After the European elections

What way forward for the working class in Northern Ireland? 23 June 2009 As far as the media was concerned the story of the Northern Ireland Euro election was the 66,000 votes for Jim Allister and his Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

There is no doubt that Allister’s vote is extremely significant. Having split from the DUP in opposition to the power sharing deal with Sinn Fein, his entire campaign was a political broadside against his former party colleagues.

Although the nearly 14% of first preference votes cast for Allister were not enough to get him elected, they were enough to deliver a stunning blow to the DUP and, in the process, to also hang a huge question mark over the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In her literature, Diane Dodds, the DUP candidate described herself as “the only unionist candidate who can top the poll. In the event the DUP vote almost exactly halved; down from 175,761% (32%) in the 2004 election to 88,346 (18%) this time.  She finished a poor second, trailing Sinn Fein by some 40,000 votes. Worse, as the transfers from eliminated candidates were counted, she was overtaken by her Ulster Unionist rival, Jim Nicholson and only managed to scrape home, taking the third and final seat.

The fact that the split unionist vote has allowed Sinn Fein to replace the DUP as the largest party has – understandably – grabbed the headlines. The real story of the election, however, was not the Allister vote, it was the huge number who did not bother to vote for any of the candidates. The fact that, for decades, elections in Northern Ireland have been reduced to sectarian headcounts means that turnouts tend to be relatively high as people are encouraged to vote to “keep the other side out”. This time however the familiar sectarian battle cries of the main parties had less of an impact. More than 90% of those who did vote plumped for one or other of the sectarian parties. But the biggest single bloc was those who declared “a plague on all your houses” and didn’t bother to vote at all.

The 42.8% turnout is extremely low by Northern Ireland standards. The 489,000 who voted were “outpolled” by the 753,000 registered electors who stayed at home. The turnout was lowest in working class areas, especially in Protestant working class areas. This puts the Allister vote in a truer perspective. His campaign did not arouse either enough interest or enthusiasm to persuade working class people to turn out in any significant numbers.

Across Europe there was a similar picture and for the same reasons. There was the lowest poll in any European election so far – down from a 62% turnout in the first election in 1979 to 43% this time. The results did not reflect a shift of opinion to the right as many commentators have claimed. Rather, in the main, those who did vote voted against whatever party was in power, whether they were the more traditional conservative/right wing parties or the social democratic brand of the same thing.

But overall a majority of potential voters recorded their disillusionment at all the establishment parties by abstaining.

In Northern Ireland the four main parties are in power and, despite their differences on the national question, they have all been as one in implementing the same right wing economic agenda as their counterparts across Europe.

The disappointment and anger felt by working class people who once looked to these parties and to the Assembly has been massively reinforced by the revelations of sleaze and corruption that have sent shock waves through the political establishment in Britain. It is not only MPs from the main parties in Britain who have been systematically milking the Westminster expense system. Northern Ireland MPs and MLAs have also been ratcheting up their expense claims for Westminster and for the Assembly. For many, being an MLA is a family business. First Minister Peter Robinson and his MP wife Iris – the “Swish family Robinson” as they are now commonly known – earn some £570,000 per year in salary and allowances. They employ four family members to run their parliamentary offices. Finding it hard to get by on their ministerial and MP salaries, they have claimed between them £30,000 in meal allowances over the last four years. Each of them have claimed more in a single week for food than an unemployed person gets to live on.

In Britain and in a number of European countries the weakness of the left meant that the far right were able to capitalise, to a degree, on the economic crisis and the mounting anger at the political establishment. Similarly, Jim Allister attempted to portray himself as a figure standing outside the political mainstream – “the candidate the political establishment parties want to stop”.  Conveniently forgetful of the five years he has spent quietly supping on the European gravy train, he combined his broadsides about “terrorists in government” with populist rhetoric about sleaze and corruption. There is no doubt that his assault on the “keep it in the family” approach of the Robinson, Dodds and Paisley political dynasties that dominate the DUP struck a chord, especially in Protestant working class areas.
Certainly the DUP suffered the biggest blow, but the Euro results left none of the main parties with anything to crow about. The nine percent drop in turn out on the last election hit all four of the main parties, all of whom polled less votes this time.

