#LE23: Sinn Féin surge, smaller parties squeezed

The elections were a continuation of what we have seen before: Sinn Féin and the DUP strengthening their positions and support increasing for Alliance. These elections took place in the midst of the cost of living crisis, and threatened cutbacks in the Stormont budget. While the main parties in the elections offered no way forward for working-class people, the strike action and campaigns to save services that have taken place over the past few weeks give a glimpse of the potential of real change.

By Amy Ferguson

The elections were a continuation of what we have seen before: Sinn Féin and the DUP strengthening their positions and support increasing for Alliance. These elections took place in the midst of the cost of living crisis, and threatened cutbacks in the Stormont budget. While the main parties in the elections offered no way forward for working-class people, the strike action and campaigns to save services that have taken place over the past few weeks give a glimpse of the potential of real change.  

The biggest story coming out of the Local Elections is Sinn Féín becoming the largest party. In the electoral sphere political nationalism is becoming increasingly homogenous, with Sinn Féin growing at the expense of the SDLP. Sinn Féin’s vote increase also reflects the anger amongst many working-class Catholics at the DUP boycott of Stormont. Both because of  the impact it has on public services, and because it is preventing the first nationalist First Minister from taking office. 

Splintered Unionist vote 

Unionist parties’ vote share was splintered in many areas between the DUP and the TUV in particular, who saw their vote and seat number increase. However, this was the first local government election since 2005 that the DUP has not lost a seat. It came out of the election with an endorsement of its approach on the Northern Ireland Protocol. This reflects the anxiety felt in many working-class Protestant areas that the protocol undermines their identity and position in the United Kingdom. Turnout also shows fewer people voted in Protestant areas in comparison to Catholic areas. This is in part because of the right-wing and often evangelical presentation of unionist parties that cuts across young people’s enthusiasm and willingness to turn out to vote for these parties. 

The Alliance Party also made significant gains. Many see them as the only anti-sectarian option on the table. But unfortunately the Alliance Party, despite presenting themselves as wishing to build a “Progressive Northern Ireland’,’ offers little for working-class people. Alliance have consistently and openly supported policies which are detrimental to working-class communities – water charges, increasing tuition fees, welfare ‘reform’, and opposing trade union rights. 

Establishment parties offer no alternative

The polarisation around Sinn Féin, DUP and to a lesser extent Alliance, was a factor in the squeeze on smaller, left wing, independent candidates including the Greens and People Before Profit. While the main parties present themselves as the ‘champions’ of their respective communities – they are the opposite. While in Stormont together they united to attack working-class people. They implemented welfare reform and attacked public services, creating the crisis our NHS and education system faces today. The last time they could, they offered NHS workers a 3% pay rise!  

If there isn’t a challenge from working-class people the cost of living crisis and cutbacks are only set to worsen. The Socialist Party stood in this election raising the urgent need to challenge the sectarian, anti-worker politics of the establishment parties. We pointed toward the actions of workers and young people on picket lines and campaigns as being the force that can achieve change.  Building that fight back will require conscious and urgent action in workplaces and communities. 

How can the paramilitary scourge be challenged?

The prospect of consigning paramilitary violence and coercion to the history books was a key unifying hope which motivated the majority of people in Northern Ireland to back the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. A quarter of a century on, this goal is far from realised. Paramilitary groups continue to carry out sporadic attacks, but they also continue to exert day-to-day control in many of the most deprived working-class communities, and their threat is growing.

Paramilitaries are involved in drug dealing, loansharking, protection racketeering and other parasitic practices. The vast majority of working-class people wish to see the back of them. However, they are able to attract a layer of alienated young people – men, in particular – who see no other avenue to escape poverty and have a say in society. These groups also seek to legitimise their existence by ‘policing’ antisocial behaviour with violence or the threat of it, creating fresh trauma in communities already deeply scarred by the legacy of the Troubles.

The New IRA has been the most high-profile ‘dissident’ republican group in recent years, with its members implicated in the death of Lyra McKee during a riot in Derry in 2019, as well as the attack on police officer Stephen Caldwell in Omagh in February, carried out in front of children and their families. Insofar as they have a strategy, it is to provoke a reaction from the state and from loyalist forces, reigniting broader conflict in society. The umbrella group representing the loyalist paramilitaries withdrew its support from the Good Friday Agreement in 2021 in response to the Brexit deal which put a regulatory border in the Irish sea, and the growing sense of insecurity in the Protestant community is pushing a new generation of young people into the gangs’ ranks who are likely to be more inclined to go on the offensive.

While they remain relatively isolated, these groups can grow in the context of ongoing sectarian deadlock and polarisation. The continued influence of paramilitary forces reflects the reality that, despite the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, society remains deeply divided along sectarian lines, in terms of the areas we live in and the schools we attend, but also politically. Political forces with a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division – whether Orange or Green – can never overcome it. Neither has the promised ‘peace dividend’ ever been delivered for working-class communities. Instead, we have suffered decades of austerity, cuts to public services, and now the capitalist cost-of-living crisis, thanks to the policies of the politicians at Westminster and Stormont. The establishment forces offer no way out.

Instead, a solution must come from the working class itself, including the trade union movement, which represents around 240,000 workers from all backgrounds. Trade union activists have historically played a key role in challenging paramilitary violence. For example, strikes and demonstrations called by trade union activists in response to a series of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks in the early 1990s gave voice to working-class opposition to the ongoing conflict and were an important factor in bringing about the first ceasefires. This tradition is still alive, with a thousand people turning out to a rally called by Omagh Trade Union Council after the attack on DCI Caldwell in February.

Mobilising the working class in opposition to paramilitary violence is crucial, but it must be linked to a broader strategy to change society and offer working-class young people the hope of a better future, addressing the underlying conditions in which sectarianism and paramilitarism can breed. That includes organising a serious and coordinated industrial fightback against poverty, inequality and for investment in public services, but also challenging the sectarian blocs and their pro-capitalist policies politically. Linked with the movements of young people against climate destruction and oppression, such a movement could unite working-class people around a programme for socialist change with the potential to fundamentally challenge the influence of paramilitarism in our communities.

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