TLR’s Tyler McNally examines politics in what has been a very unpredictable year for Northern Ireland, arguing the groundwork is being laid for future optimism.
2019 is proving to be a turbulent year for Northern Ireland, starting with the tragic murder of Lyra McKee and the resulting displays of solidarity across NI and the world, only to finish with a Brexit delivered by Boris Johnson, a cabinet of unremarkable villains and aspiring regents, the DUP.
This is also proving to be a time when popular protests & movements take centre stage, filling a void in everyone’s imagination, once previously filled with the whatabouttery and circus mastery of sectarian politicians and Nolan contrarians, with inspiring demands and a glimpse at a potential Northern Ireland. The Harland & Wolff occupation has forced many to reckon with their own sectarian prejudgements as over 120 workers (roughly divided 60/40 along community lines) continue to engage in an all-out struggle which has seen them raise Pride flags, and chant in Irish alongside Irish Language campaigners, building solidarity between otherwise very different causes and groups in their fight to save their jobs and their yard from closure.
With ongoing division over Brexit, and the expected delivery of Reproductive & Equal Marriage rights, Stormont is unlikely to be restored until 2020. Stormont’s collapse was an early day relief for the assembly parties, previously encumbered by exchanges between the increasingly discordant Sinn Fein and DUP, who themselves were drowning in the aftermath of the RHI scandal. The lack of a devolved assembly has instead shifted attention towards Westminster, local councils and away from the assembly parties themselves – making it more difficult for parties to intervene into issues from the position of authority they once enjoyed. This shift hasn’t led to the predicted lack of traction which political movements here were expected to suffer, instead – the 2017 crisis and the subsequent general election in the same year have exposed Northern Ireland’s difficulties and contradictions to a wider audience, forcing elements within the UK Parliament to act following decades of ignorance.
Our progress hasn’t just been witnessed in legislation moving through Westminster, by occupying their yard; the Harland & Woolf workers have been able to stave off the worst aspects of administration – vulture funds, asset stripping and redundancy. Despite being over 23 days into their occupation, the occupiers haven’t backed down and are optimistic a solution can be found – such a victory would give great confidence to NI Civil Service workers who first went on strike late last month, as they prepare for another potential two days of strike action between now and Brexit on October 31st.
In a further sign of the times we live in; the H&W workers and their unions (Unite & GMB) have committed to standing worker candidates in North & East Belfast at the next election. This is understandably a sore point for the DUP, who will need every vote to retain those seats if a viable anti-sectarian candidate stands, but if this initiative where to spread to Ballymena and other areas affected by NI’s sharp decline in manufacturing – we could be looking at the embryo for a new radical, electoral challenge to the sectarian status quo.
Unite AGS @BeckettUnite makes a huge announcement for #NorthernIreland politics. Due to DUP failure to save jobs & skills and #SaveOurShipyard the trade union movement will be running worker candidates in North & East Belfast in upcoming elections. #ReNationaliseNow pic.twitter.com/q7p1QGIXaA
— Unite the Union NI (@UniteunionNI) August 12, 2019
We are right to be optimistic, but challenges continue to linger. This month’s bomb attack in Fermanagh, allegedly carried out by the Continuity IRA, is a stern reminder that as the continued crises blighting working class communities are not addressed; we can expect that monsters from our past will appear. The National Union of Journalists, together with activists from other Unions, played a key role in giving shape to the erupting hurt and anger following Lyra McKee’s death. Through holding vigils with clear demands of ‘No Going Back’ and a rejection of all sectarian violence; we were afforded an opportunity to reaffirm our rejection of the old status quo, not divided as Catholics and Protestants, but together as trade unionists and people sharing a community.
Stormont’s removal from the stage has exposed the real engine for change in society, far from being politicians agreeing on austerity and fighting over the past. It is people following the lead of the H&W Occupation, the NICS strike and the decades long fights for reproductive and marriage rights. People taking an inspiring lead from others who have either fought for, or have won serious gains through assembling and organising in this period, showing us that even though some assembly is required, an Assembly is not – we are showing ourselves and each other the way.