For decades, elections in Northern Ireland have been little more than a sectarian headcount. In terms of its overall result, the upcoming Assembly election on May 5th is likely to be much the same. However, there are signs that a growing layer of people are seeking to use the election to voice their desire for a fundamentally different kind of society.
The question of who will emerge as the largest party will dominate and be cynically used by the two main parties – coalition partners and signatories of the Fresh Start austerity deal – to rally the troops. Sinn Féin will play upon the symbolic possibility of topping the poll for the first time, with the election coming just weeks the Easter Rising’s centenary, while the DUP will warn of the dangers of a fractured Unionism to reclaim votes lost to the Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, UKIP and others.
The last local and Westminster elections saw the UUP halt its long-term decline and recover some ground, winning two MPs in South Antrim and – thanks to a pact with the DUP – Fermanagh & South Tyrone. However, this time round there will be no pact and the polls indicate that the UUP’s recovery can be undermined by a desire amongst Unionist voters to prevent Sinn Féin taking the top spot.
The SDLP will be hoping that the selection of a new, young leader in Colum Eastwood can stop the rot and end its slow but seemingly terminal decline. Meanwhile, independent republicans – particularly Anne McCloskey in Foyle – can tap into a growing disenchantment with Sinn Féin in their heartlands.
Growing appetite for a different kind of politics
If the shifting sands within and between the Green and Orange blocs don’t interest you, you are not alone. Voters are becoming increasingly disengaged with the sectarian status quo and what passes for politics here. This has been reflected in steadily increasing abstention rates, which are highest in urban, working class areas. In particular, there is a generational disconnect between the main parties and young people, who are sick of the bickering, the backwardness and the austerity consensus at Stormont. The evidence suggests that many are now looking for a positive expression of the kind of future they want to see.
Some will look towards the Alliance Party, seen as the established alternative to the sectarian blocs, whose votes have been increasing, at least east of the Bann. In particular, the Party’s South Belfast MLA Anna Lo – a Chinese woman and one of only two pro-choice MLAs at Stormont – became a popular figure for many, although she is not contesting the election this time round due to racist harassment.
Alliance – unite for more austerity!
However, Alliance is the most openly right-wing of the main parties in economic terms, enthusiastically championing water charges, increases in tuition fees, cuts to public services and so on. For this reason, the party is incapable of building a real alternative to sectarian division. It is no coincidence that the most economically deprived communities remain the most scarred by sectarian division. Only a party which can unite these communities, Protestant and Catholic, in the fight for a better life can begin to break down the barriers and point the way forward to a future free from sectarianism.
Greens on the Rise
The Green Party is seen by many as offering a radical, left-wing alternative to the sectarian status quo – anti-austerity, pro-choice and putting crucial environmental issues to the fore. Boosted by the ‘Green surge’ in Britain, the party is standing in every constituency for the first time. Steven Agnew is likely to hold his seat in North Down and they can perform very well in other areas, perhaps even winning seats. Their candidates include LGBT activists and the first transgender person ever to stand for election in Northern Ireland.
Socialists share much common ground with the Greens and we work with them on many issues but it is our duty to warn that we do not believe they are capable to delivering real change. The Green Party is focussed almost exclusively on electoral politics, on change from within the system rather than building ‘people power’ movements from below. While many individual members play an active and positive role in grassroots campaigns, the party in an organised sense tends to remain aloof. For example, the Greens were not prominent in the mass community resistance which defeated drilling multinational Tamboran in Belcoo.
A focus on obtaining office has seen Green parties enter right-wing, pro-austerity and environmentally destructive governments in the South of Ireland and Germany. Today, they are part of the Swedish government closing the border against people fleeing from conflict and poverty in the Middle East. Ultimately, the Greens accept the limitations of the capitalist system. This has seen them call for the introduction of water charges in Northern Ireland and give tacit support to other austerity taxes which would disproportionately hit the working class and poor, rather than consistently calling for the super-rich and big business to foot the bill.
