John McAnulty of Ireland’s Socialist Democracy writes on the current scandal in the north of Ireland:
The circumstances of the latest political scandal in the North of Ireland are by now well known. I ris Robinson, wife of first minister Peter Robinson and a leading loyalist figure in her own right, obtained for her teenage lover a loan of £50,000 from two property developers “simply by the ask” as one of her opponents put it. The same figure (loyalist leader Jim Allister) went on to ask if there was any history of money transfers involving property developers. There is evidence of a cash kickback of £5000 paid directly to Iris Robinson.
The young man was awarded tenancy of a restaurant by Castlereagh Borough Council, despite the fact that he was a teenager with no previous business experience. Peter Robinson had been chair of the council for many years. Iris Robinson was a current councilor, was present at the meeting and did not declare an interest.
Peter Robinson was aware of these financial activities. One of the businessmen, a friend of the family, had been responsible for the majority of property development in Castlereagh. Robinson advised Iris to arrange to have the money repaid, but did not inform the authorities of the breaches of the code of conduct. He says he advised his wife that any payments should be made directly through a solicitor, seemingly unaware of the distinction between legal and moral deniability and the reality of corruption.
A sordid and nasty little scandal, but does it have any deeper significance?
Well, take away the sex and you have the last DUP scandal. That one, involving Ian Paisley and his son, also involved money and property developers. This corruption is an aspect of all capitalist parties, where the main reason for being politically active is to feather your own nest. It is magnified a thousandfold in far right sectarian parties, where you start off with a program aimed at discriminating against a section of the population in favor of your own group.
Castlereagh borough council is a perfect example. Sectarian division guaranteed that the Robinsons would be in absolute control and that their friends and family would also be elected. Opposition nationalist politicians were completely ignored. When people win elections on a promise to discriminate it is hardly surprising when they do and a culture develops where property developers can casually be asked for tens of thousands.
There is more to this issue than the mundane corruption of capitalism or the greed of the right-wing populist.
Not only are right-wing sectarian groups like the DUP systemically corrupt, but using and encouraging that corruption is a central strategy of the imperialist power and a mainspring of the so-called peace process.
Under the 30-year rule political discussions in the British cabinet were released for the new year. T hey show that the British saw Ian Paisley’s bigotry as a major obstacle to a settlement. They also saw his overwhelming greed and ambition to be supreme leader and believed that this could be used to win him over.
The strategy was eventually successful but had within it a hidden contradiction. Bribery drew Paisley towards the British, but drew him away from the uncomplicated fundamentalist bigotry of the DUP base. Paisley fell, in part because of allegations of corruption, in greater part because he had accepted Catholics in the administration.
In the current difficulties of the political process around devolution of policing those involved refer over and over again to the pragmatism of Robinson and his supporters. Translated this means that the British and Irish nationalists understand that the loyalist program uncompromisingly opposes power-sharing with Catholics. Nevertheless power-sharing can be got to work because for the loyalists desire for money, power and position will trump their sectarianism.
Since their capitulation to imperialism a process of corruption has engulfed Sinn Fein. Liam Adams, a brother of Gerry, has fled the North following allegations of paedophillia. It has become clear that the Sinn Fein leadership covered up the allegations for over a decade. The organization today has its own crop of property millionaires and a whole social layer called the grantocracy maneuvering for payments from the British.
The British strategy has consequences in the current scandal. The response of Robinson’s enemies in the DUP is uncomplicated. Gregory Campbell gave Robinson a week to clear himself. Days later the DUP “united” around Robinson on condition that he step down “temporarily”. In reality he will find it enormously difficult to make a comeback. British Secretary of state Shaun Woodward, on the other hand, appealed to the DUP to preserve the peace process – in other words to support Robinson no matter what weight of scandal builds up against him.
Sinn Fein have reacted with incoherence. Martin McGuinness intones with blinding insight that there are questions to be asked but Sinn Fein are the only party not to ask Robinson to consider his position and their decision to postpone an Ard Chomairle meeting was seen as an aid to the DUP first minister. The line since then is that people should focus on the big picture of resolving outstanding issues and preserving the peace process – that is that the corruption of the current system is a matter of indifference and the role of Sinn Fein is to preserve the system indefinitely even if it means leaving the working class frozen in a morass of corruption and sectarian division.
And well might Sinn Fein consider their position. The Irish bourgeoisie are even more frantic to save Robinson and complete the devolution process than the British are. A front page cartoon in the Irish Times reacted to the Robinson scandal with – an all-out attack on the Provos! All the old slanders of republican responsibility for the violence and caricatures of “green fascists” were included.
