Northern Ireland: Can the sectarian stalemate be broken?

ON 5 JANUARY Jeffrey Donaldson, Norah Beare and Arlene Foster announced that they were joining the DUP. Their move underlined the results of the recent elections. The DUP are now the largest unionist party and Sinn Fein the largest nationalist party.

Despite this some commentators are arguing that the forthcoming review of the Agreement will achieve a deal and re-establish an Executive. Some even argue that the outcome of the election will result in greater long term stability as a deal reached between the extremes will be more likely to stick.

Their logic largely rests on the argument that the leading members of Sinn Fein and the DUP are competent and ambitious administrators who are keen to once again get their hands on the levers of power. For this reason the DUP will abandon their position of refusing to talk to and share power with Sinn Fein. Whilst there is some truth in this it is a minor factor and will not determine the course of events in the next period.

Of vital importance is the fact that three more elections are due in the next 18 months-the European poll in June of this year and the local and Westminster elections next year. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP will see these contests as opportunities to emphasise their dominance over their rivals.

Barring some dramatic and unforeseen development it is most likely that the SDLP will be entirely eclipsed by Sinn Fein over the next three elections. No SDLP Westminster seat is safe. The SDLP’s transparent attempt to out-green Sinn Fein (for example their proposal to make Irish compulsory in state schools) attracts derision but no votes. The logic of sectarian head counts is always to vote for the most resolute advocate of "your community" and Sinn Fein has the copyright on that.

Losing Jeffrey Donaldson and his supporters may help the UUP to put forward a more united face in the next few months but they still have Martin Smyth and David Burnside in their ranks.

Burnside is not inclined to join the DUP but that does not mean he will keep quiet in order to stay inside the UUP. Rather he will manoeuvre for position hoping to become leader when Trimble goes.

Indeed Trimble’s position is far from safe-a sound drubbing in the European elections could finish him off, or he may even be forced out at the next Ulster Unionist Council meeting in March. Further splits within the UUP are possible or the Burnside/Smyth wing might yet leave and join an increasingly secular DUP. Any review of the Agreement is likely to drag on and unlikely to get anywhere.

The British government will allow negotiations to go on almost endlessly in order to create the pretence of a political process. Meanwhile the reality is that we are back with direct rule.

It is not entirely ruled out that the DUP and Sinn Fein could do a deal one day, especially when Paisley senior "moves on". This is not likely however, not primarily because of the personalities who lead these parties, but because the DUP and Sinn Fein both reflect and reinforce deep division on the ground. Sectarian parties are part of the problem not part of the solution.

As the Socialist Party has pointed out since the beginning of the peace process, it is not lack of goodwill or an inability to compromise by the politicians that has brought us to this point. 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. Any review of the Agreement must consider this reality.

A review must also ask what the Agreement has achieved for working class people. The "peace process" has lead to relative peace but has not solved any of the day to day problems.

A review should include representatives of the trade unions and genuine community groups. They should argue for an end to in-built sectarian voting arrangements in the Assembly, for genuine community-controlled policing and should challenge pro-big business policies of New Labour and the main parties.

Above all they should recognise that, no matter what institution is set up, it will inevitably flounder so long as it is in the hands of the right wing and sectarian parties like the DUP and Sinn Fein, not to mention the UUP and SDLP.

A review of politics here carried out from the viewpoint of the working class must conclude that the only way forward is through the building of a new party to represent the common interests of working class people, Catholic and Protestant.

From Socialist Voice, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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January 2004