There is an electoral weariness amongst voters in Northern Ireland who will be going to the polls for the fifth time in two years. June’s general election is set to be the “mother of all sectarian headcounts”, according to one commentator.
Arlene Foster’s response to Theresa May calling an early general election was to tweet, “A chance to vote for the union”. Gerry Adams tweeted, “Another chance to vote against Brexit”. This election will be another sectarian battle between the DUP and Sinn Féin for dominance, only this time Arlene Foster can point to the result of the Assembly election to back up her claim that Sinn Féin can potentially become the biggest party in the North, thus raising the spectre of a united Ireland to galvanise support behind the DUP.
Pact talks underline polarisation
The DUP and the UUP met to discuss an electoral pact with the sectarian aim of maximising the Unionist vote and winning or holding seats from the nationalist parties. Although they failed to reach a formal agreement, there is a de facto mini-pact as the UUP and the DUP have stood aside in favour of each other in a number of constituencies.
The SDLP proposed an anti-Brexit pact which was enthusiastically supported by Sinn Féin. This was a thinly veiled attempt to disguise what would have been a sectarian, nationalist pact with the aura of a “progressive alliance” against Brexit. Increasingly, the nationalist parties try to clothe themselves in the attire of “progressive”, decent politicians standing up to reactionary Unionism. However, it is nothing more than a charade to conceal their sectarianism. Uniting the anti-Brexit vote is spin for keeping the DUP and UUP out. This is exactly what Sinn Féin meant when they asked the SDLP to step aside in North Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone.
Steven Agnew, leader of the Green Party, initially said they were open to participating in this “anti-Brexit” pact and, in doing so, has unquestionably damaged the Green Party, in particular amongst Protestant voters. Many who have voted Green did so on the basis that the Greens were seen to rise above the sectarianism of the other main parties. By contemplating an electoral alliance with Sinn Féin and the SDLP, the Greens have been see to have placed one foot into the “nationalist camp”. How much damage this had done will be seen over the course of the next few elections.
DUP and SF strengthened
The outcome of this election is predictable. It will continue the trend of the last 20 years of the growing dominance of the DUP and Sinn Féin. An increased turnout and vote for the two main parties makes it more likely that there will be another Assembly election, possibly in the autumn, with Sinn Féin going for the goal of biggest party and the DUP aiming to reverse the result of earlier this year.
At the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement nearly 20 years ago, the British, Irish and US governments hoped it would lead to the isolation of the extremes and a growth in support for what they viewed as the moderates. The opposite has been the case. Left to the governance of the sectarian parties, society in Northern Ireland has become more polarised and sectarianism still dominates.
“The evidence of social integration is minimal and 90% of those who vote continue to do so along unionist/nationalist lines. Meanwhile, the everyday political agenda is dominated by legacy, language, commemoration, culture, history and the growing piles of the still-to-be-sorted-out. Barring an electoral miracle on June 8th, or the emergence of new voices and political vehicles with a new-era platform, then it looks to me as if the middle ground is never going to grow to the point at which it sets, let alone steers the agenda”, Alex Kane, Irish News, 5th May 2017.
Alex Kane is correct. If it’s left to the Assembly parties then not only will nothing change – it will get worse. Socially and economically the crisis for working class people will deepen and sectarianism will flourish. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Cross-community, left alternative needed
What we need in Northern Ireland is a new political movement. One that is genuinely cross-community and puts the interests of working class people first; that seeks to unite Protestant and Catholics workers and young people in a struggle against capitalist austerity and for socialism. In this election, unfortunately, there is no party or candidates which fit the bill.
Socialist Party members, as part of Labour Alternative, will be seeking to work with Labour Party members, trade unionists and community activists to ensure such candidates will be standing in the next Assembly election and council elections in 2019. The task of building a political alternative to the dead-end of sectarianism and capitalism is an urgent necessity.
By Stephen Boyd