SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 210 July/August 2017

Northern Ireland’s election

Predictions that the snap general election in Northern Ireland would be ‘the mother of all sectarian head-counts’ were borne out on 8 June. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin swept the board, in the highest turnout since 2001, winning ten and seven seats respectively. Only Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon in North Down survived the tide of polarisation based on heightened sectarianism. Paradoxically, however, the anti-sectarian left is also potentially faced with its greatest opportunity in decades, as Jeremy Corbyn’s radical campaign raised the confidence of many people that there is an alternative.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin won their highest ever share of the vote – 36% and 29.4% – and the greatest combined vote share for the two largest parties since 1970. They have further eclipsed their ‘moderate’ rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), both left without Westminster representation for the first time in their history.

In the wake of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scandal which emerged late last year, the two main parties have successfully shifted focus away from austerity, corruption and lack of progress on LGBT and abortion rights, onto the sectarian, divisive issues which benefit them. The previous decade of DUP/SF domination at Stormont had been characterised by growing disillusionment, reflected in consistently falling turnouts at elections.

Sinn Féin felt particularly vulnerable in this situation. Its implementation of austerity and, especially, its decision to allow the introduction of Tory ‘welfare reform’ had damaged Sinn Féin in its heartlands. Seizing on an opportunity to reconnect with its base by being seen to stand up to the DUP, Sinn Féin collapsed the Stormont institutions, ostensibly over the RHI scandal, and provoked a fresh Assembly election in March. The DUP retained its position then as the largest party by only one seat and 1,200 votes, while Unionism lost its overall majority for the first time in the history of the state.

The psychological impact of this result, combined with Sinn Féin’s triumphalist tone and increased agitation for a border poll, meant that a rallying around the DUP was inevitable when Theresa May announced the election. Total Unionist turnout increased by 9.7% compared to March, and the gap between the DUP and Sinn Féin widened to over 53,000. In a matter of months, a new intensity has been injected into the battle for political dominance between the two communities which can find an expression, not just in the ballot box, but on the streets. Controversies around parades, flags and myriad other issues can now take on a more explosive character.

This comes as no surprise. The structures established by the Good Friday Agreement institutionalised sectarianism and pitted the two communities against each other in a tug-of-war. The general direction of travel during the ‘peace process’ has been towards the extremes, with the more hard-line DUP and Sinn Féin first overtaking and now eclipsing the UUP and SDLP. The Orange and Green politicians rely on sectarian division to maintain their grip on power.

When facing challenges from below, particularly of a class character, which have the potential to unite workers and young people, they will cynically provoke conflict over the divisive, sectarian issues to whip people back into line. This is precisely what we have seen over the last six months. However, the politicians are not always able to maintain control of the forces they unleash, which can destabilise society and have a detrimental impact on the lives of ordinary people.

May’s humiliating failure to win a parliamentary majority has placed the DUP at the centre of UK politics, with the party set to prop up the Tories. However, the DUP can face opposition from its working-class base if it is seen to facilitate ongoing austerity in Northern Ireland. Countless issues and pressures can bring this arrangement crashing down, not least organised working-class opposition. The trade union movement must seek to lead a mass movement of workers and young people, including through co-ordinated industrial action, to force this illegitimate and weak Tory government from power.

The general election and the contrast between developments in Britain and Northern Ireland must serve as a wake-up call to the labour and trade union movement here. In Britain, the prospect of a left-wing government is now firmly on the agenda in the near future. Meanwhile, sectarianism has strengthened its hold in Northern Ireland. The high turnout, however, reflected a weary sense of obligation to vote against ‘the other side’, not enthusiasm. All eyes were turned to the battle between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, with socialist ideas being discussed in a way not seen in a generation.

Doubtless, a significant section of people from both communities, especially youth, were hoping for a Corbyn-led government to deliver a break from austerity and a better future for the 99%. This is in spite of Corbyn’s sympathetic attitude towards the IRA campaign, which was only ever capable of entrenching sectarian division, and his equally mistaken ongoing political relationship with Sinn Féin. The Tories and the media attempted to focus on this in a crass and hypocritical way. Unfortunately, there was no genuinely cross-community vehicle for the hope and support to find expression at the polls in Northern Ireland.

New Assembly and Westminster elections are possible within months, and local elections are scheduled for early 2019. Given the enthusiasm for Corbyn’s policies, a window of opportunity has opened to put anti-sectarian, left politics on the agenda unlike any in decades. The Labour Party in Northern Ireland has swelled and shifted to the left under Corbyn’s leadership but is still barred by Labour Party rules from standing official candidates.

In the event of fresh elections, Labour activists must make a decisive stand, even if this means defying the London leadership and acting independently. The alternative is to surrender the field to the forces of sectarian reaction. The labour movement is the only force which has the potential to turn the tide away from sectarian division. All those who recognise that ‘labour can’t wait’ must come together to put forward the strongest possible anti-sectarian voice for those looking towards Corbyn’s socialist policies in future elections.

Daniel Waldron, Belfast

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