Northern Assembly Election: Turning point election signals storms ahead

The 2nd March election to the Northern Assembly marked a turning point in the history of Northern Ireland. For the first time since the foundation of the state in 1921, unionist political parties no longer have a majority at Stormont, writes Michael Cleary. The impact this has had, and will have in the period ahead, on the psychology and consciousness of both Protestants and Catholics cannot be overstated.


The idea that the union between Britain and the North is secure for the foreseeable future is now gone. This ratchets up the sense of instability and tension in what is already an unstable and tense society. Brexit, the near certainty of a second Scottish referendum, the possibility of a border poll, and the planned participation of Northern Ireland residents in the Presidential election in the South, will all act to increase this sense of instability over the next two to three years. 
The “peace process” is entering a new phase. Until now the process was (at least in words) a series of negotiations and deals predicated on the continuity of the North in the United Kingdom, but with much more recognition of the aspirations and needs of the minority community. Of course “Agreements” were always reached against a background of a slow war of attrition over territory on the ground. Now the battle for supremacy between the two communities over the question of the border will increasingly take precedence over even any pretence of agreement. 
The election results have been widely misinterpreted. Any clear-headed analysis must start with a basic fact: all elections in the North to date have been “sectarian headcounts” in which the majority of votes are cast for political parties which are based in one community only and which act to reinforce sectarian division. Over the last fifteen years, Sinn Féin and the DUP have been the most successful of these sectarian parties. They have eclipsed their rivals and become the dominant representatives of the Catholic and Protestant communities respectively. Each gained ground, not by being prepared to compromise, but by taking hard-line positions on the key issues which divide the communities. 

RHI scandal 


After establishing their dominance, the DUP and Sinn Féin finally went into government together after a five-year period during which the Assembly was suspended. Initially the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party were also in the Executive, but since last May’s Assembly election the DUP and Sinn Féin have ruled alone.
In government the DUP and Sinn Féin have continued to battle over the divisive sectarian issues, but have efficiently implemented a programme of austerity. This programme includes cutting at least 20,000 jobs in the public sector and a plan to greatly reduce taxes for the corporate sector. These proposals did not originate at Westminster but are entirely the creation of the DUP and Sinn Féin, exposing the latter’s false claim to being opposed to austerity.  
The mood music after the 2016 election suggested a working arrangement between Sinn Féin and the DUP that was likely to last for some time. The Socialist Party has always explained that the “peace process” is built on quicksand, however. When there is no real agreement between the sectarian parties sudden and unexpected collapses of the structures of government are inherent in the situation.


When this collapse came, it was caused by the crisis around the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal. There was initially widespread expectation that as the resulting election was focused on what appeared to be a non-sectarian issue, then somehow the outcome would be different. There was talk that the collapse of the Executive on this issue actually “proved” that “normal politics” was taking over at Stormont. 


Many young people in particular were looking forward to the DUP receiving a bloody nose from the electorate over the RHI scandal and its backward attitude on social issues such as marriage equality. Significant numbers of young people and workers were suspicious of Sinn Féin’s role in the implementation of the RHI scheme also, and angry at its imposing cuts over the last decade. The scene seemed to be set for both parties in the Executive to suffer setbacks. 
In fact, despite everything, the DUP and Sinn Féin once again emerged as the two largest parties. This seems strange only if the question of sectarian division is excluded from an analysis of developments. Northern Ireland is not a “normal” society and elections do not follow the “normal” rules. Much of the commentary and analysis since the election tries to read the results as if Northern Ireland is in fact a normal society. Some commentators are trying to claim that Sinn Féin’s vote must have grown because of a straightforward protest against corruption and inequality. Others go further and suggest that the results can be read as a defeat for reactionary parties, and a victory for “progressive” parties. Sinn Féin and those in their orbit are very keen to promote this latter view of course, but this is simply untrue.


Stoking up division


Determined to preserve their positions, both the DUP and Sinn Féin consciously “sectarianised” every conceivable issue during the election campaign. As a result this election was the most deeply sectarian in many years. A key weapon in the attempt to maximise their votes for both the DUP and Sinn Féin was the argument that there was a real battle for the top spot as the largest party and both were intensely focused on this possibility. 
It allowed the DUP to divert attention from the RHI scandal, its programme of austerity and its backward social agenda through its own version of “Project Fear”. The DUP launched its election campaign in an Orange Hall and its press conferences and manifesto quickly became notorious because of the repeated mentions of Sinn Féin and Gerry Adams, but the complete absence of any mention of the RHI scandal. 


