As Belfast’s trade unions revolt, are we finally witnessing the end of N. Ireland’s “Peace Process”?

Why is the Stormont House Agreement collapsing?

Amidst the scramble to apportion blame, trade union leader Eamonn McCann’s analysis hints at the green shoots of a new dynamic in Northern Irish politics. Writing in the Irish Times, McCann rightly observes:

This is the first time trade unions have opposed a Stormont deal. On every previous occasion, they have hailed the outcome as a welcome contribution to the consolidation of peace.


This is no small development.

Consider, for a moment, the dynamics driving N. Irish politics since at least 1985.

Any unionist leader willing to lead, move or negotiate beyond the tiniest of defensive steps has faced the Lundy card: Powerful accusations of treachery from a plethora of rival political parties and internal party rivals.

That has been a desperate dynamic for unionism and for Northern Ireland.

To his great credit, David Trimble’s legacy will be simple: He’s the man who broke that mold. Inevitably, he paid the political price. Not inevitably, and thanks in large part to his leadership, Trimble survived long enough to hold off rival unionist parties, and internal UUP challengers to his leadership, to lead his community into new era based on a historic peace deal. Not too shabby.

Contrast these tiny margins for leadership and negotiation in the unionist camp with the much greater freedom Gerry Adams and his kitchen cabinet have enjoyed (and enforced) for decades.

Point, as one might, to opposition from dissident republicans and the SDLP but there’s no comparison.

Shortly after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, PIRA members brutally attacked the family of an anti-Belfast Agreement campaigner who called for an election boycott in Derry.

“You cost us a seat, you bastard!”


The media largely reported the violent home invasion, which included the hospitalization of young children, as a confrontation between rival republicans. But the focus on the personal politics of SF’s republican opponents obscured the real story. By campaigning for an election boycott, Donnelly effectively represented an electoral challenge to SF. His challenge was met with violent reprisals. And there’s a word for that.

Compare the SDLP’s challenge to SF with, for example, the DUP’s challenge to Trimble’s UUP. Paisley, being Paisley, vilified and demonized Trimble for his peace process treachery. By contrast, the SDLP’s primary political objective was to facilitate the transition of its direct electoral rival into party politics.

To get a sense of how this affected the SDLP’s desire and capacity to stick it to their rivals, it’s worth recalling Malachi O’Doherty’s dry observation from around 2001. Every time Gerry Adams drops his trousers in public, the SDLP – afraid of destabilizing the peace process – hand him a towel to cover the sight.

Since the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, unionists, in their private moments, must surely resent the relative freedom to negotiate enjoyed by SF’s leadership. They look at Adams and see a leader unafraid of internal leadership challenges, unconcerned with rival parties, and unthreatened by the prospective of losing of voters due to policy failures – at least until this week.

Before they faced the reality of real policy-making power in Belfast, and the prospect of achieving it in Dublin, SF benefited from remarkably unrestrained operating dynamics. Throw in the added luxury of treating politics entirely as an exercise in the optics of protest – and to hell with policy – and you see a formidable political machine free to dedicate its energies almost entirely to the destruction of its political opponents.

It’s no longer so simple. Policy counts. Competency counts. The basics of balancing a budget sheet counts.

We have become used to watching SF worrying little about the fealty of its flock. So it’s almost startling when a revolt like this happens – not least, we now know, to the leadership itself.

But it is happening.

How will they handle it?

Will SF warn 20,000 union members they’re threatening the “Peace Process”? That schtick might have worked with government mandarins.  It won’t work when jobs are on the line.

A real political process may finally be starting on Belfast’s streets and it’s leaving SF with much explaining to do.

The questions have all-island implications too. For starters, if SF can’t handle the DUP in budget negotiations in Belfast, how do ya reckon they’d fare facing the Trioka in Dublin?

  • cimota

    From what I can see, SF stands for “shortly flipping” or “shortly flopping”.

    I can’t keep track of what they support. It changes on adaily basis here and they seem keen to do the opposite in the Republic with equal regularity. Last night O’Dowd said the peace process was on the line, this morning some other SFdrone was saying it wasn’t.

    Maybe it’s to protect against a challenger. Hard to oppose a party position when it changes in the hour. It’s evident to me that the mask is slipping and the rule of the gun that kept SF in check seems to have lost its impact.

    For the record, I think the peace process will be fine. The assembly may fall but it’s not like it’s the first time.

  • WindsorRocker

    The welfare reform and budget issues aren’t a “peace process” issue. They are an issue of fiscal governance. If you want to spend more on welfare then spend less elsewhere or raise rates. Simples.

  • Dan

    The brass neck of Alban McGuinness walking in the Belfast march today.

  • submariner

    Why? Didnt the SDLP oppose the tory cuts

  • chrisjones2

    So the civil service revolted today….who noticed?

