Northern Ireland Deserves Better – Workers Party NI conference #wpniconf

Workers Party NI conference table sweets and agendaBang on time – if Belfast was using Central European Time – the Workers Party Northern Ireland started an hour late, a tardiness shared with all other left-leaning party conferences I’ve attended. Held in Methodist church’s Grosvenor Hall on Belfast’s Glengall Street, the party have about 50 delegates present this morning.

The conference theme’s theme “Northern Ireland Deserves Better” was explored across a range of issues including housing, education, tax avoidance, the media, outdoor advertising and was supported in the afternoon sessions by guest speeches on public health and wellbeing, job creation programmes and youth employment opportunities and welfare reform.

Chair of the Workers Party’s NI Executive, Gerry Grainger appraised the past year and looked forward to the next twelve months of party activity. He welcomed The Dublin High Court’s refusal of the US extradition warrant, but noted that Sean’s freedom does not extend to Northern Ireland or indeed anywhere outside the Republic of Ireland. (Funny to hear Rev Chris Hudson thanked for campaigning on behalf of Sean Garland and later to realise that a few delegates were taken aback by the small cross carved into the Grosvenor Hall lectern!)

Gerry highlighted the Workers Party’s involvement in trade union rallies, the International Women’s Day events, the annual May Day parade and Belfast Pride.

We favour a full programme of secular sex education for schools, free access to contraception, proper health and social care for pregnant women, the provision of appropriate free and quality child care facilities and adequate support for single and low income parents.

The party also believes in a woman’s right to choose and supports the provision of free and safe abortion in her own country which will include practical facilities to support somen seeking an abortion and quality post-abortion care.

Let me take this opportunity to welcome the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast as a step toward securing a woman’s right to choose … starting to bring Northern Ireland into the 21st century.

On behalf of the party, Gerry congratulated Dawn Purvis’ appointment as the local Marie Stopes programme director and wished her support.

He stated that “this party and the battle against sectarianism are inseparable”. Yet post-Good Friday Agreement “not only are the old residual sectarian models still functioning but new manifestations continue to emerge”. Gerry quoted north Belfast party representative John Lavery who during the recent violence and tension said:

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP benefit by fostering and maintaining this community division This is their joint electoral strategy.

The Workers Party ANTI SECT ARIA NISM poster was burnt on an Eleventh night bonfire on the Newtownards Road. “Obviously not everyone has got the message!”

Channelling the spirit of Kermit the Frog, Gerry said “I know being the Workers Party is not easy”, adding “we cannot plan for the future by listing the reasons why something can’t be done”.

The party took delight in their success at UU Jordanstown’s Freshers Week and is setting up a branch at the campus. Other branches are rejuvenated and forming across NI, including in Derry.

Workers Party NI Conference

Peter Maguire presented a paper to the delegates on Homes and Housing. [PDF copy.] NI Housing Executive figures show 40,000 applicants on housing list, 20,000 of which are in “housing stress”. Homelessness is on the increase along with the number of households facing repossession due to difficulties meeting mortgage repayments.

Of concern to the Workers Party is the fact that 14 years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement, housing remains segregated and not just in Belfast … Last year the Alliance Party brought to the Assembly a motion calling for a “landmark review of segregation” with the aim of eliminating both segregation and discrimination and a duty on the Houseing Executive to promote and protect all housing as mixed”. The motion was rejected by 62 votes to 18.

The speech strongly praised the role and expertise of the NI Housing Executive:

Over the years of Tory rule there have developed a plethora of voluntary and private interests in the housing sector. This has been accompanied by a decline in the role of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as the lead body for housing delivery and management. As a public sector body the NIHE over the past 40 years has overseen the redevelopment of an out-dated and antiquated housing stock [Ed – didn’t it allow the same stock to fall behind?] and in the process has developed an unrivalled expertise and management know how in the housing sector. When it is public, integrated and fully funder it has proven it works best. That is a situation we must get back to.

