The world’s media returned to Northern Ireland yet again in recent days. Unusually the politics of Northern Ireland delivered a positive news story which was largely counter to the negative stories dominating global headlines.
The decision by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to re-enter power-sharing arrangements at Stormont after two years of boycott followed claims by party leader Jeffrey Donaldson had secured major changes to proposed restrictions in trade and customs barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Unionists viewed the ‘hard sea border’ arising from these controls as posing a major step towards an economically united Ireland, as Northern Ireland was left behind in the EU single market for goods as the rest of the UK left it.
The hard sea border arrangements were the result of direct negotiations between the British government and the European Commission to establish a post-Brexit trading arrangement between the two. The EU required the UK to impose restrictions on goods entering Northern Ireland to protect the integrity of the EU single market. This was because there was a risk that goods could pass to the Republic of Ireland over the border. Due to commitments in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, an all-island economy was to remain frictionless and free.
The new arrangements
Claims by the DUP leadership that the deal has got rid of the hard sea border are overstated. No fundamental change to the EU-UK agreement governing the importation of goods from GB to NI has occurred. However, the DUP can certainly point to a series of tweaks, all of which will mean that for the bulk of goods imported into Northern Ireland there will ordinarily be no checks or duties imposed.
The arrangements do not extend – for the most part – to goods for industries involved in production. Manufacturers based in the north importing through Great Britain will have to provide disclosure on goods which transit to the south. They will also have to ensure goods are manufactured to EU standards. That said, the trade off for these manufacturers is that they will get frictionless and tariff free access to both the EU and UK markets – potentially a very beneficial arrangement. A similar situation faces agricultural producers in the north.
The deal will also see the EU effectively turn a blind eye to risks that consumer goods imported from GB to NI, which originate in free trade deals conducted by the UK, may cross the border. This, in particular, was touted as a major gain by the DUP leadership and may indicate a wider willingness on the part of the EU to accommodate challenges in a very flexible manner
Perhaps the most complex aspect of the deal and the one with the greatest capacity to cause future controversy are the arrangements to handle future regulatory divergence between the UK and EU. While this is not a problem now as the UK remains largely tied to existing EU standards, there is potential for standards on goods to diverge over time. This poses problems for goods manufactured to those standards in GB which the EU would not want subsequently entering the Republic of Ireland. The arrangements provide a ‘Stormont brake’, which is a mechanism designed to be deployed by Unionists if they feel that being tied to EU standards is likely to cause a new sea border arising. Once the brake is deployed it is then for a joint UK-EU committee to find a resolution with final say residing in Westminster.
While the mechanism is clearly meant to avoid risks of future trading barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – it leaves open the possibility that a future UK government might decide to enforce UK as opposed to EU standards on Northern Ireland – a situation which might open the prospect of north-south border controls. Alternatively, a decision to enforce the EU standard in Northern Ireland would mean a new hard sea border.
While this might look like a recipe for difficulty, the UK and EU authorities both appear intent on avoiding controversy and are likely to find compromises to mitigate the risk of such outcomes. What is more, it seems more than likely that an incoming Labour government under Keir Starmer may resolve such risks permanently by a decision to harmonise UK and EU standards into the future.
A first nationalist first minister
The 2022 Assembly election, which followed the DUP walkout of government, for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland returned Sinn Féin as the largest party – albeit with unionist political representation overall narrowly outnumbering that of nationalists.
The prospect of the first nationalist leader of the local seat of power in the 103 year history of Northern Ireland was a factor which acted to deepen the challenges of re-establishing the Executive. It is certainly a driving force for those unionists, a minority, who are virulently opposed to the restoration of power-sharing. This is reflected in the widespread “Stop the DUP sell-out” banners and posters which have gone up across the North.
For Sinn Féin, and for nationalists, generally, the elevation of the first Catholic as First Minister is undoubtedly a historic moment. For many, it heralds the possibility of further change to the constitutional arrangements – in particular, Irish reunification. This aspiration is not currently supported by opinion polls which show a large majority for continued union with Great Britain.
