An “unbelievably special position!” Such were the words that British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used to describe the benefits to the North of Ireland of the new ‘Windsor Framework’.
Why? Because this latest proposal gives the North “access to the EU single market”. This from a renowned Tory Brexiteer!
With his best poker face, the PM assured his audience that a new period of prosperity is opening up for the North of Ireland – all thanks to the ‘privileged’, ‘special’, ‘fortunate’, ‘unique’ position that he himself campaigned to withdraw the UK from. One could hardly make it up.
Away from all the fanfare, however, the truth is that there is a deep malaise running through every street of the Six Counties.
As it stands, when the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) comes around next month, on 10 April, Stormont will be silent, its executive suspended – as it has been for almost half the time since the GFA was signed.
Life for workers and young people in the North has become a genuine nightmare. Unprecedented healthcare, housing, and social crises are ripping apart the very fabric of society.
The North is now one of the top ten most deprived areas of northwestern Europe, and is the poorest area in the UK.
The monster of sectarianism, far from being laid to rest by the GFA, has become institutionalised. And the Windsor Framework is certainly no solution to any of this.
Sunak’s promise of ‘prosperity’ must sound like a sick joke to the tens of thousands of workers and young people in the North of Ireland who have been plunged into poverty by consecutive Tory governments.
Even if Stormont reopened tomorrow, the crisis would not go away. In fact, the latest budget cuts a further £300 million from the already utterly inadequate funds allocated to the region.
For workers and youth in the North, capitalism has nothing to offer but a future of increased misery.
Best that it gets
The Windsor Framework – officially adopted by the UK and EU on 24 March – does little more than tweak the 2021 Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol. It adds a green lane for certain off-the-shelf goods, alongside a toothless ‘break’ that allows a minority in Stormont to ‘flag’ concerns over new EU regulations.
The sea border stays. Decision-making power remains in London and Brussels. Despite the ambiguous language used, the DUP’s ‘seven tests’ on any such deal are clearly not met.
In fact, neither the EU nor the British capitalist class can satisfy the DUP’s dreams.
The EU is first and foremost a capitalist institution. It needs to defend the borders of its market. Brexit means that a border must exist, either on land or at sea. And with a European border there comes European trade laws – that is, the ruling of the European Court of Justice. It is as simple as that. And the EU cannot compromise on this fact.
Apart from some sops to the DUP here and there, this is the best that the EU can offer without compromising the integrity of its own market.
As for the British capitalist class, Brexit has been a calamity, bringing only tension and uncertainty. The bankers in the City of London – of whom Sunak is a surer representative than his predecessors, Truss and Johnson – are yearning for rapprochement between London and Brussels. The EU is still Britain’s main trading partner, after all.
The UK government therefore has no intention of renegotiating a new deal. This is it for the North of Ireland.
The truth is that the North of Ireland – with its dysfunctional political setup – enters as a minor inconvenience in the calculations of the British establishment; as an annoying post scriptum.
Even those Tories, like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who talk big about ‘protecting the Union’, and who have voted against the Windsor Framework, abide by only one real principle: protecting their own personal interests and advancing their careers.
They are impatiently waiting on the sidelines, nursing their bruised egos, looking for the first sign of weakness from Rishi Sunak, before they launch their next offensive.
Despite a small backbench rebellion, the Tory leader was able to pass his new agreement through Parliament on 22 March, thanks to support from across the aisle.
At the same time, the Brexiteers are split, with many Tory MPs fearful of the consequences for their careers if they rock the boat too much, while their party languishes 20 points behind Labour in the polls.
For all these players, the North of Ireland is only a pawn in their cynical political games.
Rock and a hard place
The DUP, meanwhile, are terrified of what this ‘framework’ might mean for their comfy seats in Stormont and Westminster.
Until recently, they were playing for time; avoiding any immediate response by setting up legal committees to further ‘understand’, ‘search’, and ‘inquire’ in relation to the concrete text of the deal. But as an opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph put it:
“Can you picture them? The DUP’s legal and constitutional experts poring over details in the Windsor Framework? Me neither. The party isn’t scrutinising the fine print or checking footnotes, it’s playing for time – finger in the air to test which way the wind is blowing.”
No doubt the party’s representatives would happily return to the Stormont trough. They voted against the latest proposals in Westminster last Wednesday. But they have left open the possibility of accepting other parts of the deal in the future.
In official statements, the party has in fact said that it will continue to work on “outstanding issues” in the deal, “to try to restore the delicate political balances within Northern Ireland”. Translation: they will do their best to compromise and get back to the status quo.
But this is easier said than done for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the other DUP leaders. And the polling makes clear why. While two thirds of people in the North back the Windsor Framework (including 97% of nationalists), 75% of DUP supporters are dead set against it.
The DUP is being flanked by the so-called ‘moderates’ of the UUP on one side, and by the TUV to their right.
They vividly remember what happened in 2021. The party was plunged into crisis after former DUP leader Arlene Foster signalled approval for the NI Protocol. The DUP cycled through three leaders in rapid succession, and at one point fell to fourth place in the polls.
Were its leaders to now come out openly in favour of the Windsor Framework, the DUP would guarantee its own political annihilation. The Stormont Assembly, therefore, could still be in limbo for some time yet.
Having pressured Westminster MPs into accepting the new deal, the British ruling class is no doubt pushing for those in Stormont to follow suit.
As the anniversary of the GFA approaches, the establishment’s propaganda will only grow louder and louder. A ‘peace dividend’ awaits! Or so we are told.
This empty rhetoric won’t impress anyone. Everyone can see that the North of Ireland is in a dire state.