The paper called for a new house building programme, and end to sectarian segregation, for the NIHE to be “restored to its role as the lead public housing authority”, for greater help for those in mortgage distress, more effort in homelessness prevention and for opposition to “welfare freeform which will adversely impact those on housing benefit”.

Christopher Bailie spoke about education. [PDF copy.]

There has been tortuous progress on fundamental areas of policy which on the surface of it ought to be capable of gaining all party support if the public pronouncements of the parties in the assembly are to be believed. Like so many things in the life, the Assembly parties are committed to all things bright sna beautiful. So too with education.

The Education and Skills Authority was praised as an “eminently sensible proposal”, yet “sectarian vested influences continue to exercise much influence and control”. The ESA’s composition will not be “a new, fresh and innovative body that blows the cobwebs off our education system”.

The game was given away by Joanne Dobson, pin up lady and supposed embodiment of the new, fashionable and modern Ulster Unionist Party. During the debates … she made it clear: “the influence of political and religious stakeholders must be protected throughout the rationalisation of the school system”.

More a case of old wine in new bottles. Sectarianism and sectarian division will be embodied in the new ESA.

Chris listed the make up of the ESA board with eight church representatives, eight political representative from the Assembly parties (allocated by D’Hondt), four representatives and a chair appointed by Education Minister.

He noted the 2011 report on educational disadvantage and its call to invest more in early years. 2009/2010 figures show per pupil expenditure as £3,698 at primary level; £5,287 at post primary.

He also pointed to confusion between the terms “integrated education” and “shared education”. The former “involves the removal of sectoral schools in favour of unitary common schools”. The latter “in essence addressing the duplication of resources and building and promotes cooperation and interdependent relations” is not a diluted alternative to integrated education.

John Lowry took to the podium saying that the Worker Party offered “the only viable alternative to the consensus politics of the Stormont parties”. [PDF copy.]

Appeals to the past, the emotive calling up of centenaries, whether it be the Covenant, Home Rule or the Easter Rising, have little to offer the unemployed, those in poverty, the homeless or anyone seeking to build a better future.

There is a line in that great Paul Brady song The Island where he sings of the futility of those who are trying to carve a future from the tombstones of the past.

On sectarianism:

The DUP/Sinn Fein coalition have sat on the strategy for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, ignoring what they were told during the consultation process, namely that people want to live together as a united and integrated community. All manner of academic studies have told us that this is so. The DUP and Sinn Fein do not want integration because it is not in their political interests to do so. Their political survival depends on the continuation of the them and us mentality, of separate existence and the maintenance of outdated myths that often pass as culture … Did you notice how Sinn Fein were not prepared to upset the DUP over welfare reform but were willing to bring down the Assembly over policing?

On education:

Whatever the arguments about why it cannot happen, why is it in the 21 century that our teacher training colleges, the only sector of third level education still segregated on sectarian lines?

On Corporation Tax:

The Assembly has no economic vision, no plan or strategy as to how jobs can be created [Ed – surely DETI and Invest NI have a plan or two; execution is the question?] and our economic future secured, other than to plead for a lowering of corporation tax. It is a deeply flawed approach.

John Lowry saw no evidence that it would create jobs, quoting former US economic envoy Declan Kelly who said that corporation tax was not an issue for American firms seeking to invest in Europe. Besides, he suggested that companies like Google and Facebook locating their European HQs in Dublin to available of the lower corporation tax did so with “merely a paper move with a skeleton office and staff designed purely for accountancy purposes”.

The continued institutionalisation of sectarian divisions and structures at Stormont was criticised.

All of these measures, designating as unionist and nationalist, mandatory coalition, parallel majority voting, petitions of concern etc were adopted as measures to prevent abuse of power and discrimination. They would be subject to review and change as peace was consolidated and the institutions matured. Whatever about the maturity of the institutions, peace has been consolidated and there can be no argument for the maintenance of the present structures. Not only are they outdated but they act as a block to political development and change.

