New Decade, New Approach: New DNA?

Are there hopeful signs of change in the agreement that got Stormont up and running again? Maurice combs over some of the highlights.

New life up on the Hill?

The new decade has got underway with some huge international developments – the impeachment of President Trump, a dangerous collision between the US and Iran, and, at the end of this week, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Here in Northern Ireland, though, we too have our own developments to boast: our political institutions are at last up and running again at Stormont. But has the ‘New Decade, New Approach’, the document that sealed the deal, really injected New DNA into our body politic?

At first glance, not particularly, since it restores the institutions, and indeed largely the same MLAs, we had three years ago when it all came tumbling down. And as the document explicitly commits participants to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that created the institutions in the first place, arguably we are going back even further.

But look a little closer and it becomes clear we are not merely returning to the status quo ante. Firstly, the context has changed. When the GFA was formulated, and right through until the elections of 2017, unionists of various stripes collectively took more than half the votes and seats. They could plausibly claim to represent ‘the majority community’ (though had I time and space I would critique that kind of use of the term community). Since 2017, that is no longer the case. Unionist parties command less than half the vote; so in effect we now have three minorities in terms of the designation in Stormont – unionist, nationalist, and other.

This is significant because the GFA was set up to share power out between the majority, unionists, and the minority, nationalists – ‘others’, significantly, literally did not count, when it came to votes requiring so-called ‘cross-community support’.  

But the GFA also ensured there would be no constitutional change unless a majority supported it. So, if nationalists, as before, are a minority, and now unionists are also a minority, then both groupings are going to need the ‘others’ to side with them if they are to get their way on the constitutional question. And you don’t do that by hectoring and bullying – heaven knows, both main traditional sides have tried.

The strength of the hand of the others may even be all the greater because of revisions in the Petition of Concern mechanism, recently used by the DUP, for instance, to block equal marriage even after a (narrow) majority had voted for it.

It should be harder (though not impossible) for parties to use this mechanism, originally intended to protect minorities not deny them equality, for such purposes. But of course, we didn’t need to await the reform of the POC mechanism to get equal marriage – that ship, happily, has now sailed, presumably off on a long-delayed and well deserved honeymoon.

Which brings us back to changing contexts. Three years have passed since the Executive and Assembly collapsed on the back of the just-emerging RHI scandal.

Since then, we have had the enquiry, innumerable news reports, and the publication of a best-seller exposing the failings and corruption that led to it. The DUP have returned to power, and are still the biggest party in the unionist camp, but it is clear they have been badly damaged by that scandal.

If RHI brought the institutions down, though, it was another issue – the Irish language – that kept them from resurfacing. Sinn Féin said they would return to power sharing if the language were protected in legislation; the DUP said they would not return if such an act were to be the price.

To circumvent the impasse, the New DNA agreement came up with a compromise of sorts: rather than full blown legislation, there would be one Commissioner for the Irish language, and one for Ulster Scots. Some voices, not unexpectedly, have been raised in complaint about this, but it seems to have proved sufficient to get both sides across the line.

Thus, we find ourselves with a devolved regional government again. There are at least two more pieces of context that have dramatically changed since the previous instalment, though, which may prove decisive in terms of the direction of politics in Northern Ireland.

The first can be summed up in one wearily over-familiar word: Brexit. How will power sharing work when such unwilling collaborators suddenly have to contend not only with a renewed focus on the border on the island, but also, apparently, some sort of border down the Irish Sea?  The details are anybody’s guess, but it would not take a particularly gifted soothsayer to predict turbulence ahead – especially if, as expected, increasing numbers of Scots begin agitating for an independence referendum in the near future.

Secondly, less obviously, but ultimately of profound significance, there is an inescapable broader context: we are all, of whatever political stripe, faced with the unfolding, intertwined crises of deepening inequality and unsustainability.

Here the New DNA document may in fact have brought something really new to the table, at least for Northern Irish politics. For example, from the start and throughout the document, there is some remarkably progressive language on social and fiscal issues – a shared commitment to “improving lives across Northern Ireland” involving extra funding for public services and infrastructure; a commitment to removing the historical debt of the Housing Executive and building social housing; extending welfare mitigations; a commitment to developing and implementing an Anti-poverty strategy. There is a section, would you believe, on Workers’ Rights.

It is almost as though reanimating the NI institutions has become possible only on the basis of an outright rejection of the politics of austerity – perhaps even on the basis of the adoption of a left-of-centre policies.

One welcome development is that a commitment to environmental measures is built into the agreement. One of the ‘priorities of the restored executive’ is to “tackle climate change head on with a strategy to address the immediate and longer term impacts of climate change. The Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord”.