Sinn Féin widely publicised an opinion poll which showed it to be only one percentage point behind the DUP. The percentage of the vote achieved by Sinn Féin has fallen since the 2010 elections (as has the total republican / nationalist vote). 
Sinn Féin was clearly concerned about this and it is clear that the key reason it brought the Executive down, after initially signalling its intention not to do so, was that it saw an opportunity to recover lost ground. It launched its campaign in a militaristic republican setting (the Felon’s Club in West Belfast to which having been to prison for the IRA confers membership) and focused on the sectarianism, arrogance and corruption of the DUP. There is a much truth in its characterisation of the DUP of course, but Sinn Féin were content to put up with all the DUP’s flaws when it suited their purposes.


Their strategy worked: its share of the vote rose from 24% to 27.9% and they won 27 seats. They came less than 1,200 votes and only one seat behind the DUP, despite the DUP actually increasing its vote by 23,000. The DUP lost ten seats, when it might have been expected to lose 5 or 6 due the reduction in the total seat numbers, and 1.1% of its share of the total vote.


The other sectarian parties were squeezed in the intense cauldron of the election. While they managed to hold their 12 seats, the SDLP’s vote share declined slightly. The UUP vote went up by only 0.3% in an election which was expected to work in its favour. The declaration by UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, that he would transfer his own vote to the SDLP went down badly with many UUP supporters and he resigned in the wake of the election. The Alliance Party performed relatively well, holding its eight seats and increasing its vote share from 7% to 9.1%. 

Border poll and Brexit 


The reason why Sinn Féin gained ground on the DUP is simple: it was more successful in mobilising Catholics than the DUP was in mobilising Protestants. It achieved this by playing the sectarian card. Neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP represent the way forward. Each acts to increase sectarian division and each is marching the working class to disaster. And whilst the SDLP and the UUP may appear to be more “moderate” on various issues, they are in reality in step with the larger party in their community in every fundamental way.  
Everyone agrees that the election result is hugely significant. Gerry Adams has described it as a “watershed” and stated with considerable hyperbole that the unionist majority has been “demolished”. He argues that the result is a step towards a united Ireland. Many Catholics are convinced by this line of argument. In Catholic areas there is a triumphalist mood, tinged with anger at the perception that the DUP still treat Catholics with distain. Sinn Féin’s language of “no return to the status quo” gains an echo despite its empty rhetoric.


Since the election, Sinn Féin has been taking a hard-line, making dismissive comments about anyone who voted for a unionist party. They are promoting the idea that there is an emerging “progressive” bloc in society (lead by them) and a reactionary rump standing against progress (lead by the DUP). When this is boiled down, they essentially view the Catholic community as progressive, and now on the march to a united Ireland, alongside the minority of Protestants who vote for non-unionist parties of whatever hue. 


The idea that a united Ireland is a real possibility in the years ahead is now seriously posed in the minds of many Catholics. Sections of young working-class Catholics in particular will see this as the way out of the grim situation they face in the more deprived areas. This will continue to increase support for Sinn Féin, perhaps for a prolonged period, but if it fails to deliver, or goes quickly back into an Executive, its support could fall away again. It is thus in Sinn Féin’s interests to continuously raise the idea of a border poll. 
Agitation on the issue will give them credibility though of course actually winning a border poll is a different matter. The idea that there will be a Catholic voting majority by 2023 has been mooted and Sinn Féin probably believe their own propaganda that Brexit will make the link with Britain less attractive to Protestants, and that a Scottish vote for independence (perhaps as early as the autumn of 2018) will signal the end of the UK.  

Insecurity among Protestant working class


Unionist politicians are using the election results to circle the wagons, warning Protestants that their future is at stake. Arlene Foster has raised the idea of unionist unity at future elections to counter the risk of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party. Prominent members of the UUP have echoed this call. 


A united unionist party is less likely, but a broad front bringing together the DUP and the UUP, and perhaps smaller parties, along the lines of the United Ulster Unionist Council of the early 1970s, is now inherent in the situation. The mood in Protestant working-class areas is sombre, even stunned. There is real fear for the future. Alongside this is a determination to resist any steps towards a united Ireland.


