By Daniel Waldron
The snap Northern Ireland Assembly election took place in the aftermath of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal which emerged in December, the most recent in a series of debacles which left Stormont – and particularly the DUP – shrouded in a smog of incompetence and corruption. After 10 years of DUP / Sinn Féin-led government characterised by neo-liberal austerity and lack of progress on LGBT and
women’s rights which deepened cynicism and disillusionment towards the Orange and Green establishment, many workers and young people hoped that this election would deliver meaningful and positive change.
Indeed, ‘change’ was the buzzword of the campaign, adopted by every party except the DUP. With polling day reports that turnout had jumped by 10% from last year’s election – bucking the trend since the Good Friday Agreement – some were predicting a bad day for the establishment parties. Instead, the DUP and Sinn Féin further consolidated their positions as the dominant parties within their respective communities and the election has served to more deeply entrench sectarian division in society. There has been significant change, with Unionism losing its overall majority for the first time in the state’s history, but its impact will be of a negative character. This election must serve as a warning to the left and the workers’ movement.
Sinn Féin’s calculated agenda
When the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scandal initially broke, Sinn Féin hesitated in calling for a public inquiry into the scheme and refused to back a motion of ‘no confidence’ in Arlene Foster as First Minister. Only weeks before, the two parties had been boasting about how well their governing relationship was working and of the stability they had delivered for Northern Ireland. However,
sensing the level of anger amongst their support base, Sinn Féin calculated they risked becoming more detached from their heartlands if they weren’t seen to take a stand. They decided to seize the opportunity to recover ground lost in recent elections, with votes declining and People Before Profit making inroads in Sinn Féin’s citadel of West Belfast.
Sinn Féin called for Foster to stand aside as First Minister until an investigation into the RHI scandal was completed and, when she refused to do so, Martin McGuinness resigned, triggering a fresh election. Sinn Féin and their newly appointed Northern leader Michelle O’Neill then framed the election around challenging the DUP’s corruption and ‘arrogance’, despite having comfortably spent ten years in power with them.
They cited the DUP’s dismissive attitude towards the aspirations of the Catholic community over issues such as an Irish Language Act and dealing with state crimes during the Troubles, as well their abuse of the Petition of Concern mechanism to undemocratically block same-sex marriage equality. In a provocative move, Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir suddenly decided to remove the Union flag from his department building. Sinn Féin again set their sights on becoming the biggest party at Stormont, which a widely publicised opinion poll suggested was within reach.
DUP’s Project Fear
This played into the DUP’s hands. By focussing on the possibility of Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party – with Michelle O’Neill as the new First Minister – if republicanism was allowed to outflank a weak and divided Unionism, Arlene Foster and the DUP were able to deflect attention from the RHI scandal and engage in a cynical exercise in damage limitation.
While a Sinn Féin First Minister wouldn’t formally bring a united Ireland any closer, it would be seen by many Protestants as a body blow to the position of Unionism which would quicken the march towards being forced into a state where they fear their culture and identity would be threatened. The DUP responded to Sinn Féin’s strident demands by taking a more nakedly sectarian tone, with representatives dismissing the idea they had ever or would ever agree to an Irish Language Act, for example.
Most polarised election in living memory
The sectarian dance between the two main parties made this election campaign one of the most bitter in living memory and brought about a highly polarised result along sectarian lines, with many feeling compelled to go out and vote to block ‘the other side’. After years of slow decline, the nationalist vote rose sharply with Sinn Féin the beneficiaries. Their share of the vote rose from 24% to 27.9% and they took 27 seats, losing only one despite the number of seats overall declining by 18 to 90. They came less than 1,200 votes and only one seat behind the DUP, who managed to maintain their position as the largest party in the face of the RHI scandal despite losing ten seats and 1.1% of their vote share.
In this context, the smaller nationalist and Unionist parties were squeezed. While they managed to hold their 12 seats, the SDLP’s vote share declined slightly. Despite pushing their vote share up 0.3%, the UUP took only ten seats, down six, and slipped into fourth place behind the SDLP. Their leader Mike Nesbitt has resigned in the wake of the election, his statement that he would be transferring his vote to the SDLP having damaged the party amongst a layer of Unionist voters. The party remains divided and facing an ongoing existential crisis, with some elements being drawn towards Unionist unity to block the Sinn Féin threat – an issue which will come increasingly to the fore in the next period – while other supporters are moving towards Alliance, who held their eight seats and significantly increased their vote share from 7 to 9.1%. Jim Allister’s hard-line TUV also saw its vote decline.
