We will never be neutral about safeguarding the working class

This article by Lynda Walker was first published in the 10 February 2024 print edition of Unity, the national publication of the Irish Communist Party.

THE re-establishment of Stormont brings with it many challenges for the forces of democracy.

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill made history in Ireland by becoming the first nationalist First Minister in Stormont.

It is doubtful that she will underestimate the work that is in front of her trying to represent all people, and opposition will also come from some republicans for she will be seen as mixing with the enemy.

A “first” is regularly a conflict, for they do not always behave as progressive people anticipate, for example, President Obama.

Whilst the Irish Communist Party (ICP) welcomes the return of regional government in Northern Ireland, we also recognise that this comes at a price. Wages of public sector workers will be increased, and that is to be welcomed, but this is not the end of the problem..

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) accepted a deal that the electorate had no party to. It is a Unionist agreement They also put forward Emma Little-Pengelly for Deputy First Minster, who was co-opted but not elected to the Assembly.

The deal that was agreed with the British Government, and the DUP is extensive and is hardly likely to be published in a format that the general public would want to read.

The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) et al employed John Larkin, (pity about his name) former attorney general for Northern Ireland, to make a judgment on the deal. 

This he did, and he has rejected the contention that the government deal to restore Stormont has removed an Irish Sea border.

However, reading through the 80 page Command Paper; Safeguarding the Union, it is evident that the “safeguard” is well in hand.

As we would expect and as is to be welcomed, the paper deals with a whole number of things related to trade, removal of border controls and the removal of the restrictions that prevent “normal” trade between the UK and N. Ireland, removing more than 60 EU food and drink rules in the original Protocol; the issue of agricultural products is also addressed.

Medicines are covered. “It has ensured that UK rules and regulations have primacy, such that Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approves all drugs for the whole UK market.” 

This means a single set of approvals, a single licence, and a single pack, for the whole UK, a long-term, durable basis for supplying medicines to Northern Ireland.  

The paper also addresses issues like Northern Ireland being a “third country” and the question of the civil service in Britain being unfamiliar with the North. 

It will “actively facilitate collaboration between the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Home Civil Service to support the transformation programme in Northern Ireland and institutionalise knowledge and skills that will deliver better public services for all.”

This will involve training programmes and job swaps. Have the unions been consulted?

Of note is the establishment of a new “East-West Council that will foster deeper links for Northern Ireland as part of the Union across business, education and culture,” with representatives from government, civil society and business from the constituent parts of the UK.

In the meantime, the establishment of the Civic Forum (as proposed in the GFA) has been buried.

There are also a number of other issues, some that are not in the remit of Brexit and trade like US links, promoting Ulster Scot investment in defence industries, the production of a number of papers on  Education and skills, Health, Enterprise, innovation and technology, Defence and security,  Culture and sport, A greener Northern Ireland; and g. Public services, pensions and welfare. 

And the Assembly is to get control of corporation tax.

As far as legislation is concerned, they make sure that we know that the UK Government will be responsible for legislation on issues like immigration: “with respect of the Rwanda Bill […] This Bill will therefore apply in full in Northern Ireland”.

There is a proposal that the UK government will “facilitate the establishment of a twinning programme between schools in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, overseen by the UK East-West Council. This will enable the full diversity of our Union to be experienced by a wider range of young people, building shared connections and demonstrating the value of Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK.”

This is quite an interesting proposal and much could be written about diversity, but one wonders if they understand the diversity of the education system here: we have Catholic Primary schools, State (protestant) primary schools, Integrated primary schools (mixed religion/class and race) lobbied for by the parents, Bunscoileanna where children learn through the medium of Irish language also set up by parents (no mention of the Irish Language in the paper). We have the prep schools (paid for) that prepare children to advance to a grammar school of their choosing.

N. Ireland has the best ‘A’ level results in the UK for children in grammar schools (Unionists and some parents fought to keep grammar schools).  The secondary schools have the lowest results, with protestant working class boys faring the worst. As stated before in Unity, that did not matter so much in the past but now the jobs previously reserved for them in engineering and the shipyard have diminished. The twinning of schools here would an interesting project.

There is no doubt that children would benefit from learning about each other’s lifestyles but it is sectarian to talk about twinning with schools in the ‘Union’ and to leave out their neighbouring schools in the Republic. Will parents be consulted and will the teachers’ unions be consulted?

Not surprisingly, there is no reference to women’s issues or the issues of childcare.

There is constant reference to the Act of Union and the way that the UK Government is reinforcing it. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is mentioned a few times. For example, “Furthermore, we are clear that the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement envisages only two constitutional options for Northern Ireland: its continued place in the United Kingdom or to form part of a united Ireland.”

However, in the appendix the voice of Unionist/UK is given when they say:

“A key element of the UK Government’s determination that it will never be neutral on the Union is that it will be unashamedly making the positive case for Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom. There has been increased discussion in recent years about the constitutional future of the island of Ireland, both through party political processes and processes led by the Irish government.

The government’s position that remaining within the Union provides the best future for Northern Ireland is not only one of conviction but is based on our assessment of objective facts.

We believe that stability, peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland are best served by the functioning of devolved institutions within the United Kingdom – with Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK economy being by far the most important part of its economic life.

On the basis of all recent polling, the Government sees no realistic prospect of a border poll leading to a united Ireland.

We believe that, following the restoration of the devolved institutions, Northern Ireland’s future in the UK will be secure for decades to come and as such the conditions for a border poll are unlikely to be objectively met.”

The Good Friday Agreement is undermined if not in fact certainly in spirit.

Reading the paper if you have time you need to for this is just the tip of the iceberg, it would make you wonder why the TUV et al are so worried.

The intent to block the roads last Friday and to storm Stormont on Saturday did not materialise –  an indication that some people are fed up of being told what to do.

However, for the people of Ireland, North and South, and those interested parties in Britain like peace activists, trades unions and so on, we need to deliver our own solutions by working together, holding meetings and workshops through the trade unions, women and community movements on issues like the health service, education and employment, anti-sectarianism and building a movement that will unite us to provide the very best Ireland for us to live in.

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