Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/941/25071
Northern Ireland: divisive election a warning to the workers' movement
Daniel Waldron, Socialist Party (Irish sister party of the Socialist Party in England and Wales)
A snap Northern Ireland Assembly election took place on 2 March. This was in the aftermath of the 'cash for ash' scandal which emerged in December, the most recent in a series of debacles that have left Stormont - and particularly the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - shrouded in a smog of incompetence and corruption.
Ten years of DUP/Sinn Féin-led government has been characterised by neoliberal austerity and lack of progress on LGBT+ and women's rights. This has deepened cynicism and disillusionment towards the Orange and Green establishment and many workers and young people hoped that this election would deliver meaningful and positive change.
But the DUP and Sinn Féin further consolidated their positions as the dominant parties within their respective communities and the election has served to more deeply entrench sectarian division in society. There has been significant change, with Unionism losing its overall majority for the first time in the state's history, but its impact will be of a negative character.
Sinn Féin framed the election around challenging the DUP's corruption and 'arrogance', despite having comfortably spent ten years in power with them. They cited the DUP's dismissive attitude towards the aspirations of the Catholic community over issues such as an Irish Language Act and dealing with state crimes during the Troubles, as well their abuse of the Petition of Concern mechanism to undemocratically block same-sex marriage equality.
Sinn Féin again set its sights on becoming the biggest party at Stormont, which a widely publicised opinion poll suggested was within reach. This played into the DUP's hands. By focussing on the possibility of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party - with their new leader Michelle O'Neill as the new first minister - the DUP was able to deflect attention from the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal.
While a Sinn Féin first minister wouldn't formally bring a united Ireland any closer, it would be seen by many Protestants as a body blow to the position of Unionism that would quicken the march towards being forced into a state where they fear their culture and identity would be threatened.
The DUP responded by taking a more nakedly sectarian tone, with representatives dismissing the idea they had ever or would ever agree to an Irish Language Act, for example.
The sectarian dance between the two main parties made this election campaign one of the most bitter in living memory. The result was highly polarised along sectarian lines, with many feeling compelled to go out and vote to block 'the other side'.
After years of slow decline, the nationalist vote rose sharply with Sinn Féin the beneficiaries. They came less than 1,200 votes and only one seat behind the DUP, who managed to maintain their position as the largest party in the face of the RHI scandal, despite losing 1.1% of their vote share. The smaller nationalist and Unionist parties were squeezed.
The left squeezed
The sectarian nature of the election - as well as the perceived pressure on voters to vote 'tactically' given a reduction in the number of seats - in general served to stall or knock back the development of forces seen to challenge the establishment from the left.
People Before Profit (PBP) said it was fighting to win two seats in West Belfast. They held one - though with a fall in vote share from 22.9% to 14.9% - and lost the other.
PBP was subjected to a sustained smear campaign from Sinn Féin, who distorted their correct call for a vote to leave the European Union from a left perspective and attempted to lump them in with the DUP, Ukip and right-wing Tories.
Undoubtedly, this had an impact, particularly in Catholic communities, due to the widespread - but incorrect - perception that the EU is a guarantor of minority rights.
While PBP often talks about being 'neither unionist nor nationalist', 'neither Orange nor Green', this is not an accurate reflection of its actual political positions or of how it is perceived. PBP election literature boasted it is a '32-county party' which stands for a 'socialist republic' - language of the republican movement which would immediately alienate even the majority of left-leaning Protestants.
The positions taken by their representatives on flags, parades, housing, a border poll and other contentious issues put them firmly in the 'Green' (Republican) camp and this is how they are seen by many working class people.
This perception facilitated their growth at one stage but also meant they were particularly vulnerable to being undermined by a resurgent Sinn Féin seen to be 'taking a stand'. While they can redevelop momentum, the politics of PBP as currently constituted have serious limitations as far as cutting across sectarian division is concerned.
Ahead of last year's election, the Socialist Party worked with other activists to launch Cross-Community Labour Alternative and point towards the kind of left that is needed. This must include challenging austerity, boldly fighting for LGBT+ and women's rights. It must be cross-community and advocate compromise and mutual respect on the divisive issues.
Our three young candidates - drawn from across the sectarian divide - had modest but important successes, winning the highest labour movement votes in their respective constituencies in a generation. This year, their votes were squeezed slightly by the sectarian nature of the election, polling between 1.1% and 1.2%.
Prominent pro-choice campaigner Courtney Robinson won 442 first-preference votes in East Belfast. Sean Burns took 531 in South Belfast, despite PBP's decision to contest the constituency. Community activist Conor Sheridan received 393 in East Antrim.
