England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Stormont restored: Can it last?

By Kevin Henry, Socialist Party (ISA Ireland) 

After two years of boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Stormont has now been restored. The fact that it will have the first non-unionist First Minister is of significant symbolic importance for many, particularly Catholics, including those who have never voted Sinn Féin — even if the position has no real power as it is a joint office with the Deputy First Minister.

In general, the restoration has been met with little fanfare. In part, this reflects the fact that people feel they have been here before, and unlike previous deals this was not a deal between political parties but primarily one between the DUP and the British government. It also reflects a reality that while most people want a return of Stormont, significant sectarian polarisation remains. It also reflects a recognition that despite an extra £3.3bn in funding from Westminster, it is at best a temporary fix, and we face serious economic difficulties if we play by Westminster’s rules.

Why now?

The strike of 18 January, which involved 170,000 workers across the public sector, played a hugely important role in putting pressure on the DUP. However, this was not the only factor that led to a deal. When the Executive collapsed two years ago, Boris Johnson was Prime Minister and he was publicly considering the idea of breaking with the Northern Ireland Protocol, even if it meant provoking a trade war with the EU. Sunak as Prime Minister has dropped many of Johnson’s utopian plans in favour closer alignment with the EU and US.

It is also likely that the Tories will lose the General Election later this year and be replaced by Starmer’s Labour Party, who likewise will not favour significant regulatory divergence from the EU. As others have pointed out, the current deal in reality has elements of ‘soft Brexit,’ or Teresa May’s backstop. The hard line Brexiteer wing of the Tories, to which the DUP is closest, has been significantly knocked back.

No to Stormont as normal

A major issue for the new Executive is the question of long-term funding. The £3.3 billion from Westminster is only for the next year, and even then, it is not enough to actually provide inflation busting-pay rises. The trade union leadership, especially those close to Sinn Féin, will push to limit further strike action so that Stormont can get on with business as normal. Ordinary workers should reject that approach and organise to be prepared to take action.

It is also not just on the industrial plane that Stormont will feel pressure. A large number of issues, including gender-based violence or the crisis around Lough Neagh, will push people to demand action from the ministers who are meant to be responsible.

Alternative to sectarianism needed

As has always been the case, the sectarian polarisation in society means that the Assembly is inherently unstable and this is increasingly the case as issues under debate are more and more the fundamental issues of division.

The more fundamental issues can be seen in the Tory/ DUP deal document, in which the preamble effectively rules out calling a border poll if conditions will not be ‘objectively met’. Yet there is no agreement on what the conditions are, and more importantly, an official government document points to an open break with the idea that Britain has no selfish interest in Ireland. At the same time, Mary Lou McDonald says a united Ireland is within touching distance. Socialists have to point out that a border poll is not a solution, but neither is its denial — only the building of socialist cross-community, working-class politics can resolve these issues.

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