Sinn Fein may have topped the poll for the first time, but they did so thanks to the three-way division of the unionist vote, not because of an improved performance on their part. 18,000 fewer people voted for them this time than in 2004.

The Ulster Unionists – now partially merged with the Tory party and with a new mouthful of a name, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists, New Force (UCUNF) – may have made up ground on the DUP but again this was only because of the split vote. Following the collapse of the Trimble led power sharing administration the Ulster Unionists have been in political meltdown. From their side the link up with the Tories – which has not gone down universally well even in their senior ranks – was in the hope that the Cameron factor might save them from oblivion.

The European result will not give them much encouragement. Although their candidate eventually took the second European seat, their first preference vote was 8,000 down on 2004. If there is an early general election it is most likely that the Tories will be returned. The recent comment by the Shadow Chancellor, George Osbourne, that “after three months in power we will be the most unpopular government since the war” will not give much comfort to the embattled UCUNF.

The SDLP increased their percentage vote by a marginal 0.3%, but this was with 9,000 less votes than they polled in 2004. They still finished last in the battle between the four major parties; 10 percentage points behind Sinn Fein and only 2% ahead of Allister’s TUV. Their hopes that the split in unionism would gift them a seat were dashed and the election result has done nothing to reverse their drift towards the political periphery.

The results were a blow, not just to the four major sectarian parties, but to the power sharing administration and to the long term future of the Assembly. The mauling given to New Labour – already reeling from the expenses fall out and then ending up as the third party behind UKIP with only 15% of the vote – has left the Brown premiership fatally wounded and brought forward the prospect of an early Westminster election.

It is likely that the next time people in Northern Ireland vote it will be in a Westminster poll. Jim Allister has already announced that he will stand against Ian Paisley junior for the North Antrim seat that has been held by his father for almost four decades.

On current trends, there is every chance that Allister could win that seat. If he does he would be doing to the Paisley dynasty what Ian Paisley senior did to the then aristrocratic unionist establishment when he stood on a Protestant Unionist ticket and took North Antrim from them in 1970. This would be a massive blow to the DUP and would have major repercussions for the future of the Assembly.

The fact that Assembly elections – and elections to the revamped local authorities – are due in 2011 spells further trouble for the main parties. The outcome of these elections could put the continued existence of any form of power sharing Executive in doubt.

If the European results were to be repeated in an Assembly poll – and provided the Assembly survived the initial shock – Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness could find himself the First Minister while the DUP would be forced to nominate someone to act as his bag carrier, rather than the other way round as now.
Allister has threatened to stand candidates and then boycott the Assembly, making a nationalist majority even more likely and most probably sealing the Assembly’s fate in the process.

The current volatile and unstable period means it is necessary always to be prepared for the unexpected – but it is still hard to envisage a set of circumstances that would rescue the DUP and prevent Sinn Fein becoming the biggest party in the next round of elections.

The DUP may follow their most natural instincts and try to out-Allister Allister. But if they were to succeed in whipping up sectarian tensions – while, at the same time, continuing to sit in government with Sinn Fein – it is Allister who would likely benefit most.

Or, if they try to shore up the Assembly by trying to cool tensions and nestling closer to Sinn Fein they will just succeed in providing more ammunition for the TUV to fire at them. For the DUP it is a matter of heads they win, tails we lose.

Another possibility is that the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister could force a further realignment within Unionism. Had the Tories not intervened and linked up with the Ulster Unionists it is likely that a section of that party would eventually have followed the Donaldson course and wound its way into a reconstituted, less clerical, less Paisleyite DUP. In turn a section of the DUP old guard might have gone in the opposite direction; towards the Allister camp. A new fault line could have developed separating those unionists who support power sharing on the one side from a rejectionist, “Ulster still says No” group on the other.

