Northern Ireland: Elections produce another sectarian headcount

Voter apathy rises in face of political stalemate

Unsurprisingly, the Westminster and Local Government elections in Northern Ireland produced another sectarian headcount and a recipe for ongoing political stalemate. More than 93% of the Westminster votes went to the four main sectarian parties. Within this the trend towards one dominant unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and one dominant nationalist party, Sinn Fein, has continued.

This has been most clear cut on the unionist side. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), losing all but one of its five Westminster seats including that of party leader, David Trimble, and suffering a similar drubbing in the council poll, now faces a meltdown situation. Trimble has resigned leaving an imploding party as the inheritance for whoever will become his hapless successor.

On the nationalist side the process is the same, only the pace is different. Overall, there has been a swing of around 3%, in some places much higher, from the SDLP to Sinn Fein. However, the fact that the SDLP held three Westminster seats, the same number they had in the old parliament, has disguised the steady erosion of its base that has taken place since the 2001 election.

They held on in South Down only because sitting MP, Eddie McGrady, decided to put off retirement rather than hand the seat to Sinn Fein. On current trends the hand over will take place at the next election. The Newry/South Armagh result shows the likely political future of South Down. Sitting SDLP member, Seamus Mallon stood down and Sinn Fein took the seat quite easily.

The SDLP retained its overall tally of three seats only because of the huge swing from the UUP to the DUP in South Belfast. This had been a safe UUP seat but this time their candidate could only manage a poor third behind the DUP. The split unionist vote allowed the SDLP to take the seat. If there was another election tomorrow there is little doubt that unionist votes would consolidate behind the DUP and they would take the seat.

There are a number of reasons why the decline of the SDLP is along a gentler incline than that of the UUP. The revulsion caused by the murder of Robert McCartney, in Belfast, earlier this year, [for which IRA members are blamed] and the subsequent attempts by republicans to mask what had happened did not cut across the rise of Sinn Fein. But it did have some impact. The loss of Sinn Fein’s seat in East Belfast, while they were gaining seats elsewhere, is almost certainly a direct result of the McCartney killing. Even senior Sinn Fein spokespersons have admitted that their vote was affected in the sense that some voters who would otherwise have deserted the SDLP did not do so.

The swing from the UUP reflected the angry contempt with which a growing section of unionists regard this party following the deal that brought Sinn Fein into government. Among Catholics there is not the same anger at the SDLP. Rather it is seen as ineffective and increasingly irrelevant on the ground.

Strengthened DUP faces strengthened Sinn Fein

Whereas the UUP is facing political oblivion with a bang, political decline for the SDLP comes more in the form of whimper.

The British and Irish governments had pinned their hopes of a political breakthrough on the Northern Bank robbery and McCartney killing leading to political reversals for Sinn Fein and hoping that a more contrite republican leadership would then deliver on IRA disbandment. Instead they now have a strengthened DUP facing a strengthened Sinn Fein. Another round of discussions will open again, probably in the Autumn, but with very little hope of any breakthrough, and with absolutely no hope of coming up with anything that will last for any length of time.

Sectarian politics represents an absolute dead end for working class people. The four main parties may be at loggerheads over the national question, but when it comes to social and economic issues there is little that divides them. When they were in office they all embraced the Blairite economic agenda of privatisation and cuts in services.

The real question that is posed by these results is whether and how this hardening sectarian monopoly of political life can be broken? The smaller parties that emerged during the 1990s have now all but disappeared. The Women’s Coalition had only one candidate in the whole election – a sitting councillor who lost her North Down seat. The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) stood a handful and lost ground holding only two seats.

Still, the basis for a challenge to the sectarian parties was demonstrated even in this election. It was shown in West Tyrone where Dr Deeny, running on a “save the Omagh hospital” ticket, came second with 11,905 votes, 27% of the total. Dr. Deeny’s vote could have been higher if he had built on his success in the Assembly elections to put together an organisation to challenge the local parties in both the Westminster and local elections. As it was, he withdrew his slate of local election candidates as part of a deal worked out behind the scenes with local SDLP representatives. Nonetheless his huge vote shows how a candidate standing on a class issue can successfully take on the right wing and sectarian parties.

The need for an alternative was also shown negatively – in the huge numbers who did not vote. Around 90,000 fewer people voted this time than in the 2001 General Election. In part, this is because of a fall in the numbers who have bothered to register; in part it is due to the large numbers who did not bother to vote. The turnout was lowest in working class areas, especially in Protestant working class areas.

This is down to more than apathy – it reflects a total disillusionment with all the political parties and a sense that there is no point in voting as the end result will just be a continuation of the sectarian stalemate.

In the overall context of this sectarian headcount the four Socialist Party candidates did well (see separate report on this site). We received a very warm response on the doorstep and, in terms of votes, greatly improved on what we achieved in the Assembly election. Albeit on a small scale, given our limited resources, we have shown that it is possible to take socialist ideas into every working class area, Catholic and Protestant, and to get a positive response.

It is possible that there could now be a space of a few years before another election. In this time it is possible that there will be massive campaigns on issues like water charges and against cuts in expenditure that will unite the working class communities despite the attempts by the politicians to keep people divided. We need to use this time, and such campaigns, to build a new working class party based on the trade unions and genuine community organisations that is able to offer a viable socialist alternative.

Glossary of main political parties in Northern Ireland

  • Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
    Led by Ian Paisley. In recent elections the DUP emerged as the largest unionist/Protestant party
  • Progressive Unionist Party (PUP)
    Political party linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary organisation
  • Sinn Fein (SF)
    Led by Gerry Adams. Political wing of the ‘Republican Movement’ (IRA and Sinn Fein) and now the major party amongst Catholic/nationalist voters
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
    A largely middle class, nationalist party and now overtaken by Sinn Fein
  • Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
    Traditionally the main party of Unionism, but now reduced to one MP

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May 2005