That said, the election of a Sinn Féin First Minister is likely to challenge that situation. Regardless of commitments to be a representative of all communities in the north, the reality is that Sinn Féin are a party fixated on the goal of reunification. They will use the new position to advance that agenda and seek to enter government in Dublin with the same goal.
As part of their strategy to that end, the party has increasingly swerved to the right in both the north and south. When it came to choosing ministerial positions, the party refused health and education and instead chose finance and economy. The goal will be to project themselves as a ‘safe pair of hands’ with a view to sweeping to power in the Republic.
Trade unions driving political developments.
While the parties are fixated on questions relevant to the national question, Northern Ireland’s politics in recent weeks and months has been dominated by the struggle of workers. For the most part, the politicians were at best bystanders to the wave of strike action which has taken the north by force.
On January 18th, a historic strike action – likely the largest since the early 1980s – involving workers across the public sector, brought the region to a standstill. More than 100,000 workers, from 15 different unions, participated in the one-day strike action across health, education, civil service and public transport. The impact was such that much of the private sector was impacted and it took some aspects of a general strike.
That strike and those taken by different sections of the public sector workforce in the run-up and aftermath was a driving force. The region’s public services have faced decades of underfunding and privatisation but the Tory Secretary of State decided to impose brutal budgets to force the local parties back to the negotiating table. While his aim was to use the unions to squeeze the DUP, the unions chose to focus their anger on him for withholding the money needed.
Stung by pre-Christmas public transport strikes which paralysed bus and rail services, the Secretary of State – at the request of Sinn Féin – re-started multi-party talks before Christmas. As a sweetener, he offered £2.2 extra funding and a guarantee that a premium on public funding in the region of 24% above the per-capita spend in England would be applied. Those talks made no progress but as strikes mounted, the offer was increased to £3.3 billion – a direct result of the pressure put on by the labour movement.
The confidence of workers grew further, leading to the one day coordinated strike on January 18th. At midnight after the strike, Heaton-Harris issued a statement saying that in the absence of political agreement he would address ‘public finance’ pressures. The next day, the DUP leadership moved to indicate that they were serious about re-entering government. The dam had broken.
While the deal is being hailed by all sides, the reality is that it will neither resolve the national question and sectarianism in Northern Ireland nor will it resolve the crisis in public services or public pay.
Northern Ireland faces profound change. Unionists and Protestants are now a minority. – While Nationalists and Catholics are also a minority, there is a sense that they have the momentum behind them. The election of the first Nationalist First Minister will undoubtedly add a further sense of that momentum, as does the prospect of Sinn Féin being in government in the Republic.
Demographic changes coupled with the destabilisation arising from Brexit, the eclipse of British imperialism as a power, and the weakening of the British economy are all major factors undermining both unionism and the northern state. That said, there is little enthusiasm from the ruling class in the south for any prospect of reunification. Most obviously because of fears of the potential backlash from unionism coerced into reunification against their will.
The financial deal offered by the Tories to the incoming Executive is not consolidated but a one off payment. It would be enough to cover pay for a few years but long-term the Executive will have to find ways to raise money. Options offered by the Tories before leaving included the imposition of water charges, prescription charges, hiking rates, closing schools and colleges and getting rid of free public transport for over 60s. Even taken together these are unlikely to bridge the gap. The prospect is therefore for continued instability.
What is clear however is that workers who have driven the political developments have a sense of their power. That is not going to go away. It is likely that the next term of Stormont will be marked by much more widespread industrial actions and campaigns.
The self-activity of workers and the absence of a political voice reflecting their demands, has also raised an awareness among wide layers of a need for an alternative politics – that of the united, working-class. It is to that end that socialists are focussed. It is a burning priority to establish such a political option and to raise within such a mass party of the class the politics of socialist transformation and workers’ democracy.