As the latest phase of deliberations over the Stormont crisis come to a crunch point, Conor McFall takes a look back over Stormont’s acheivements throughout the years and asks if rehashing neoliberal stalemates is enough.
About two months ago, during the second edition of The Last Round’s Speakeasy podcast, I asked the panel about the record of the Northern Ireland executive in the ten years since the establishment of the Northern Ireland executive. The answer was clear; there was nothing to write home about. Ten years of devolved government yielded little achievement, with the chambers of Stormont characterised by sectarian culture wars-style bickering interspersed with the odd moment of symbolic reconciliation to keep the people on board. It’s hard to think of a point in that decade in which there wasn’t some form of scandal brewing. Whether that be the relationship between successive DUP leaders and influential property developers, the Iris Robinson affair, Red Sky, Nama, the alleged IRA killing of Kevin McGuigan or RHI, there has been a steady cavalcade of scandal at the heart of Stormont.
Of course, there has been no devolved government in Northern Ireland for just over a year now. A seemingly never-ending talks process is yet to produce results and successive British NIO minsters have dangled the threat of direct rule without ever having the gumption to pull the trigger. The lack of government has undoubtedly been bad. But the drawn-out stalemate of the talks process has led to some lazy wishful thinking that a return to Stormont would offer a genuine solution to Northern Ireland’s many problems. This is not to say that there are not useful things that devolved ministers could do, although this largely comes down to signing off on various schemes that have been sitting on desks for months. But it is worth remembering that we’ve had an annual winter crisis in the health service going back a number of years. That two years ago there was a horrendous upsurge in homeless deaths on the streets of Belfast. That rights issues such as same sex marriage and abortion saw no legislative progress in the last ten years. That there is a housing crisis in Belfast and that the plan for economic development consists of subsidies to businesses while people have to make do with demoralising and low paid jobs in call centres and the like. All of these issues persisted and were exacerbated with devolved ministers from both the DUP and Sinn Fein in office.
“Indeed many of the aforementioned problems, including struggling hospitals, a mental health crisis, poverty, housing shortages and low wages, are in part a direct consequence of the neoliberal development model pursued in NI following the Good Friday Agreement. Simply restoring a dysfunctional executive to continue the project of carrying out austerity, promoting shit jobs and cutting corporation tax will not change the direction of travel.”
So far, there is no sign that a restored Stormont executive would offer anything different to what has come before. There is a severe shortage of solutions to these systemic issues coming from the main parties. Indeed, the return of an executive to oversee continued austerity while rolling out corporation tax cuts will simply serve to further erode the already dismal levels of satisfaction with local politics. This gets to the heart of the issue with viewing politics as a technocratic process. This sort of thinking is seen within liberal centrist circles across western politics, in which the emphasis is placed squarely on parliaments and process, where the best traits a politician can exhibit are a managerial sensibility and ‘competence’. Of course, the issue with this is that it doesn’t take actual political agendas into account. In the US, Paul Ryan might be seen as a competent politician because he was able to effectively manage a massive tax cut to redistribute wealth towards the ruling class. But this is obviously not a good thing. As with bipartisanship. The American example is effective here once again due to the frequent stalemates produced by their political system. The Democrats and Republicans were in bipartisan agreement over the invasion of Iraq, as they tend to be on imperialist matters, and it turned out to be one of the most disastrous crimes of the 21st century so far.
In the last number of years, we’ve seen a massive increase in political dissatisfaction across the western world. This is the result of the financial crisis of a decade ago and the long-form decaying of neoliberalism that it was indicative of. Put simply, the economic system does not work for an increasing number of people. In the last ten years we have seen a dramatic increase in wealth inequality; in terms of wages, housing, education and quality of life, conditions have stagnated or declined. This is a massive factor in the surprise election results we have seen in the last few years; Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of Macron and Le Pen in France and of course the Corbyn surge in the UK being prime examples. Governments that seek to adhere to the neoliberal line, such as Theresa May’s in the UK, are bereft of ideas for how to patch up a crumbling system. Northern Ireland, despite its insularity, is not immune to this. Indeed many of the aforementioned problems, including struggling hospitals, a mental health crisis, poverty, housing shortages and low wages, are in part a direct consequence of the neoliberal development model pursued in NI following the Good Friday Agreement. Simply restoring a dysfunctional executive to continue the project of carrying out austerity, promoting shit jobs and cutting corporation tax will not change the direction of travel.
In other countries we have seen increased political polarisation as new political formations have challenged the ruling order. These include attempts to move beyond neoliberalism towards a more equitable settlement, as seen in the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign which have revitalised the left in their respective countries. But there are also the revanchists who seek to offer a mixture of hyper-capitalism and anti-migrant brutalisation. These two paths will likely be the prevailing political tendencies in the next decade. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland is riven by stalemate, where no new political formations can or likely will emerge. The likely outcomes here in the short to medium term are continued stasis or an attempt to patch together an executive that will lack any impetus to offer the radical changes required to fix the deep-seated issues in Northern Irish society. An attempt to construct bipartisanship around the same old politics that has failed both here and across the world is clearly inadequate. Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, perhaps the only way to move beyond the stalemate is to tear it up and start again.