Northern Ireland: ‘No choice’ election brings deadlock

Socialists confident that chances to build class unity are increasing

The Socialist Party in Northern Ireland has been fighting now for decades to end the problems of sectarian divisions through a working-class, socialist and internationalist solution. Our party aims to build a united movement of the Catholic and Protestant workers based on the common interests of working-class people. We fight for a real solution so that this generation has a clear alternative to the sectarian dead-end of Unionism and right wing nationalism. Peter Hadden of Belfast Socialist Party told a meeting in London just after the Westminster and Northern Ireland local council elections that, despite growing polarisation between the communities, socialists remain confident that chances to build class unity are increasing.

’No choice’ election brings deadlock

Northern Ireland faced a ’no-choice’ election this year; most working-class people found nobody they could vote for. But the candidates that people don’t want to vote for are of a different complexion to those put up by mainstream parties in Britain. The elections ended as little more than a sectarian headcount and the resulting political deadlock could last for quite some time.

Politics in Northern Ireland is divided into two main blocs – the Protestant community mainly votes for the unionist parties while the Catholic community mainly votes for nationalist parties. The two main blocs of these four main right-wing parties now get 93%-94% of the vote in every election.

Since the 2001 election, all attempts to form a radical ’middle-ground’ opposition have been ground down between those blocs. In the 1990s new political forces were trying to develop. On the Protestant side there were the "Progressive Unionists" (PUP) based loosely on the paramilitary UVF.

For a period it leaned in a more radical direction and raised class issues and, in a distorted manner, tried to challenge the Unionist parties from a class viewpoint. But in May’s elections it was reduced to two councillors – one of whom had a position before the PUP rose to prominence.

During the ’peace talks’, the Women’s Coalition tried to garner votes from women. Many people saw it as an attempt to break through the sectarian stranglehold on politics although it attracted mainly middle-class, careerist women at the top. That Coalition stood one candidate in the local government elections – a sitting councillor in the North Down area – and she lost her seat.

These examples show the consolidation of a bloc of unionism on one side and nationalism/republicanism on the other. And within them there is a growing tendency to have one party on each side gain predominance.

In 2005 Paisley’s DUP won a crushing victory over Trimble’s UUP. The UUP is now imploding on the ground and whether it survives outside of a few council positions and an isolated base in a few areas is questionable in the longer run. The DUP now has nine Westminster seats compared to just one UUP MP. Trimble lost his seat to a DUP candidate who is a reactionary millionaire businessman.

Meanwhile in the nationalist bloc of votes, the Sinn Fein (SF) obtained a clear majority in most Catholic areas over the rival SDLP party. Throughout ’the troubles’, since 1970 and up to 2001, the SDLP was the predominant nationalist party. That situation is now reversed and SF has gained ground.

The SDLP aren’t as detested as the UUP are in the Protestant community but Sinn Fein’s rise is unmistakable. In West Belfast, Gerry Adams got over 70% of the vote this election without it having to campaign much.

For council elections, West Belfast is divided into Upper Falls and Lower Falls. Voting is on an STV proportional representation system and each electoral area has five seats. In Lower Falls, SF put up five candidates while the SDLP (who had a councillor) put up one candidate, yet SF took all five seats. In West Belfast, nine out of ten seats are held by SF.

Republican crisis

However, Sinn Fein’s advance in this election was slowed by the crisis around the republican movement. At the end of 2004, Northern Bank in Belfast was robbed of £23 million. The immediate response of the republican movement was to deny involvement. In West Belfast, graffiti appeared saying: "If Santa doesn’t come tonight, blame the IRA". Few people were convinced by their denials.

The press seized on that robbery to try and damage Sinn Fein in the Catholic community before the 2005 elections. The ’peace process’ had by then stalled and there was no new Assembly and they hoped that a reduced SF vote would make the republican leadership more amenable on the issue of IRA disbandment.

However, the robbery’s impact on SF support in the Catholic working-class was negligible. Most people’s attitude was ’banks rob people, people don’t rob banks’. But one issue did have an effect – the murder of Robert McCartney in January.

