Foster endlessly recited warnings that Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and 'the IRA' would become the biggest party unless Protestants turned out and voted DUP. Many will have cast their vote on this negative basis, whilst holding their noses at the stench of corruption surrounding Foster's DUP. Others didn't; hence their net loss of 10 MLAs, and slightly reduced share of the popular vote, in a greatly increased turnout compared to 2016. 

Underlying the success of that communal appeal rests the entire system of government established by the Peace Process in 1998. 
And it's also that governmental structure - the power-sharing arrangements between Unionists and Nationalists - that helped fuel the further advance of Sinn Fein as the biggest party in the Catholic community. In fact, SF were a minuscule 1,168 votes behind the DUP's First Preferences, winning 27.9% of all first preferences against the DUP's 28.1% - as they far more successfully mobilized than the DUP, as reflected in the increased overall turnout of voters - up 10 points from May 2016 to 64%.

The Peace Process, through both the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the 2006 St Andrew's Agreement, established a system of power-sharing that is purely between a political elite; it certainly doesn't open the door to working class people of either or both communities sharing power. 
And it's a system with a history in other nations also bedeviled by communal conflicts; divisions implanted by imperialist powers in the first place. 
It's an institutionalized arrangement between parties rooted in segregated communities that was infamously applied in the Lebanon, between parties based in the Christian, Sunni and Shia populations. A divisive political arrangement which only reinforced the communal divisions and eventually fell apart, leading to a savage civil war that decimated that country over 15 years of bloody conflict, from 1975 onwards.

In the Northern Ireland Assembly, every elected MLA has to be designated as either a Unionist, Nationalist, or Other. Additionally, what's called the Petition of Concern gives a full-blown veto to any 30 MLAs - either Unionist or Nationalist - against anything the Assembly majority might vote for. In that built-in mechanism, the duly elected MLAs who refuse to define themselves as either Unionist or Nationalist, but are classified as Others, literally disappear from the voting process. So much for democracy! 

A recent case, before last Christmas, that illustrates this monstrously sectarian set-up was when a majority of Assembly members voted for a motion demanding the resignation of Arlene Foster over her handling of Cash for Ash, which 30 Unionist MLAs vetoed, turning the Assembly majority into its opposite. The same device was used by the DUP to block lifting the ban on same sex marriage. 

For socialists, class is primary. It's the key definition of the nature of capitalist society. It explains the roots of poverty and inequality. Working class people in Ireland (as in Scotland and worldwide) are exploited by capitalists, bankers and landowners regardless of which religious tag (or none) is attached to them. 

British imperialism has a particularly long, bloody, filthy history of exploitation in Ireland, through ruthless repression and naked incitement of sectarian divisions; the age-old trick of divide-and-rule, rehearsed in its first colony, then practiced across the globe as they conquered lands and labour for the enrichment of the British ruling class. 
Those who view the Assembly elections purely as an unavoidable contest between two irreconcilable tribes, resulting in the dog-fight between the DUP and SF, miss this critical factor entirely.

Irish history is strewn with the tragic results of imperialism's divide-and-rule. But Ireland's hidden history - all too often unknown even to trade unionists and socialists in Scotland or beyond - also contains whole chapters of heroic working class unity in struggle. 
That's what Edinburgh-born James Connolly and Liverpool-born Jim Larkin strove to build in Ireland - with many glorious successes - over a century ago. 
That's what produced wave after wave of united strikes in N Ireland throughout the 30 years of 'the Troubles'. Not one single industrial action was broken by sectarian division throughout that terrible period. 
In fact, if it hadn't been for the fundamental unity in most workplaces, and several strikes against sectarian threats and killings from either sets of paramilitaries - with Catholic and Protestant trade unionists braving the dangers, striking, picketing and marching together - civil war would have engulfed the North in the 1970s or 1980s. 

And what most commentators - including many self-defined socialists - utterly ignore, is that the Peace Process itself was at bottom the product of growing opposition to sectarian killings and continued armed struggle by the mass of the working class, both Catholic and Protestant. 
Working class communities became war-weary and sick of failed republican 'urban guerillaism' tarnished by sectarianism, and of the vicious killings of Catholics by the Loyalist paramilitaries. 
People marched in protest, made the armed volunteers aware of their feelings in their respective communities, and the British ruling class seized this opening - and the exhaustion of the armed volunteers - to isolate the paramilitaries and gradually broker a settlement that led to ceasefires and the power-sharing Assembly.

