Northern Ireland: Another election, another recipe for sectarian deadlock

The fact that the Assembly [local ‘power sharing government body] election is going ahead on 7 March does not mean that an Assembly will be set up first on 26 March.

Delegates at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (conference), in Dublin, on 28 January, voted by an overwhelming majority to back a leadership motion to support the police and judicial system in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein have decided to back the police, provided ‘power sharing’ government in N Ireland is implemented and a date is set for the transfer of control over policing from Westminster to Stormont, the seat of local government. This decision means that the Assembly election, scheduled for 7 March, will go ahead. But does it necessarily mean that the 26 March deadline for setting up a power-sharing Assembly, will also be met? Peter Hadden looks at these issues and also the Socialist Party’s election campaign.

Another election, another recipe for sectarian deadlock

The last Assembly election took place in November 2003 and elected an Assembly that never managed to form a government. Despite the stepping up of negotiations over the last few months, there is still no agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein and no guarantee that the new Assembly will ever meet.

With the new elections the odds are tilted just slightly more towards an eventual deal to set up a DUP/Sinn Fein dominated administration – even if the 26 March deadline is missed.

That a deal is – slightly – more likely is mainly down to the strategy currently being pursued by Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fein leadership have long abandoned not just military struggle but struggle in general. All their hopes are now on making an electoral breakthrough in the south to parallel the electoral base they have established in the north and, as soon as possible, to enter a southern coalition government.

They want to share power with the DUP but, if the talks do fail, they want to make sure that the blame rests with the DUP. Either way, they calculate that they will benefit politically in the south. Hence, they have been prepared to make virtually unlimited concessions to keep the talks process on the road.

From crisis to crisis

In recent years, political negotiations lurched from crisis to crisis. But every time that deadlock seemed likely to lead to total collapse, Sinn Fein "jumped first". The about-turn on policing is just the latest example. For many republicans this is a step too far. A number of dissident candidates will run against Sinn Fein in the election. They will get support from disillusioned former republican activists but are unlikely to make much headway among the broad mass of the Catholic community.

Most Catholics, even though they may have doubts about where Sinn Fein is going, do not see the dissidents as offering any alternative. At this point there is virtually no support for the idea of a return to armed struggle.

Sinn Fein is likely to emerge from the election at least as strong as they are now and may well be strengthened as they continue to eat into the SDLP [‘Social Democratic and Labour Party’ – mainly middle class, Catholic, nationalist party] vote.

For their part, the DUP are divided over whether and how quickly they should agree to share power with Sinn Fein. Unlike Sinn Fein, this is a division that goes right to the top of the party, with senior figures including a sizeable number of their Westminster MPs in the more hard-line camp. The DUP cannot afford a split that could leave them no longer the largest unionist party and are likely to continue to proceed with caution.

Despite Sinn Fein’s support for the PSNI there is still no agreement to elect an Executive. The DUP are insisting that Sinn Fein’s words are translated into action over a period and are refusing to give way on Sinn Fein’s demand that a date be set for policing powers to be transferred to the Assembly.

If experience, so far, is anything to go by, this impasse may be unlocked by further movement from Sinn Fein. Adams has hinted of what is to come with his call for people to come forward with information on the Robert McCartney murder [Robert McCartney was murdered in Belfast, in 2005, allegedly by members of the IRA]. He was a father of two small children and was engaged to be married in June 2005 to his long-term partner,]. They may accept some fudge on the issue of the transfer of policing powers.

So it is possible that Agreement on a power sharing administration may be reached. If so, any illusion that this will bring political stability or a lasting solution to the conflict will very quickly be shattered.


A power sharing deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein would be a deal on how to administer a sectarian division which both parties want to maintain. It would be a recipe for the complete political ‘balkanisation’ of Northern Ireland.

The new Executive [power-sharing government] would be another venue for the type of sectarian political dog-fighting that now takes place on a daily basis elsewhere. This would especially be the case as Ministers would try to whip up sectarianism to try to cover the tracks of their unpopular, anti-working class policies.

Such an administration could not last. It is not possible to say when it would come apart or on what issue, but it would likely leave behind a situation even more polarised than now exists.

A genuine peace process is possible, but it will not come from sectarian parties and right wing politics. It must be built from below, by uniting people in the working class communities around common interests.

A new working class party that can unite working class people and young people in the struggle for a socialist solution must be built. Electing an opposition voice to challenge the sectarian parties in the Assembly would be a huge step towards the building of such a party. That is why the Socialist Party is standing in the elections, in South and East Belfast.

Disband all paramilitaries – Democratic local control of policing

The Socialist Party have a long and proud record in standing against sectarianism and in mobilising workers through trade union and community organisations to end sectarian and racist intimidation and to stop all sectarian and racist attacks.

Our candidates are demanding a complete end to all paramilitary activity and the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations.

The policing structures that the parties are now all signing up to are out of touch with working class communities and largely unaccountable. We believe that the problem of crime in the communities can be best tackled by the setting up of locally based policing services that are properly accountable and under the control of democratically elected local policing committees.

Standing for the Socialist Party

Launching the Socialist Party election campaign, Party secretary, Peter Hadden, said: "We are standing to offer an alternative to the dead end of right wing and sectarian politics.

"The issue we will be highlighting is water charges. Both our candidates have been active on the ground in their own areas building support for mass non payment to defeat this unjust tax.

"Opposition to water charges is the main plank of our campaign, but is not the only issue on which we are standing. The main parties are incapable of delivering anything but an ongoing diet of sectarian division. If they do get into office, they will implement the Gordon Brown [British Chancellor] dictated agenda of cuts in services, privatisation and low wages.

“The new Assembly, if it ever does get up and running, will need an opposition voice; a party able to represent the common interests of trade unionists, women, young people, pensioners, those on low pay, those on benefits and of the ethnic minority communities here. That’s what Jim Barbour and Tommy Black intend to do."

Socialist Party election candidates

Jim Barbour is a founding member of the anti-water charges ‘We Won’t Pay Campaign’ and is actively building the Campaign in the South Belfast area. Jim is the outspoken local leader of the Fire Brigades Union.

He is currently leading a campaign to halt cuts in fire cover that could put people’s lives at risk.

He has vigorously campaigned to defend public services – especially the Health and Education services – against cuts and privatization

Tommy Black is the East Belfast organiser of the We Won’t Pay Campaign. He has worked energetically to build the Campaign in areas of the constituency.

As a trade unionist working in Education, and a community activist, Tommy has been campaigning against education cuts and school closures and against the privatisation of public services.

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February 2007