NI general election: Pacts and polarisation

In Britain, the Brexit crisis will be a key issue in the general election. However, there will also be a clear clash of broader political visions between the right-populism of Boris Johnson and the left, anti-austerity policies of Jeremy Corbyn. Class issues like poverty, housing, workers’ rights and the future of public services can also shape the outcome. Already, funding for the NHS and investment in flood defences have become key topics of debate. Unfortunately, the election in Northern Ireland is likely to see to see further polarisation, but not along class lines. Instead, the election will be a proxy referendum on the binary choice of remaining in the capitalist EU or a Tory-led Brexit, and on the question of borders, with the emergence of de facto pacts between the Unionist parties and between the nationalist and other ‘remain’ parties.

Before even officially taking up his position, new Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said his party would contest all 18 constituencies, hoping to boost the UUP’s failing fortunes on the basis of anger with the DUP’s role in propping up Boris Johnson, who negotiated a Brexit deal which would see a hardened border in the Irish Sea. Within days, Aiken was forced to backtrack and agree that the UUP would again stand aside for DUP MP Nigel Dodds in the battleground constituency of North Belfast – apparently only belatedly realising that a Sinn Féin MP wouldn’t take their seat at Westminster! The DUP will again not contest Fermanagh & South Tyrone to maximise the chances of the UUP’s Tom Elliott unseating Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Green Party have formed a ‘remain alliance’ – in practice, an anti-DUP alliance. These parties will give Alliance a free run in East Belfast to attempt to unseat Gavin Robinson, and also in North Down, previously held by pro-remain independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon, who has stood down. Sinn Féin in North Belfast and the SDLP in South Belfast will not face challenges from their ‘remain alliance’ partners, in the hope of reducing the DUP from three MPs in the city to zero. This is potentially a risky strategy for the Greens. While their supporters are solidly pro-remain, many – especially those from Protestant backgrounds – are likely to be uneasy with such an open alliance with nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Féin.

The result in most constituencies is a foregone conclusion, with either the DUP or Sinn Féin close to certain victors. A key determining factor in the hotly contested constituencies will be the attitude of Unionist voters towards the DUP. Undoubtedly, many natural DUP supporters are at odds with the party’s stance on Brexit – some favouring a ‘soft’ Brexit or even remaining in the EU, while others see the DUP as having sold out by being willing to countenance economic divergence between Northern Ireland and Britain and an all-Ireland single market, even with a Unionist veto on the arrangement, as was initially proposed by Johnson. However, many may choose to hold their nose and vote for the party regardless, in response to the pacts ranged against them, particularly where there is the threat of a nationalist gain at their expense.

Brexit accentuates polarisation

If the general election were to deliver a hung Parliament, the results in Northern Ireland may determine the ability of local parties like the DUP or potentially the SDLP and Alliance to act as kingmakers. The deeper significance of this election is that it will reflect a dynamic which is storing up dangers for the not so distant future. Brexit has acted as a catalyst for processes which were already underway.

The long-deepening sense of insecurity and isolation among many Protestants has been accentuated by the Tory government’s willingness to accept a hardened East/West border and what has been described as an ‘economic united Ireland’. Attempts to impose such a deal, especially over the heads of the Unionist parties, could spark major protests and even violence on a scale not seen in recent years. Significant rallies in opposition to the Johnson-EU Brexit deal have already been held, involving mainstream Unionist politicians and loyalist paramilitaries. Renewed demand for a second independence referendum in Scotland also adds to the sense that the Union is under imminent threat. 

Ironically, the nationalist parties have broadly welcomed Johnson’s proposed deal on the basis that it would avoid a hard North/South border, which could become the focus for protests and paramilitary attacks. However, the Brexit saga has increased the sense of urgency for a united Ireland among many Catholics, who fear an erosion of rights and a copper-fastening of partition. Combined with demographic changes which mean a Unionist majority is now in question, this has led to increased calls for a border poll in the near future. Such a poll would be nothing more than a sectarian headcount. No matter the outcome, it would resolve nothing, but would deepen division and threaten the outbreak of sectarian conflict.

Class anger and desire for change

Having said all this, Brexit and the national question are by no means the only or even necessarily the main concerns for most working-class people. There is real anger around class issues. The Tory welfare ‘reform’ package passed by the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance has seen many already struggling households lose thousands of pounds, and its impact is only set to deepen as the agreed ‘mitigations’ run out next year. Northern Ireland has the longest health waiting lists in the UK, while schools are in financial crisis. Poverty pay and precarious employment are endemic. Young people are being radicalised by the global movement against climate change, while the recent introduction of same-sex marriage and decriminalisation of abortion over the heads of the local politicians was celebrated by many across the sectarian divide.

There is growing frustration at the continued stalemate between the DUP and Sinn Féin, as we approach the third anniversary of the collapse of the Stormont Assembly. May’s local elections saw a growth in support for parties outside of the Unionist and nationalist blocs, reflecting an important layer of workers, middle-class people and youth seeking a break from the dead-end of Orange and Green politics. Whatever the outcome of the election, and despite the complications around his positions on Northern Ireland, past and present, Jeremy Corbyn has broken the consensus that ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity and reintroduced public ownership into political debate as an alternative to the chaos of the capitalist market, which is also having an impact on the consciousness of workers here.

Crucially, discontentment is currently finding an expression through an upturn in workers’ struggles. As well as the recent battles to save jobs at Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus, civil servants, health workers, university staff, postal workers and others are entering into struggle against poverty pay and attacks on terms and conditions. With almost 250,000 members from all backgrounds, the trade union movement has huge potential strength. Historically, it has been the key vehicle to unite workers around their common interests and in opposition to sectarianism and it retains that potential today. Only a political alternative based on working-class struggle and socialist policies can overcome sectarian division and point the way towards real solutions to the questions which divide our communities, including on the border and Brexit.

Untapped potential for anti-sectarian left

Unfortunately, rather than building a sorely needed independent working-class alternative, the conservative leaders of the trade union movement continue to seek a cosy relationship with the main parties, leaving a vacuum on the left in this election. People Before Profit will stand in West Belfast and Foyle and may benefit from a certain disillusionment with Sinn Féin in these safe nationalist seats. However, they base themselves largely on the outlook of only the Catholic community and their positions on the national question and related contentious issues mean they can have limited appeal for Protestant workers and youth. 

The Socialist Party worked with others to launch Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA) in 2016 as a pointer to the kind of mass political force which is needed. In May, CCLA won its first council seat in Enniskillen, a small but significant breakthrough which gives a glimpse of what would be possible if the weight of the trade union movement was brought to bear. In this election, we will be supporting independent labour candidate Caroline Wheeler in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, who is backed by the Labour Party in Northern Ireland and other left and trade union activists. Caroline is a trade unionist with a track record in fighting to defend health services and the rights of carers, people with disabilities and the vulnerable. She will offer voters an alternative to sectarianism and the pro-cuts, neo-liberal consensus. In the context of Brexit and the looming potential for renewed conflict, there is an urgent need to build an anti-sectarian, working-class political force with socialist policies to challenge austerity, poverty and division. The Socialist Party is committed to this task.

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