The subsequent cover-up caused revulsion, especially in the Short Strand and Markets area. His sisters organised a campaign, holding rallies of 1,000 people. The SF leadership publicly disowned those who carried out the killing but the McCartney sisters see this as just a public screen.

They believe that, although people are encouraged to make statements to the police, they’re also encouraged to say very little, so no criminal case can be constructed. SF hope this incident will disappear off the political radar but the murder had a lasting effect in the Catholic community.

It didn’t immediately register in Sinn Fein’s vote which increased. However, in the Pottinger area of East Belfast which includes the Short Strand, SF had one councillor. They got a solid first preference vote but they didn’t get transfers and lost that seat. So against a general swing to SF, in that area they were pushed back.

Political impasse

THE POLITICAL impasse shown by these elections is historically due to the workers’ movement leaders’ failure to provide an alternative for working-class people. Over 30 years ago, during the Troubles, the trade unions’ leadership in the North decided to withdraw from politics.

Union leaders still adhere to that position. Their attitude to the main parties is not to challenge them but to lobby, pressure and plead with them. The labour movement leadership’s abdication of responsibility has created a vacuum and led to the stranglehold by sectarian organisations.

Now experience of the ’peace process’ over ten years since the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries declared a ceasefire has deepened this impasse. Far from this peace process leading to communities coming together, society is now more polarised than in any period in Northern Ireland’s history.

It’s polarised over where people live; working-class communities especially are totally segregated. That’s not because people want to live in ghettoes but people do not feel secure in the current situation. There is also much greater polarisation between the two communities in attitudes on certain issues – the national question, policing parades etc – than ever before.

The ’peace process’ has involved discussions between right-wing sectarian parties at the top – the working class has been excluded. Amongst the Protestant communities people feel that it has meant giving concessions and their position is now insecure.

While the talks have been about setting up an Assembly, the main parties presented this as just a step to their ultimate goal. For nationalist parties this is a capitalist united Ireland which is repugnant to the Protestant community. For the unionists it is to secure the union with Britain which is not acceptable to the Catholic community.

If these are the only options on offer it is inevitable that working-class people will divide along religious lines.

This is dangerous. Northern Ireland’s political map shows that the peace process is actually leading to territorial division, a repartition of the area unless that is checked.

The Assembly has also caused disillusionment with the peace process. As soon as it was set up, the 108 members voted themselves a pay rise and then a redundancy scheme so they’d have a salary when the Assembly collapsed. The executive, made up of four main parties, had no disagreements on social and economic questions. The DUP and SF implemented the Blairite policy of privatisation of public services.

When Socialist Party members got a motion put to the Assembly on low pay, there were only 20 MLAs (assembly members) in the chamber. Yet, weeks later, the issue of ’Easter lilies’ in the assembly led to a sectarian debate on the colour of lilies in the foyer. Every MLA turned up. Lilies appeared more important than a decent minimum wage!

These things are not lost on working-class people. Who wants to bring back an institution that delivers cuts and privatisation and gives fat salaries to its politicians? Since the Assembly was suspended in 2002, the government has paid out £50 million to maintain the Assembly. £23 million of that went on MLAs’ salaries and expenses.

Sectarian forces

Will the republican leadership make that gesture? The IRA war with the British state is over and they have no intention of restarting it. On weapons decommissioning they opened up some arms dumps. But that doesn’t mean the death of the IRA, which continues to operate on the ground.

The republican movement is a huge financial and business empire, making huge sums of money from legal businesses – hotels, pubs etc. – and illegal sources, with allegations of money-laundering. It’s not easy to dissolve such an organisation and the republican movement is unlikely to give up its assets and its role in physically controlling working-class areas in return for a promissory note from Paisley’s DUP on future talks.

Last Christmas, DUP leaders demanded the IRA’s disbandment and a three-month "decontamination period" before Sinn Fein was let into government. Now they want six or nine months during which the Republican leadership would be expected to wear "sackcloth and ashes".

Any agreement reached in the next period would be an agreement at the top between sectarian forces. It doesn’t reflect a coming together on the ground but the gulf separating the communities at present and it would inevitably fall apart.

