Ireland North: Timetable for Assembly elections in trouble

Opposition to water charges unites working people

The British and Irish governments are again attempting to push the main political parties in Northern Ireland towards forming a governing executive.

Sinn Fein’s Ard Chomhairle (executive) has voted to back the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The decision now has to be endorsed by a special party conference or Ard Fheis. If the Ard Fheis is held by the end of January, and votes to support the PSNI, an election will probably follow on 7 March. Then, if the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) accepts that Sinn Fein is “genuine” in its support for policing, the Assembly will meet on 26 March and the DUP and Sinn Fein will be the dominant parties in a newly elected executive.

The process is in serious trouble however as the DUP has not responded “positively” in the eyes of Sinn Fein and the date of the Ard Fheis is now in doubt. If it is not held by the end of January then the timetable will fall apart.

If this happens it is still probable that there will be a Sinn Fein-DUP executive at some point. This will not be a ‘solution’ in any sense. The two parties will not be able to work together and the arrangement will be prone to fracture and crisis.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein are facing significant internal problems. Sinn Fein’s leaders will carry the Ard Fheis but their party is losing members, including prominent figures. Republican dissidents are threatening to stand against Sinn Fein in a number of areas.

Similarly the mainstream DUP leadership will probably be able to sell power sharing with Sinn Fein to the party ranks but a considerable section of the leadership is opposed. In these circumstances, both party leaderships are finding it difficult to make the final moves which would allow the executive to get up and running.

Whenever the election takes place, the vast majority of votes will be cast for parties which base themselves on sectarian division and Sinn Fein and the DUP will certainly emerge as the clear winners.

This is not the full picture as increasing numbers of working-class people are turned off by the sectarian parties, reflected in the fact that turnout has fallen over the last number of elections. At this point however the majority see no credible political alternative to the sectarian parties.

Water charges

One issue, in particular, the introduction of water charges (taxes) on 1 April, is acting like a lightning conductor for all the anger and frustration of the working class. Water charges are being introduced by Direct Rule ministers [direct rule from Westminster], but all the main parties were prepared to bring in the charges when they last held power and will do so again if an executive is reformed.

The Socialist Party-initiated, ‘We Won’t Pay Campaign’ (WWPC), was formed to build mass non-payment and has developed considerable momentum in recent months. So far, 70,000 people signed the WWPC’s non-payment pledge (the equivalent of 2.4 million signatures in England, Scotland and Wales).

The Socialist Party intends to stand in the Assembly election to provide an alternative in a least some areas and to argue the case for the building of a mass anti-sectarian political alternative.

The Socialist Party has, to date, selected two candidates, Jim Barbour, in South Belfast, and Tommy Black, in East Belfast.

Jim Barbour is a National Executive member of the Fire Brigades Union and a spokesperson for the We Won’t Pay Campaign. Tommy Black, a school caretaker, has been an active NIPSA (the main public services union) and community activist in East Belfast for many years.

Socialist Party candidates will use the election to make the case for organised mass non-payment of water charges, based on active groups in every area.

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