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Peter Hadden

No Change in Northern Ireland

(May 1997)

From Socialism Today, No. 18, May 1997.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There was no landslide for change in Northern Ireland on May 1st. Of the outgoing 17 MPs, 14 were returned, along with two new Ulster Unionist MPs – one replacing retired ex-leader James Molyneaux and one in the new West Tyrone seat – and two Sinn Fein MPs: Gerry Adams in West Belfast and Martin McGuinness in Mid-Ulster.

Adams’ victory was no surprise. The SDLP’s Joe Hendron won in 1992 with a slender 1,108 majority, since when the only significant change in voting patterns has been a rise in the Sinn Fein vote, especially in Belfast. For the four other major parties, the SDLP, Alliance and the two Unionist parties, their vote this time was within two percentage points of their 1992 total. The Sinn Fein vote, on the other hand, rose from 10% to 16%, a slight improvement on their performance in last year’s Forum elections which most commentators wrote off as a temporary blip. The Mid-Ulster vote was in part also due to local circumstances – ousted DUP MP Willie McCrea became a particular hate figure for Catholics when he spoke on a Portadown platform alongside LVF president Billy Wright last summer. Martin, best placed to unseat McCrea, ate into the SDLP vote to win with a 1,183 majority.

All recent elections in Northern Ireland have been sectarian headcounts, even more so this time. In 1992 the, top five parties took all but 10% of the vote. This time, despite the emergence of groups like the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), whose leader David Ervine polled a significant 5,687 in South Belfast, and the Women’s Coalition, this ‘others’ figure was down to 5.6%.

The results do not augur well for the multi-party talks due to restart on 3 June, with neither the Ulster Unionists nor the SDLP strengthening their position over the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively. Although the SDLP vote went up they lost a seat to Sinn Fein and saw them capture another from the DUP. The Ulster Unionists, despite tacit co-operation by the so-called fringe loyalist parties, the PUP and UDP, failed to defeat the DUP’s Peter Robinson in East Belfast and DUP fellow-traveller, UK Unionist Robert McCartney in North Down.

Talks without Sinn Fein now have even less meaning. Talks with Sinn Fein, but with no IRA ceasefire, would simply not happen as the unionists would walk out. Even with a ceasefire a DUP and UK Unionist walkout, at least for a period, would he likely.

Looking into a summer with a possible ‘Drumcree 3’, the situation is dangerously polarized. It all underlines that politics on the basis of two entrenched sectarian camps means deadlock and sectarian violence. Yet in the workplaces and the communities there is a different world where workers are organizing against cuts in education, health, against privatization, for jobs, decent wages and rights.

Just outside Belfast, Montupet car components workers spent the election on the picket line fighting against a ruthless employer who has set out, to destroy the union and victimize activists. For the Catholic and Protestant workers standing together without any trace of sectarianism on this picket line the election and the multi-party talks could as well be on some other planet. The real solution to the conflict will come when such solidarity around these type of issues develops into a united political force which can challenge the right-wing and sectarian parties.

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Last updated: 26.7.2012