Tuesday [May 12th] two days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson released his government’s plan on how to end the lockdown, the Northern Ireland executive produced their own roadmap on reopening the economy.
The document gave no indicative dates for the transition between each step of re-emergence, as had that of both governments in London and Dublin, but in most other regards the roadmap was closely aligned to that of the Tories and therefore of the economic interests of those who seek a speedy return to normal business in the midst of a global pandemic.
Increased divisions and tensions
Contrary to attempts by the parties to make a virtue of necessity by claiming their collective inability to even agree an alternative, indicative timeline was ‘science-led’, the failure to do so reflects the deep divisions existing between the executive parties and the contested nature of the state in Northern Ireland.
Since the inception of this crisis, the DUP has sought to align Northern Ireland with ‘herd immunity’ approach taken by the UK government – where workers and the vulnerable pay with their lives to minimise the economic damage to the capitalist class.
Sinn Fein on the other hand has quite transparently sought to exploit the tensions resulting from the pandemic to advance the case for all-Ireland alignment. The latter strategy had the clear benefit in the initial stages of being highly popular given the relatively more progressive and more responsive approach taken by Dublin than London. Indeed, as usual for the party, which seeks to construct a broad cross-class alliance for reunification, it enabled them to align themselves with rightward leaning trade union bureaucrats and left-liberal commentators; however as the Dublin government moves to reopen in the South it makes for an increasingly precarious balancing act.
The resulting divergence between the roadmaps of the Stormont Executive and the UK government is by no means unique. The headlong charge of the Tories to “fire the engines” of the economy – even with the prospect of a second, more deadly, peak of infection has allowed the governments in Scotland and in Wales to tilt at Westminster’s approach and play strongly to deep-seated and well-founded popular concerns within their respective nations. It should be noted that growing and increasingly sharp tensions over the pace of reopening between regional and state authorities are a feature internationally, most obviously in the US and Brazil.
Not science-led but capitalist
Overall, therefore while the Executive document reflects the DUP acquiescing to the preponderant demand for divergence from the Tory-led timeframe it is certainly not motivated by a genuine concern for workers but by all the parties’ desire to minimise political damage from a decision that could result in thousands more avoidable deaths. Despite the reference to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, claimed in the document to ‘align closely’ to their own, there is a huge gap with the guidelines for reopening they present. The WHO requires that at every stage ‘health capacities are in place to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and contact’ – a situation undeniably absent in Northern Ireland at present.
The document also shares the British government’s surreptitious move away from a need to ‘avoid risking a second peak of infection’ to one of ‘controlling transmission’. The goal is no longer to avoid a second peak but to make sure the health system should ‘not be overwhelmed by a second or subsequent wave’ and that there ‘should be sufficient capacity to treat Coronavirus patients’. These allow the Executive much greater leeway to manoeuvre and allows much more risks to be taken.
A bosses’ charter for reopening the economy
There was absolutely nothing concrete offered to workers in the document and absolutely no mention of action in the face of demands from general workers’ union Unite for testing to be rolled out in at risk sectors.
There was nothing from the Ministers on ensuring that the Health and Safety Executive conduct unannounced site inspections on reported workplaces or to force it to issue improvement and prohibition orders instead of non-binding enforcement orders to compel employers to put in place basic infection control improvements.
A vision of social partnership without the unions
While the document has an entire section headed under the title partnership, its focus was clearly more on the partnership between Stormont and the business class as well as the ‘partnership’ whereby the Executive’s responsibility to feed and support vulnerable individuals and households have been transferred to charities and the voluntary/community sector.
The reference to partnership comes on the back of efforts to co-opt trade union leaders with the aim of curtailing potential walkouts and an upsurge in industrial disputes. But there is virtually nothing by way of even basic proposals for social partnership.
In keeping with all recent NI Executive strategies this is a fundamentally neo-liberal document with trade unions considered as only another community/voluntary organisation. Indeed, despite calls from various trade union leaders to be afforded a role in overseeing the return to work, the only reference to trade unions in the entire document is as a footnote to page 11. The cover offered by the document is therefore indeed meagre to those within the trade union bureaucracy, especially among its ‘green’ wing, whose sole desire is to ensconce themselves in a cosy relationship with executive ministers.
There are no meaningful or partial concessions to workers who face a compulsory return to work where their health and well-being will be risked because of inadequate infection control, PPE and testing. As such even the most craven trade union leaders were unable to go along with it and the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ official response was less than positive: the committee stated that the timeline was merely a ‘missed opportunity’.
While the clear intent was to project a progressive NI Executive alternative to the reckless emergence policy emanating from London, the timing of the document could not have been worse. The two days before release saw the exposure by Unite of clusters of infection in the meatpacking sector and the death of one of its members working for the largest employer in Northern Ireland, Moy Park.
In Omagh in a Unite organised meatpacking factory owned by Foyle Foods in the run up to the announcement news broke of at least two dozen confirmed Covid cases leading workers to conduct a spontaneous wildcat walk out, in which CWI activists in the town and Fermanagh played a significant role.
Workers’ collective power – the only answer
The only way to compel employers to deliver effective workplace protections is to a collective organisation, mobilisation and industrial action.
The actions taken by meatpacking workers over the last three months – in ABP Meats in Craigavon, in Linden Foods in Dungannon, in Moy Park in Portadown and in Foyle Foods in Omagh demonstrate an undeniable increase in militancy among industrial workers. So long as the economy and government are run in the interests of capital by capitalist governments, such as we have in place in Stormont, workers will need to organise to defend even the most basic workplace protections.
Membership of a trade union is not sufficient in itself; workers must seek to build the strength of the union in their workplace, democratise their unions and to ensure that they become organisations that fight for and alongside the working-class. But even that will never be enough – we need to build a conscious and disciplined organisation of workers on an international scale to transform the economy along Democratic Socialist lines.
Companies like Moy Park and Foyle foods should not be focussed on paying shareholders profit – but supplying healthy food and doing so with minimal environmental impact and while providing decent well-paid jobs to their workers. The objective cannot to effect piecemeal nationalisation – not simply confined to issues in the workplace but those impacting the democratic rights of other groups and classes in society.
While the Covid19 pandemic has exposed the dirty underbelly of capitalism, in particular that of rural employments in Northern Ireland, it has also confirmed the continued veracity of the most central tenet of Marxist revolutionary theory: that industrial workers play an indispensable and economically decisive role in the modern capitalist economy. Through building a powerful mass revolutionary, the working class has the power to transform society and reshape it in our own interests.