Tuesday, 11 June 2019
Northern Ireland: Statements
Ruth Coppinger (Dublin West, Solidarity)
The killing of Lyra McKee in April sent a shockwave across Northern Ireland. Lyra was one the so-called ceasefire babies, promised a life free from sectarianism and violence. Instead, since the ceasefires there has been an institutionalisation of sectarianism and what a British Secretary of State termed "an acceptable level of violence". Between 2006 and 2015 there were 1,100 bombings and shootings and 787 paramilitary-style punishment attacks. Some 160 people have died in the violence since 1998.
The tragic death of Lyra McKee showed something else: it showed that ordinary people - Protestants, Catholics and others - will not tolerate an attempt to drive society back to the conflict of the Troubles. Protests and vigils initiated by the National Union of Journalists, local trades councils and Lyra's friends and family took place in Derry, Belfast, Omagh, Enniskillen, Strabane, Cookstown, Newry, Dungannon, Dublin, Glasgow, London and elsewhere in the aftermath of her death. These were very important events for giving expression to the widespread anger and revulsion over her death. Had the Irish Congress of Trade Unions acted to co-ordinate and develop this movement against sectarianism by calling lunchtime protests, it is likely that we would have seen protests in every major town and city in the North, demanding that there be "no going back", which became the slogan of the time. Unfortunately, that involvement did not happen.
Those who killed Lyra McKee were on the streets carrying guns because the agreement has not brought the promised peace dividend. Instead, they live in poverty and, in many cases, are exposed to regular harassment by the PSNI. As Lyra stated, "We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us." Derry in particular has high levels of long-term unemployment and child poverty. Some 95% of its young people stated that they saw no future for themselves in the city and could not envisage remaining there long term. This is what allows paramilitary organisations to find their small base of support. Of course, they offer no way out of poverty, but only increased sectarianism.
The main story of the local and European elections in the North was the rise in support for the Alliance Party and others. This is a reflection of the desire for a break with the politics of sectarianism. There is also very clearly huge demand and a desire for social progress in the North. Lyra was an LGBT activist, an advocate for better mental health and someone who would support the growing demand for abortion rights. So many people have commented on what is happening in the US, but Northern Ireland is still an episode from The Handmaid's Tale. The Alliance Party, of course, advocates the same type of neoliberal policies that mean poverty for working-class communities, and the party is not a solution. Alongside the DUP and Sinn Féin, it supported the introduction of Tory welfare reform which has left working-class families about €2,000 worse off each. At the same time, important jobs in the North are at risk. Bombardier's global bosses have announced their intention to sell operations in Northern Ireland. Bombardier accounts for almost 5% of the entire labour force of Northern Ireland and 10% of manufacturing GDP. The remaining 3,600 jobs are a drastically reduced figure, representing less than half the workforce of the 1990s. The Socialist Party agrees with the strong motion passed by Unite the Union at its recent conference, which stated:
Our union will do whatever it takes to defend jobs and skills at Bombardier ... We will continue to raise the idea and fight for the re-nationalisation of this company if that's the only way to protect our members and defend local communities. We will do whatever it takes to prevent a 'vulture' company swooping in to pick [only what it wants] while leaving the rest to waste.
The trade union movement as a whole must come to the assistance of the Bombardier workers.
At the same time, in the public sector in the North, workers are fed up with years of below-inflation pay offers. The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, NIPSA, which is the biggest union in the public sector, has begun an important ballot to reject a derisory 1.25% pay offer and changes to terms and conditions for its members. These struggles are not only essential to defend working-class people, but they also point to how people can be brought together in common struggle.
Of huge assistance in this would be the development of a party that can genuinely unite people across the sectarian divide, including dealing with issues that divide working-class people, in the spirit of solidarity and genuine brotherhood. The election of a Socialist Party member, Donal O'Cofaigh, as part of Cross-Community Labour Alternative in Enniskillen, was also a breakthrough for this type of anti-sectarian working-class politics, as was the success of other parties and candidates of the left. Socialist Party members will work with trade unionists and other activists to help ensure that a socialist alternative for working-class people is built to challenge the dead end of sectarianism and capitalism.