People Before Profit
People Before Profit (PBP) are very likely to make a breakthrough in the upcoming election, with sitting councillor Gerry Carroll placed strongly to take a seat in West Belfast and longstanding activist Eamonn McCann in the fight for the last seat in Foyle. A good vote for PBP would represent a rejection of austerity and, for some of its voters, a rejection of the politics of the past. For this reason, the Socialist Party calls for a vote for PBP in the constituencies they are contesting.
We must raise a warning, however, that this opportunity can be lost. The history of the left in Northern Ireland is full of lost opportunities, where organisations with the potential to play a positive role have foundered on the rock of sectarianism – failing to take a genuinely independent, anti-sectarian position but instead bending towards and basing themselves upon the views and aspirations of one community over the other.
Historically, the Northern Ireland Labour Party had a mass base in both communities, winning 25% of the vote at its height in 1965. At the outset of the Troubles, however, its leadership coat-tailed Unionism and the party disintegrated. Most of the left has tended to base itself largely on the Catholic community and reflect this in one-sided positions on the difficult, divisive questions. Unfortunately, to date, PBP has tended to fall into the latter camp, taking black-and-white positions on issues like Orange parades.
A perceived softness towards nationalism has assisted PBP in building its West Belfast base, allowing them to win at least tacit support from anti-Sinn Féin republicans like éirígí. Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey – former MP and a founding member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party – has been announced as Eamonn McCann’s election agent. McAliskey is seen as being very much within the camp of nationalism and association with her will jar with the vast majority of Protestant workers.
Gerry Carroll’s declaration that he is “neither Orange nor Green” is positive, but he will be judged by many on his actions, not his words. If PBP MLAs take one-sided positions on issues like flags, parades and the past, their potential to appeal to Protestant workers and youth can be cut across and the already-existing perception that the left and socialism is synonymous with republicanism can be reinforced.
Labour Alternative – a genuinely cross-community left
In order to provide a genuinely cross-community alternative to austerity, discrimination and sectarianism, the Socialist Party and its supporters in the trade union and students’ movements have launched Labour Alternative for the upcoming Assembly election. Labour Alternative will put forward a positive message – demanding that the super-rich and fat cats shoulder the price of investment in jobs, housing and services; taking on the Stormont dinosaurs to demand LGBT equality and a woman’s right to choose; demanding a future for young people and that people and planet are put before profit. Crucially, Labour Alternative will reject the divide-and-rule games of the Green and Orange politicians and advocate compromise rather than conflict on the issues which divide our communities, emphasising what we have in common and aiming to use our campaign to unite people in struggle.
The kind of left which Labour Alternative wants to build is reflected in the two young candidates it has so far announced – Courtney Robinson (East Belfast) and Sean Burns (South Belfast). These teenagers – coming from opposite sides of the sectarian divide – are both socialist and trade union activists with a track record of campaigning against cuts, for equality and on many other issues. They will be a radical voice for workers, young people and equality. Labour Alternative will seek to engage a new layer of workers and young people in politics for the first time and point the way towards the kind of genuinely cross-community left which is needed to move politics and society beyond the right-wing, sectarian and backward morass.
Labour Alternative will fight to:
– End austerity, make the fat cats pay
– Demand a future for young people
– Create decent jobs, decent pay
– Take on the Stormont dinosaurs
– Build a radical alternative to Green & Orange politics
– Build international solidarity
– Put people & planet before profit
Courtney Robinson – East Belfast
– Took part in the Abortion Pill Train which saw the medicines openly transported from Belfast to Dublin and taken publicly in defiance of the law
– Led a protest outside DUP conference against their blocking of marriage equality
– Organised community protests in the wake of racist attacks in East Belfast
– Organised the March for a Future across the Shankill-Falls peace-line in opposition to education cuts and unemployment.
– Served as Students’ Union President at Belfast Metropolitan College
Sean Burns – South Belfast
– Disrupted Assembly proceeding and occupied Department of Employment & Learning HQ to protest cuts to EMA for students.
– Elected to the Regional Youth Committee of Unite, the largest trade union in Britain and Ireland.
– Organised the March for a Future across the Shankill-Falls peace-line in opposition to education cuts and unemployment
– Helped organise major rally in Ballymena against manufacturing job losses
– Spoke on the fight for LGBT rights at the Fight4Equality festival alongside prominent activists like Mike Jackson