John finished his speech with a section on Left Cooperation. The onetime political voice of the left, Northern Ireland Labour Party, had been “a casualty of the outpouring of sectarianism in the early 70s”. But with “thousands of people in the trade unions and left political groupings who identify themselves as on the left and as socialists” the Workers Party needs to “play our part in developing a cohesive, principled and effective social sconstituency which challenges not only the limitations of the Assembly at Stormont but a constituency which createds a space for political activists of the left”.

On the back of the Look Left magazine branding, the party proposed to develop a Look Left Forum “open to all serious and principled individuals and organisations concerned with the advancement of progressive and socialist views”.

The Workers Party also wants to see “an agreed candidate of the left” for the next European Election. While “we do not see this as a magic wand or guarantee of election success” they will write to other parties to try to gather concensus around such an electoral intervention.

I also spoke to John Lowry when conference broke for lunch, asking a little about the party’s formation and how it can work alongside the resurgent NI Labour Party and other socialist groups.

Workers Party NI Conference - and the Swiss canton of ZugThree delegates closed the morning session by bring proposals for future party activity. Damien Harte spoke about tax avoidance by major retail companies, [PDF copy] introduced conference to the post office in the “little Swiss canton of Zug” which acts as the registered address for Chestnut Overseas (associated with Tesco) as well as Boots the Chemist. Cadburys, Walkers Crisps and Sir Philip Green (and his wife) came in for strong criticism too. He called on conference to endorse a high-profile public awareness campaign right across Northern Ireland against tax avoidance by big companies and high street shops.

Brian McDermott took up the subject of the media – which I’ll return to in a second post. [PDF copy.] All morning the projector had no red signal, something which Brian humorously put down to the projector’s right wing stance!

Finally, Gemma Dowds proposed that the party lobby to see the banning of outdoor advertisements which “clutter up our environment” and “sell unhappiness”. [PDF copy.] Brazilian city São Paulo have already banned outdoor ads, and there is a petition in Bristol to do the same. Gemma worried about Bluetooth push advertising and digital bill boards which would soon know who was standing in front of them. The party will write to Environment Minister Alex Attwood to ask about his plans on the subject.

The conference’s afternoon was going to be devoted to a panel addressing four topics under the banner of Northern Ireland deserves better:

  • Public Health and wellbeing (Dr Una Lynch)
  • Job creation programmes and youth employment opportunities (Kerry Fleck)
  • Welfare reform and its consequences (Les Allamby, NI Law Centre)
  • Political structures and governance (John Lowry)

The conference was down in numbers from last year – put down to the welfare reform march taking place at the same time. While delegate numbers were low, and party members in attendance even lower, there were quite a few young faces and signs of growth in regional branches.

The Workers Party isn’t dead. In many ways, they have more widespread support than the PUP. (On a tangent, interesting to hear Dawn Purvis mentioned twice at the Workers Party conference, two more times than last weekend at the PUP’s conference.) However, their very lack of an obvious sectarian or paramilitary hook to hang their banner on may limit their relevance to producers seeking pundits to opine on topical issues. In some ways, the Workers Party are good at communication. [Ed – whaaaa?] Of all the local parties, the Workers Party lead the way in the use of imagery during their speeches, with illustrative photos and pictures projected in a subtle and non-distracting way. And their speeches are well written and edited.

Success will only come if the Workers Party can scrape its ideas off the papers they produce and get other people talking about them and acting on them. The Green Party is an obvious ally at Stormont – though a competitor too – who could borrow many of their ideas and bring them to greater prominence. But the fractured left wing political spectrum will continue to work against the kind of values and ideas the Workers Party have being more widely heard. And a lack of historic electoral success will work against an agreed socialist/left candidate in the European election getting much coverage in 2014.

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