Alternative voices squeezed
The sectarian nature of the election – as well as the perceived pressure on voters to vote ‘tactically’ given the reduction in the number of seats – in general served to stall or knock back the development of forces seen to challenge the establishment from the left. The Greens are critical of austerity – although not opposed to it in principle and without any orientation building people power campaigns to defeat it – and are pro-marriage equality and pro-choice. They defended their two seats, with Clare Bailey pushing up her vote in South Belfast, although their support declined from 2.7 to 2.3% across Northern Ireland.
People Before Profit (PBP) said they were fighting to win two seats in West Belfast. In the end, Gerry Carroll held his seat but the party lost over a quarter of its vote compared to last year and its share fell from 22.9% to 14.9%. In Foyle, Eamonn McCann always faced an uphill battle to retain his seat, having taken the sixth spot last year, and lost out despite increasing his vote.
In these two constituencies, PBP were subjected to a sustained smear campaign from Sinn Féin who distorted their correct call for a vote to leave the European Union from a left perspective and attempted to lump them in with the DUP, UKIP and the Eurosceptic Tories. Undoubtedly, this would have had an impact, particularly in Catholic communities, due to the widespread but incorrect perception that the EU is a guarantor of minority rights.
PBP have developed overwhelmingly within the Catholic community. Their breakthrough in last year’s Assembly election in part reflected a positive and justified class anger against Sinn Féin’s implementation of austerity, including welfare reform, and their embrace of pro-capitalist, neo-liberal ideology. However, it also partly reflected a perception that Sinn Féin had ‘gone soft’ on Unionism and sold out on republican values.
While PBP often talk about being ‘neither unionist nor nationalist’, ‘neither Orange nor Green’, this is not an accurate reflection of their actual political positions or of how they are perceived. Their election literature boasted they are a ’32-county party’ who stand for a ‘socialist republic’, language of the republican movement which would immediately alienate even most left-leaning Protestants. The positions taken by their representatives on flags, parades, housing, a border poll and other contentious issues put them firmly in the ‘Green’ camp and this is how they are seen by many working class people, as well as the political commentariat.
While this perception facilitated their growth at one stage, it meant they were particularly vulnerable to being undermined by a resurgent Sinn Féin seen to be ‘taking a stand’. While they can redevelop momentum, the politics of PBP as currently constituted have serious limitations as far as cutting across sectarian division is concerned.
Cross-Community Labour Alternative
Ahead of last year’s election, the Socialist Party worked with other activists to launch Cross-Community Labour Alternative and point towards the kind of left that is needed – challenging austerity, boldly fighting for LGBT and women’s rights but also cross-community and advocating compromise and mutual respect on the divisive issues. Our three young candidates – drawn from across the sectarian divide – had modest but important successes, winning the highest labour movement votes in their respective constituencies in a generation.
This year, their votes were squeezed slightly by the sectarian nature of the election, polling between 1.1 and 1.2%. Prominent pro-choice campaigner Courtney Robinson won 442 first-preference votes in East Belfast. Sean Burns took 531 in South Belfast, despite PBP’s decision to contest the constituency with their much more high-profile banner. Community activist Conor Sheridan received 393 in East Antrim. These votes were won on the basis of vibrant campaigns which were genuinely cross-community in every sense and which clearly targeted the entire Stormont establishment.
Standing for the first time in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, trade unionist and anti-fracking campaigner Donal O’Cofaigh won 643 first-preference votes, more than doubling the vote received by the NI Labour Representation Committee candidate last year and getting the best result for a socialist candidate in the constituency in a quarter of a century. Labour Alternative will redouble its efforts in the next period to build a fighting, left alternative in working class communities across the divide.
Re-Think and the Labour Party
Labour Alternative candidates had signed up to the five-point Re-Think manifesto, launched by leading figures in the trade union and students’ movements, which was also endorsed by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, which has grown dramatically and moved decisively to the left since the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The party has become an important reference point for a layer of workers and young people looking for a left alternative to the politics of sectarian division. Unfortunately, central leadership’s ban on official Labour candidates standing here remains in place. Donal O’Cofaigh and his election agent were expelled from the party for having the audacity to contest the election under an alternative Labour banner.