Whenever the next election occurs, it is almost certain that unionism will put clear blue water between itself and the combined nationalist and unionist vote. This will be partly the result of a united unionist stand, but also because of an increased vote in Protestant areas. The largest parties in each camp will win out, and the Alliance Party will likely shed votes, especially to unionism. Even if unionism “wins” the election, however, it will only act as a temporary break on the tendency towards increasing division and conflict. 

Green Party and PBPA


A real alternative to the dead-ends of unionism and nationalism is required. In considering the way forward it is instructive to examine the results achieved by political parties which are seen as standing outside the mainstream. The Green Party successfully defended both its seats but saw a marginal decrease in its overall vote across the North (from 2.7% to 2.3%) despite hoping to gain from the RHI scandal. The People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) lost one of the two seats it won in 2016 and the sense of momentum it achieved last year has been partially checked.


The reduction in the number of seats from six to five presented the PBPA with a difficulty in Foyle. Eamon McCann came sixth in the seat last time out with 10.5% of the vote. To retain his seat he needed to increase his vote considerably. This would have been a difficult task at any time but with Sinn Féin pushing hard to eat into his vote it became very difficult indeed.


Sinn Féin deliberately focused on Brexit and the question of a border poll and this acted to detach a layer of voters from PBPA, especially in West Belfast. Despite this, McCann actually increased his vote, successfully capitalising on widespread anger with the Executive. In the circumstances, Gerry Carroll did well to defend his West Belfast seat, but his vote fell by 2300 votes compared to last year and his vote share fell from 22.9% to 14.9%. 


The success of the Green Party and the PBPA over the last number of elections was due in part to the opportunities which opened up for new forces to emerge as the Executive bedded down and implemented austerity like every other government across Europe. The results in this election are an indication of the limits of the flawed strategies of each party. The Green Party effectively ignore the elephant in the room – the divisive and difficult issues which arise from the national question. This approach works well up to a point, especially for more middle-class voters in quieter times, but ultimately puts a roadblock in the way of further advancement for the party. It is unreal to ignore the issues that are in the face of working-class people every day of the week. On top of this, the Green Party seek to appeal to all classes and consequently have nothing of substance to offer working people angry over benefit cuts, low pay and unemployment.


PBPA do talk about the need for class politics and socialism. The problem is, however, that PBP come down decisively on the nationalist side of the arguments on contentious issues like parades and a border poll, which it supports, believing it to be a progressive demand from the standpoint of the working class. In fact, a border poll would only increase division and conflict. This one-sided approach works in some areas at some times. For example, at the 2016 election PBPA attracted thousands of votes from disaffected Catholics in Derry and West Belfast, angry at the betrayals of Sinn Féin. In part, this was an anger amongst working-class people over austerity, and in part anger over Sinn Féin’s apparent closeness to the DUP and lack of obvious belligerence on issues such as parades. PBPA offered a vehicle for a protest vote but did not fundamentally challenge the voter to rethink his or her nationalism or republicanism.


Paradoxically, what was an advantage in the 2016 election became a disadvantage in the 2017 election. This time around Sinn Féin lambasted the DUP and sought to mobilise the Catholic population in a clear sectarian headcount. Sinn Féin’s hard line meant that, for many, the idea of a protest vote for PBPA lost its attraction and they lost votes. PBPA is at severe risk of losing further ground at the next election and cannot avoid this by attempting to be more “green” or more hard-line on sectarian issues than Sinn Féin. It can, however, be part of a movement which challenges the sectarian parties, alongside others, if it consciously breaks from its one-sided politics. And this is where it should go, whatever the short-term risk to its electoral base.   


What working people need is neither left-nationalism, nor left-unionism, let alone the “don’t talk about it” approach of Alliance or the Greens. What is required urgently is a clear, class-based, political alternative. Such an alternative must be based in both communities and articulate political positions that unite working-class people. Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA or LA) was established as a broad formation (which includes Socialist Party members and others) to illustrate this line of argument in action. 