Ironically David Cameron’s intervention – aimed at throwing a lifeline to the Ulster Unionists and changing the Tories’ image as a party of the home counties and the shires – could have the effect of throwing a spanner in the peace process, making it more difficult for unionism to reshape itself and keep its nose ahead of Sinn Fein. A couple of years of Tory government might rescue this situation by making it impossible for any party to both maintain links with them and retain any significant electoral base. But, by this stage, the 2011 elections may have passed and the damage been done.

Nor can the DUP hold much hope that republican dissidents will come to their aid by doing to Sinn Fein what Allister has done to them. Although the dissidents have no electoral base at the moment there is no doubt that, in the absence of any better alternative, a section of Sinn Fein’s support, especially in the most hardline areas, is seeping in their direction. They may be able to build an electoral base in some areas and knock a few percent off Sinn Fein’s support, but there is little or no prospect of them being in a position to deliver an Allister size blow against Sinn Fein. In any case any dramatic decline in Sinn Fein’s vote would only mean that the power sharing agreement would start to unravel from two sides, not just one.

What is clear from all of this is the fragility of the structures that were set up through the Good Friday agreement, at St Andrews and in all the wheeling and dealing that followed. When Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to share power and old enemies, Paisley and McGuinness, settled down to a good buddies relationship, most political pundits were quick to pronounce this the closing paragraph of the final chapter of the Troubles.

The Socialist Party all along has resisted this view. The peace process was brought into being and sustained by a combination of war weariness on the part of the combatants on one side and the resistance of the working class to the killings on the other. The mass rallies organised through the unions which brought tens of thousands of workers, Catholic and Protestant, onto the streets demanding a halt to all killings, were a decisive factor.

There was an opportunity in the early 90s to develop this mass movement in a political direction, and to build a new party to represent the united interest of the working class. Had this been done a genuine peace process could have been developed from below, uniting workers in the workplaces and the communities in a common struggle against sectarianism and also against poverty and exploitation.

The refusal of the trade union leadership to even contemplate such a step, plus the weakness of the genuine forces of the left at that time, meant that this opportunity was missed. The peace process was left in the hands of the various sectarian forces that had been thrown up during the Troubles.
If war is the continuation of politics by other means, a peace process led by these forces is no more than the continuation of conflict by political, and not always peaceful, means. The years following the paramilitary ceasefires saw the sectarians on both sides deliberately whip up sectarian tensions in order to try to gain an advantage for themselves. The result was a dramatic escalation, not a diminution, of the conflict.

Eventually there was an agreement at the top; but one that was and is based on a widening of the sectarian gulf that runs through society and that separates working class communities in particular. The power sharing deal eventually concocted by Sinn Fein and the DUP is based on two fundamental premises: first, that society must and will forever be divided on sectarian lines and second, that the sectarian forces that represent, reflect and maintain this division must forever be in power.

This “peace process” is of a very different character to the mass movements of workers that were key in bringing a halt to the paramilitary campaigns. The initial “peace process from below” brought people together and pointed instinctively towards a solution. The other, the one we have ended up with, is based on the opposite idea – that people must remain divided, that sectarianism cannot be overcome and, therefore, that there can never be a solution.

Any deal based on a permanent and institutionalised sectarian carve up is fundamentally flawed – as the euro results and other recent developments have shown. Power sharing requires that people remain divided and continue to vote along sectarian lines. Otherwise the sectarian parties would lose their grip and the whole arrangement would come to pieces.

To keep people voting along sectarian lines – and to divert attention from their right wing social and economic policies – they have to continually stir the sectarian pot. If they stir too hard they risk bringing the power sharing deal, and, with it, the Assembly, crashing around their heads. But if they play down the divisions between them and instead project more of the Paisley/McGuinness “Chuckle Brothers” image, they risk being outflanked by the emergence of new sectarian forces able to undermine them.

For power sharing to survive they have the ultimately impossible task of stirring the pot just enough to keep people divided but not enough to provoke a backlash that would bring them down. The long, arduous, crisis ridden years of stop/start politics that has been the “peace process” is the result.

The peace process came about and has continued in its current distorted form because the temperature of the conflict cooled – not because anything has been resolved. A decade and a half on from the paramilitary ceasefires we have a tenuous power sharing government that survives in a state of permanent paralysis and whose frail and fragile character was well exposed by the European election results.

