Three years after Stormont collapsed, following the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), power-sharing returned to Northern Ireland on 11 January and a new Executive was formed.
The general election on 12 December punished both the main parties, the DUP and SF. There was growing anger at the continuing deadlock, which saw a crisis in public services — NI has the longest NHS waiting lists in the UK and schools are under huge financial pressure — while legislators still received their salaries.
A well-supported health workers’ strike for the restoration of pay parity with UK NHS staff (broken by the DUP in 2014) and action to resolve chronic understaffing focused attention at the crumbling state of the health service. The prospect of fresh Northern Ireland Assembly elections if they did not agree pushed the main parties into an agreement with the British government.
That the changed political context, rather than any special skill on the part of the new Northern Ireland Secretary, was responsible for this deal is clear as it does not markedly differ from a mooted 2018 deal.
As Suzanne Breen wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “It is very hard for either the DUP or Sinn Fein to justify three years of no government — that has brought public services here to their knees — for what they’ve secured in this deal”.
The bland “New Decade, New Approach” agreement promises £1bn for the health service. That is of course a step forward, but well short of what is needed.
It speaks ominously of “reforms” to the health and social care which, with a Tory government in Westminster, will mean the acceleration of marketisation. Revenue-raising measures such as “water charges” have already been mooted by some DUP and Alliance party politicians — passing on Tory cuts to ratepayers.
Promised action to reform the “petition of concern” mechanism is weak. Ostensibly designed to protect against majoritarian proposals which trammel the rights of minorities, this mechanism was instead used by the DUP to block progress on social issues such as equal marriage. It will now require more than one party to make up the 30 votes necessary to hold up proposals, but Assembly arithmetic implies this anyway as no one party has more than 30 devolved representatives.
Sinn Fein have climbed down on its demand for a standalone Irish Language Act. The DUP still has to accept the introduction of a new Irish Language Commissioner, “balanced” by a further Commissioner “to enhance and develop the language, arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots / Ulster British tradition in Northern Ireland”. (The “Ulster Scots” language is spoken only by a tiny minority).
It may indeed be a “New Decade”, but there is little sign of any “New Approach” from this deal. The weak devolved Assembly remains dominated by representatives of the two sectarian blocs, and tensions are likely to increase further under the impact of Brexit.
The health strike shows what can be achieved through industrial action, but workers need to develop a political alternative to the sectarian parties.
Irish poll on 8 February
Voters in the Republic of Ireland go to the polls on 8 February. Fine Gael Taoiseach [prime minister] Leo Varadkar was pushed by dwindling support for his coalition into calling an early election.
The outgoing Irish government was a coalition of the centre-right Fine Gael and independents, with a confidence and supply agreement with the second largest party, the centrist Fianna Fail.
Varadkar will be hoping that his recent success in Brexit negotiations (from the perspective of the 26-county ruling class) to avoid a hard border, plus his record in delivering the abortion referendum in 2018, will be enough to reverse voter fatigue for his party, which has ruled Ireland since the post-crash election of 2011.
However, Ireland is suffering an acute housing crisis, with spiralling rents in cities and towns forcing people onto the streets and shelters, and workers often commuting long distances into work.
Ireland’s health care system has overcrowded hospitals and a shortage of trolleys.
Worryingly for Fine Gael, an Irish Times poll on 21 January found that 75% of voters want a change in government. The latest Sunday Business Post/Red C poll saw just 12% of those surveyed trusting Fine Gael to solve the housing and rental crisis, and 14% to manage healthcare.
The same poll has Fianna Fail at 26% overall support, Fine Gael at 23%, and a strong showing for Sinn Féin at 19%.
On these numbers, a coalition is again likely — only led by Micheál Martin of FF rather than Varadkar.
Both parties have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin. In a “change election” such as this, however, the attacks on Sinn Féin from the two main parties will boost its anti-establishment credentials.
Though the far left (the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Network and RISE) stand under the joint banner of their parliamentary caucus Solidarity-People Before Profit, they are nevertheless entering this election divided — for example, with the Socialist Party/Solidarity standing against its former member, Paul Murphy TD of RISE, in Dublin South-West.
At the 2019 local elections, Solidarity-PBP won 11 seats, a loss of 17 seats from their combined total at the 2014 local elections. They are currently polling at 2%, though their electoral interventions are targeted in urban seats.
On the centre-left, the still-discredited Labour Party are down two points on 4%, with the Social Democrats up one on 3%.
With the wane of the movement against water charges, the left has not been able to effectively channel anger against the coalition on housing and health and a pose a governmental alternative. The main beneficiaries have been Sinn Féin and the Greens, neither of whom are reliably left-wing.