Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal threw the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) under a bus with his plan to create customs checks in the Irish Sea. In the run up to the election in the North of Ireland, the DUP has been stirring up its supporters by talking loudly of the union with Britain being under threat if this deal goes ahead.
Loyalist paramilitary groups, especially the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the leader of the Belfast flag protests in 2012 Jamie Bryson, have been organising public meetings against what they call Johnson’s “betrayal act”.
At one meeting in Portadown, addressed by both the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) candidates, Bryson talked openly of Protestants having the “right to defend themselves against betrayal,” saying: “We are not being driven into an economic united Ireland…to appease the Provisional IRA.”
This agitation has led to a hardening of sectarianism in the election. The UUP were threatened by the UDA and forced to withdraw its candidate in North Belfast, where senior DUP leader Nigel Dodds faces a close challenge from Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast John Finucane. Finucane is the son of Pat Finucane, a solicitor murdered by the UDA in collusion with the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch and the British Army in 1989. Loyalists, with the tacit approval of the DUP, have been erecting banners around North Belfast, accusing Pat Finucane and his brothers of being members of the IRA.
Johnson, meanwhile, announced that the Tories would alter the UK Human Rights Act to give immunity to British soldiers accused of killing civilians during the conflict, a key focus for loyalist protests over recent years.
A single British solider, known as “Soldier F” has been charged with murder on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, but other inquiries, especially the inquest into the Ballymurphy massacre of 1971 and ongoing revelations about collusion, have exposed the role of the British state in killing civilians during the Troubles. This is what Johnson and the British state want to suppress.
The election in the North has seen a dramatic hardening of sectarianism, with a series of electoral pacts between the DUP and UUP on the one hand and the SDLP and Sinn Féin on the other, to stand aside in favour of a single nationalist or unionist candidate.
Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Green Party claim that they are doing so in order to oppose pro-Brexit parties like the DUP. But the move is widely viewed as a reversion to the sectarian carve up of politics in the North.
The irony is that the DUP and Sinn Féin both voted through the Tory welfare cuts, including the bedroom tax and Universal Credit and PIP, before the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended three years ago. The effect of these cuts is being felt throughout working class Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods across the North in the last year. The main parties in the North, including the Alliance Party (sister party of the British Liberal Democrats) all support a neoliberal vision for the North’s economy, especially over issues like lower corporation tax and privatisation.
In recent weeks it was revealed that hospitals in the North of Ireland have the worst waiting times for accident and emergency and for surgery. Nurses and health workers in the North voted overwhelmingly for strike action in November, over pay and staffing. It was a Sinn Féin health minister, now Sinn Féin leader, Michelle O’Neill, who signed off on Tory demands for pay restraint. Votes for industrial action by postal workers and university lecturers in the North have also been as high as in Britain.
Such united action that can break through sectarian division, alongside the mass movements for social change, over issues such as abortion rights and LGBT equality, points to the potential for an alternative type of radical politics in the North.
People Before Profit candidates, Gerry Carroll in West Belfast and Shaun Harkin in Derry, are offering a determined challenge to this consensus and the sectarian carve up.
Harkin said, “Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and the DUP all want to slash taxes on rich corporations. There’s a pact you won’t hear much about. Vicious welfare reform and pay cuts for ordinary people, and handouts to elites, the super-rich and wealthy corporations. That’s what the Stormont political establishment delivered… Forget the rotten electoral pacts of the failed political establishment — strike action is the kind of people-power that unites across the divide and that can deliver justice and equality for all working class communities.”