Governing parties consolidate in NI

Anne Mc Shane calls for a united, federal Ireland

The results of the Northern Ireland assembly elections showed a growth in support for the two main parties in the power-sharing coalition, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

This is despite the fact that they have been in government since 2005 and have overseen major cuts in services and jobs since then. The Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party expected a backlash, particularly against Sinn Féin. But the opposite happened. SF increased the number of its assembly members by one to 29 and the DUP by two to 38. The Alliance Party also increased its representatives by one: it now has eight members.

In contrast the old parties previously enjoying support from unionists and nationalists respectively, the Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party, lost two seats each and seem destined to continue their decline. UUP leader Tom Elliott was intensely peeved at the results and in his speech at the Omagh count railed against the Sinn Féin “scum” present who waved “the flag of a foreign nation”. The fact that so far he has refused to withdraw the remarks or apologise has further undermined his own party, which is beset by internal factions and rows.

The trend of unionist and nationalist voters coalescing behind the two dominant, most extreme, parties was also seen in the council elections, with both Sinn Féin and the DUP (as well as the Alliance Party) increasing their councillors at the expense of the UUP and SDLP. There is no doubt that the politics of Northern Ireland continues to revolve around the national question and that the divisions between Catholics and Protestants remain as deep as ever. The SP and SWP dismiss this as the sectarianism of the old and instead try to forge unity on an anti-cuts basis. But now we have seen the government that has been imposing the cuts voted back in with an increased majority. Frankly, there is no way the working class can be united without positively addressing the national question.

In terms of the left vote, the SWP front, the People Before Profit Alliance, did better than the Socialist Party. The SP was formally to the left of the PBPA in that it called for socialism. But the content of its immediate platform was largely the same. Eamonn McCann, well known for his history in the Derry civil rights movement, came very close to getting an assembly seat for the PBPA in Foyle. He received 3,120 first preferences (8.3%) - just 19 votes short of winning a seat.

But the left vote was split, particularly in Belfast. The SP, PBPA and the Workers Party stood against each other for the assembly in West and South Belfast. In West Belfast, a traditional republican stronghold, PDPA candidate Gerry Carroll got 1,661 (4.8%), SP candidate Pat Lawlor 384 votes (1.1%) and John Lowry of the WP 586 (1.7%) - ie, 7.8% in total. It is obvious that this pathetic split in the vote was stupidity writ large - and yet here are two organisations talking about forming a joint party in the south. Elsewhere the left votes were much worse.

It was the same in the council elections. SP’s candidate in Fermanagh, ex-Sinn Féin councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, received 248 votes (0.8%), while in contrast the PBPA did a little better in Derry City, its four candidates gaining 3.2% of the vote. In Belfast, however, it could only manage 0.4%, just behind the Irish Republican Socialist Party (0.4%). The IRSP declined to stand in the assembly elections and stood just five local council candidates. The SP got 0.5% in Belfast.

With the exception of the assembly votes in Derry and West Belfast, the left is practically insignificant at the present time. A major problem is the absence of unity. The United Left Alliance in the south, with all its limitations and unprincipled opportunism, has shown the possibilities by gaining five TDs in February’s general election.

The ULA convention on June 25 is to discuss the possibility of forming a new party, including the SP and SWP, not just in the south, but throughout Ireland (the fact that they are still standing against each other in the north is an anomaly, to put it mildly). ULA TD Seamus Healy is particularly keen on an all-Ireland party and it is only right that this should be part of the debate at our first national gathering. That there was no mention of the national question in the general election manifesto indicates that this is a question both the SWP and the SP are keen to avoid. It is the elephant in the room. But this deeply controversial issue will not go away.

The creation of an all-Ireland party would be extremely positive, but it must be based on a democratic resolution of the national question. In my view that is a united Ireland with the right to self-determination of the Protestant majority in the north - in other words, a united, federal Ireland. All nationalism north and south must be fought and our working class must become the democratic class, fighting for the voluntary coming together of the people of the island and the immediate withdrawal of the British state. Unity with the British working class must also be fought for as part of this programme.