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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland – Sectarianism no solution

(October 1982)

From Militant [UK], No. 624, 29 October 1982.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Yet another Tory “solution” has run into the ground in Northern Ireland. Prior’s unworkable plan for a new Assembly and “rolling devolution” has been shattered by the results of last week’s election.

The election has proven that, on the basis of the existing Northern Ireland political parties and the Tory policies, there can never be political stability in Northern Ireland.

To the capitalist media, the emergence of Sinn Fein with 5 seats and 10% of the first preference votes was the most significant outcome of the poll. Startled by this vote, they have missed another feature of the election, of even greater significance.

Traditionally, Northern Ireland records one of the highest polls in Britain and Ireland – often 80–85 % of the electorate vote. The valid poll this time was 58%. Where Sinn Fein candidates drew 64,000 first preferences, a staggering number, almost 425,000, either did not vote or spoilt their votes.

Significantly, the lowest poll was in the urban areas. Among workers there had been little or no interest in this election. The failure of the Assembly was taken as a foregone conclusion. All this was reflected in the size of the poll, as was the growing disillusionment, especially of the youth, in the old, traditional and established political parties.

Above all else, the outcome was a vote of no confidence in the Tory government and in the batch of local Tories, orange and green, in Northern Ireland.

In the months before the election the sectarian issues had been pushed to the background. Political life had instead been dominated by united struggles involving Catholic and Protestant workers and on a scale not seen for decades. Health workers have been marching shoulder to shoulder. Tens of thousands of other workers have taken supportive action.

On the Monday before the election, water service workers in Northern Ireland made this one of the most solid regions participating in their 24-hour strike. On the day of the poll itself, CPSA and POEU members were picketing British Telecom buildings, striking against the sale of Telecom assets to private industry.

Overall, the mood in the North was and remains anti-Tory and anti-establishment. If all workers have one thing in common, it is their hatred of Thatcher and her government.

Yet because of the absence of a genuine party to represent workers, this mood could not find any positive expression at the polls. The lowest polls were in the mainly Protestant areas.

In East Belfast, almost entirely Protestant, while 39,417 people voted, 34,856 either abstained or spoilt their ballots. In Protestant North Down, 54,619 voted while 49,000 did not. South Antrim, again mostly Protestant, recorded a ballot poll of 66,443, leaving 65,291 who mostly voted with their backsides by staying at home.

In other words, the largest vote was for those who said no to all the parties. And small wonder, given the choice workers in such areas were faced with! In East Belfast the ballot paper listed 9 assorted unionists, 2 Alliance, 1 SDLP and 1 from the so called Workers Party. The voters of North Down had a chance to pick from a magnificent selection of 11 candidates representing different variants of unionism, 3 from the Alliance Party and 1 SDLP. Putting it another way, they had a choice between 15 Tories of different colours. Rather than select from among these brands of poison almost half the electorate voted no.

SDLP split three ways

This political vacuum explains the vote for Sinn Fein. As in Protestant areas, the mood among Catholic workers is anti-Tory, but even more bitterly so, due to the repression which is a daily part of their lives.

To Catholics, the main choice was between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. With the SDLP split three ways on the question of whether and how it should fight this election, disrupted by resignations and divisions, incapable of mounting a serious campaign, and voicing only the meaningless slogan “stand firm with the SDLP”. Sinn Fein could not have had a weaker opposition. To most Catholics the SDLP is now seen as the party of the establishment, representing the comfortable middle-class, exactly akin to the old Nationalist Party which it had pushed aside 12 years ago.

In rural areas, such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Sinn Fein got the traditional republican vote, largely of a right-wing character. In the urban areas, especially in Belfast and Derry, there has never been the same base for right-wing republicanism.

Here the Sinn Fein candidates carefully laced their propaganda with anti-Tory and even semi-socialist phraseology. Appearing as the only anti-establishment party, and the only party challenging the state on the issue of repression, they were able to capture a significant anti-Tory and radical vote especially among the youth, many of whom are unemployed, and without the remotest prospect of a job.

Sinn Fein can offer no way forward for its working class voters. If the vote leads to a re-escalation of the Provisionals’ military campaign, this will only serve to increase sectarianism and provide the government with an excuse for even more severe repression. The IRA campaign of individual terror is a blind alley which can never succeed.

Nor can Sinn Fein show a way forward politically. Nationalism, even when it is interwoven with a few socialist phrases, will not solve a single one of the problems of Catholic workers. Rather Sinn Fein’s result will only increase sectarian polarisation of politics.

It is the unity of the working class, both industrially and politically, not barren Tory solutions and not sectarian based political organisations, which can provide an alternative. The vote for Sinn Fein should be taken by the labour movement as a sombre warning.

There is a vacuum in politics in Northern Ireland. But if the labour movement does not move to fill this vacuum, other organisations of a sectarian nature will. Not only Sinn Fein, but loyalist groups could re-emerge to take Protestant working class votes unless a socialist alternative is provided.

Already the return to vile sectarian atrocities – the death of Joseph Donegan, the murder of a Sinn Fein election agent in Armagh, the kidnapping and murder of a UDR man in South Armagh and the atrocities of the INLA in particular – are a serious warning of what will happen if the bigots are allowed to make a comeback. Only the trade union movement can act to unite workers and put an end to all the killings.

Genuine Labour candidates needed

Only within the trade union and labour movement can workers be untied. This also was conclusively proven by the Assembly poll. The Workers’ Party, the political descendents of the Official Republicans, tried to intervene on the basis of a few slogans for class unity. But the right-wing social democratic ideas of this party, such as its demand for a centre-left coalition in the new government, denied it any appeal. Also, because it stands outside the Labour movement and is seen as a wing of republicanism, it can never have an appeal to Protestant workers.

In the 12 constituencies there were more spoiled ballot papers than the 17,216 who voted for the Workers Party. Likewise the ultra-left sect – People’s Democracy – who opportunistically won two seats in Belfast City Council standing on an H-Block ticket in 1981, and who put the same candidates up for the Assembly, this time received a grand total of 442 votes.

Overall, no Labour candidates of any significance even stood. The now defunct NILP did not even attempt to fight this election. This means that the field is now entirely clear for the emergence of a genuine Labour Party firmly based on the trade union movement and fighting on socialist policies.

Within a year there is likely to be a Westminster election. The trade unions in Northern Ireland must begin the work now to ensure that there is a Labour candidate fighting every seat. The Labour and Trade Union Group intend to use the sectarian Assembly poll as a warning to the entire trade union movement of the dangers of political inaction and will now be stepping up the campaign for a Conference of the Labour and trade union movement to build a Labour Party.

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