National question remains

Anne Mc Shane says it is vital to have a clear, democratic platform

The dynamics of the general election in Northern Ireland most certainly did not reflect the campaign in the rest of the UK. Here the politics of the sectarian state continue to dictate the voting patterns of the working class. The division of seats between nationalists and unionists looks likely to remain the same, despite some boundary changes.

The Conservatives are the only British party to have any real presence - and even that is as part of the unionist agenda. Cameron has united his party in an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionist Party. The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCU) stood in all but one of the 18 constituencies. This was Cameron’s attempt to guarantee unionist support in a hung parliament - the Democratic Unionist Party made it clear that it cannot be taken for granted.

Unfortunately for him the plan seems to have backfired. His recent targeting of the six counties as “one of those parts” of the UK that needs some economic shock treatment did not go down well. Unionists are united in opposition to any cuts to the heavy subsidies received by the statelet and its economy. Cameron’s move was also seen by some as a cynical takeover bid. The only sitting UUP MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, resigned in protest at the pact, and stood as an independent with DUP support.

Following the publication of a poll predicting that the UCU would not win any seats, Cameron hot-footed it over the water earlier this week in an attempt to boost its vote. But in his efforts to build the UCU vote he made some rash criticisms of DUP leader Peter Robinson, dubbing him and his wife the “swish family Robinson” in view of the corruption allegations hanging over them. Given that the DUP seems certain to remain the majority unionist party at Westminster, this might not have been the best idea. There may be some bridges for Cameron to build after the election.

What is evident is that the national question has not receded, despite the fact that Sinn Féin currently shares power with the DUP in the Stormont assembly. In many ways the divisions have deepened and become more entrenched. The implementation of the Good Friday agreement has papered over the cracks, but the contradictions that underpin the statelet still run deep. The programmes of unionism and nationalism are directly counterposed. Sinn Féin wants a united Ireland, while the DUP remains doggedly determined that the six counties must stay part of the union.

However, Sinn Féin now makes clear that its united Ireland is to be achieved through constitutional means - by 2016, Gerry Adam foolishly boasted. But nobody takes that centenary of the 1916 rising seriously. And Adams himself has backtracked, talking vaguely about a 40-year timetable, which is to all intents and purposes meaningless. Anyway, the Sinn Féin leadership is well aware that its core vote does not depend on such empty bombast - Irish Catholic nationalists will vote for Irish Catholic nationalist parties to defend their sectional interests within the existing constitutional arrangement. The continued Sinn Féin refusal to sit in Westminster is nowadays little more than a quirky hangover.

Power-sharing has caused major divisions within unionism. The DUP has historically been the most belligerent in its refusal to compromise with nationalists. Formed in 1971 on the basis of opposition to power-sharing. Ian Paisley, its megaphone-mouthed leader, trounced David Trimble’s UUP in 2003 in the first assembly election precisely because of Trimble’s relative conciliationism. Paisley led his party into the 2005 general election with a firm pledge never to go into government with ‘terrorists’ - only two years later to do exactly that. With the announcement of a power-sharing agreement in 2007, he and Martin McGuinness (the most notorious ‘terrorist’ of all) became political partners. They were known as the chuckle brothers because of their warm and humorous relationship. Unsurprisingly, power-sharing provoked deep discontent within sections of unionism. And despite Paisley’s replacement by Peter Robinson in 2008 and a slightly cooler relationship with Sinn Féin, this unhappiness at the ‘sell-out’ has grown. This may cause some slight electoral damage.

The biggest electoral challenge to the DUP came in the shape of Traditional Unionist Voice, formed by Jim Allister, once a leading member. Allister resigned in protest when the DUP switched to power-sharing and is determined to replace his former party. The polls, however, predict otherwise. Allister has posed a serious challenge to the DUP in North Antrim, where Ian Paisley senior is retiring and his son is standing instead. Allister polled a massive 66,000 votes in the 2009 European elections. He describes himself as the only candidate who does not endorse “terrorists in government”. Ironically he stood on an almost identical platform to that of Paisley senior in 2005. He is the latest ‘true and uncompromising voice of unionism’.

Allister’s election would be a major blow to the Paisley dominance of the DUP. It would also deepen existing divisions within the party and strengthen the position of hard-liners like Willie McCrea, Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell. TUV pledges a commitment to the union and resistance to republicanism. Like the DUP before it, TUV will never share power with Sinn Féin - “terrorists should be in jail, not government”. The vitriol displayed by TUV towards SF ministers in Stormont is unceasing.

