John Mc Anulty analyses the Westminster vote in the North of Ireland
A local writer once remarked that the new Northern Ireland reminded him of nothing so much as the old Northern Ireland. This truism was confirmed by May’s Westminster election, which could easily have been taking place in 1955.
It was an exercise in sectarian head counting, used effectively by the unionists through “unity” candidates to force the Alliance party out of East Belfast and Sinn Fein out of Fermanagh/South Tyrone. The end result was triumph for unionism, with the DUP holding 8 seats. The British result means that dreams of being king makers in a hung parliament are gone, but this hardly matters, given the level of support that Cameron has offered Unionism. The re-appointment of Theresa Villiers as secretary of state means a continuation of existing British policy – contempt for Sinn Fein, demands for a level of austerity that will plunge many below the poverty line and an insistence that the political settlement here depends on its acceptance by the DUP, who now have a veto on any form of political progress. The other element of the unionist vote is the recovery of the Unionist Party with two seats, although they flatlined on votes. The result indicates that the DUP will never succeed in wiping out the unionists and that the unionist all-class alliance of the ‘50s will never be re-established. Current stability rests on nationalist capitulation rather than unionist strength.
Sinn Fein played the Catholic card, with Gerry Kelly publishing statistics on the religious composition of North Belfast in an unsuccessful attempt to force unity behind himself. Many liberals expressed shock, but this was not the first nor the only attempt to play the sectarian card – for some time Sinn Fein have been proposing Catholic unity candidates to the middle class SDLP. Of course the whole Good Friday agreement with Sinn Fein signed up to, is based on sectarian division.
Sinn Fein has little choice but to play the Catholic card. The Stormont House agreement means that they are no longer able to claim that there will be a democratization of civil society or of the state and a gradual decline in sectarian conflict. Many of their supporters believe that they are fighting against the implementation of austerity, but they have already agreed 99% of the measures in Stormont. All that is left is to call for a vote to keep “the other side” out.
But the Green card has nothing of the strength of the Orange. The dynamics of a sectarian society are such that it is impossible to unite the underdog in a sectarian cabal. To support sectarianism is to underwrite your own second class status, so there is always a minority supporting a democratic solution and anxious to overcome the existing order.
In fact the main outcome of the election was that the institutionalisation of sectarianism has reached its limit. There is a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, in part because of the unending demonstrations of sectarian supremacy. The Sinn Fein vote has fallen, dramatically so in the key seat of West Belfast. The SDLP have held 3 seats to Sinn Fein’s 4 – a disaster for a party that aimed to have nationalist hegemony in the North as a springboard for a place in a coalition government in the South.
Their support will fall more sharply in the near future. The last vote had just been counted when Secretary of state Villiers called for the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Peter Robinson agreed, saying that Sinn Fein had been given a free run at the elections and now had to get down to business. The hollowness of the election process was laid bare. It was only a sideshow, clearing the way for a predetermined austerity. McGuinness’s response to calls to sign off on the deal was an incoherent suggestion that he and Robinson unite to ask Cameron for more money! The current crisis is a search for cover for his party, but austerity will be imposed in any case, without their formal agreement if necessary.
Peak Sinn Fein
The election marks a watershed. We have had peak Sinn Fein and a growing realization of the disaster the Stormont administration represents for workers. In the short term that means more reaction, but it is also true that the barricade that Sinn Fein presents to the advance of a working class movement must be removed.
The new round of austerity will hit harder in the North of Ireland than anywhere else. The Stormont parties have racked up extra charges and the measures will apply in a very short timeframe to areas suffering multiple deprivation. 20,000 public sector jobs are to go with the insane idea that what passes locally for private industry will take up the slack.
The major loser was trade union credibility. The local trade unions called a truce while they waited for Labour to be elected. Local politicians (Sinn Fein) were to intercede for them. Now they are without a strategy.
It is an extremely dangerous situation. The new austerity measures, with the extra cuts in the Tory manifesto and the possibility of even further cuts if corporation tax is reduced, will hit like a lightning bolt. There will inevitably be social unrest. There will be desperation within Sinn Fein, seeing their entry into southern government slipping away. In the DUP there is vicious infighting, with Robinson forming a laager of loyal supporters and excluding conspirators further to the right.
However, in the absence of a coherent socialist current opposed to all the aspects of Stormont House, the attack dog of sectarianism is at heel to divide the working class further and suppress the possibility of a united fightback.