Northern Ireland: End of the Road for the Assembly?

The recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections have produced a recipe for ongoing political stalemate and paralysis. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are the clear victors and, no matter how they try to put a gloss on the result, both Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have lost out badly.

Trimble has tried to argue otherwise, pointing to the fact that the UUP vote largely held up and that they came away with 27 seats, a loss of only one on their 1998 performance.

There is little comfort for Trimble and his supporters in this one headline statistic, which masks the reality of a huge setback for this brand of unionism. The UUP vote fell in most areas. The one clear exception was the Lagan Valley constituency where Trimble’s most outspoken critic, Jeffery Donaldson, got the highest vote of any candidate in the election and where there was a 15.39% swing to the UUP.

Trimble’s group of 27 MLA’s (Members of Legislative Assembly) contains at least four who are anti-Agreement and others who may shift in that direction, following the prevailing political wind. His only other backer on the unionist benches is the Progressive Unionist Party’s (PUP) David Ervine.

This means that there are, at most, 24 unionist MLA’s who support the Good Friday Agreement and 35 who are opposed to it.

A more detailed examination of the results makes even worse reading for the present UUP leadership. The DUP outpolled the UUP in 12 of the 18 constituencies. They were the largest party in eight of these. The four seats where the UUP held on as the largest party include Donaldson’s Lagan Valley seat and North Down, where the combined vote of anti Agreement unionists – the DUP plus independent unionist Bob McCartney – was significantly more than that of Trimble’s party.

If the political shift shown in this election is maintained, the DUP, perhaps in a bloc with other anti Agreement candidates, are set to take all but one or two of the unionist seats at Westminster in the next general election.

No-one on the nationalist side attempted to ape Trimble and to try to put a brave face on the setbacks suffered by the SDLP. In 1990 the SDLP won 24 seats to 18 for Sinn Fein. This time the numbers were exactly reversed. Sinn Fein took 23.52% of the vote, up from 17.33% last time.

Sinn Fein outpolled the SDLP in 10 of the 18 seats, and emerged as the largest party in five of these. By contrast, the SDLP are now the largest party in only two constituencies, Foyle and South Down. In both these seats there was a significant swing from the SDLP to Sinn Fein – about 11% in South Down and 6% in Foyle – which meant a significant narrowing of the gap between them. On the basis of this swing continuing, as is likely, Sinn Fein could eventually take all of the SDLP’s Westminster seats, even their former stronghold of Foyle.

Small parties crushed

The other feature of this election was the crushing of the smaller parties. There was a period in the early stages of the peace process when new ideas began to surface and new political forces started to emerge. It was at this time that the Socialist Party (CWI affiliate in Northern Ireland) participated in the Labour Coalition but unfortunately the potential of this group to use the positions won in the talks to register a class position was squandered by the ineptitude and policies of the two talks representatives.

The greater openness of the time reflected the first political stirrings of the working class away from the sectarian halter of right wing unionism and nationalism. Apart from the Labour Coalition it threw up other forces who were only partly able to give expression to the desire of a section of the working class for a political alternative to the main sectarian parties and who had no idea of how to build such an alternative.

In 1998, the PUP won two seats, with 2.50% of the vote. The Women’s Coalition also gained two seats, with 13,019 votes (1.59%). In this election only one of these, PUP leader David Ervine, was re-elected.

Ervine only just hung on, his first preferences vote down from 5,114 in 1998 to 2,990 this time. The PUP vote fell from 20,634 to 8,032. The Women’s Coalition fared even worse. They lost both seats, their vote dropping from 13,019 to 5,785, a result that is likely to prove the effective end of the road for this group. With the trappings, perks and privileges of office no longer there to entice them, most of the middle class careerists they attracted are likely to seek a quick return to their “day jobs”.

The middle class Alliance Party has been in a state of slow, terminal decline for some time. Although they eventually managed to hold onto their six seats, most of their candidates, their leader included, only scraped through on the last counts, a feat they are unlikely to repeat. Overall, the Alliance vote halved, down from 52,636 in 1998 to 25,372 now.

