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?
CASH FOR ASH
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.
BURNING TAXPAYERS MONEY!
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.
NO ACTION TAKEN BY MAIN PARTIES
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.
HOW DID FOSTER CLING ON?
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%.
POWER-SHARING AGREEMENT - FOR THE POLITICAL ELITE
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.
INSTITUTIONALISED SECTARIAN DIVISION
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.
WE ARE DEFINED BY CLASS
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.
HIDDEN HISTORY OF WORKERS' UNITY
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.
WORKING CLASS ROOTS OF CEASEFIRES
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.
FLAWED PEACE ASSUMES ETERNAL DIVISION
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.
YOUNG GENERATION SICK OF THE DINOSAURS
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.
GLIMPSES OF A DIFFERENT FUTURE
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.
NEITHER ORANGE OR GREEN, BUT SOCIALIST
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.
MASS STRUGGLES REQUIRED TO END THE DIVIDE
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!
THE LEFT AND SINN FEIN
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
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.
SHARING CUTS COALITION WITH DUP
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!
FAILURES OF LABOUR MOVEMENT LEADERSHIPS
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.
IRISH WORKING CLASS DESERVE BETTER
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.
NO RETURN TO THE PAST!
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.
A SOCIALIST IRELAND
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.
HELP BUILD WORKERS' UNITY AND SOCIALISM
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.