Nothing ever happens in Northern Ireland?

Austerity, flags and stagnant parties - Lorcan Mullen updates the rest of the UK on what's been happening in Northern Ireland while we weren't paying attention.

Lorcan Mullen
25 October 2013

The Northern Irish Assembly, Stormont

I’m working in rural Scotland at the moment and I ring home often. My dad and my granddad often say “nothing ever happens here” by the end of the first minute of the call. Given the incuriosity of the UK media when it comes to Northern Ireland, most could be forgiven for thinking the same thing. This year, my small home town has seen a failed post-office bombing and played a walk-on part in the tainted meat scandal. While we have a tendency to wryly downplay our place in things, we have much to report.

The ‘peace’ government at Stormont is bearing the bitter fruit (less bitter than war of course) of institutionalised sectarianism. The official power-sharing party system, working on mutual veto and ingrained distrust, is selectively mute, incoherent and confounding. In the vacuum, grim neoliberal orthodoxy and senior civil servants reign supreme.

In the poorest communities, in Greater Belfast, in Derry, in Strabane, in depressed semi-rural pockets all over, austerity seasons the seething of forgotten and dismissed areas. The reinstatement of the Poor Law system (aka ‘Welfare Reform’) will hit Northern Ireland harder than any other region of the UK. The physical and mental scars of a multi-generational, low-intensity civil war are treated as almost immaterial to the desecration of disability-related benefits.

The dreadful situation in the Irish Republic bleeds over the border, compounding crises shared with the most distressed districts in the Welsh valleys, the northern English cities, the Scottish ex-industrial belt. Derry, revelling in its City of Culture/Feile dream, has a very partial, temporary reprieve. Signs of a lasting residue of prosperity are, as in Liverpool, unconvincing.

Browning, collapsing window-blinds, junglish gardens and boarded-up windows are a fairly familiar sight. In Belfast, the city centre is blighted with useless, empty office blocks, the discarded chips of the (temporarily) closed casino. Smashed windows and palled signs herald the failure of the Occupy Belfast protest, once ensconced without challenge in an abandoned bank on the North’s main shopping street. Strangled by community indifference, ideological incoherence (Icke-ists abounded, reportedly) and early tactical exhaustion, its failure is particularly depressing to behold.

The sources of new employment: low-paid, outsourced cleaning, catering, caring, calling, will be familiar. The ameliorative work of the many post-conflict community projects is withering after sustained budget cuts. Following a series of sham consultations, the near-total privatisation of social care, mixed with drastic cuts to acute hospital services, eases past somnambulant Stormont.

Relatively strong unions are hamstrung by the need to preserve national bargaining, when national bargaining itself is hamstrung by tentative London leaderships. The gradually increasing traction of the campaign to extend abortion right, and authentic community participation in green/left anti-fracking work are of some consolation to the extra-parliamentary Northern left.

The much-publicised flag protests are more troubling. Involving greater numbers, including fascist organisers, displaying an interest in street presence and challenging the city centres, this movement has lost momentum but has not quite died.

This must be said bluntly: its grievances are absurd. The union could not be safer in Northern Ireland.

The South is bankrupt, Sinn Fein has been co-opted intact into devolved Tory government and the dissidents (though slowly gathering vigour and followers) are supremely unlikely to become a serious political force. The DUP has veto power at Stormont. The claim that ‘Loyalist culture is being eroded’ is an unconvincing smokescreen, a veiled recidivist lament for the loss of majority rule. They want institutionalised orange supremacism, naked and pitiless, and they can’t have it.

The impossibility of the underlying demand may explain, if anything can, the mural depicting the Loyalist gunman beside a Martin Luther King quote, ringleader Willie Frazer’s recent court appearance dressed as Abu Hamza (ably assisted by young pretender Jamie Bryson in a black woman’s wig, claiming to be Jon Bon Jovi…) or the Twaddell ‘peace camp’. Surreal petulance marches in step with chauvinist street fascism.

The mainstream unionist parties’ ambiguous attitude to all this reflects both a craven willingness to seek short term advantage through sectarianism and a genuine sympathy with majority rule nostalgia. The misogynist, homophobic, reflexively right-wing DUP only grows more noxious in office. Its pre-eminence in formal politics has gained them a coterie of silver-suited, shiny, more assiduously neoliberal young hacks to blend with their battalions of veteran Neanderthals. Their shamelessness in the face of numerous corruption scandals in housing and planning (party political funding remains entirely secret for ‘security reasons’) is a fine example of the clientelist stasis fomented by power-sharing. The UUP is a paler, more cringingly bourgeois manifestation of all of this. Two sentences flatters them; in a halfway-dynamic political system, they would be defunct. The ‘non-sectarian’ Alliance and new NI21 parties are blandly neoliberal ciphers of the Greater Belfast bourgeoisie’s snobbish and incurious disengagement from the fundamental problems of the North. They articulate the grimly circumscribed dream that Northern Ireland should have ‘normal politics’.

On the nationalist side, Sinn Fein works earnestly to preserve power-sharing and the peace process but does next to nothing else practical for the communities it represents. They are locked into a system where the DUP holds veto powers. They are easy prey for economic orthodoxy and investment fetishism - ‘look, anything that brings jobs’. They are largely inured to critical thinking by war-bred tendencies to discipline and on-message relativism. They are terrified by the prospect of Tory direct rule, the instant result of any collapse of power-sharing. This nominally left-wing party, the second largest in the Assembly, avoids major spending departments and poses no serious challenge to what’s coming from Westminster. Their resistance amounts to delay and modest tweaking at best. When challenged, many prominent figures at least show serious shame and discomfort. Unlike many left-wing parties, they remain grounded in marginalised, working-class communities. Efficient, assiduous community casework secures the continued sympathy of many. Clinging to this while ignoring the greater assaults on their heartlands is, of course, extremely disingenuous. Finally, Sinn Fein must grapple with its aging leader, Gerry Adams. While many take pleasure in his astonishingly strange twitter account, he has serious questions to answer following the conviction of his brother Liam Adams for child sex abuse. Chronically evasive and bizarre behaviour in this area should be impossible to sustain for the leader of a party also aiming to be a serious left alternative in the South.

The smaller nationalist party, the SDLP, remains an odd, stumbling creature. Nominally social democratic, it is conditioned by an overwhelmingly observant-Catholic bourgeois membership and activist base. Its most capable parliamentarian, Conall McDevitt, has departed politics after revelations that public funds were directed to his wife. Like the UUP, it would struggle to survive in a dynamic political system. The Socialist Party and Socialist Workers' Party don’t really figure, but would appear to have a greater presence within lay union structures than across the water. The once-promising left-Loyalist PUP has distended horribly. Uncritically latching on to the flags protests has signified a final and possibly fatal degeneration. Meanwhile, the capable Steven Agnew labours on manfully as the sole Green Party MLA. Despite perennial internal optimism, the party does not look capable of growth beyond its relatively wealthy beachhead in North Down.

I apologise that this may have been a joyless read, but I think it gives a flavour of where Northern Ireland is at in 2013. With all I’ve written, it should be stressed that my home is not dystopia. The wry humour, charming countryside and paradoxically natural warmth of the people remains. The low-intensity civil war is still off, at least for now. I can’t wait to get back.

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