The real momentum that sustained the peace process in its early stages came from the working class coming onto the streets demanding a halt to the killings and no return to ‘the Troubles’. This created an opening for the working class to stamp its imprint on the situation and for new forces to emerge capable of offering a serious challenge to the sectarian behemoths.

The opportunity was missed. The trade union leadership failed to sustain the momentum created by the massive anti-sectarian demonstrations. Instead of trying to provide an independent class alternative they passed the initiative to the politicians.

For their part, the politicians used the opportunity of the Talks and the various comings and goings of the Assembly to stir up sectarian tensions, using issues like parades, policing and decommissioning to exploit the uncertainty felt by people in working class communities.

The result was years of upheaval, of confrontation over parade routes, of interface violence. This so called “peace process” has left Northern Ireland a more divided society, with communities physically further apart and attitudes more polarised than at any previous time.

The prospects of a new united workers movement was thrown back for a further period. The political effects of this were clear in the last Westminster and local government elections but have been taken to another level by this latest poll.

Instead of a real diversity of parties and ideas the course is now set for the emergence of two sectarian parties/blocs with a crushing political dominance. The UUP is irreparably divided and its Donaldson wing is likely to gravitate towards the DUP. Donaldson may not join the DUP, at least not until the Paisley era comes to an end, but he may become part of an anti-Agreement bloc, which could be the outline of a new party and which could leave Trimble, or any of his co-thinkers who replaces him as leader, in charge of a Faulkner-like rump [Faulkner was the Unionist leader who brought ‘moderate’ Unionists into a short lived ‘power-sharing’ government in 1974].

On the other side of the sectarian battle line Sinn Fein are similarly set to leave the SDLP hopelessly trailing in their wake and become the predominant political expression of nationalism.

This leaves little prospect of a restoration of the Assembly, certainly in the short, but even in the medium or long term. There will be negotiations involving both the DUP and Sinn Fein. The DUP will not sit down face to face with Sinn Fein, initially at least, but talks will take place with the London and Dublin governments acting as intermediaries.

It is possible that Sinn Fein and the IRA will make further concessions on arms and other issues, but even substantial concessions will not easily bridge the gap between unionists and nationalists that has been widened significantly by this election.

The Blair government called this election even though it was obvious that the most likely outcome would be a swing to the DUP and Sinn Fein, because they had no choice. The term of the former Assembly ended last May and it was becoming less and less credible to continue to meet with, and pay salaries to people who had to be referred to as “former MLAs”.

In order to continue with talks and the pretence of a political process it was necessary to have this poll, knowing that what was being elected was not an Assembly but new sets of negotiating teams. The hope was that, with elections out of the way, the politicians would not have to look over their shoulders and could be enticed by the prospect of ministerial salaries, limousines and the prestige of office to cut a deal.

This is unlikely to be the case. The polarised result is now a factor in increasing suspicions and polarising things further.

More obstacles on the horizon

Meanwhile, Blair and Ahern will hardly have time to assess the damage inflicted by this unwanted election, before they will have to prepare for the obstacle of the next poll already visible on the horizon. The European election, due next June will be another sectarian opinion poll, testing the relative strengths of the four major parties. Then, on a slightly more distant horizon, looms the further and even more difficult obstacle of the next Westminster election.

The DUP are not likely to make any move that they feel would damage their electoral support in advance of an election in which they can realistically aim to reduce the UUP presence at Westminster to two or three of the 18 seats. The Assembly, which has been suspended for over a year, is likely to remain in suspension for quite some time. It is possible that it will never be restored.

Even if some shaky deal is eventually reached, this will be impossible to sustain in the long term. The conflict cannot be resolved through an agreement at the top that unites right wing sectarian politicians while, at the bottom, society is more divided and polarised than ever. The divisions, which the sectarian parties have to foster in order to maintain their support, will inevitably scupper whatever cosy arrangement they may arrive at.

