Northern Ireland: New party needed for working class

The general election in Northern Ireland looks set to be dominated by sectarian politics and deep divisions within unionism. Neither will inspire workers, Catholic and Protestant, to go and vote. Less than 43% turned out to vote in the European elections last year – an extremely low turnout by Northern Ireland standards. Since that election, unionism has been shaken by a series of crisis and scandals. The rising threat of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the Ulster Unionists pact with the Tories has caused considerable distress for the leaderships of the DUP and the UUP.  

One constituency many observers will be focusing on will be North Antrim, where for the first time in more than 40 years Ian Paisley will not be standing. His son Ian Paisley Jnr has been given the task of defending the seat for the DUP against the challenge of ex-DUP MEP and leader of TUV Jim Allister.

At the European elections, Allister secured an impressive 66,000 votes – halving the DUP’s vote. He polled particularly well in North Antrim where the DUP have lost support and councillors after forming the Assembly Executive with Sinn Fein. It will be a tight contest. Paisley is currently tipped to take the seat, but the Paisley “brand” has been severely damaged and it cannot be ruled out that Allister could produce a shock by taking the seat.

This would open up a major crisis for the DUP, already troubled with deep divisions run throughout the party, including in the leadership. MPs such as Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell and Wille McCrea represent a significant and more hardline section of the DUP. A victory for the TUV in North Antrim would strengthen this wing of the DUP, further damaging scandalised leader Peter Robinson and threatening the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.

The Ulster Unionist Party is stumbling into these elections in a state of crisis. After losing their sole MP, Sylvia Hermon, and North Down MLA, Alan McFarland, in opposition to the party’s pact with the Conservatives, this election could spell the end of Reg Empey’s leadership if no clear progress is seen to be made. In Protestant working class areas, there is no support for the Tories.

Despite the damaging sexual abuse scandal surrounding Gerry Adams’ brother Liam and the manner in which Sinn Fein and Adams failed to remove Liam Adams from positions in the party after allegations of sexual abuse were first raised, it is not likely Sinn Fein will be greatly damaged electorally. The SDLP, under new leader Margaret Ritchie, will be under pressure to defend their three Westminster seats. A further reduction in SDLP MPs would consolidate the downward trajectory of the SDLP.

For the working class, there are no differences between the parties as far as economic policy goes. All the parties in the Executive are working in harmony in carrying out cuts and privatising services. The biggest issue for the working class is the absence of a mass independent political voice. In Derry, workers have a partial alternative where Eamonn McCann is standing for People Before Profit Alliance, unfortunately abandoning socialist policies in the process.

The Socialist Party has chosen not to contest this general election but instead to build to fight next year’s local and Assembly elections which are more favourable for smaller parties. The cuts being implemented by the Assembly Executive are becoming more visible and tangible. Up to recently cuts have been introduced, but have appeared to be happening in the background through not replacing staff etc.

Over the next year, cuts will lead to more closures of health services, schools, community facilities etc. which will be met with opposition from workers. It is crucial that a working class electoral alternative, based on real social forces and campaigns, is built before next year’s elections which can challenge the right-wing policies of the sectarian parties. The trade unions should break their unofficial partnership with the Assembly parties and support the creation of a new mass party for workers. The Socialist Party believes such a party should put forward a clear socialist alternative to the capitalist policies of the Assembly which can give workers a necessary political voice.


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