Eamonn McCann (June SR) is right to throw cold water over the hype surrounding the recent peace agreement in Northern Ireland. There are real dangers of Catholic and Protestant working class communities being forced into competition with each other in a sectarian scramble over existing resources within the proposed assembly.
Yet there is nothing inevitable about politics in Northern Ireland being defined in these terms. While the yes vote for the assembly revealed that people have illusions in what it will offer, it also, in the main, reflected a genuine desire for political change. It has raised expectations for reform. Combined with the abandonment of the armed struggle by the main paramilitaries the present situation is one of the most favourable that socialists have had for years to intervene in the debate about Northern Ireland.
The obvious place for such discussion is within Northern Ireland itself. However, I believe that socialists in Britain can play an important role in helping to provoke such a debate, particularly in light of the fact that the bulk of trade unions in Northern Ireland are affiliates of British based unions. It is possible for socialists in unions here to argue for union policy to undermine the role sectarian divisions play in perpetuating low pay and poverty for both Catholic and Protestant workers.
For the best part of ten years there has been a distinct lack of any such debate within British trade unions. The combination of years of political stalemate inside Northern Ireland, a steady diet of 'two tribes' propaganda, and a trade union bureaucracy busy pandering to Loyalism and the British state have all had a stifling effect on debate. However, as the recent large fringe meeting on the peace agreement at the CWU conference illustrated, there are signs of a change.
With Northern Ireland set to be governed by a Unionist-Nationalist coalition, the political situation presents both exciting opportunities for raising class politics but also the threat of deeper sectarian division.
Your article 'Poll position' (June SR) gives an intelligent analysis. Generally speaking you are right that people have 'looked to Labour' once every five years at election times. Now there will be half a dozen elections, across the UK, in the next year. And that is not counting the elections which could be fought - for school governing bodies, for example - or where they should be able to be fought - for health authorities and all the other parts of the quango state which now controls more (formerly) public expenditure than the public sector itself.
We should be challenging the absence of real democracy and making the call for democratic public services; as well as demanding access to information and decision making in the present unaccountable systems where patronage and privatisation allow 'New' Labour to behave as badly as the worst of Rotten Old Labour while carrying out even more forcibly the Thatcherite cuts and closures in the NHS, welfare state and local government.
The follow up to your article lies in the process we now need to adopt. Once we could have argued for a one party, one election approach; now we need something more flexible. For example, the Network of Socialist Alliances brings together local groups of socialists who are taking up struggles across the country. The Independent Labour Network is enlisting support of those disaffected with Labour following the move of Ken Coates and Hugh Kerr, Euro-MPs. The Green Left Network seeks to mobilise those who combine demands for environmental sustainability with social justice, and there are Green councillors willing to work with socialists. These three networks are linked and are developing the possibilities of cooperation and coordinated electoral intervention, where appropriate, effective and possible. At the same time, there are at least three socialist parties with electoral aims and experiences: the Socialist Party has elected representatives, the Socialist Labour Party has fought elections widely, the Socialist Workers Party is considering putting its resources towards an electoral platform.
All these forces are worthy of recognition. Operating singly, we are all less likely to be effective, and we may even find ourselves competing. If we were to approach each election on a one by one basis, we could look at common ground for a particular electoral approach at a particular time. An 'anti-EMU, defend the welfare state' position could be developed for the Euro-elections, for example. Together we could all raise the platform higher and threaten the cosy Christian Democrat consensus of Ashdown/Blair/ Clarke more effectively.
We could also demonstrate by working together that (nearly) 2,000 years later we are not all reliving the experience of the splitters who were so prominent in The Life of Brian.
With the European elections approaching, is it not time socialists gave some thought to the menace of economic and monetary union (EMU)?
The advent of EMU would deal a severe blow to any future government wanting to make real changes. In Britain we would have regulation of our interest and mortgage rates, spending and borrowing and management of the money supply handed over to unelected bankers in the European Central Bank (ECB). Article 107 of the Maastricht Treaty forbids the ECB from being influenced by mere elected governments.
It is easy to think of the European Union and EMU as benefiting working people and controlling capital - nothing could be further from the truth. Just look at the savage cuts made in EU member states to meet Maastricht convergence criteria. This is not a right wing issue, since the proposals would also tie the hands of any left wing government.
It really is time to work out a strategy for preventing EMU and federalism. Perhaps Socialist Review readers could make some suggestions?
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