We explained this, not after the event, but five and a half years ago when the Agreement was signed. We pointed out then that even if the Assembly was established it would be unlikely to survive into a second term. In the document written for the Socialist Party’s 2001 Conference, later published as a pamphlet, we argued:

“Sooner or later, unless a movement of the working class intercedes to cut across sectarianism, the increased polarisation will bring the whole thing crashing down. This could come through paralysis over some sectarian issue that may arise. Or it could come when future election results bring a shift to the more hard-line sections of unionism and nationalism and make it impossible to elect the First Minister, never mind his deputy or the Executive.”

There is no possibility of a lasting settlement on the basis of capitalism and of sectarian politics. It is only the working class who can show a way out. When the referendum on the Agreement took place we argued for a “yes” vote, not because we had any illusion that it was going to work, but because a continuation of a “peace process”, as opposed to a victory for the reactionary “no” camp, offered more time and more favourable terrain for the building of a new movement of the working class.

An opportunity did exist but was lost. Instead the working class suffered a setback. Rather than greater unity we had growing polarisation. The results of this election are the political reflection of that setback and of the much more divided society that has emerged.

New industrial militancy

However in the recent period there have been the beginnings of a recovery and of a new upturn in the class struggle. There have been significant industrial movements that have had an impact on society.

The election took place against a background of increased industrial militancy. Workers at Shorts engineering factory in Belfast forced the hand of their union officials and went on strike over pay and against changes in work practices. While the parties were gearing up for the 26 November poll, civil servants had their own ballot and registered a 60% vote for strike action. Prison officers have been involved in action. Teachers are also balloting for a proposed strike.

The movement against the war in the first months of 2003 also cut across the sectarian division. The school strikes initiated by Youth against the War and the Socialist Party brought out thousands of students in both Catholic and Protestant schools. The 20,000 who marched on February 15th were from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

There is also a growing anger on social issues, most especially the proposal to introduce water charges. We have had an overwhelming response in both Catholic and Protestant working class areas to our campaigning work on this issue.

These events and developing moods are like the mole of revolution burrowing beneath the surface of events. They are not yet powerful enough to have had an impact on this election. Nonetheless, if we are to have a full and all-sided understanding of exactly what this election result indicates, we also have to take account of what is happening below the political surface.

Among the working class there is a growing disillusionment, anger and even disgust at all the major parties. Their role in awarding themselves big salary increases, in closing hospitals, selling off services and agreeing in principle to introduce water charges, are still in people’s minds. The spectacle of never-ending talks that never get anywhere has turned people off. These were the issues that were raised with Socialist Party members when canvassing for our two Assembly candidates on the doorsteps in the working class communities of both South and East Belfast.

This mood did register in the election, but only in a negative manner – in the numbers of people who did not have a vote because they did not bother to put themselves on the electoral register and in the numbers of those on the register who did not bother to vote.

Turn out in this election was 63.1%, down from 69.95% in 1998. But this does not tell the full story. The numbers on the electoral register have dropped by a colossal 81,030 since 1998, so it is 63.1% of a much smaller electorate who turned out this time.

The simplest way to measure the growing political disillusionment is to compare the numbers who voted in these two elections. The difference is very revealing. There were 132,363 less votes cast in 2003 than in 1998. If all these people had turned out and voted for a single party that party would have come fourth, ahead of the SDLP.

Even these bald statistics understate the position in the working class areas. Polling was much higher among the middle class and among the older layers of the population. In working class areas, Protestant areas especially, the turnout in many cases would have been closer to 40% than 60%. What happened on the day confirms the response we were getting on the doorstep throughout the campaign.

West Tyrone was the one exception to the overall polarisation because it was the one area where the underlying class anger expressed itself positively – in the huge vote achieved by hospital campaigner, Kieran Deeny. Not only was he elected, he topped the poll with 6,158 votes.

