Northern Ireland: Can sectarian politics be challenged?

WITH THE Assembly in long term suspension, the main political parties are once again enjoying the luxury of permanent opposition. They have suddenly found their voice again and are able to lay the blame on Westminster for cutbacks, privatisation and other unpopular policies.

However, when these parties had responsibility for local services it was a different story. Within the Executive there was no "pro" and "anti" camp when it came to privatising schools and hospitals or other services. Despite their denials, all the major parties were gearing up to introduce water charges, and, down the line, to privatise the water service.

These parties cannot be entrusted with defending services or upholding the interests of working class people. Nor, as the current impasse clearly shows, can what remains of the peace process be left in their hands.

The political stranglehold of these parties needs to be broken. If and when Assembly elections are held, they need to be challenged by candidates who will defend services, resist privatisation, and who will represent the interests of the working class.

Is it really possible to challenge the four main sectarian based parties who between them now get over 90% of votes – especially in an Assembly election that they will try to turn into a sectarian second referendum on the Agreement?

In fact, the forces to mount such a challenge are already there. Over recent years there has been fierce and determined opposition to the cuts and sell off of services imposed by Westminster and by the local Executive. A number of trade union and community based campaigns have developed, with broad support in working class areas across the sectarian divide.

The Socialist Party has put forward the idea of candidates from these various campaigns coming together to stand in a broad "Defend Public Services" platform. We are currently discussing this with a number of individuals and organisations.

Concretely, a "Defend Public Services" slate could include campaigners against hospital closures, notably the HOPE campaign, based in Omagh.

The government’s threat to launch an all out attack on the fire service raises the issue whether the FBU should put up candidates on the issue of defending local fire services. If the the proposed lignite mine in North Antrim goes ahead, there would be a real possibility that a candidate from the opposition campaign could win a seat in this area.

By the time the Assembly elections come round, the campaign against water charges and water privatisation should be well underway. Anti water charges candidates could do well in areas where there are active campaigns. The idea of an "anti water charges- defend public services" candidate in next year’s European election also needs to be discussed.

A "Defend Public Services" slate could have a real impact in an Assembly election. If it polled well in some areas, it would demonstrate in practical terms that the grip of the sectarian parties can be broken. It could be a first important step in the creation of a new party of the working class, based on the trade unions and on genuine campaigning community organisations.

An alternative proposal has been put forward by the Socialist Workers Party – that existing small left parties should come together as a "socialist slate". A meeting held to discuss this idea in June was attended by the SWP, the Workers Party, the Communist Party, and the remnants of the bizarre group that called itself the British and Irish Communist Organisation, now grouped around Mark Langhammer – among others.

The Socialist Party sent an observer, and argued against the proposal. We support the idea of left unity, but regard this initiative as, at best, premature. A slate of the organisations who attended the meeting would make no significant impact in an election.

The insistence that only socialist groups can take part excludes mass community campaigns. In fact, it was argued that socialist candidates should stand against single issue campaigners such as the HOPE campaign in Omagh.

We are in the elementary stages of the building of a new political party of the working class. The key now is to encourage workers to take the first courageous step of challenging the establishment parties. Demanding that they first sign up to a "socialist" slate would discourage rather than encourage them to do so.

The Socialist Party is positively considering standing for a number of seats. We hope that the discussions we are now having will allow us to do so as part of a broader "Defend Public Services" umbrella.

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