Northern Ireland elections: Divided Vote Hides Workers’ Disillusionment

NORTHERN IRELAND’S elections on 26 November were extremely polarised with the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on one side and Sinn Fein on the other, gaining support.

Both the ‘moderate’ nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Trimble’s United Unionist Party (UUP) suffered defeat. After the election, the press put a brave face on Trimble’s performance, claiming that the UUP won 27 seats compared to 28 seats back in 1998. But the results show the problems Trimble has and the scale of defeat he suffered.

Even though there wasn’t much change in their vote in percentage terms, in some areas there were massive swings to the UUP. In Lagan Valley where hardliner Jeffrey Donaldson stood there was a 15% swing.

The bad news for Trimble is that this vote reflects a strengthening of the UUP’s anti-agreement wing – at least five of the party’s 27 election candidates are anti-agreement.

The Paisleyite DUP got 30 seats. Votes were evenly balanced in the old Assembly but now the balance on the unionist side is 36 to about 23 against the agreement.

The DUP finished ahead of the UUP in 12 of the 18 seats. Translated into a Westminster election, the DUP could take all but a handful of the unionist seats. The UUP’s only successes would be likely to be anti-agreement candidates.

On the nationalist side before the election the SDLP had 24 seats and Sinn Fein 18. Now these figures are reversed.

Sinn Fein surged ahead of the SDLP in ten of the 18 seats and were first in five. The SDLP got first place in just two seats, South Down and Foyle, but even here there was a 10-11% swing to Sinn Fein. In future Westminster elections, Sinn Fein could well take all bar one of the Westminster seats that go to nationalist parties.

So Northern Ireland could be moving towards a position where one major anti-agreement unionist party or bloc confronts one major nationalist party with Sinn Fein becoming that party.

The smaller parties’ votes were squeezed. For example the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) got over 20,000 votes last time – in 2003 it got 8,000 and only held one seat. The Women’s Coalition got 13,000 votes last time but got 5,700 this time and lost both its seats.

The Alliance Party held their six seats but their votes almost halved and most of them would lose their seats in a Westminster election.

“They’re all the same”

THESE RESULTS reflect the polarisation in Northern Irish society in the last four or five years. But the other side, which the Socialist Party found on the doorstep but wasn’t acknowledged in the media, was that in working-class areas – Catholic and Protestant – there is growing disillusionment with all parties.

In these areas many people said they weren’t voting “because they’re all the same”, giving themselves salary increases and bringing in right-wing policies. The overall turnout, 63.1% – down from about 69% – was very low for Northern Ireland where voting tends to be high.

Also many people just don’t bother to register to vote. The electoral register is now 80,000 smaller than it was in 1998. 132,000 fewer people voted in this election compared to the total number voting in 1998. 132,000 would make disaffected non-voters the fourth biggest party!

The underlying trend, particularly in the working-class areas, is one of disgust at all the parties. The people who vote tend to be older and more middle-class, so the vote only reflects the polarisation but not the growing disillusionment with politicians.

We are now going into a period of ‘renegotiation’ or ‘review’ depending on the side speaking. The DUP won’t talk to Sinn Fein directly but there will be ‘proxy negotiations’ which are likely to last for a very long time. It’s very difficult for the politicians to get back to the restoration of the Assembly, at least in the short term.

There is now a massive crisis in the whole process. Further elections such as the Euro elections next year will tend to reinforce the deadlock. It underlines that real change can only come from social change not from realignment of these politicians.

Class politics

ONE CHINK of light showed that it’s possible to break the hold of sectarianism – the vote in Omagh for Kieran Deeny who fought the closure of Omagh hospital (a decision taken by Bairbre de Bruin, the Sinn Fein health minister in the Assembly).

Dr Deeny topped the poll and the cross-community vote severely damaged the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the unionist parties.

The Socialist Party campaigned in two areas, Belfast East and Belfast South. We canvassed thousands of houses; we gave out 20,000 to 30,000 election leaflets on the doorstep and 80,000 more through the mail.

On the door in working-class areas, on the class issues that we raised and through them questions such as the agreement etc, Socialist Party campaigners got a very good response. Many people, often not on the register, agreed with our analysis of the overall situation but at present they just see the election as something that addresses different issues.

We went into hard-line working-class areas of Belfast, both Catholic and Protestant and got a good response. We sold about 600 papers on the doorsteps and the streets in the two constituencies, plus 400 in city centre stalls related to the election. That’s 1,000 papers in three weeks plus the names of many people interested in our ideas.

Our vote was modest as we expected from the very start. Jim Barbour got 167 votes (0.6%) in south Belfast and Tommy Black 175 in East Belfast (also 0.6%). Workers in the area have congratulated us on a very credible vote that we can build on, on the basis of water charges and other class issues.