Indeed, the New DNA includes a proposal for a “new Energy Strategy [that] will set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero carbon society”, as well as mentioning a Climate Act and a Green New Deal. The ‘just transition’, along with the Climate Act and the Green New Deal, are goals that activists and campaigners have long been calling for here; so to see them built into the New DNA as an aim of the NI Executive, even as aspirations, is quite something. It’s not that long, after all, since we had an Environment Minister who thought climate change was “not the disaster which the green lefties are getting hysterical about.”

Of course, politicians are not known for the frequency with which their deeds are found to match their words. So there remains much to be done. Nevertheless, the New DNA injected into our regional politics gives us a standard to which we can hold our elected representatives.

From now and for the remainder of this electoral cycle, we as an electorate must remind them that they have made a commitment to tackling poverty, inequality and the climate crisis – and we expect them to act on it.

Maurice Macartney

28 January 2019

Melancholy in the UK

In the wake of the general election, Stephen Baker is feeling his age… perhaps so is the United Kingdom, he argues.

If precedent and predictions are to be believed, the Conservative Party have a Parliamentary majority so big that Boris Johnson can look forward to two terms as UK Prime Minister. That means I’ll be in my 60s before there is any likelihood that he or his damnable party is removed from power: that’ll be 19 successive years of Tory led government between 2010 and 2029.

Think about that.

A party composed of rogues and scoundrels, that exists purely to secure and increase power and wealth in the hands of the rich; that has already spent the last ten years imposing grinding austerity; that has been inert in the face of the climate emergency; and that instigated a deeply divisive constitutional crisis in a bid to save itself, has just been returned to power with a landslide election victory. I find it almost unbearable to contemplate.

I’ve lived most of my life under Tory governments of one stripe or another. The first general election I remember was in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher defeated Labour’s James Callaghan. I was 11 years old and relatively unperturbed by the result at the time, but as teenager I grew to loath the Conservative Party for its socially illiberal politics, its casual racism and its appetite for wrecking industries, working class communities and underfunding public services.

After Thatcher’s election in 1979, the Tories went on to win three more general elections in a reign that lasted 17 years before Tony Blair led Labour back to power in 1997. If the Tories win the next election in 2024, the memory of that New Labour government will seem a mere intermission in a lifetime of otherwise uninterrupted Tory rule.

With hindsight, I suspect Labour was only given access to Number 10 because Blair broke bread with the ruling class and offered assurances that there would be no significant deviation from the agenda set by Thatcher. Ruling class acquiescence to Labour’s assent to power was signaled to all throughout the land when Rupert Murdoch’s influential Sun newspaper declared its support for Blair in March 1997. Sure enough, the three Labour governments – elected in 1997, 2001, and 2005 – kept faith with marketisation and privatisation, and just as Thatcher had her military adventure in the Falklands, so Blair had his in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All those years of free market zealotry and post-imperial melancholia – with potentially 10 more years of it to come. It all takes its toll on a mind and a body; as it does on a nation and a union.

Living in Northern Ireland, as I have done all my life, I’ve never voted for any of the UK’s governing parties. Labour doesn’t stand here and I’ve never, nor will I ever, vote Tory. Instead I regularly participate in elections that reduce politics to sectarian head-counting and proxy border polls, and at the end of each I get a unionist MP. This means that I’ve never been represented by anyone I’ve actually voted for.

Never. Not once.

As if that’s not bad enough, the politics I believe in are rarely given a fair hearing; either ignored in mainstream debate or raised only to be knocked down like a fairground Aunt Sally in the flow of dominant opinion. Forty odd years of watching BBC’s Question Time, or Newsnight, or listening to Radio 4’s Today, or reading the Guardian, only to have it confirmed time and time again that I exist on the lunatic fringe because I believe in public ownership and oppose imperialist wars.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s youthful supporters have discovered, if you espouse anything so radical (and necessary) as a green industrial revolution, or if you refuse to press the nuclear button and send the world and humanity to oblivion, you’ll be presented by the ruling class’s flunkeys in the media as a dangerous subversive. If you’re lucky, they’ll cast you as a mere harmless eccentric.

And maybe such opinions are eccentric in a country that is effectively a one-party state, with its soap-opera of a monarchy and its unelected second chamber; where politicians welcome the opening of foodbanks to feed the ‘left behind’ and working poor; where thousands of lives can be sacrificed in the pursuit of ideologically driven austerity while banks receive bailouts; where the likes of Jimmy Savile and Ian Duncan Smith get honoured; where an antediluvian rent-a-ghost like Jacob Rees Mogg is elevated from backbench obscurity to Leader of the House of Commons; where the political ambitions of a liar are abetted by a compliant media and public service broadcaster to boot.

Frankly, I want none of this, but I can’t see any effective way of speaking out against it, let alone changing it; certainly not under the UK’s withered democratic system, underscored, as it is, by a media that is driven by ideological and commercial imperatives at the expense of democratic ones.

