#WeDeserveBetter than politics which forsakes the marginalised for the sake of a return to business as usual.
Over 571,000 people have watched the initial video which sparked the #WeDeserveBetter; the protest which aims to mark Northern Ireland’s unofficial world record for days without government. Dylan Quinn’s two demands to restore power sharing or slash the salaries of MLAs if they don’t, resonate with people who are fed up with seeing their rights denied, their services cut and their wages stagnating.
Due to take place on August 28th in towns and cities across the North, the protest has landed itself in controversy for offering speaking slots to activists campaigning for LGBTQ Rights and Reproductive Rights, only to pull both speakers for being ‘divisive’. Quinn has since gone on the record to state that the protest needs to focus on the lack of an Assembly.
A statement released by Progressive Politics NI on 21st August announced that they were pulling out of co-hosting the Belfast event after #WeDeserveBetter organisers expressed discomfort at having John O’Doherty from the Rainbow Project and Elaine Crory from Belfast Feminist Network as speakers. The statement claims that organisers “felt these are “agendas” and that this campaign wasn’t about them.”
The idea, then, is that the sole focus of the rallies should be to push for the restoration of Stormont. However, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign seems to have no real analysis of why power-sharing is in a state of collapse in the first place. The reality of the situation is that restoration of Stormont is not enough on its own. In their ten years of existence, the post-St Andrew’s institutions were in a semi-permanent state of crisis. The Haass talks, the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start came and went without resulting in the political stability desired by #WeDeserveBetter. We may be 500+ days and counting since there was a devolved government, but Stormont was a dysfunctional institution for years prior – one that failed to operate democratically and was riven by one corruption scandal after another.
What once started as a protest stunt to highlight the number of days we have endured without a legislative assembly at Stormont, has grown into a protest movement but it isn’t the first iteration of the slogan ‘We Deserve Better’.
The slogans have changed, the demands and issues have changed but We Deserve Better has been the declaration at every protest, every court case and every strike since long before the Assembly entered its current hiatus. When 1000s march for Equal Marriage, they are saying #WeDeserveBetter. When women turned themselves in for helping others access abortions through abortion pills, they were saying #WeDeserveBetter. When public sector unions engage in strike action against cuts and redundancies, they are saying #WeDeserveBetter. We know we deserve better, we knew we deserved better when the Assembly was still in place – and denying us the better we deserve.
The #WeDeserveBetter campaign has opted for the old status quo, lacking a coherent set of demands and calling for politicians to simply ‘get back to work’ ignoring the structural issues at play in favour of simple populism. Thus, it is a campaign that doesn’t really say anything. Indeed, this seems to deliberately the case. The characterisation of LGBT and feminist speakers as having ‘agendas’ that are divisive and distract from the purpose of the events is indicative of this. To be blunt, politics is supposed to be divisive. And it is worth noting that both same sex marriage and abortion reform are supported by the majority of people in Northern Ireland, more than support for any individual political party. However, it is also interesting to note that some #WeDeserveBetter events feature speakers talking about issues such as welfare cuts and school budgets. Considering that welfare in particular has been a source of political contention between the two main parties, one wonders why this is not also side-lined as a ‘divisive’ issue. Why is it that marginalised and minority groups are the ones being told to get to the back of the queue?
Of course, the idea that a return to the status quo is required before LGBT and abortion issues can be resolved is ridiculous. Stormont in its ten years since 2007 took no progressive action in these areas. Indeed, prior to its collapse, Stormont was implementing austerity and cutting budgets in welfare and education. There something to be said about similarities between the #FBPE and pro-Hillary centrists in the UK and United States who want to simply go back to pre-2016 and the #WeDeserveBetter campaign who just want to put Stormont back together and pretend everything was fine beforehand. It’s all about just putting the genie back in the bottle. But that’s not how politics works. That pre-2016 period may have been more stable than now on the surface, but the failings of that period lead directly to the issues that exist today. Ultimately, ‘return to the status quo’ politics always fails because it refuses to acknowledge that said status quo was simply untenable for increasing numbers of people. Just think of the absolute failure that Stormont was in the last ten years.
We cannot just go back to how things were before. We definitely deserve better than that, and we shouldn’t be afraid to demand it.
The Last Round Editorial Team