The NHS crisis is particularly acute. Waiting times for the Northern Trust are by far the longest across the UK. For children applying for hospital treatment, 53% have to wait for more than a year just to receive their first consultation.
Low-wage earners in Belfast are 10% poorer than their counterparts in the rest of the UK – despite the city’s eye-wateringly high living costs.
The Six Counties have a higher education gap than any other region in an OECD country. The North has the lowest employment rates in the UK, together with the highest, most-persistent rates of ‘economically inactive’ people.
Capitalism is in complete disarray in the North of Ireland. Productivity is almost 20% lower than in the rest of the UK, and 40% lower than in the South.
The overwhelming majority of employment comes not from ‘investment’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, but from the public sector. Even shipbuilding – the traditional backbone of Belfast’s industry – is in terminal decline, with Harland & Wolff losing 99.84% of their stock value in the last 10 years.
Betrayed and abandoned
As Lenin once remarked, nationalism is at the bottom a question of bread.
Partition by British imperialism, and the establishment of the sectarian statelet, rested on the fact that Protestant workers would receive just a little bit more than Catholics – slightly better jobs, better houses, better schools, better healthcare, etc.
Capitalism in crisis, however, means artificial scarcity, with nothing to offer either Catholic or Protestant workers. The cost-of-living crisis is eroding the wages and conditions of all workers, in a race to the bottom. Even relative privileges can no longer be provided by the bosses.
This is feeding a deep sense of betrayal amongst certain Protestant workers, who increasingly feel like they are being abandoned and left behind. This has pushed the most backward layers straight into the arms of reaction.
Having cynically used Protestant workers to keep a foothold in Ireland, the British establishment has now decisively turned its back on them.
To add insult to injury, this is all being done by the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’, which is supposed to be defending them.
As one DUP MP put it, the Windsor Framework “has been shoved through the house by the government – the Conservative and Unionist Party”. But “where is the Unionist” bit of that formulation?
In reality, for a long time now, the British ruling class has wanted to rid itself of the ‘burden’ of the North of Ireland. Whatever economic and strategic importance it may have had for British imperialism a century ago, at the time of partition, has long since disappeared.
If anything, from the point of view of British capitalism, the territory is now only a drain on the public purse – and an endless source of political instability and headaches.
Sectarianism and polarisation
But the anger is by no means only directed at Westminster politicians. Amongst Protestant workers, there is also a feeling of being ignored by their own out-of-touch ‘representatives’.
Workers see detached Unionist politicians moving to leafy neighbourhoods, with extremely comfortable lifestyles. Meanwhile, they are left to wrestle with a shortage of housing, jobs, and services.
At the same time, the sectarian logic baked into Stormont and the GFA means that they fear the consequences of not voting for Unionist parties.
The general feeling, therefore, is increasingly that the Protestant vote is ‘taken for granted’; that Protestant workers are used as a political football by the Unionist establishment in order to keep their seats in the Assembly.
Reactionary Unionist and Loyalist opportunists cynically exploit this sense of betrayal and anger. “We are under siege,” they shout. “We are going to become an EU colony anytime now! We are surrounded by enemies on all sides!”
This is all fomenting divisions and fuelling polarisation in the North. The poison of sectarianism, far from dissipating, is being aggravated by the crisis of British capitalism, and by the myopic, reckless behaviour of the establishment and its representatives.
Splits and tensions over the Windsor Framework are only the latest symptom of this combustible cocktail.
The most disenfranchised layers will come under the influence of Loyalist paramilitaries. Just a couple of months ago, senior UVF figures threatened that Loyalists would “wreck the place”, and that “the streets will be in flames”, if any new UK-EU deal did not scrap the Irish Sea border.
The sectarian riots seen in 2021 are a warning sign of what lies ahead on the basis of capitalism.
Unity in struggle
But this is only one side of the picture. Alongside rising sectarian tensions and polarisation in the North, there is also the resurgence of the class struggle across these isles.
At root, these opposing tendencies are both reflections of the same underlying processes. The system is at an impasse. The status quo is breaking apart. The old world is dying, giving rise to all manner of horrors and barbarism. At the same time, a new society is trying to be born, as shown by the mass movements of workers and youth in all countries.
Since the start of the year alone, there have been strikes by nurses, junior doctors, ambulance drivers, social care staff, teachers, civil servants, university lecturers, and more.
And over the last six months of 2022, the North of Ireland was top of the league when it comes to days lost to strike action, relative to the size of the working class: a whopping 129 days for every one thousand workers – a strike wave of proportions not seen for decades.
On a single day in February this year, healthcare and education workers surrounded Belfast town hall in a joint day of strike action, involving tens of thousands throughout the North.
Austerity and inflation are bearing down on all workers. This is increasingly pushing workers into taking collective action; into waging a united struggle against the bosses, and against all the capitalists politicians at Westminster and Stormont.
On this basis, through mass struggle, a common class unity is being forged, cutting across the scourge of sectarianism.
We must be clear, however. On a capitalist basis, none of the problems facing workers – Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise – can be solved.
The wealth exists to provide decent jobs, wages, housing, healthcare, education, and living standards for all. But this fortune sits in the hands of a tiny elite of parasitic bosses and landlords. And they would rather see the North of Ireland descend into sectarian violence than relinquish a single penny of this.
Only by expropriating the capitalists, and kicking out their political lackeys, will we see a real period of prosperity opening up for workers in the North and South.
The key question for workers across Ireland, therefore, is that of building a revolutionary leadership – one capable of fighting for the common interests of the working class, and taking the struggle to the end.