Northern Ireland: Assembley elections – Politicians deliver stalemate and division

DESPITE MONTHS of negotiations, no agreement has been reached on how an Executive will be put in place after the election. At the last minute David Trimble rejected IRA decommissioning moves as not "transparent" enough and a supposedly carefully crafted deal fell apart.

Assembly elections

Politicians deliver stalemate and division

The minutely choreographed moves by Sinn Fein, Trimble and the British and Irish governments seemed to be going to plan right up to the last minute. Then Trimble, clearly under pressure from party members who saw the "deal" as unsellable, pulled the plug.

The election is now being fought with no agreement, and very little likelihood of one being reached in the short term at least. What voters are being asked to elect is not so much an Assembly as a set of negotiating teams who will spend months, possible years, squabbling while the British and Irish governments try to convince us that the peace process is still on course.

The recent debacle will most likely strengthen Sinn Fein on one side and the anti-Agreement unionists on the other. To many Catholics, it appears that the IRA moved but Trimble threw its concessions back in its face. It is now almost certain that Sinn Fein will pull further ahead of the SDLP.

It is also almost certain that anti-Agreement unionists of various hues will have a majority over the pro-Agreement unionists after the election, and the DUP may even emerge as the largest unionist party.

The outcome of the election will make the political situation even more precarious and prone to fracture. Hammering out a deal when Sinn Fein is the majority nationalist party and a majority of unionists are anti-Agreement will not be easy.

It is not lack of goodwill or an inability to compromise by the politicians that has brought us to this point. The problem is that the whole basis of the Agreement has been flawed from the outset. There has been no real agreement at any stage, beyond an agreement to differ. The Agreement is based on division and accepts that division is permanent.

Real peace

The Socialist Party stands for a real peace process, based on a genuine unity of the people of the working class areas, not on sectarian politicians agreeing to sit down together while they make sure that people stay divided.

The "peace process" did bring about an opportunity to break the log jam of "traditional" politics here. This was seen particularly at the time of the Forum elections in 1996. A number of new groupings emerged that appeared to challenge the status quo to one degree or another.

What working class people need now is a mass party that represents their independent interests and that is capable of winning support on both sides of the divide. Such a party will emerge through the exposure of the traditional parties when they actually wield power, and through the shared experience of struggles that unite Catholic and Protestant workers.

Socialist Party MLA’s will play a vital role in bringing such a mass party into existence. When the Agreement comes up for review they will put forward the policies that favour the working class and young people from both communities. They will argue for an end to the in-built sectarian voting arrangements in the Assembly, for genuine community-controlled policing and for a challenge to the pro-big business policies of New Labour and the main parties.

Stop all sectarian attacks

DESPITE A relatively quiet summer, working class communities across Northern Ireland continue to be racked by sectarian intimidation and violence. Recently there have been petrol bomb attacks on both Catholic and Protestant homes in North Belfast, a sectarian mob has picketed a Catholic ceremony in Carnmoney cemetery and there have been riots in the Short Strand/Mountpottinger area.

By Ciaran Mulholland

There has been a huge upsurge in sectarian attacks since the Agreement was signed.

If we took the word of Sinn Fein, the SDLP and most nationalist commentators the main reason for this increase is the turmoil within the ranks of the loyalist paramilitaries.

On the other hand unionists and loyalists blame the republican movement, arguing that they are mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Protestants.

What is the real picture and how do we seriously tackle sectarianism? The answer is that sectarianism can only be seriously challenged, and ultimately defeated, when it is identified and opposed in all its forms.

There is no doubt that there has been a loyalist onslaught against Catholic areas in Belfast and against isolated Catholics in areas such as Antrim, Ballymena, Larne and Coleraine.

This is only part of the picture however. Catholic sectarianism is very real and there have been attacks on Protestant homes, churches, Orange Halls etc.

Every community has the right to defend itself from direct attack but it is important to base this defence on a clear reach across the divide. Genuine defence and a real challenge to sectarianism must be based on community groups and the unions and will only work if it is independent of the sectarian parties.

The unions and community organisations should launch a concerted campaign to end all the attacks and to offer an alternative to sectarian and right wing ideas. Such a campaign will only be successful if it recognises that sectarianism is a problem on both sides of the peace lines.

Oppose racism

Since 1997, reported racist attacks in Northern Ireland have increased by 900%. The announcement of these government figures comes amidst a dramatic increase in attacks on ethnic minorities.

A small group calling themselves the ’White Nationalist Party’ (WNP) has been responsible for organising a campaign of intimidation and violence against ethnic minorities.

The WNP have come to Northern Ireland on the back of a racist anti-asylum campaign, which has resulted in attacks upon ethnic minorities in Portadown, as well as Fillipino nurses in Ballymena.

Racist attacks here are actually at a higher level than in England and Wales. A recent study by the NI Equality Commission shows that 16.4 per 1,000 ( compared to 12.6 in England & Wales ) of the minority ethnic population were attacked by racists.

Some politicians have actually contributed to the racist filth being spread by fascists. The building of a mosque in Craigavon was opposed by the DUP because "Muslim prayers are noisy". The former UUP mayor of Craigavon Fred Crowe said "Muslims are out to wipe out Christianity" and even went as far as to attempt to link local Muslims in Craigavon with the 11 September terror attacks!

These racist lies only give groups like the WNP oxygen upon which to feed and grow.

The far-right attempt to scapegoat ethnic minorities for the problems facing working class people. The reality is that successive governments have starved public services in Northern Ireland of adequate funding for decades.

When the Assembly was up and running, all the parties in the Executive carried out privatisation of public services and other anti-working class policies.

Working class people, of all colours and religions, have suffered because of these right-wing policies. Groups like the WNP are opposed to working class people uniting to defend our jobs, services and conditions.

That is why the fight against racism and fascism is linked to the fight for a socialist alternative to the right wing parties and the capitalist system they defend. Socialist Youth will continue to campaign against the rise of racism and will vehemently oppose all fascist activity in Northern Ireland.

These articles first appeared in the Socialist Voice, newspaper of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland in a special supplement produced for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in November 2003

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November 2003