Northern Ireland: Assembly election produces another sectarian headcount

Political force representing working class needed

In terms of the result, the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was yet another sectarian headcount. The outcome of what really was two separate elections, one a battle among unionism, between Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the declining Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the other a contest between Sinn Fein and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) for the nationalist vote, confirmed the trend of all recent elections.

Sinn Fein and the DUP made gains, while their rivals fell further behind. Sinn Fein emerged with 26% of the vote, and 28 seats. The SDLP vote tally of 15% left them with 16 seats, down two on the 2003 election.

The decline of the UUP, for many years the predominant party of unionism, was even more dramatic. Their vote fell in every constituency, in one case by 27%, as the DUP continued to make gains at their expense. Four years ago, the UUP got 157,000 votes and 24 seats; this time their vote slumped to 103,000 and they are down to 18 seats.

The DUP confirmed their position as the biggest party, taking 31% of the vote and 36 seats.

A question mark still hangs over the fate of the Assembly. There is still no firm commitment from the DUP that they will agree to share power with Sinn Fein. The British and Irish governments have set an "absolute" deadline of 26 March for agreement.

A deal is possible although it may not be arrived at before 26 March – in which case this deadline could well turn out, like every previous deadline, to be more elastic than "absolute".

The election outcome, in fact, makes it easier for a strengthened DUP and Sinn Fein, to eventually come to some agreement. Dissident republicans, who opposed Sinn Fein on policing, all did badly, as did those hard-line unionists who challenged the DUP on power sharing.

If a deal is now done, which would make Ian Paisley First Minister, with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy, this should not be mistaken for a settlement. A DUP/Sinn Fein dominated coalition would be fragile from the outset. It would take power against a backcloth of almost total sectarian political polarisation and would be liable to come to pieces at any time.

What was most clearly shown by this election was the need for a new political force to challenge the right wing sectarian parties and represent the united interests of working class communities, on both sides of the divide.

 Low key election

 While there is very little in the Assembly vote that points to the potential for a new party of this character to emerge, the results do not tell the full story. From the outset it was an unusually – for Northern Ireland – low key election, characterised by apathy, as well as a large dose of scepticism, especially in working class areas, towards all the politicians.

The issue that emerged consistently and dominated the campaign debates was water charges. Everywhere they went, the politicians were confronted with the anger of working class people on this.

So much so, they had to twist and turn and, in words at least, change their position on the charges. The Democratic Unionist Party, for example, began the campaign with a manifesto that, while claiming to oppose water charges, actually called for metering and agreement that the maximum charge would be no more than the average paid by people in England and Wales. By the end of the campaign, the DUP said water charges were a "deal breaker".

However, what the politicians say during an election and what they do in practice are two different things. Significantly, the one thing that united all the parties was (and is) their opposition to non-payment of charges.

The Socialist Party is playing a leading role in building the ‘We Won’t Pay Campaign’, to prepare for mass non-payment. The party also ran two candidates in the election  – long-standing party member, Tommy Black, stood in East Belfast, and local fire-fighters’ leader, Jim Barbour, ran in South Belfast.

Because of the huge amount of work involved in building the We Won’t Pay Campaign to oppose water charges, the party did not put the same effort into this election as we did in past elections. Nonetheless, the votes, although still small – 248 votes in South Belfast and 225 in East – were up on the last Assembly election.

The party got a very warm response in working class areas during the election and now has a good platform to build for mass non-payment of water charges in these communities.

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