The decision of the Assembly, taken by Sinn Fein Health Minister, Bairbre De Bruin, to run down the Omagh Hospital provoked enormous opposition in Omagh and the surrounding areas. Anger at this decision proved sufficiently strong to dramatically burst through to the political surface.

This victory for Kieran Deeny and the HOPE Campaign (save Omagh hospital), achieved in this most polarised of elections, shows that, when class issues become political issues with sufficient force, the grip of sectarianism can be broken. Even though it is extremely unlikely that Kieran Deeny or the HOPE Campaign will build on this breakthrough by moving in the direction of building a new party of the working class, his vote remains as a significant pointer to the way such a party can be built.

The only other candidate who achieved a vote that partially bucked the main trends of this election was Eamonn McCann, who stood for the Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA) in Foyle and got 2,257 votes (5.5%). That this was a vote for Eamonn McCann, who has been one of the best known political activists in Derry and who has been active since playing a leading role in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 60s, and not for the SEA, is clear from the result of the other SEA candidate, Marion Baur, who polled 137 votes in East Londonderry.

The SEA is a thinly disguised front for the SWP and, as such, has no possibility of developing beyond the support that exists for McCann in Derry. McCann, because of his history, is seen as belonging to one sectarian camp. His votes would have almost exclusively come from the Catholic community.

This, in itself, would not be an insurmountable obstacle if his position was used to put forward non sectarian class ideas and to do so in a way that could appeal to Protestant workers. Although Eamonn McCann does put forward socialist ideas, he does so with a left republican colouration that can only repel Protestants. During the election, he gave an interview with Anthony McIntyre, which was published on ‘The Blanket’, a left republican website.

He outlines his philosophy and his reason for contesting the election:

“All my political life I have wanted to see the Brits out as part of anti-imperialism. We no longer have a “Brits Out” party – it is now all down to an equality agenda and maximising representation within the existing constitutional arrangement.”

Asked why Protestant workers, given the “convergence of disadvantage”, are still loyal to Britain, he responded: “No-one is arguing within the unionist community for anything different.”

These comments, and the language that is used, are both unbalanced and one sided. The patronising idea that Protestants have not come round to a “Brits out” position because no one “within the unionist community”(!) has argued for it, is a million miles removed from the reality. There are much more complex and substantial reasons why Protestants are – justifiably – opposed to reunification on a capitalist basis.

As with the vote for Kieran Deeny, Eamonn McCann’s vote nonetheless shows that a radical appeal can attract votes from the main parties, but the ideas he is putting forward will prove incapable of taking this any further.

Socialist Party election campaign

The Socialist Party’s election campaign in South and East Belfast was highly successful. We stood mainly for propaganda reasons to get our ideas across and to test the response on the doorsteps and on the streets of the working class areas of both constituencies.

We did not expect to get many votes. However, given the extremely polarised nature of the election, the votes we polled, although very modest, were credible. We got 167 votes in South Belfast and 176 in East. All the party members who worked in the campaign had realistic expectations and were pleased with the outcome. We have had other people in the constituencies approach us congratulating us for the campaign and for the vote.

Overall Socialist Party members received a very warm response on the doorsteps and on street activities. We sold just under 1,000 copies of our special election paper, 130 on the doorsteps, a further 450 on street activities in the constituencies, and the rest on election stalls in Belfast city centre.

Our manifesto was distributed to 86,000 houses. On top of this, we gave out about 25,000 canvass leaflets. 600 large posters were put up, covering most parts of the two constituencies. We got a very positive feed back from all this activity. Quite a number of people, including many who were not yet convinced enough to give us a first preference vote, approached us saying that our material was the best of all the parties.

A number of people in both areas have also expressed an interest in joining the party.

The main issue that struck an immediate chord was water charges. From the election we now have a number of districts where we can set up active ‘Water charges – We Won’t Pay Campaign’ groups.

The election has shown that clear socialist ideas and a campaigning approach can strike a chord in working class areas, Catholic and Protestant. At this stage we are not big enough to seem a viable alternative to the main parties. But the work we have done has established a platform on which we can now build.

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December 2003