Voting shenanigans are only a symptom

Not that it should come as a surprise, but the political establishment, north and south, is offering us still further evidence of its mendacious venality. A few recent examples will illustrate the point.

Let’s begin with shady behaviour being practised by the folk in Leinster House. Several members of the Fianna Fáil front bench were caught breaking voting regulations in the Dáil. Then we heard that other parties were also at it. Better still, Varadkar and Martin have also admitted to bending the button rule.

However, with such widespread abuse of practice it will undoubtedly go the way of the Garda breathalyser scandal. It will prove impossible, or should we say inconvenient, to penalise anyone for their misbehaviour.

Of course anything the guys and gals in Dáil Éireann can do the DUP can do better. There was last month’s bizarre charade over the extension of Britain’s abortion and same-sex marriage legislation to Northern Ireland. In spite of so-called DUP sensitivities about preserving legislative uniformity within the United Kingdom, Foster’s party was quite determined to pursue the anomaly of attempting to maintain socially conservative laws unique to Northern Ireland.

However bizarre that piece of theatrical grandstanding was, it pales in comparison with revelations about the RHI, otherwise known as cash-for-ash, scandal. For a tale of absolute chicanery it would be hard to beat Burned, the new book on the subject by a News Letter journalist, Sam McBride.¹ The story is astonishing, raising issues that range from questionable dealings at the international corporate level to such trivial grubby incidents as a Stormont minister haggling over the size of a free turkey. “Stretching credulity” does not even begin to cover it.

McBride’s book is based on testimony given to the Coghlin Inquiry; and while the contents are startling, the material is available in the public realm. Among the revelations are civil servants unduly influencing an initial feasibility study, the department responsible taking three years to identify a glaringly excessive overpayment flaw, and a transnational poultry producer becoming a major beneficiary, as were relatives of senior DUP advisers. To top it all, the minister responsible for introducing and running the scheme hadn’t read her brief. That minister was the current leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster.

In spite of this omni-shambles, Foster has refused to resign or even accept responsibility. Her party can’t, or won’t, sack her, and as a consequence devolved government is suspended, and in the absence of movement Sinn Féin is understandably reluctant to revive the Stormont Executive.

Nevertheless, to stay in office the British Conservative Party deemed it appropriate to enter into a “confidence and supply” agreement with the same DUP, a political party that can at best be described as grossly incompetent.

In the light of all this, the question arises whether the bulk of our elected representatives are charlatans; or does the problem go much deeper? McBride mentions that, notwithstanding the spectacular irregularities revealed in his book, many members of the DUP were genuinely appalled at what had happened, and assisted him with his research.

Some might well ask why they didn’t speak out earlier, or indeed speak out at all, but that may be to miss the point. As with the case in the Republic, it’s more to do with the system than simply with the individuals.

The partition of Ireland created by British imperialism is a major source of system failure in the North. It continues to reinforce divisions between working-class communities and facilitates an unnatural alliance with right-wing British Tories. Moreover, the existence of a border has allowed a misguided campaign to be built on the basis of support for the European Union, ostensibly to prevent a strengthening of partition.

Although clearly not designed to do so, and against Boris Johnson’s repeated declarations, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is undermining the solidity of the United Kingdom. Moreover, this appears to be the received wisdom among political commentators in London: that Northern Ireland’s position can and will be traded for a deal with Brussels.² Taken along with demographic changes and the obvious failure of the Six-County political entity, the constitutional issue returns to centre stage.

It is not pandering to crude Hibernian nationalism to support the call for an end to partition and support the unification of Ireland. It is important, however, to spell out loud and clear that uniting Ireland under the control of the current Leinster House regime would be of limited value to working people. The voting shenanigans are but a symptom of the underlying malaise affecting the body politic in the Republic.

Common to both existing jurisdictions is a form of governance that facilitates free-market neo-liberalism, concentrates wealth and power in the hands of a few, and makes it difficult for the wider public to directly influence their daily lives. Allowing the people to vote once every four or five years, in an atmosphere influenced by state-controlled or private-enterprise media, curtails popular sovereignty.³ No surprise that there exists such a cavalier attitude towards voting rectitude and transparency among the elected representatives in Leinster House.

An accountable democracy in a different type of republic is needed, and certainly not an amalgamation of the two jurisdictions, nor an extension of the existing set-up in the South, but a republic that spreads democracy to the grass roots, where the people are sovereign, and where their well-being and prosperity is not in the hands of British imperialism or regulated and impaired by a neo-liberal European Union.

It is important, nevertheless, that socialist republicans recognise that this is something that must be advocated clearly and persistently. Campaigning for Irish unity without defining the nature of the new republic almost certainly guarantees the entrenchment of those now in power, along with the injustices endemic within capitalism. It is imperative that we promote our anti-imperialist, socialist message and strategy loudly, clearly, and often.

This is not an easy task in the present environment, caught as we are between reactionary unionism on one side and a contemporary version of Redmondism on the other. However, we should never underestimate the capacity of Irish working people to assert themselves and challenge the establishment. There is no reason whatsoever that this can’t happen again and that we definitively bring an end to the existing mendacious, venal political system.

1. Sam McBride, Burned: The Inside Story of the “Cash-for-Ash” Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2019).

2. See, for example, Arthur Beesley, “Will Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal pave way to united Ireland? Closer alignment with EU and the Republic risks breaking Northern Ireland’s UK ties,” Financial Times, 25 October 2019.

3. Note, for example, the mainstream media boycott of the recent state visit to Ireland by the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez.