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Northern Ireland elections: Polarisation widens
NORTHERN IRELAND'S general election results confirmed what the Socialist Party expected - that two main sectarian blocks would dominate. Within those blocks, the Paisleyite DUP and Sinn Fein gained at the expense of Trimble's UUP and SDLP respectively.
Peter Hadden, Belfast Socialist Party, spoke to the socialist.
Both at the Westminster and local elections there has been quite a meltdown of UUP votes and seats in the Protestant areas. This formerly dominant party was reduced to one Westminster seat. And this carried through in the local elections.
On the Catholic side, there has been a distinct growth of Sinn Fein at the more 'moderate' SDLP's expense. True, the SDLP held three Westminster seats but within that they lost one seat to Sinn Fein and only won one seat from the UUP because the unionist voters were split between UUP and DUP.
There's not as much anger against the SDLP in Catholic areas as there is against the UUP in Protestant areas where the UUP are seen as responsible for the Northern Ireland Assembly. But the gradual hollowing out of SDLP support continues.
The killing of Robert McCartney, widely blamed on Sinn Fein members, also slowed down Sinn Fein's growth. It didn't hit their core vote, nor stop their advance against SDLP. But it probably persuaded some voters to stay with the SDLP or other parties.
In East Belfast, the one Sinn Fein councillor for the Short Strand area lost his seat and the small Alliance Party picked up that seat on transferred votes. No doubt Robert McCartney's killing had an effect there.
The smaller parties that grew in the peace process during the 1990s, such as the Women's Coalition and the PUP, have all been obliterated in this vote. It's now down to four parties with two main parties emerging. It's a massive unionist bloc and a huge nationalist bloc.
It's so polarised that it's going to be hard for the government to conjure up a restoration of the Assembly - it could be three years before they even get serious negotiations going and the Assembly elected. If they did that they'd have to have another election to cement the deal and that would probably produce a similar result.
The government will push for negotiations in the autumn but it's questionable whether it will get anywhere because the election reflects the reality of polarisation on the ground.
There was a high abstention rate and, as in Britain, this was more than just apathy. It was hostility to establishment politics. Turnouts were low, particularly by Northern Ireland standards. There were 90,000 fewer people voting than in 2001 because the registers have been pared back and because of the higher abstention.
People were hostile to all politicians because of the feeling that nothing was going to come out of it. Low turnouts and disillusionment at politicians were particularly common in working-class areas, especially the protestant working class.
THE SOCIALIST Party did not stand in the general election but we were really happy with our campaign in the local elections. We got a very good response around the doors, much better than we got in the Assembly elections.
This was particularly thanks to the issues we raised such as opposition to the water charges being brought into Northern Ireland.
In Enniskillen we got 406 first preference votes - about 5% of the vote. For someone standing for the first time and where we only had six weeks or so to campaign, this was very creditable. Another 150 votes plus transfers could have put us in with a chance of winning a seat.
In a very sectarian contest in Mid-Ulster in Cookstown we got 84 votes (about 2% in a much smaller seat).
In Pottinger in east Belfast, where we were campaigning against UUP and DUP luminaries, we got 163 votes (about 1.5%). In the Assembly elections we only got 171 votes in the whole of Belfast East so we almost trebled our percentage vote. We weren't bottom in any of the seats. We're still awaiting the result from Lagan Valley.
In a future issue Peter Hadden talks to the socialist about fighting for workers' unity in a polarised society.