In the absence of a mass, united socialist movement that could bring that instinctive unity and desire for peace to a socialist conclusion, the Peace Process and all its institutions were formed, ensnaring the Republican movement in the ballot box rather than the bullet. 

But the fatal flaw of that settlement is that it leaves two interlinked features of Ireland entirely intact: sectarian division, and the capitalist system of exploitation that spawned sectarianism in the first place.
The NI Assembly and all its structures assume the working class will never be united, that they'll be forever politically divided, segregated. 
Hence the Unionist/Nationalist/Others categorization of elected MLAs, and the governing Executive being always made up of Unionists and Nationalists, the biggest of them nominating First Minister, the other choosing his/her Deputy. 

It institutionalizes sectarian division, rather than remove it. It segregates political parties, giving them a vested interest in keeping communities apart so they can retain their electoral base, scaring the living daylights out of voters about the risks of victory for 'the other side'. It consciously cuts across the emergence of class-based politics for the working class. 

A whole generation has grown up since the ceasefires of nearly 20 years ago. They're overwhelmingly sick of the dinosaurs who dominate political life - but still suffer the complications of the segregated political system. They're mostly in favour of equality on issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights - both blocked by the socially reactionary DUP in particular.

When elections occur, it's almost like two parallel elections happening simultaneously; one for the biggest Unionist party, the other for the biggest Nationalist party. 
For a good 20 years, both of the smaller Unionist and Nationalist parties - the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP - have been discarded by a majority of voters in the respective communities as being useless, untrustworthy, or ineffective - although they both still hold onto seats in certain areas.

But the modest glimpse of the potential for an entirely different future, free of communal politics, sectarian camps, are to be seen in two distinct forms in recent years. 
One is the growing number who refuse to go out and vote, despite all the pressure to do so in communities that often feel under siege, or on the brink of winning what they want - because they are 'sick of the lot of them'. 
Last May a full 46% of registered voters stayed at home. Disaffection expressed in falling turnouts featured in five elections in a row since 2000. The latest election bucked that trend, as Catholics in particular turned out to avenge the corruption and disrespect they felt from Foster's DUP. 
The other, more positive feature is the modest but important vote for parties and formations that refuse to be pigeon-holed as nationalist or unionist, the 'Others'.

The Alliance Party is non-sectarian, but screamingly middle class. It's vote comes especially from more liberal-minded, well-off layers of the population.
The Green Party is also non-sectarian, and critical of austerity - unlike its sister party in the South who entered an axe-wielding coalition government with FIne Gael and suffered the retribution of voters they so richly deserved! It held onto its two MLAs. 

More significant still, though only at an embryonic stage of development, are the votes for two avowedly anti-sectarian, anti-austerity, left-wing, pro-socialist formations: the People Before Profit Alliance and the Cross Community Labour Alternative.

The PBPA openly declares itself 'neither Orange or Green', has been active in anti-cuts campaigns, and in 2016 won two MLAs - veteran socialist and well-known journalist Eamonn McCann in Derry, and young West Belfast city councillor Gerry Carroll. 
In the recent elections, McCann lost his seat in the final count,  and although he retained his place in the Assembly, Carroll's vote was squeezed from over 8,000 First Preferences last year to over 4,000. 

Other socialists and trade unionists have established Cross Community Labour Alternative in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership election. They won 644 votes in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, standing a well-known trade union activist who has been involved in numerous local campaigns against cuts and fracking - and lesser votes in three other seats, straddling both communities in East, West and South Belfast.

The juggernauts of Unionism and Nationalism, based on a sectarian Orange versus Green headcount, mostly crushed the challenge of these smaller forces - in part because the fear remains that voting for them would 'let the other side in'. 
Until such time as more sweeping, generalized struggles of workers and communities erupt on social, economic, class questions, the tendency for polarized voting between two communal camps will prevail; in large measure because that's how the Peace Process institutions are designed. Deliberately!

Nobody on 'the left' in Scotland or beyond needs any time spent convincing them the DUP is a bigoted, conservative, anti-equality, reactionary party of neo-liberalism - steeped in corruption to boot - that exploits the allegiance of rural and working class Protestants to fill their own pockets, and those of rich landowners and capitalists.
But some of those who see themselves as 'lefts', even 'socialists', would do well to pause and ponder their uncritical excitement at the 3.9% rise in Sinn Fein's share of the vote compared with 2016. 

Sinn Fein is not a socialist party and never has been - though some of its members see themselves as such. At most, SF do what the SNP also do in a very different political context; they face both ways at once, depending on their audience. The SNP tries to appeal to left-leaning former Old Labour voters in Scotland's urban Central Belt, with radical-sounding phrases. But they also woo and soothe the tartan Tory voters of the well-heeled, rural north of Scotland, refusing to tax the rich, diluting even their calls for Scottish independence. 

