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Election Reaction: Breaking the Pro-Austerity Hegemony Won’t Be Enough for Northern Ireland

“The failure of the English Revolution is all around us – in the Westminster constitution, in Ireland, and poisoning English attitudes to Europe.” Patrick Keiller’s London

In a region more reliant on public sector employment than any other part of the United Kingdom (28% of employment is public sector), Northern Ireland has suffered greatly from the coalition government cuts with 13,210 fewer public sector jobs in December 2014 than five years earlier. Even Thatcher, who understood that financial vindictiveness would not be conducive to maintaining the Union, somewhat protected the North of Ireland; it had a favoured financial status compared to the rest of the UK and the housing executive was allowed to re-invest 100% of council housing sales receipts rather than 20% elsewhere. As such, the Unionist parties (DUP & UUP) in Northern Ireland are not your average ideologically small-state conservatives; the DUP’s support-base tends to be working-class protestants and entrenched sectarianism complicates the usual party allegiances.

There will no doubt be further cuts in the North of Ireland, possibly privatisations and the introduction of water charges to domestic properties – the very charges, of course, which have ignited the anti-austerity movement south of the border. Sinn Féin will try to consolidate their anti-austerity position, though they are facing a difficult situation having made a big political gesture in rejecting the Stormont House Agreement that the Tories and DUP will now insist on implementing – and Cameron will now feel, particularly with the tacit support of the DUP, that he has the mandate to push through these programmed cuts.

The Stormont House Agreement will not just vastly reduce the size of the public sector workforce in Northern Ireland but will also bring the welfare reforms that have yet to hit Northern Ireland: universal credit, bedroom tax, PIP replacing DLA, harsher sanctions. If Sinn Féin position themselves as the main opposition to austerity-on-speed, as they are attempting to in the Republic, they could do well. They didn’t perform all that well on Thursday though; they managed to lose Fermanagh & South Tyrone (a marginal, but also the seat Bobby Sands was elected to in 1981) to the UUP thanks to a unionist electoral pact that has brought the UUP back from the brink.

The shoring up of the SDLP vote – in one case increasing their majority (no pasokification here) – will also disappoint the Shinners, and the electoral pact that has saved the UUP shows that sectarian community politics is as strong as ever. It therefore seems unlikely that DUP support for Tory austerity will hurt their vote even if the pro-austerity hegemony is broken. The DUP, as one of the two power-sharing parties in the Stormont Assembly, giving the Tories their explicit support would not bode well for the already fragile Sinn Féin-DUP executive; that is unless Sinn Féin acquiesces and agrees to implement the austerity agreement.

What may force Sinn Féin to stick to their metaphorical guns is the West Belfast result, where Gerry Carroll, a city councillor for People Before Profit/SWP came second above the SDLP, indicating growing support for an anti-austerity candidate in a staunchly republican area which could trouble Sinn Féin in future elections. Another possibility is an engineered ‘collapse’ of the Stormont power-sharing executive to allow the Tories to implement the cuts directly, protecting the DUP and Sinn Féin from loss of face. This would greatly heighten the democratic deficit of Northern Irish electors having no choice in the formation of the Westminster government.

Is there hope? If the Stormont House Agreement austerity measures continue to galvanise people as they did for the 13 March public sector strike – with or without trade union support – we may well see a coalescence of smaller groups along non-sectarian lines organising and fighting. Northern Ireland has a strong history of civil disobedience on housing issues and the anti-austerity local mobilisations in the Republic serve as an inspiration.

The crisis of sovereignty is the elephant in the room. If the Tories go through with their promised ‘Harrying of the North’ and re-calculate the Barnett Formula, it seems likely the Scots may have another go at independence; coupled with its effect in Northern Ireland, on top of the deferred welfare reforms and public sector cuts (akin to double-dropping austerity/Plan A+), there may be a serious constitutional crisis and existential threat to the United Kingdom.

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Published 10th May 2015

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