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Peter Hadden

Assembly elections – no hope for political stability

(November 1982)

From Militant Irish Monthly, November 1982.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Yet another Tory solution has run into the sand in Northern Ireland. Prior’s unworkable plan for a new Assembly and “rolling devolution” has been shattered by the results of last month’s elections. The election has proven that, on the basis of existing Northern Ireland political parties and 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 vote was the most significant outcome of the poll. Startled by this vote they have missed another feature of this election of even greater significance. Traditionally Northern Ireland records among the highest polls in Britain and Ireland. Often 80–85% of the electorate vote. The valid poll this time was 58%.

While Sinn Fein candidates drew 64,000 first preferences, a staggering figure of 425,000 either did not vote or spoilt their ballot papers.

Significantly the lowest poll was in the urban areas. Among workers there had been little or no interest in the 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 disillusionment of the youth in the old traditional and established parties. Above all, the outcome was a vote of no confidence in the Tory Government and the batch of local Tories, orange and green in Northern Ireland.

In the months before the election the sectarian issues had been pushed into the background. Political life had instead been dominated by united class struggles involving Catholic and Protestant workers on a scale not seen for decades. Health workers have been marching shoulder to shoulder. Tens of thousands of other workers in Northern Ireland made this one of the most solid regions participating in their 24 hour strike. On the day of the poll, CPSA and POEU were picketing the British Telecom building against the sale of Telecom assets to private industry.

Overall, the mood in the North is overwhelmingly anti-Tory and anti-establishment. If all workers have one thing in common, it is a 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 29, 417 people voted, 34,856 either abstained or spoiled their votes. In Protestant North Down, 54,619 voted and 49,000 did not. South Antrim, again mainly Protestant, recorded a valid poll of 66, 443, leaving 65, 291 who mostly voted with their backsides by staying at home. In other words the largest vote was from those who said no to all the parties.

Rather than select from among these brands of poison, half the electorate simply voted no. This political vacuum explains the vote for Sinn Fein. As in Protestant areas, the mood in Catholic areas is anti-Tory, but ever 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 eth SDLP split three ways on the question of whether and how it should fight the election, disrupted by resignations and division, incapable of mounting a serious campaign, and voicing 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 pushed aside 12 years ago.

In rural areas, such as Fermanagh/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 level of 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 question of repression, they were able to capture a significant anti-Tory and radical vote, especially among the youth.

Sinn Fein can offer no way forward to its voters. If their vote leads to a re-escalation of the Provisional’s military campaign, this will only serve to increase sectarianism and provide the excuse for even more 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.

Working Class unity

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 votes from the Protestant working class, unless a socialist alternative is provided. Already the return to vile sectarian atrocities, the beating to death of Joseph Donnegan, the murder of a Sinn Fein election worker in Armagh, the kidnapping and murder of a member of the UDR in South Armagh, and the activities of the INLA in particular, are a serious warning of what will happen if the bigots are allowed to make a comeback. Only if the trade unions act to unite workers can an end be put to all, the killing.

Only within the trade unions and the labour movement can workers be united. This was also conclusively proved by the Assembly poll. The Workers Party – the political descendants of the Official Republicans – tried to intervene on the basis of a few slogans for class unity. But its right-wing, social democratic ideas, such as its demand for a centre-left coalition as a new government, deny it 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 votes than the 17, 216 who voted for the Workers Party.

Likewise, the ultra-left sect, People’s Democracy, who opportunistically won two seats on the Belfast City Council standing on an H-Block ticket in 1981, and who put the same candidates up for the Assembly received a grand total of 422 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 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 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 movement to build a Labour Party.

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