Only one Labour Party member – standing as an independent – was backed by the local leadership. Had a broader, wider and bolder Labour movement challenge been made, it could have made a real impact and laid down an important marker for the future. It could have appealed to the tens of thousands who have been enthused by Corbyn’s anti-austerity message. It could have re-popularised the idea of class politics as an alternative to sectarian division. Regardless of the outcome of the current review into Labour Party policy on standing in Northern Ireland due to report in the summer, local activists must not allow another such opportunity to be missed.
A new and dangerous dynamic
Unionism has lost its overall majority for the first time in the history of the Northern Irish state. Alliance and other parties now hold the balance of power between the two sectarian blocs. Some may welcome this development, thinking it will put the two communities on a more equal footing and forcing both to appeal to the centre. However, the opposite is the case. Fears of a capitalist united Ireland now loom large amongst the Protestant community. This dynamic will tend to sharpen the sectarian questions and polarise society further as Unionist and nationalist parties tussle for dominance.
Mirroring the situation on Belfast City Council, it can lead to explosive developments like the 2012/13 flag dispute but on an even higher level. Sinn Féin have adopted a triumphalist tone and already stepped up their agitation for a border poll, which would achieve nothing but to whip up tensions in society further, and suggest a united Ireland in possible by 2023. Serious challenges can be posed for left forces, particularly those with seats in Stormont. If they are seen to fall into either camp, they will fundamentally damage their ability to play a positive role in uniting the working class in opposition to the increasing tempo of the sectarian drumbeats.
Having slipped below the threshold of 30 MLAs, the DUP no longer has the ability to wield the Petition of Concern mechanism by itself. This has delighted many who hope that marriage equality and perhaps even limited abortion reform may now be possible. Unfortunately, this is far from guaranteed. The DUP will be able to rely on other conservative Unionists to help block marriage equality and also the support of the SDLP in blocking abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime. Progress on LGBT+ and women’s rights is still contingent upon building grassroots, people power campaigns which mobilise popular support and make the politicians fear the consequences of standing in the way.
At the time of writing, talks are now underway to try to establish a new Executive. A deal is possible, probably after a prolonged period of discussions and perhaps even another election which would likely further entrench the divisions. However, it is by no means certain. Having raised expectations, Sinn Féin will find it difficult to return to power with the DUP without being seen to have ‘put manners on them’, as Michelle Gildernew put it, and won guarantees of progress on an Irish Language Act, equal marriage and more. Conversely, the DUP will be anxious not to be seen to roll over in the face of Sinn Féin’s demands. Arlene Foster’s position as First Minister, at least until a review of the RHI scandal is completed, could be a sticking point. A return to direct rule with Tory Ministers installed is possible, who are likely to accelerate austerity in an attempt to cajole the local politicians into reaching an agreement.
The next period is likely to be difficult from the point of view of the working class. Working class people will bear the brunt of the consequences of the rising sectarian temperature in society. There are signs that loyalist paramilitary groups are already preparing for an upsurge in conflict, which can be mirrored amongst ‘dissident’ republicans. Whether from Stormont or Westminster, we will continue to face a steady tide of austerity, with benefit cuts hitting many poor families this year – thanks to the DUP and Sinn Féin handing those powers to the Tories – and our healthcare and education systems being subjected to death by a thousand cuts. The leadership of the trade union movement in Northern Ireland bears responsibility for this situation.
Trade union movement must change course
On 13th March 2015, public sector workers in Northern Ireland took strike action against the austerity agreed by the DUP, Sinn Féin and the British and Irish governments at Stormont House. Unfortunately, afterwards, the majority of trade union leaders stood aside rather than building upon the successful stoppage to develop a serious campaign of co-ordinated and escalating action. Many see it as their role to prop up the Stormont institutions and particularly see Sinn Féin as a partner in government, rather than as another sectarian party implementing austerity. This approach has served to disarm the working class industrially and politically and fed into a sense of cynicism that it possible to resist cuts and overcome sectarian division.
Trade union activists must campaign for a change of course, for the unions to use their power to actively fight cuts and support efforts to develop a cross-community political voice for workers and young people. The ongoing teachers’ industrial action for a pay-rise should be developed into a public sector-wide campaign against pay restraint and austerity. This would raise the sights of working class people and bring the common interests of ordinary Protestants and Catholics to the fore, challenging the sectarian narratives of the Orange and Green parties. To continue along the current abstentionist course would be a betrayal of the interests of the working class and make the next period all the more dangerous. Only united class struggle can challenge the rising tide of sectarianism and the attacks on the living standards of the 99%.