Sinn Fein has a long history of sounding semi-socialist, certainly anti-Tory, in their working class heartlands, especially West Belfast. But they punt more nakedly sectarian appeals to 'Catholic voters' and 'the nationalist people' in areas such as rural Fermanagh.

More fundamentally, SF are happy to power-share with the monstrous Orange Tory DUP.
SF are currently playing hardball in demanding the corrupt, corroded Arlene Foster must go as DUP leader and therefore First Minister. But it seems absolutely certain that if Nigel Dodds or some other DUP figure replaces Foster, Sinn Fein will readily embrace the DUP in a new power-sharing Executive, again.

SF did nothing noticeable to expose the Cash for Ash scandal for years, including the years of sharing government responsibility with the DUP, and moreover abstained in the December vote demanding Foster's resignation over this poisonous corruption. 

And beyond the immediate Cash for Ash outrage, SF has jointly implemented savage cuts to welfare benefits that will slash the incomes of 100,000 people by up to £2,000. That's on top of previous years of austerity cuts, and privatisation of services, whether in their role in the NI Executive or in local councils. And it's as well as Sinn Fein's support for cuts to Corporation Tax which they share with the Orange Tories - Arlene Foster included - which will actually rob the public purse of at least as much every year as the Cash for Ash scam does! 

SF has conquered deep roots in working class Catholic districts as their perceived defenders from decades of state repression, and in the absence of determined, militant resistance being organised by the leadership of the trade union and labour movement over those same decades. 
In particular, labour and trade union movement leaders' failure to build a united political voice of the working class, based on the unions and communities, taking up all the issues of repression, poverty, austerity, sectarianism and the complex issue of Irish partition on a firm class basis. 
But that is still no excuse for pretending Sinn Fein is a socialist party, or of hiding from their baleful track record in government alongside - in coalition with - the DUP.

The working class of Northern Ireland deserves better than two political tribes going to war for votes, so they can then go to war on the living conditions of the working class. 

A united, anti-sectarian socialist party is easier wished for than created and made into a mass force. But that makes it none the less necessary and urgent. Working class unity and socialism go hand-in-hand, and are the only route to solutions to poverty, inequality, austerity, corruption, equal rights for women and minorities, or indeed the vestiges of the national question. 

Even if frustration at the current deadlock in the institutions of post-Troubles N Ireland erupts, there is no appetite for a return to the past, to the days of armed struggle and sectarian killings. The mass of the working class were instrumental in enforcing the ceasefires of the past 20 years and are not about to give support to any resumption of those methods. 
But the peace has always been fragile, flawed, prone to flare-ups on unresolved issues such as flags and emblems, parades, the Irish language and the century-old issue of the border created by British imperialist partition.

Loose talk by some on 'the left' in Scotland about the case for a border poll in Ireland  - as mooted by Sinn Fein in the context of both Brexit and the first ever majority vote for nationalist parties in Northern Ireland's Assembly - is dangerous and divisive. 

It was brutally wrong that Ireland was partitioned by imperialism in the 1920s; it ushered in the 'carnival of reaction' predicted by James Connolly over a century ago. It was entirely unacceptable that the Catholic minority in the North were imprisoned in a statelet that meant systematic discrimination, repression and abject poverty for them. 

But it would be equally wrong to try to force the Protestants into a united capitalist Ireland, just because Catholics may outnumber them in the North in the years ahead. And in any case a big minority of northern Catholics (including Sinn Fein voters) are also opposed to joining the capitalist South, as it today exists, according to various opinion polls. 

The vision of a socialist Ireland - a world apart from the type of societies that currently exist, North and South - is what's required to unite working class people, by convincing  them not only of the social and economic advantages, but that guarantees for all minorities would be embedded in such a socialist democracy. 
Consent, through patient explanation and above all years of united struggle by working class people on common, class questions is the route to a socialist Ireland - not the ultimatum of a border poll, let alone armed force. 

Working class unity and socialism may not be the prevailing state of affairs in Ireland in 2017. But it's the watchword for progress, the cause worth fighting for, the route map to a future free of exploitation, repression and division in Britain's first colony. 

And instead of reinforcing illusions in forces like Sinn Fein - just because they're electorally powerful - Irish working class unity and socialism is the aim that trade unionists and socialists in Scotland should bend their efforts towards helping fellow workers and socialists in Ireland achieve.