Standing for the first time in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, trade unionist and anti-fracking campaigner Donal O'Cofaigh won 643 first-preference votes. This was more than a doubling of the vote received by the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee candidate last year.
These votes were won on the basis of vibrant campaigns which were genuinely cross-community in every sense and which clearly targeted the entire Stormont establishment.
The Labour Party
The Labour Party in Northern Ireland has grown dramatically and moved to the left since the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The party has become an important reference point for a layer of workers and young people looking for a left alternative to the politics of sectarian division.
Unfortunately, the central leadership's ban on official Labour candidates standing here remains in place. Donal O'Cofaigh and his election agent were expelled from Labour for contesting the election under an alternative banner.
Only one Labour Party member - standing as an independent - was backed by the local leadership. Had a broader, wider and bolder Labour movement challenge been made, it could have made a real impact and laid down an important marker for the future.
It could have appealed to the tens of thousands who have been enthused by Corbyn's anti-austerity message and re-popularised the idea of class politics as an alternative to sectarian division. Regardless of the outcome of the current review into Labour Party policy on standing in Northern Ireland (due to report in the summer), local activists must not allow another such opportunity to be missed.
Fears of a capitalist united Ireland now loom large among the Protestant community. This dynamic will tend to sharpen the sectarian questions and polarise society further. Sinn Féin has adopted a triumphalist tone and already stepped up their agitation for a border poll.
Many Catholics may want to express their right to 'self-determination' on unification in such a poll, but given that Protestants still make up a majority of the population in the North, it would not win and would only dangerously whip up sectarian tensions further.
In any case, on the basis of capitalism and the poverty, joblessness, sectarianism and fears it creates, there can be no simple 'majority' vote, either way, to settle the border issue.
Serious challenges can be posed for left forces in the coming period, particularly those with seats in Stormont. If they are seen to fall into either sectarian camp, they will fundamentally damage their ability to play a positive role in uniting the working class in opposition to the increasing tempo of the sectarian drumbeats.
The DUP no longer has the ability to wield the Petition of Concern mechanism by itself, which some hope means that marriage equality and perhaps even limited abortion reform may now be possible.
Unfortunately, this is far from guaranteed. The DUP will be able to rely on other conservative Unionists to help block marriage equality and also on the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party in blocking abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime.
Progress on LGBT+ and women's rights is still contingent upon building grassroots campaigns which mobilise popular support and make the politicians fear the consequences of standing in the way.
At the time of writing, talks are underway to try to establish a new Executive. A deal is possible, probably after a prolonged period of discussions and perhaps even another election, which would likely further entrench the divisions.
However, it is by no means certain. Having raised expectations, Sinn Féin will find it difficult to return to power with the DUP without winning guarantees of progress on an Irish Language Act, equal marriage and more. Conversely, the DUP will be anxious not to be seen to roll over in the face of Sinn Féin's demands.
A return to direct rule with Tory Ministers installed is possible, which would likely accelerate austerity in an attempt by the Tories to cajole the local politicians into reaching an agreement.
The next period is likely to be difficult for the working class. We will bear the brunt of the consequences of the rising sectarian temperature in society. Whether from Stormont or Westminster, we will continue to face a steady tide of austerity.
The leadership of the trade union movement in Northern Ireland bears a big responsibility for this situation. On 13 March 2015, public sector workers in Northern Ireland took strike action against the austerity agreed by the DUP, Sinn Féin and the British and Irish governments.
Unfortunately, afterwards, the majority of trade union leaders stood aside rather than building upon the successful stoppage to develop a serious campaign of coordinated and escalating action.
Many see it as their role to prop up the Stormont institutions and particularly see Sinn Féin as a partner in government, rather than as another sectarian party implementing austerity. This approach has served to disarm the working class industrially and politically.
Trade union activists must campaign for a change of course, for the unions to use their power to actively fight cuts and support efforts to develop a cross-community political voice for workers and young people.
The ongoing teachers' industrial action for a pay-rise should be developed into a public sector-wide campaign against pay restraint and austerity. This would raise the sights of working class people and bring the common interests of ordinary Protestants and Catholics to the fore, challenging the sectarian narratives of the Orange and Green parties.
To continue along the current abstentionist course would be a betrayal of the interests of the working class and make the next period all the more dangerous. Only united class struggle can challenge the rising tide of sectarianism and the attacks on the living standards of the 99%.
As we go to press, it has been announced that former Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuiness has died - more soon
In The Socialist 22 March 2017:
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