That’s why the last election feels like a decisive moment to me. I am now middle aged, staring into a future of continuous English Tory government, confronted with the awful realisation that I am politically insignificant. Neither my opinions nor my vote matters one iota.

Why should I care? I have, after all, as my Granny might have said, an arse in my trousers. I could probably see out my life in relative domestic comfort, despite the feeling of political impotence. But where is the dignity in that? As the veteran actor Michael Caine said when asked about the potential economic downside of Brexit: “I’d rather be a poor master of my own fate than a rich servant of someone else’s.” Who wants to be a well-kept vassal?

That’s why I never resented people who voted to leave the EU, even though I voted to remain. Brexit’s simple message (some would say simplistic proclamation) to “Take back control” resonated with me too. Of course, it was an empty signifier, capable of appealing to the politically and economically disenfranchised, just as much as those who wanted a return to empire’s imaginary glory.

I confess I was even quietly delighted at the evident shock among some of my fellow Remainers: their tantrums and their tears as they accused their opponents of racism and stupidity. I looked at employers, pundits and politicians in their convulsions and thought, “Hell slap it into ya!” In all their inglorious arrogance, complacency and greed they were in my eyes the progenitors of Brexit and its attendant turmoil: they can own it. Perhaps not the most nuanced or considered analysis, but it’s how I felt then. That’s how I still feel, if I’m honest.

Consequently, I am in the market for wholesale constitutional reform. I suspect I’m not the only one. I have, as outlined above, my own grievances, but a sizeable chunk of the Scottish electorate also look (oven)ready for constitutional change – 1,617,989 (44.7%) of them at last count, in the independence referendum of 2014. That figure looks like it is going to rise, prompting former UK PM Gordon Brown to warn this week that “Unless the regions and nations feel they have a voice that is respected in the United Kingdom, the UK’s three hundred year old history may at some point soon be over.”

Scotland’s First Minister Nichola Sturgeon has demanded a second referendum in the wake of the SNP’s landslide election victory in Scotland. Legally it is for Westminster to decide if and when another referendum takes place, and with Boris Johnson having enjoyed a landslide of his own in England, a second Scottish independence referendum might not happen anytime soon. Indeed, there are rumours that after Brexit the government will focus on strengthening the Union. To this end, a senior Government source is reported as saying that, “Scotland is going to see a lot more of Boris and his ministers in 2020.”

Scotland can only shudder in anticipation of such visitations!

However, it is hard to imagine that a Westminster government would try to keep Scotland in the UK against its will.

All the momentum is with nationalism. But not just Scottish nationalism. As the DUP discovered too late, Brexit is less a project to “make Britain great again” than an expression of English self-determination, which begs the question: is there anyone interested in, or even capable of making the unionist case?

The empire has gone. The post-war social democratic settlement is repealed. The welfare state is withering away. A convivial multicultural society is beset by a hostile environment. The things that once made the United Kingdom imaginable and attractive to many have been jettisoned since that election in 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. As the eminent Scottish historian, Tom Devine, explained back in 2014 during the independence referendum campaign:

I come from a Labour background that includes my grandfather, mother and father and I was very much anti-independence at the start of the campaign. For me, the catalyst for change has been how threadbare the union has become since the early 1980s and linked to that is the transformation of Scotland. I wouldn’t have voted for this in the Scotland of the 1970s or 80s. It’s the Scotland that has evolved since the late 80s and 90s that is fuelling my Yes vote. It now seems to me to be in a fit condition to run a successful economy. There is a list of reasons for this. 

There has been a Scottish parliament which has demonstrated competent government and that parliament has also indicated, by the electoral response to it, that the Scottish people seem to be wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the 1950s. In fact, you could argue that it is the Scots who have tried to preserve the idea of Britishness in terms of state support and intervention, and that it is England that has chosen to go on a separate journey since the 1980s.

The UK now faces a Tory Brexit withdrawal bill that the Scottish Parliament has just voted to reject by a margin of 92 MSPs to 29, the Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected unanimously, with the Welsh Assembly rejecting it as I write. This is all to no avail. The Brexit bill will be passed in Westminster anyway.

The imbalance of power between the constituent parts of the UK is obvious. It was clear during the general election campaign, which in the end boiled down to one thing: what mattered most to English voters? Was it getting Brexit done? Or was it the NHS, the climate emergency and even the United Kingdom itself? Well, now we know the answer. It seems that the vote to leave the EU wasn’t just some splenetic eruption at the injustices of austerity, although that may have played into it. It represents a genuine desire for English national self-determination. People in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need now to consider what a more assertive, self-conscious Englishness will entail; an Englishness that has found its political expression in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Stephen Baker

22 January 2020