The coming Northern election is a chance in a lifetime to bring real change.
The election was triggered by revelations about how the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, presided over a ‘cash for ash’ scandal. The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme gave users of wood pellet boilers more in subsidies than they spent on the fuel. In all, it will cost half a billion pounds.
Not surprisingly the DUP were up to their neck in it. The DUP MLA for South Down, Jim Wells, has admitted that four of his family members benefitted.
A DUP special adviser. Andrew Crawford, who was accused of exerting influence to keep the scheme open, has been forced to resign. Viscount Brookeborough, a heriditary peer and owner of a 1,000 acre estate, was another beneficiary.
The scheme benefited those who already had access to money. Installing a commercial boiler can cost about £25,000 and this would have enabled the owner to disproportionately benefit for the cash for ash scheme.
The DUP-Sinn Fein executive has been operating a policy of austerity for some time. 20,000 public sector jobs are to go because, it was argued, the Northern Ireland executive could not afford to keep them. Yet there was literally money to burn when it came to the RHI scheme.
The scandal reveals a lot about the real dynamics of Northern politics.
In the past, ‘big house Unionism’ pulled together an all-class alliance of Orange workers and bosses by offering jobs in an industrial heartland. These days, the manufacturing base of the North has all but been eroded. Far from a life of privilege, both Protestant and Catholic workers find themselves in a low pay call-centre economy.
In a desperate bid to shore up its powerbase, the DUP have been using the resources of the state to look after their small business supporters and their base among ex loyalist paramilitaries.
In October, for example , it was revealed that £5 million had been handed out to a UDA linked community groups. The former DUP leader Peter Robinson was involved in the Project Eagle scandal when he pressurised the Southern regime to sell off NAMA property for a knock down price.
In return, the company which benefitted, Cerebrus, agreed to ignore personal guarantees that bankrupt Northern builders had put up to get huge loans. These guarantees meant that their personal homes could have been seized.
Corruption is now as endemic in the Northern state – as it is in the Southern state.
Initially Sinn Fein refused to pull the plug on the DUP. They resisted calls for a public inquiry into the matter. They absented themselves from a vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster that was supported by every opposition party. They only shifted once their working class base turned up the pressure and they risked mass defections.
Why the initial reluctance of Sinn Fein? Since the end of the IRA campaign, they have adopted a position that is not dissimilar to Fianna Fail in arguing that partition can be ended by the use of North-South bodies to build an ‘all Irish economy’.
In pursuit of this goal, they even agreed to cut corporation tax on big business to ‘harmonise’ with the South. To implement this strategy, they wanted to stick with the DUP partners.
This has now changed temporarily. As soon as election began, both the DUP and Sinn Fein ratcheted up the communal rhetoric and tried to turn it into in yet another green versus orange battle.
The irony is that once the election is over, they will be back as ‘partners’ in government. The see the contest as only about who gains a little extra leverage over the other.
People Before Profit offers a different vision. We want to end corruption, cronyism and sectarianism. We want to unite Catholic and Protestant workers in a fight against austerity. We will not play a communal game of getting one over on the ‘other community’ while bowing the knee to big corporations.
We do not want to create a northern tax haven to partner with the one in south. We want a socialist Ireland which arises out a radical challenge to both states in Ireland.
That is what the great socialist James Connolly wanted. And it is in his tradition that we march today.