Cross-Community Labour Candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Donal O’Cofaigh has condemned recent attacks on the right to politically campaign.
“The 2022 Assembly Election campaign has been marred by attacks on the democratic right to campaign and seek the support of the voters. There have been dozens of reports of posters being torn down, across every constituency and affecting every party. Candidates have been intimidated on-line and on the streets. Candidates have faced state interference in their campaigns. On more than one occasion candidates and their campaign teams have suffered violent attacks.
“We all know that elections are a reflection of society at large. The sectarianism, repression and intimidation that mar everyday life in many working-class communities remains a massive problem during elections.
“The right to free speech, the right to political organisation and the right to vote were hard won, with the labour and trade union movement leading the way. We will continue to defend the right to democratic expression now and in future elections”.
Images of young people rioting in Belfast and elsewhere, countered by police using water cannon, conjured up scenes from the period of the ‘Troubles’. From the point of view of international audiences, Northern Ireland appears to have moved overnight from stability to imminent disintegration.
Of course, this is not a true reflection of reality on the ground. But the very fact of an appearance of such a rapid transition from one extreme to another belies the truth that political arrangements established under the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequently, have not resolved and cannot resolve the national question.
Tensions in Northern Ireland reflect the underlying change in demography that appears to be moving to a tipping point when Protestants will become a minority, and therefore threatens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Alongside this, the continued failure of the Northern Ireland Assembly to deliver any real improvements in the economic and social conditions of the population has created an explosive mix. Social deprivation among the working class in both unionist and nationalist areas remains stubbornly high.
Hard sea border
While demographic changes underpin the latest crisis, the imposition of the ‘hard sea border’ and the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, which in effect separates Northern Ireland from the UK, is the trigger for the latest street confrontations.
To avoid an immediate ‘sea border’ crisis, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston negotiated a delay of three months on the imposition of ‘sanitary and phytosanitary controls’ (public health inspections) and a six-month delay on extensive customs declarations. But even these were not enough to avoid a political crisis.
Hard-line voices within unionism put pressure on the Tory government to suspend the protocol unilaterally. But the Tory government was not for turning. However, it was the AstraZeneca vaccine shortage which led to the European Union (EU) threatening to prevent EU-produced vaccines entering Northern Ireland. While EU ministers quickly retreated, the threat raised tensions further and exposed the duplicity of EU concerns for the region.
Tensions continued to mount. Posters, murals and graffiti went up across unionist areas against the hard sea border. Scrambling to recover authority the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, the main unionist political party led by Arlene Foster), which had initially welcomed the NI Protocol as an opportunity for business – met with the Loyalist Community Council, representing Loyalist paramilitaries, to agree a common campaign against the protocol.
The spark for riots was the investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the attendance of senior Sinn Féin politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and executive ministers, at the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey, during Covid lockdown restrictions. The announcement that the Public Prosecution Service would not prosecute these politicians deepened unionist anger.
The event became totemic among unionists as exposing the willingness of the police to turn a blind eye to Republicans breaking Covid safety laws that were strictly enforced on everyone else.
The reality is that Covid has become a sectarian football with both sides feeling aggrieved; nationalists demanded action when hundreds of Glasgow Rangers football supporters celebrated on the streets of Belfast earlier this year, apparently breaching Covid restrictions, while unionists were largely silent.
The initial riots were restricted to areas controlled by Loyalist paramilitary groups more openly associated with criminality and drug-dealing but quickly spread. Riots reached a height on 7 April as rioters exchanged stones and petrol bombs over ‘peace walls’ in West Belfast.
As the situation began to spin out of control the nationalist and unionist political parties and paramilitary organisations sought to put a cap on the riots. Unionists used the death of Prince Philip to call for people to come off the streets. Their appeals clearly impacted, and while there were still some riots, they were markedly less extensive.
For socialists, the recent events should act as a warning. Neither capitalist nationalism or unionism offer a way forward to workers. On the contrary, both camps threaten a return to division, violence and even the prospect of repartition.
An alternative must be built. A glimpse of what is possible has been shown by the action taken by Metro bus drivers and port workers who, united across sectarian lines, walked off the job when they and their colleagues were threatened.
The fact that attacks had targeted essential workers who had worked throughout the lockdown, increased wider working-class support against sectarianism and cut through the tensions, striking a chord for class unity with many across the board.
Yet again, recent events have confirmed that, even with small forces, principled socialists putting forward a platform of workers’ unity can rally workers and cut across the rise of reaction.
To profoundly change the situation would require action from the trade union movement and the building of a mass party for socialist change.
In recent months, sharp debate was sparked in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council around controversial court action to extradite the well-known Republican Liam Campbell, to Lithuania. The hearings are being held in the Dublin courts, but such is the controversial nature of the issues involved that there has been widespread awareness north of the border.
Fermanagh and Omagh Councillor, Donal O’Cofaigh, had an opportunity to speak during the key debate in the Council. As always, Donal outlined a principled cross community labour position that challenged repression, paramilitarism and attempts to create sectarian division in the working class. Donal’s brief speech is carried below. Given the limited time available when he spoke at the Council meeting, he could not develop a more detailed view on state repression, sectarian division and paramilitary campaigns. We intend producing a longer article to address those issues.
“A proposal was passed by the July 8th meeting of a committee of Fermanagh-Omagh District Council regarding extradition proceedings against Liam Campbell. This recommended that the Council write to the offices of An Taoiseach and the Department of Justice and Equality in Dublin in support of Liam Campbell and against his extradition to Lithuania on charges relating to the purchase of arms.
“The original proposal has been followed by a related motion from the UUP, and this motion has attracted several amendments which are now both before us at this full council meeting. The media has covered all of these developments and many people in our council area are following our discussions intensely, especially the families of those who died in the Omagh bomb.
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.