'Good Friday' - 3 years on has anything changed?


3 years on from the 'Good Friday' Agreement, and with the 6 Counties facing into a general election, it's a good time to ask whether anything has really changed on the Northern political landscape. The most obvious answer to this is that the absence of political violence has made the ordinary day-to-day lives of most people a lot more pleasant. However it must also be said that the paramilitaries have not 'gone away' and that the agreement has in many ways - because of its re-inforcement of sectarian divides - led to a situation where many working class communities are more and more 'under the thumb' of either loyalist or republican paramilitary groups. The figures show that the number of 'punishment' beatings and shootings have increased steadily over the period of the agreement.

Leaving aside that not inconsiderable issue, however, has 'devolved government' brought any improvements in the lives of the citizens of the North? Of course it is a distortion of language to talk about the government as being 'devolved'. While power has been transferred from one set of rulers to another - from London to Stormont - power has remained firmly in the hands of politicians.

These politicians have spent their time in government proving to the British government and to international business that power is in safe hands. Thus we witness the farcical situation where parties supposedly ranging across the political spectrum from republican socialist to right-wing unionist can agree - with no controversy whatsoever - a programme of government. The only rows they seem to have are over what flags should fly and when, and what flowers should be put in the hall display!

Cosy consensus

The level of political debate and disagreement on economic and social issues is non-existent. From the DUP to Sinn Fein, there is effectively no difference as to the way forward. When disagreements arise, it is along sectarian lines - whether or not the Jubilee or the Royal Victoria Hospital should be closed, for example. Needless to say none of them were putting forward or fighting for the proposition that both should remain open. No, it was more important to prove to Tony Blair that Northern ministers were as good at implementing cutbacks as their London counterparts.

I'm sure it was a great consolation to workers in the South Tyrone Hospital last July that they were being governed by a local administration. When their workplace was closed down, they were able to get their dismissal notices in two languages - hurray for 'devolution'.

From their very first act of their very first meeting - the granting to themselves of a pay increase - the members of the Northern Assembly have shown that they are no different to politicians anywhere else in the world. They have shown that on the issues that matter - issues of low pay (tens of thousands of northern workers earn only £3.60 per hour), hospital and education cuts, housing and employment - there is no radical alternative being put forward.

Just as Tony Blair on election continued to implement Tory policies, just as a change of government in the South makes little difference whatever to the policies being implemented, the politicians in the Assembly will happily take the mercs and perks. The only difference is they don't have to go through the pretence of competing with each other for those perks. The agreement allows them to divide them up between themselves - the only proviso being that if there's an orange postbox there has to be a green one beside it!! It would be funny if it wasn't so farcical.

As good as it gets??

There has to be another way. This can't be as good as it gets. Many people are now beginning to see that neither orange nor green has anything to offer. The way forward, in terms of developing a new society has to be to look to a real devolution of power, to look to building a society based on real democracy - which will value people's opinions for what they themselves have to say, not for the 'colour' of their forefathers' views. There has to be a complete break with the sectarian nature of the current political structures.

There is nothing easy about putting forward a new strategy, but working class people must be convinced that they have more uniting than dividing them. Solidarity during struggles against low pay, against hospital closures, for community facilities will help to break down the barriers of mistrust. But in tandem with common work on these day-to-day 'bread and butter' issues, an ideal must be put forward so that people will see something worth fighting for.

The huge waves of anti-capitalist protest across the world - from London to Seattle to Prague to Genoa have lit a beacon. Such a beacon has as much relevance to workers in Belfast as Dublin or London. It is the task facing all radicals and revolutionaries to draw the links and to put forward the alternatives which will break working class people from the sectarian divide and unite us against the common enemy.

Gregor Kerr


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This edition is No64 published in May 2001