The message could not be clearer. The Shinners know what to expect if they shirk in their support for the Stormont dung-heap.
Peter Robinson has become the Hamid Karzai of Ireland. Like the Afghan leader, his role as an instrument of imperialism outweighs the failings of a corrupt system. The contradictions of that system are growing apace.
Pragmatism has not delivered. It is difficult to use corruption to subvert an entire movement. Even before the current debacle all the signs were that Robinson was caught in a classic scissors dilemma. Opposition from Loyalism meant he was unable to deliver on promises to devolve policing. Even when he took a hard line, the very fact that he was in government with Sinn Fein and negotiating with them was enough to weaken his position.
Robinson is unlikely to return to power. Even if he does, the forces of absolutism in the DUP and outside in the Traditional Unionist Voice movement will be much stronger and the possibility of completing devolution and stabilizing the North much weaker.
A similar scissors operates with Sinn Fein. A recent poll in the North showed 54% of Nationalists were willing to support the winding up of the Stormont administration if it failed to deliver reform. This is a dramatic shift from the early days of the peace process when nationalist approval stood at 98% and is mirrored by a shift in unionism from an early 56% support for a settlement to a current 86%. This means a grassroots pressure on Sinn Fein to make gains while Dublin, London and Washington will demand that they placate loyalism and keep the settlement functioning. The DUP crisis has now become a crisis of the entire system and the process has reached frenzy with London and Dublin agreeing that the devolution of policing and justice must take place immediately. The only issue is whether the DUP can be got to agree. If they do they will need a great deal of support in the form of further concessions to assure their base that they have established sectarian primacy. These concessions will revolve around giving a free rein to the Orange Order to intimidate Catholics and bribes for the Loyalist militia that made up the RUC reserve. Sinn Fein, already greatly weakened, will support these concessions – there would be no point in the cycle of meetings if they were not willing to do so.
We have been told for over a decade that there is no alternative to the sectarian settlement in the North, yet today its main supporters are indicating that it may fall in weeks. If it does it will not be because of political opposition – there has been almost none. Rarely has a political settlement has the level of support that nationalists gave this agreement. Even in the absence of an opposition all the contradictions of colonialism and sectarianism have continued to operate and the administration now has a zombie life, totally incapable of meeting the needs of working people and poisoning all of society.
Yet beneath this instability there is an underlying inertia. The inability of the peace process to meet the needs of Irish workers provokes discontent but not a political alternative. Nationalist workers see that the process is not delivering, but do not see that a system based on sectarian horse-trading will never deliver. They see the British as honest brokers rather than the imperialist gangsters who designed the current system to ensure their continued control in Ireland. A strong element in this complacency is the fact that the organizations they look to, such as the Irish government, Sinn Fein and the trade union leaderships all rabidly support the settlement and refuse to consider any alternative.
There is a great deal of cynicism and contempt surrounding each new scandal, but most people believe that corruption should be tolerated as a price worth paying for peace and that it will gradually evolve towards a more equal society. The Robinson scandal shows that the corruption extends into local councils. Continuing movements to integrate loyalist death squads into civic society mean that it extends to street level. In these circumstances there cannot be any form of democracy. It is replaced with shadowy cabals at one level and comic-opera assemblies at the other. There can be no advancing of working class interests or any socialist alternative with all aspects of life frozen in a sectarian jigsaw. The decay of the system shows not only that there must be an alternative to a failed society, but that such an alternative must be actively constructed by the working class in the teeth of opposition by Irish capitalists and British imperialism.
Invited to express sympathy and support for the Robinsons, Edwina Currie, former British conservative minister and in no sense a left liberal, declined, describing the pair as “repulsive”.
Repulsive is what they are. These are people who have spent their life whipping up sectarian hatred. Iris Robinson has expressed homophobic hatred that would see her excluded from any civilized society, enriched by hypocrisy as she herself broke the religious strictures that she claimed justified her attacks on gays. Peter boasts of his strength and professionalism in going to work on the day his wife attempted to take her life. The couple have managed to become involved in a financial scandal even though they have a joint income of £600,000. Peter supplemented this modest income by selling his back garden to property developers.
The task of socialists is to explain that British imperialism and Irish nationalism stand foursquare behind this corruption, that they are content to replicate sectarianism and corruption in every corner of society. Imperialist and nationalist policies negate the possibility of democratic rights or of working class organization. The alternative is the self-organization of the workers in a 32 county socialist republic.
Thanks, John. Clear and illuminating.