The Assembly Executive presides over a community that is, if anything, more polarised and more divided than it was at the time of the ceasefires. Not a single one of the peace walls and barriers that form sectarian scars around working class communities in Belfast have come down since that time. More have been built – a recent count put the number in the city at 88 – and many existing ones have been heightened.

Sectarian incidents are on the rise. The starkest recent example was the murder of Catholic community worker, Kevin McDaid in Coleraine in May. He was savagely kicked to death when he attempted to rescue a neighbour who was being attacked by a loyalist mob.

But this attack unfortunately was not an isolated incident. In 2007-8 there were 1,584 reported sectarian incidents. In 2008-9 the figure was 1,595. These are incidents that have been reported to the police. Many more, perhaps a majority, go unreported.

Small wonder that Peter Shirlow, a Belfast academic who has compiled these and other useful figures showing that sectarian attitudes have deepened and hardened during the “peace process”, recently commented that tensions that had cooled for a period are now heightening again.

All of this represents a very real threat to the working class movement. There is widespread disillusionment with all the forces – political and paramilitary – that were thrown up during the Troubles. The paramilitary groups no longer have the authority they once had. The antics of the main political parties in the Assembly has begun to erode the base of support they once enjoyed in working class communities.

A huge vacuum has opened up. The future of Northern Ireland will be determined by what forces eventually emerge to fill this vacuum.

If, over a period, the labour movement does not succeed in providing a political vehicle that can express the anger of working class people, Catholic and Protestant, it is possible that much of that anger will find a sectarian outlet.

The vote for Jim Allister and his TUV gives a foretaste of what can happen. While Allister has no political alternative to power sharing and no idea what to do if the Assembly were to fall, the political paralysis that he may help bring about can stir up new and even more hardline and confrontational forces.

The dissident republican groups are isolated and, in all probability, deeply infiltrated by the state. Among the mass of the Catholic population there is no mood, at the moment, for a return to armed struggle.

This is not to say that these groups have no base of support whatsoever. Some Catholic areas – especially parts of North Armagh and North Antrim where sectarianism has become entrenched – have seen a marked increase in dissident activity. Ominously there is clear evidence of a growth in support for some of these groups among Catholic youth in a number of areas.

If, in the absence of a class alternative, these forces were to develop and there was a return to open conflict, this would not simply take the form of a re-run of what happened during the seventies and eighties. The Troubles always had a sectarian edge but, in Catholic areas at least, it also had the character of a conflict with the State. This time it would be of a much more nakedly sectarian character from the outset. The Troubles began as an uprising of Catholic youth in urban areas against the injustices of the Unionist state. Today it is areas like North Antrim, that were only lightly touched by the violence of the seventies and eighties, and where there is a growing Catholic population that will not accept the heads down attitude of this area in the past, that could provide a new epicentre of conflict. If this were to happen what would develop would be closer to a Bosnia than to what happened in Derry forty years ago.

This is not an immediate prospect. At this stage the balance of forces is tilted away from those who would like to see a return to the Troubles in some form. The killing of two soldiers and a policeman by dissident republicans earlier this year was met with revulsion and by the sizeable demonstration at Belfast City Hall called by the trade unions.

The weakness of the trade unions in North Antrim meant that the murder of Kevin McDaid went unanswered by similar protests – apart from a small rally organised by community workers in Belfast. Nonetheless it is most likely that further sectarian killings or any repeat of the atrocities that were carried out in the past would provoke a counter movement of opposition by working class people.

The resistance of the working class – especially of the generation who lived through the Troubles – is the decisive factor that makes any sustained resumption of armed combat unlikely in the short term. But if, on the other hand, the broad labour movement does not provide a class answer to the worsening problems of unemployment, the cuts to public services, and the increasing levels of poverty – or if the resistance of workers to sectarian violence is somehow broken – a return to the Troubles, but worse, will become the most likely outcome.