The recent deal to devolve responsibility for policing to the assembly has created particular rancour and dissatisfaction. Not only is policing now controlled by ‘terrorists’, but, to add insult to injury, Sinn Féin wants to disarm at least some of the force. This appears to be an attempt on its part to appease the nationalist community, for whom the PSNI is just the RUC in a different uniform. Policing in the heavily armed statelet has always been deeply controversial. The force has traditionally been drawn from the Protestant community and has been deeply antagonistic towards nationalists. For die-hard unionists the threat to the status quo is an anathema. Loyalism feeds on the fear of loss of privilege and TUV hoped to win mass support by stoking that fear and taking advantage of the DUP’s compromised position.

Of course, TUV, like Cameron, played on the fact that the DUP has been immersed in scandal, with accusations of adultery and corruption engulfing Robinson and his wife, Iris. TUV wants a ‘return to family values’ and ‘openness in office’. But it is more likely that Robinson will suffer far more for political deals with Sinn Féin than for indiscretions in his personal life. His hard-liners are also suffering - with Willie McCrea trying to hold on to his 3,500 majority in South Antrim under challenge from Roy Empey, leader of the UCU New Force and the TUV.

In contrast, the nationalist camp seems a lot more stable. Sinn Féin looks likely to hold at least four out of its five seats despite damage from an abuse scandal surrounding Gerry Adam’s brother, Liam. Adams himself is certainly not in any danger - he won 70% of the vote at the last election. Martin McGuinness, Conor Murphy and Pat Doherty also seem safe. The one seat that is under threat is that of Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone - important for nationalists because it was the constituency won by hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981. Here loyalist parties stood aside for an independent unionist (and Tory supporter) Rodney Connor. Meanwhile the Social Democratic and Labour Party refused to stand down in favour of Gildernew - despite Sinn Féin doing so in favour of the SDLP candidate in Belfast South. The SDLP also stands to lose one of its three Westminster seats.

Sinn Féin boasts that it has delivered on transfer of policing and on the devolution of powers in general. Adams promises a truth commission and the establishment of an all-Ireland economic and political organisation. He is in favour of the euro, which he sees as helping to drive unity between north and south. He argues that Sinn Féin has an ‘equality agenda’, in terms of education, health and political representation. Indeed his party has won all sorts of institutionalised guarantees within power-sharing. Guarantees that despite the terminology have more to do with cynical backroom deals than with democracy.

There has been one lone working class voice in the north during this general election campaign. Leading Socialist Workers Party member Eamonn McCann stood in Foyle on a People Before Profit ticket. It is a distinctly nationalist constituency, with Mark Durkan of the SDLP on a 6,000 majority. Opposing him also was former IRA member Martina Anderson, who is a member of Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly. McCann is for an end to orange and green politics and says he will fight “for the interests of the working class, the marginalised and the oppressed”. He quite rightly points to the fact that Sinn Féin is now in government, running capitalism in Northern Ireland.

His platform was certainly to the left of those promoted by People Before Profit in elections in the south. It included clear demands to defend migrant workers and for working class organisation. Comrade McCann has a history in the civil rights movement and is known for being an outspoken socialist. The Irish Republican Socialist Party backed him and a number of youth and other community organisation also gave him their support.

But unfortunately McCann does not have anything to say on the national question. It is all very well stating that Sinn Féin, just like the DUP, wants to run capitalism. But it is vital to have a clear, democratic platform which deals with this key issue. A platform that reveals the deeply undemocratic nature of the six county state and calls for the immediate withdrawal of the British government. Unity will not be facilitated by ignoring the central question at the heart of Northern Ireland politics - the existence of the statelet itself.

A very basic demand in any working class platform should be for a united federal Ireland, with minority rights for what the CPGB calls the British-Irish, up to and including secession in those areas of Northern Ireland where they form a stable and clear majority. The only way to really win the Protestant working class over is on the basis of such a democratic programme. It needs to be reassured that it will not be forced into a united Ireland. The fears that unionism preys on must be removed. Also the Catholic working class need to be won away from narrowness and the bourgeois ‘rights’ agenda of Sinn Féin. SF ‘equality’ will be worthless if it creates even more resentment and division.