Northern Ireland Assembly elections: Only working class can end sectarian impasse

WITH ONLY days to go before the close of nominations and even though campaigning was already under way, Tony Blair has called off the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Despite his assurance that they will go ahead in the autumn there is now a real question over whether they will take place at all.

The stated reason for putting them off was the lack of clarification from the IRA as to whether their campaign is finally over. At one point it all came down to whether the republican leadership would amend a statement that IRA activities "should" end to a declaration that they "will" end.

Despite the reaction of the British and Irish governments and of all shades of unionism, the IRA have, in fact, shifted their ground considerably. Their recent statements spell out unambiguously what has been obvious for some time; that their war against the British state is over.

They can’t go further and publicly disband the IRA at this stage without risking serious opposition in their own ranks. While there is no question of this IRA leadership going back to a war against Britain, the sectarian conflict within Northern Ireland is continuing. Many republicans still look to the IRA as necessary to "police" and "defend" Catholic areas.

Saving Trimble

THE REASON the elections are not going ahead has much more to do with what is happening in the Protestant communities. Protestants have a growing sense of insecurity. They increasingly see the Good Friday Agreement as having strengthened the nationalist position and have very little time for an Assembly that has delivered very little, except big salaries for a few politicians.

The fact that a majority of Protestants are now opposed to the Agreement was certain to be reflected in the election in an increase in support for Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and for anti-Agreement opponents of former First Minister David Trimble within his own Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

Even if the UUP had emerged as the biggest unionist party, Trimble would either have been ousted or else he would have been a prisoner of its anti-Agreement wing. Under these circumstances the Assembly would not have been able to function.

Trimble’s hope was that he would get a statement from republicans that would allow him to campaign as the unionist politician who brought about the "surrender" of the IRA. The actual statement fell short of this and so Blair has intervened to save Trimble. He has decided not to go ahead with the election because democracy, in this case, would not have produced the right result!

Sectarian polarisation

FIVE YEARS ago, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, it was trumpeted world wide as an historic breakthrough that would lead to the solution. The Agreement was never a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. It accepted that the sectarian division in Northern Ireland was permanent and that the best that could be hoped for was a complicated form of power sharing between unionist and nationalist politicians.

The sectarian polarisation is greater today than it was five years ago when the last Assembly elections took place. All the sectarian parties who have sat together in the old executive have contributed to this polarisation. Now they are finding that politics is catching up with the hardening of attitudes that have been taking place on the ground, especially in the working class areas.

The right-wing and sectarian parties can offer no way forward except further polarisation and conflict. However, there is another side to Northern Ireland. While the politicians have been splitting sectarian hairs over words, working-class people have been coming together in struggle.

Working-class struggles

THE FIREFIGHTERS’ strikes have been 100% solid in Northern Ireland and have been massively supported in working-class communities, Catholic and Protestant. The battle by the sacked airport workers for reinstatement and for justice from their union, the T&GWU, has also received huge support. Social workers are now also involved in strike action over a regrading claim. A two day strike last month was completely solid and further strikes are planned for this month.

People in both Catholic and Protestant working class communities are now gearing up for what will be a united struggle against Blair’s decision to impose water charges. Over 100 people turned up to disrupt a "consultation" meeting on the issue in Derry and an even bigger crowd is likely at a similar meeting in Belfast later this month.

A feature of all these struggles is the contempt people have for the sectarian politicians on both sides. Belfast City council has just decided to close the Maysfield leisure centre, the only centre in the city, which, because of its location, is accessible to both communities.

During the Belfast marathon, which finished at the centre, T&GWU members working in the centre held a protest. When Sinn Fein mayor Alex Maskey saw them he told them that the marathon was not the time or the place for protests!

The question of whether there can be an alternative to the main parties is being discussed. The Socialist Party is considering standing in the Assembly elections if they go ahead. Some FBU activists have also discussed putting up candidates. Campaigners against local hospital closures have already decided to stand. There would be a basis for candidates to stand in opposition to the water charges.

The sectarian parties have failed. But the basis for a new party of the working class which could bring together those involved in the various struggles that have opened up is now being laid.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales

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May 2003