The vacuum that has opened presents a danger but also provides an historic opportunity for the labour movement to build an alternative. Anger at the effects of the recession and at the inability of the main parties to show any way out has expressed itself in part in an increase in sectarian incidents and attacks. In the main, though, it has expressed itself in an upturn in class struggle.

Important industrial and social movements have taken place in which the power and the unity of the working class has been clearly shown. The opposition to water charges, initiated and organised by the Socialist Party led We Won’t Pay Campaign (WWPC), cut right through the sectarian division, uniting working class communities. Because of the work done by the WWPC the politicians were left in no doubt that the introduction of these charges would be met by mass non-payment. They had no option but to postpone, re-postpone and now, effectively, to scrap all plans to bring them in.

Although the economic downturn has had a certain stunning effect on the working class, there have nonetheless been important industrial struggles, mainly of a defensive character. When, on 31 March, the Visteon workers occupied their West Belfast factory rather than accept a six minute ultimatum to walk away with only their statutory redundancy entitlements, they began the most significant industrial battle seen in the city for several decades.

Visteon was a well organised factory, with good shop stewards and a history of successful struggle in defence of terms and conditions. One of the achievements of good union organisation in the factory was, by and large, to keep sectarianism outside the gate even through the worst of the Troubles. This unity was maintained and strengthened during the occupation. For seven weeks workers from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds took part in the protests, pickets and jointly maintained a presence inside the factory: whatever sectarian differences they may have had were put to the side. This unity extended beyond the factory into the surrounding communities – people both from the Catholic communities of West Belfast that surround the factory on three sides and from the Protestant communities in Finaghy were overwhelming in their support.

It was understood through the occupation that workers’ unity was the key to victory – not just unity among the Belfast workforce, but also unity with Visteon workers in England who were maintaining round the clock pickets of their factories and with Ford workers in England and Wales who had the power to force a settlement by blacking replacement parts. Though never articulated as such, the actions of the Visteon workers were a triumph of working class solidarity over narrow nationalism as well as over sectarianism.

Eventually the occupation ended with a partial victory.  The Visteon workers forced Ford/Visteon to negotiate and to come up with a significant redundancy package. They scuppered the plans of these multinationals to close this factory on the cheap and then to set this as the template for further closures.

The victory was partial, not complete, because the key objective which was to keep the factory open was not achieved. This is a blow not just to the Visteon workers, but to the wider working class movement. A well organised workplace where workers from surrounding communities and further afield could come together, not just to work, but to struggle, and then could carry the lessons of this back into these communities, has closed.

This aside the occupation has and will have an important impact on other workers facing attack. The occupation was no doubt a factor in encouraging Nortel workers not to passively accept the similar ultimatum they were given on redundancy terms. Likewise the NCP workers who were sacked for taking protest strike action were able to look to the example of Visteon and decide not to go away quietly as NCP had hoped – and expected.

Other workers, faced with the onslaught on jobs, on pay and conditions, will draw the conclusion from Visteon that it is possible to resist and that resistance can achieve results. The Visteon struggle was a victory because its overall effect will be to encourage other workers to fight – it will quicken, not reduce, the tempo of the class struggle.

With capitalism in its deepest crisis since the 1930s, with the political establishment, including the four main local parties, increasingly discredited and exposed, and with workers left with no option but to take the road of struggle, a huge opening is now developing for class and socialist ideas.

Nothing proceeds in a straight line. Class struggles and class consciousness can develop on the one side while, on the other, there can be a strengthening of sectarian and other reactionary ideas. The protracted economic crisis can create space for the confrontational sectarian ideas of the various dissident republican groups to gain an echo among disaffected, semi-lumpenised Catholic youth. In Protestant areas the ideas of the far right – alongside those of hardline loyalists – can gain a certain base among the most lumpenised and backward sections.

This adds urgency to the task of building a political alternative that can win this generation to class and socialist ideas and ensure that they are not lost to sectarianism. The obstacle that prevents working class unity on industrial and social issues from extending into political unity is primarily subjective, not objective.  The economic crisis and the beginnings of a fightback by the working class are starting to lay the base for a new party of the working class to emerge. Among the working class as a whole there is not yet any broad demand for such a party. There is a generalised disillusionment with the main parties, but not yet any sense that some better alternative would be possible.