    They can revolt again next week too if they wish …indeed if we make it a weekly event we can save 20% on the NICS Pay Bill ….. …….. though I hear that most of them booked it as holiday to make a long weekend stretching to St Paddys Day. Solidarity!!

  • Dan

    The Tories aren’t in Government in Northern Ireland….the sdlp are. How much have sdlp ministers wasted in Government here?

  • Dan

    I watched the march in Belfast earlier. It was a bit wick to be honest.
    I usually enjoy mocking the state of some of those on the march in Orange order parades, but that lot today took it to new levels. Looked like a load of morlocks.

  • aber1991

    IS Eamon McCann a Trade Union leader?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I think the unions made a serious strategic mistake today.

    Of course, I wasn’t affected. Like other members of NI’s burgeoning and untaxed middle class, I drive to work and get free parking. Those who were impacted were those who rely on public transport – schoolchildren, students, the working poor, pensioners. Why were those people put to inconvenience today ? Not because of people being sacked, or because of pay cuts – circumstances where I would be sympathetic – but because their union thinks that they need to strike to secure a change in government policy.

    Despite promises to the contrary, the Stormont government has no control over the subvention they receive. They have precisely two options. They can either raise revenue locally, or they can make cuts to lower-priority services.

    The unions, and the section of the political class who describe themselves as “progressive” (SDLP, SF, Greens) have made precisely no proposals in respect of either of these options, unless you include Delores Kelly’s suggestion that forests could be privatized.

    I would quite happily pay for water charges – I can afford them. The the left don’t want me to – they think I should continue to be subsidized. I can pay increased taxes, but I’ve yet to have a single politician knock my door and ask me to vote for a manifesto with this included. My rates could be increased. That won’t happen as SF and the DUP are jointly in favour of freezing rates in real terms.

    Any time a suggestion to cut public spending somewhere is made, one of the major parties acts to stop it.

    We have a dysfunctional democracy within which all of the politicians and actors, such as the unions, are more than happy to complain about the problems, but nobody is prepared to propose a workable solution. Going on strike isn’t going to change this.

  • barnshee

    What do you think you are doing coming here posting sense?- are you trying to get this blog a good name?


    Red Lion,

    in fairness, the piece doesn’t predict a crash or any likely outcome for SF. It’s just a commentary on the dynamics that affect decision-making and how they may be changing. Put another way, the free ride is coming to and end for SF. Opponents’ incentives are changing and voters’ calculations may be changing too.

    It is, however, perfectly conceivable that SF adapt to this new environment. They’re certainly capable of that and hungrier than most if not all others.

    It may even be a blessing in disguise for their rising members: A realization that doing one’s sums and getting the homework done in time are necessary measures for any party aspiring to power.

    Wherever this new dynamic – should it consolidate – may take us, at least it’s grassroots and citizen driven; at least people are doing more than simply watching, blaming, cheering, sneering etc, at the parties. They’re acting. Parties will respond.

    That’s something long overdue. In process terms, it’s already as healthy as a moment as we’ve seen for a long time.

  • Ruarai

    in fairness, the piece doesn’t predict a crash or any likely outcome for SF.

    In fairness, it attempts to foreshadow it.

    The questions have all-island implications too. For starters, if SF can’t handle the DUP in budget negotiations in Belfast, how do ya reckon they’d fare facing the Trioka in Dublin?

    But you don’t demonstrate any of those outcomes.

    Your thesis depends on the imagination of the reader… and the citizen, and the voter…

    “should it consolidate…”

  • Daire McGill

    I began reading with interest. Ironically, however, an article purportedly about a new dawn in local politics then talked only about UUP, DUP, SDLP and SF. I hardly regard that as anything new. It would be great if next time you could actually explore these issus rather than examine SF political strategy over the last 20 years.

  • chrisjones2

    Twas ever thus. I remember SF once attacking Eigri for some of their marches because some of those there were still wearing their PJs at lunchtime and giving Republicanism a bad name

  • chrisjones2

    I agree…..the sheep are safely penned …….London can sleep well while the shepherds watch and keep the big bad wolves off in exchange for a bit of (slightly mouldy) bread and cheese

    Baaa baaa

  • Dan

    I noted that Eirigi were on the march yesterday too. Nice company these public sector unions keep, eh?

  • chrisjones2

    Look…whoever wants can support and march with them. Thats democracy

    Whats more interesting is the thousands who didnt march at all but were forced to lose a days pay …or take holidays and make a long weekend of it

  • chrisjones2

    Or Maeve McLaughlin in Derry with her wee Unison Tabard on and bleating about Tory Cuts

  • chrisjones2

    oh come on now …you can fool some of the people all of the time …..

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Tis a disgrace Barnshee! Fiscal prudence?!!! Whatever next?!

  • El_Commi

    You may be able to afford it. Not everyone else can.