Class struggles show need for working class unity

Sectarian division is certainly not the only side of reality in Northern Ireland, however. The conflict has dulled in intensity in the last few years – not because of support for the Westminster government’s social and economic policies but because opposition to them has brought significant class struggle.

This has pushed the two working-class communities together and to an extent pushed sectarian conflict to the background. For example, in every all-Britain industrial movement, Northern Ireland had higher returns in ballots for strike action etc.

In the 2002 FBU dispute, support groups were established in both Protestant and Catholic communities. The Socialist Party was among those groups that pushed for a solidarity march in West Belfast.

People from the Shankill Road were able to march through the "peace" line to meet with people from the Falls area en route to a rally at Springfield Road fire station. The area where the march crossed the "peace" line has been the scene of confrontation over an orange march that goes along this route every two years.

We saw similar solidarity on the struggle of NJC workers in local government and their one-day strike. Last year in a long drawn out pay dispute in the civil service (workers were offered a 0% increase!), NIPSA held a series of one-day strikes and walkouts – massive mobilisations. Support was right across the board, which again helped unite the two communities as class issues came to the forefront.

New Labour ministers who axed £30 million from Northern Ireland’s education budget created a movement against public-sector cuts. Classroom assistants are being made redundant, libraries are being closed. A one-day education strike on 13 May involved all non-teaching unions.

These developments haven’t yet had a political expression because of the two main electoral blocs’ stranglehold. But in West Tyrone the previous Assembly (with a Sinn Fein minister) decided to run down Omagh hospital – where victims of the 1998 bombing were treated.

A local doctor, standing in the Assembly elections on a ’save the hospital’ ticket, topped the poll and won the seat. The doctor stood again in the recent general election. Unfortunately he hadn’t developed a base and SF won the seat with 16,000 votes but he got some 11,000 votes (27%). When a clear class issue emerges, then it is possible to cut across the rise of sectarianism.

Socialist alternative

The Socialist Party fought four seats in the local elections. We canvassed all the working-class areas. We’re the only party that can go into both hardline protestant areas in East Belfast and Catholic communities like the Short Strand.

We canvassed every house in the Markets area and got a very positive response. On the doorstep, however, the main mood among working-class people was hostility to all politicians. It wasn’t that people couldn’t be bothered voting for them, they were consciously showing their hostility to them all by staying at home.

Our canvass managed to persuade some of these people that there was an alternative to vote for in this election. Nonetheless, between the 2001 and 2005 elections, Northern Ireland saw a drop of 90,000 voters to a low poll of 60%. In some working-class areas it was as low as 35%-45%.

Our best vote was in Enniskillen, where we got 406 votes (5%), a very credible performance for a candidate standing for the first time. With another 150 or so first preference votes, transfers under the PR system could possibly have won us a seat on Fermanagh council.


One current social issue we emphasise is the imposition of water charges, due in April 2006. The government argue that people in England and Wales pay for their water and council tax, so people in Northern Ireland should pay the same as people in England. But wages here are about 20% lower and people cannot afford to pay up to £700 a year water charges from next April.

A broad coalition has been set up against water charges but within that we launched a We won’t pay campaign. We take this campaign to meetings in Loyalist community halls and to meetings in Catholic areas under banners of hunger strikers. We say that in order to defeat these charges through non-payment, you can’t have a campaign based on one section of the community. Both sides must come together.

That position is accepted wherever we go. In polls conducted after radio and TV interviews where we argued for non-payment, 85% support the We won’t pay campaign.

Every party had to put on their election manifesto that they opposed water charges – after all only 1% of the population back them! We produced a special edition of our paper explaining that when these four parties were in the Assembly they negotiated a deal with the British government. Part of this was the introduction of water charges!

All four main parties have now come out against the non-payment campaign. Peter Robinson of the DUP attacked ’those people who are trying to organise non-payment’ ie the Socialist Party! Gerry Adams wrote to the main Catholic newspapers saying why Sinn Fein opposed non-payment of water charges.

This non-payment campaign won’t be easy. We have to take on the Westminster government but also deal with some intimidation from various sectarian organisations on the ground. But the potential to get across our ideas on class unity and a socialist solution will be tremendous.

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May 2005