This can begin to change as attacks on services and living standards intensify and as workers begin to draw political conclusions from this. During the Visteon dispute local politicians from all the main parties were tripping over each other to get to the factory to show support. In this instance they could duck responsibility for the issue and point the finger of blame at Ford and Visteon. Most of the workers were appreciative of support they got from whatever quarter – it would have taken the dispute to go on longer and the workers to concentrate their campaign on the call for the Assembly to nationalise the factory for the limitations of the political parties to become clear.

When it comes to battles in the public sector it is an entirely different matter. Here the local parties bear full responsibility. When disputes develop over pay, over cuts in services or over privatisation the local politicians cant get away with Pontius Pilate gestures. Workers involved in battles on these issues can draw political conclusions much quicker.

The NCP workers have quickly seen through the empty words of Conor Murphy, the Sinn Fein Minister in overall charge. He has the power to resolve the dispute by reversing privatisation and removing NCP from the scene. Instead he has wrung his hands in sympathy with the sacked workers and done nothing.

Consciousness does not develop in a linear fashion but by leaps. At first it will be a minority of the most active, advanced workers who will come to see the need for a new party. It will be a combination of events plus the successes – limited successes perhaps at first – that such a party can achieve that will convince the mass of workers both that it is necessary and that it is possible.

Today – as throughout the Troubles – the trade union leadership are an obstacle to the development of such a party. The trade union leadership are a conservative force that, in general, acts as a brake on developments on both the industrial and the political front.

Apart from the firefighters dispute of 2002-3, which was led from the front, the initiative in all recent industrial battles has come from below. Visteon is the clearest example. Had the workers consulted their officials when they were told to leave the factory there is no doubt they would have been advised against an “illegal” occupation. Instead they took the decision themselves and then informed the union leaders after.

Workers moving into struggle will almost invariably find that they face a battle on two fronts; a fight with the employers on one side and a struggle to keep a timid, often incompetent, more often treacherous, trade union leadership from selling them short on the other. In the case of Visteon – the local as well as the national Unite officials – were dragged along behind the dispute, kicking and screaming all the way, only because the workers allowed them no choice.

The struggle to reclaim and transform the unions and the struggle for an initiative to build a new political organisation of the working class go hand in hand. A big section of the union bureaucracy is politically in tow with right wing politicians. In Britain this takes the form of affiliation to the Labour Party and of the close links between the hierarchy of unions like Unison and Unite and the New Labour leadership.

As the union bureaucracy in Britain is to New Labour, so many of the Northern Ireland union tops are to the power sharing Executive and to some, if not all, of the main parties within it. In Britain the relationship with New Labour is at least open. Locally the ties between senior union officials and sections of the political establishment are more discreet – and more dishonest – in that they are hidden from the membership.

Rather than build a political alternative to carry forward the interests of their members, the leadership of unions like Unison allow themselves to be used as a prop for the Assembly. This is dressed up as support for the peace process: as pressure on the politicians to overcome sectarianism by coming together. In fact the failure of the unions to provide a political opposition to the main parties is a key contributory factor to the development of virulent sectarian forces like the TUV who are thereby given a clear field to exploit the anger that is mounting against these parties.

With three sets of elections due within the next two years an initiative to build a new working class party can’t wait on a change of heart on the part of right wing trade union leaders. In Britain a number of left unions have already taken a lead.

The FBU, through a motion proposed by Socialist Party members in the Northern Ireland Region, has disaffiliated from the Labour Party. The RMT set up the No2 EU Yes to Democracy list, which included the Socialist Party in Britain, to contest the European election. Meanwhile the PCS, at its most recent Conference, decided on a twelve month consultation with members on a proposal to support pro public service candidates in future elections.

