Wishing away the national question

In Northern Ireland elections took place for both Westminster and local councils on May 5. The results showed a marked slump in the centre ground of Six County politics. Sinn Féin has now well and truly usurped the Social Democratic and Labour Party as the main republican/nationalist party and won another Westminster seat, bringing to five the number of SF MPs. But the biggest switch of support was from the Ulster Unionist Party to the Democratic Unionist Party under Ian Paisley. There was a 6% swing to the DUP, resulting in four more seats for these extremist unionists. David Trimble lost his own parliamentary seat in Upper Bann and subsequently announced his resignation as leader of the UUP - blaming Sinn Féin for the rise of the DUP and his own demise. The mood of opposition to the Good Friday agreement among protestant voters has obviously hardened. Trimble, who campaigned under the doomed slogan 'Decent people will vote UUP', was left with a Westminster caucus of precisely one MP - no wonder he decided to call it a day. According to the unionist paper, The Newsletter, he "lost touch with the ordinary people and did not seem to grasp the hardening of opinion within unionism as republicans continued to prevaricate" (May 9). In contrast Paisley with his intransigent opposition to any compromise seems to offer safety from the prospect of an eventual united Ireland - or any loss in status for unionism. The results of the local elections confirmed the rise of the DUP and the ruin of the UUP. The former gained 52 seats at the expense of the official unionists and now hold 182 of the 582 of council seats in Northern Ireland. Even more bullish than usual, Paisley announced to the new Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, that no talks will even begin with Sinn Féin until the IRA totally disbands and 'transparent' decommissioning takes place. Even then the DUP will not be satisfied and a probationary period is a further requirement before it would consider power-sharing. In short Paisley is demanding total nationalist capitulation to the unionist agenda. As Paisley is well aware, his chances of achieving his demands are slim to none. Sinn Féin has won increased support and is now the second party in Northern Ireland - a position that was strengthened with an increase to 126 in the number of its councillors. SF has made clear that it is determined to persist with the Good Friday agreement. Speaking after the announcement of the local election results on May 10, Gerry Adams congratulated his party and said they were going from strength to strength: "This result is all the more remarkable, given the poisonous atmosphere created by the vindictive campaign conducted by our opponents in the other political parties and by sections of the establishment media. There is an onus on all of them to accept that the people have spoken and to respect and uphold the rights of all sections of the electorate" (www.sinnfein.ie). However despite the increase in its vote, Sinn Féin did not achieve its stated aim of wiping out the SDLP. It had targeted the Foyle constituency (Derry and surrounding area) and stood Mitchell McLaughlin, SF general secretary and a key player in their peace process strategy, against Mark Durkan, new leader of the SDLP. Durkan held on with a comfortable majority despite a 6.6% increase in the Sinn Féin vote. It has been argued that the reason behind the failure to obliterate the SDLP lies in the unpopularity of SF/IRA among some nationalists since the killing of Robert McCartney. Sinn Féin also failed to hold on to its council seat in the area where McCartney lived - unsurprisingly perhaps, as it has been the target of heavy anti-SF campaigning by his family. The McCartney family are unfortunately allowing themselves to be cynically used not only to damage the republican leadership, but pressurise them further towards the interests of the British and/or unionist establishment. And this issue will obviously continue to dominate. A debate in the European parliament this week saw DUP MEP Jim Allister name three men suspected of the killing. On May 10 the EU parliament passed a motion stating that IRA members had carried out the killing, condemning Sinn Féin for allegedly covering it up, and calling for a private prosecution if the police take no action. SF MEPs, in opposing the motion, said it was ill-conceived. They argued that SF has expelled or suspended members who are said to have been involved and this is now a matter for the police. In the midst of all this heightened political tension it is all the more remarkable to see the pathetic political intervention of the left in the elections. The Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and the Workers Party (ex-Official IRA) stood a handful of candidates in the local elections and polled badly. WP also contested six seats in the general election - in all but one gaining under one percent of the vote. The SWP is part of the Socialist Environmental Alliance, which stood Eamonn McCann in the Foyle constituency for the Westminster elections and received 3.6% of the vote. In his manifesto he stated that he is only interested in 'class questions' that unite both communities and put "emphasis on the fight against poverty; defence of the public service; opposition to privatisation; union rights for all; protection of the environment; support for civil liberties" (http://socialistenvironmentalalliance.com). He refused to address the continuing and central issue of self-determination and a united Ireland, missing out on the opportunity to put forward a programme to overcome sectarian divisions through a democratic struggle from below. Instead his working class unity is to be forged almost exclusively around trade union-type questions. True to its abysmal record, the Socialist Party not only stands alongside comrade McCann in refusing to deal with the big political issues; it calls for "an end to paramilitary 'control' of communities - disband all paramilitary organisations now" - to be replaced by "locally based policing services, properly accountable and under the control of democratically elected policing committees" (www.geocities.com/socialistparty). An SP local election candidate, Tommy Black, is quoted as saying that the "number one issue in this election is water charges" - which pretty well sums up his organisation's blinkered economism. While questions of public services and working conditions are vital, they should not be used as a substitute for addressing the central issue at the heart of the Northern Ireland statelet. The left such as exists does not have any belief in the potential of the working class to deal with this question head on. It offers no solution that conceives of the proletariat as the class that can resolve the national question - through the fight for democracy and self-determination, for a federal Ireland that can unite both republicans and British-Irish under the hegemony of the working class. They need to deal with reality and stop wishing away the national question. Anne Mc Shane