Stormont - photo GFDL-EN/CC
Stormont - photo GFDL-EN/CC

Donal O’Cofaigh, Militant Left (CWI Ireland)

Northern Ireland faces another Stormont election. While the main cause of this is the refusal of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the dominant unionist party, to enter a mandatory coalition while the Northern Ireland Protocol remains in place, the true difficulties are even greater.

The power-sharing institutions, established under the 1997 Good Friday Agreement and modified by the 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement, have not functioned properly for one-third of the last 25 years. This reflects both the mutual veto built into the objectively sectarianised devolved government, something meant to bring together the leading representatives of ‘both sides’, and the growing instability in Northern Ireland.

This year was supposed to have been a belated celebration of Northern Ireland’s centenary. Instead, it has only served to reassert the continued sectarian divisions, which are based on the historical role of ‘divide and conquer’ rule by the ruling elites, and by decades of the dominance of pro-capitalist market policies of the main unionist and nationalist parties.

The current crisis stems from the Northern Ireland Protocol – agreed by the EU and UK government to avoid the need for checks on goods crossing the border in Ireland. The protocol represents a fundamental challenge to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and its place in the UK market. While agrifood checks have long occurred on goods transiting from Britain to Northern Ireland, the protocol demands much more substantial checks, and would preclude the export of goods that don’t comply to EU rules or standards.

Against a backdrop of profound demographic change, in which Catholics now outnumber Protestants, albeit by a small majority – and the seemingly inexorable rise of Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin and the likelihood of its coming to power in the South – political unionism and loyalism find themselves wrong-footed by events.

The result has been loyalist riots on the streets over the last years (relatively small scale compared to the ‘Troubles’ but nonetheless symbolic), and the collapse of the Stormont executive as the DUP withdrew from power-sharing. This forced an early assembly election in May, and then led to the failure to re-establish a functioning assembly – through the refusal of the DUP to nominate a deputy speaker until their demands regarding the protocol are met – let alone an executive.

The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has deferred the assembly election to early 2023. Any election appears likely to reinforce the DUP and Sinn Féin power-blocs, as well as the Alliance Party, viewed by many as the main non-sectarian option.

The absence of a functioning executive will mean even the meagre measures that the parties would have introduced for the cost-of-living crisis will not happen or will be subject to further delay.

That said, few people would have any faith that the Stormont parties would take radical steps to improve things or to avoid the collapse of underfunded public services, but the prospect of any help from an unelected Tory overlord is even less likely.

While the sectarian chasm widens further, workers are increasingly stepping out together. The recent wave of strike action by workers united across the divide offers a glimpse of what is possible and needed. It must be generalised and coordinated by the unions to be most effective, and workers need to reach out to support those others, e.g. youth, women and pensioners, who are really facing the brunt of the latest capitalist ‘cost-of-living’ crisis.

Above all, a mass party of the working class is a political imperative. Militant Left (CWI Ireland) is part of the Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA), which has contested elections in recent years, and has a council seat in Enniskillen.

This can act as an important platform for the creation of a mass party of working class people, standing on a clear socialist programme and offering the action needed by our class. Only socialist policies offer a way to overcome the divisive historic legacy and deliver real improvements for all.