Similar initiatives are now needed in Northern Ireland. Unions that stand on the left – or sections of unions – need to consider coming together to discuss the launch of a new political formation that can stand candidates in the upcoming Assembly and local elections. This could be done hand in hand with genuine community organisations and left groups. The Socialist Party would be prepared to help initiate and to participate in a broad alliance of this character, just as our sister parties in England and Wales and in Scotland worked along with the RMT to build the No 2EU Yes to Democracy slates for Europe.

If this were done it would be possible to build a force able to stand at least one candidate in every constituency in the Assembly elections. It would also be possible to run in local government areas right across the North. This would give workers and young people who are opposed to the policies of the Assembly the choice of opposing the main parties without having to plump for an even more sectarian option. It could be an important first step to the building of a new party of the working class capable of drawing mass support from both Protestant and Catholic communities.

The building of a new working class party is not an end itself. New left formations that have emerged in other countries in recent years have quickly run into difficulties over issues of programme and  whether or not to participate in coalition governments at local or sometimes at a national level. Some have very quickly run to ground on these and other questions.

As well as these issues a new party in Northern Ireland would face the added problems and complications that bedevil politics locally. It would have to stand against sectarian pressures and would quickly come up against the need to have a clear position on the national question – a class position that is not dipped in the ideology of either sectarian camp.

Hence the importance not just of building a new broad working class party, but, at the same time, of building the Socialist Party into a powerful force within the working class movement. While fighting implacably for every reform and every concession, the Socialist Party stands, not just for piecemeal change, but for the complete overthrow of capitalism. The Socialist Party, alone in Northern Ireland, advocates a socialist solution as the only way to finally overcome sectarianism, guarantee peace and resolve the national question.

The various capitalist “solutions” that are put forward ultimately are just different routes to the same sectarian disaster. The Socialist Party places the common interests of working class people above all other interests and advocates working class unity to achieve a socialist Ireland as part of a voluntary and equal socialist federation of Ireland, England Scotland and Wales and of a broader European socialist confederation.

The Socialist Party has played a vital role in the development of all the major struggles that have taken place in recent years. Our members organised and led the We Wont Pay Campaign that defeated water charges. Currently it is our members who have taken the initiative in organising community resistance to the activities of the fascists and racists who are targeting migrant families in South Belfast.

Our members have been in the leadership or have worked alongside the leaders of every major industrial battle of recent years: whether the fire-fighters’ dispute, the Classroom Assistant strike, the long battle of the sacked airport workers or the more recent struggles of the NCP and Visteon workers.
Our members have not only led struggles against the employers and the government, we have been to the fore in the fight to change the unions.  We were the only party that stood alongside the sacked airport shop stewards in their battle for justice from their union as well as from their employer.

Today our party has a key role to play in campaigning for the creation and in the building of a new working class political formation. If and when such a formation is established the Socialist Party would have an even more essential role in campaigning within it for the adoption of socialist policies, not least for the adoption of a socialist position on the national question.

Not all of the people who become involved in a new working class party will be of a like mind. It will be necessary to have a democratic and, in the first instance at least, a federal structure that allows individuals and organisations from various traditions to come together to discuss a way forward.

We do not expect that all the members of such an organisation will have drawn rounded out socialist organisation when they join. As with the other new left formations that have recently been formed  in Europe and beyond, there will be those who will argue that putting forward socialist ideas will narrow the base of the formation and lessen its electoral appeal.

A debate on such questions is inevitable and this makes it all the more important to build the Socialist Party and in this way to strengthen the socialist side of that debate.

After all, the right wing argument, which in the recent period has been swallowed by virtually every other tendency on the left, that standing on a clear socialist ticket “scares off” workers was convincingly answered by the Socialist Party during the European elections.

Joe Higgins stood as the Socialist Party candidate in Dublin. He stood on a clear and unequivocal socialist programme. Against all the odds he won a seat, defeating two incumbent candidates in the process. Other left groups in Europe who decided to water down their programme for the sake of a “broad appeal” fared less well.

The question posed by the European election results in Northern Ireland is “who can fill the political vacuum?” The answer is that it can be filled by the left by bringing together the social weight that can be provided by the unions with the socialist ideas and fighting methods that led to Joe Higgins’ European election victory.

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