Business as usual as Sinn Fein’s O’Neill welcomes Sunak (Picture: Number10 on Flickr)

A republican from the party which the media link to the past armed struggle to defeat British imperialism became first minister in the Northern Ireland assembly last week. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill took over the position as the assembly reformed after a two-year boycott by Unionists— the politicians who want to maintain unity with the rest of Britain.

O’Neill’s advancement is a bitter blow to the bloated self-image of the Unionist bigots who expected to rule for ever. Now they are forced to settle for deputy leader. Because the largest nationalist party and the largest Unionist party are guaranteed essentially equal governing powers in Northern Ireland, the distribution of first and second places makes little real difference.

Nevertheless, symbols matter a lot in Northern Irish politics. And there is a very real possibility of the further weakening of the Unionism that has dominated the state since its foundation.

When Northern Ireland was carved out in 1921 it was designed to be a safe haven that could defend British imperialism’s interests. It was formed with an inbuilt Protestant majority in six of the eight counties of Ulster to produce a “Protestant state for a protestant people”. That was upended after Sinn Fein became the largest party in the 2022 elections.

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein president, said last week O’Neill’s elevation would bring Irish unity “within touching distance”. There may soon be Sinn Fein leadership in the north and south of Ireland. But Sinn Fein has systematically moved away from any sense of real radicalism.

O’Neill last week promised no sudden moves—“I will serve everyone equally and be a first minister for all,” she said. “Wherever we come from, whatever our aspirations, we can and must build our future together.” In the south, Sinn Fein presents itself as a mildly left wing party.

And it sits with the left, including Jean Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumise in the European Parliament. In the North it is a party of government under the Good Friday Agreement’s power sharing arrangement. In 25 years in joint office it has shown no radicalism—if anything the opposite—and is unlikely to start now.

Sinn Fein downplayed reunification of Ireland during the 2022 election campaign. Sinn Fein’s first test will be its attitude towards the workers who recently launched mass strikes for pay rises. And that’s part of a battle over resources from the Westminster government.

O’Neill said, “This place has been starved of public services funding for over a decade because of the Tories in London. We can do much better than that.” Transport workers were set to strike again this week following strikes by education workers last week. Despite the shifts at the top, the battle remains for workers to fight against British rule and for their own class interests.

Fight for workers’ interests

Gerry Carroll, a socialist member of the assembly for People Before Profit, laid out the real issues in a speech in the chamber last week. He said, “Will we have a first minister for all or a first minister for the wealthy? “A first minister that stands for Palestine or with Joe Biden?”

He said Unionism “remains in terminal decline” and that the Tory-DUP deal was partly about integrating Northern Ireland into British military institutions. He went on, “Working class people are in no mood for the cynical fanfare that surrounds the assembly’s resurrection. All workers need to be ready to challenge the new executive.”

He attacked the parties that had “cut workers’ pay and gutted public services”. He added, “The democratic aspiration for a united Ireland will not be stymied by imperial diktat. People Before Profit will continue to fight for a socialist path to a united Ireland that sees the politics of sectarianism left in the past.”

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