Cross-community left-wing politics 

Labour Alternative has been successful in projecting a clear cross-community, anti-sectarian and anti-austerity image, but of course faces problems in putting down roots and building its vote. The logic of sectarian politics acts to squeeze out alternative voices and even when candidates get a good response there is often a spoken or unspoken view that “there isn’t any point in voting for you”. 


Labour Alternative does not claim to be the “solution”, but does claim modest success in building an anti-sectarian and anti-austerity bridgehead. LA is committed to working with others in joint attempts to advance class politics. One example of this is that LA candidates signed up to the five-point “Re-Think” manifesto, launched by leading figures in the trade union and students’ movements, before the election. 


This platform was also endorsed by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. The rapid growth of the Labour Party in recent years is a very positive development and it was hoped that LA and Labour Party candidates could stand together under the Re-Think banner. Unfortunately the Labour Party did not contest the election. In our view, this was a mistake, though there were genuine reasons for taking this decision.


In order to build working-class unity and develop a real alternative to sterile Orange and Green politics, the broadest possible unity of good campaigners and activists who are genuinely committed to anti-austerity and anti-sectarian politics is necessary. Any new left formation will grow, put down real roots, and gain votes if it is a broad umbrella which includes as many genuine left activists, community activists and trade unionists as possible.


It must be 100% anti-austerity, it must build a third approach to politics to challenge Orange and Green politics, and it must be open, democratic and inclusive. And it must campaign on the ground. The Labour Party could play a key role in future developments of this nature. If Labour in Northern Ireland is still not allowed to stand candidates in elections after the review by the party centrally (which is due to report in June or July), then its members have a vitally important decision to make. If they want to make a difference then they must ignore this stricture and start building a real alternative, both in local campaigns, and in every election, in the here and now. 

The critical role of trade unions


The role of left political groups and individuals, and genuine community campaigners, are important, but the trade union movement is key. The unions organise more than 200,000 Catholic and Protestant workers. In 2011 and 2013 one-day public sector strikes against austerity brought tens of thousands of these workers out in impressive displays of solidarity and power. In 2013 in particular the action was directed against Stormont as well as Westminster. This meant that workers were united in a struggle against both the DUP and Sinn Féin. If this action had been developed further it could have knocked the Executive back and achieved a significant victory. 
Such a victory would have had an impact on the consciousness of wide layers of working-class people, and on the overall political situation. Sectarianism would have receded, at least to an extent. Workers in the private sector would have been buoyed up and become more confident. Local campaigning groups fighting the cuts would have taken heart. If this election, or the 2016 election, had taken place in the very different context of united and successful working-class struggle then important strides could have been taken forward on the electoral plane. 


History tells us much about what is possible. In the period from the late 1950s to the late 1960s the working-class movement pushed forward. Trade unionists were involved in a series of often unofficial but victorious strikes. The Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) and other left parties grew. The emergence of the civil-rights movement energised tens of thousands of young people and presented a golden opportunity for the workers movement to take the lead in a mass movement of opposition to both unionism and nationalism and for socialism.


This opportunity was not seized. Within a period of months violence exploded onto the streets. There was a real danger of the North tipping into outright civil war. It was the strength of the workers’ movement, built during the previous period, that prevented such a catastrophe. Working-class activists intervened in the workplaces and in local communities to prevent this happening.
Throughout the decades of conflict that followed, activists intervened again and again in order to cut across sectarianism. The huge demonstrations against sectarian killings in the late 1980s and early 1990s acted as a conduit for the mood in working-class areas where war weariness was at its most intense and made a powerful contribution to the ending of the paramilitary campaigns. Again there was real potential for the development of a political alternative in the early years of the peace process and again this opportunity was squandered. 


There is a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of genuine left, trade union and community activists today. The leaders of the trade unions have real power in their hands. If one or more unions had come behind a broad labour challenge in the Assembly elections this would have potentially had a transformative effect. 


Today the North is stumbling towards a precipice. A political challenge to both unionism and nationalism is urgently required. A left-wing alternative which is a pale imitation of either sectarian camp is ultimately counterproductive. A real alternative must be militantly anti-sectarian and consciously seek to build in both communities. It must challenge the system of capitalism, which is the ultimate cause of the problems facing working people and promote the idea of a democratic socialist society where their needs can be met and the rights of all can be guaranteed. The tasks are great but the prize is greater. The time is now to build a real alternative to sectarian politics.