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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland: The No Choice Election

(June 2001)

From The Socialist, 15 June 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Party Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DAVID TRIMBLE’S position as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) hangs in the balance after his party’s disastrous showing in the Westminster election. In 1997 the UUP took ten seats, many with substantial majorities.

This time Trimble came away with five, losing three seats to Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and two to Sinn Fein. The fact that the UUP managed to recapture South Antrim and North Down is cold comfort.

Nor can Trimble take much comfort from his own victory in Upper Bann. His 15,000 lead over the DUP in 1997 was cut this time to 2,000. In two of the other seats won by the UUP the victorious candidates were run even closer by the DUP.

In any case he will find little support among his own party at Westminster. Three of the four colleagues elected with him are opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and would probably support a challenge to his leadership.

SDLP eclipsed

DESPITE MANAGING to hold their three seats, this was an even worse election for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Sinn Fein made dramatic gains, doubling their seats tally to four. For the first time ever they overtook the SDLP in terms of votes.

The rise of Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP seems set to continue. The SDLP are an aging party with few activists on the ground. Sinn Fein ran Seamus Mallon close in South Armagh and are poised to take this seat when he retires at the next election. John Hume’s Foyle seat could also go the same way.

The other clear trend in these elections was the grinding down of all the political forces that have tried to stand against the four major parties. At the outset of the peace process a partial opening up of politics took place. New voices began to emerge and were initially seen by many as a breath of fresh air.

But the ‘peace process’ has been a process of sectarian polarisation. With the annual confrontations over parades – really a battle between nationalism and unionism over territory – and with a more confident nationalism confronting a Protestant population that feels itself increasingly on the back foot, the sectarian gulf has widened as never before.


THE GOOD Friday Agreement set these divisions in political stone. Now in this election we are seeing a political catching up with the increased sectarian divide. Over 90% of the vote was shared between the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the UUP and DUP.

These trends – to a four-party system within which the outlines of a future two-party system with a single dominant nationalist party and a hard-line unionist party based on the growth of the DUP and some realignment with hardliners in the UUP – place a huge question mark over the Good Friday Agreement.

Trimble is likely to face a leadership challenge and may be replaced. This does not mean that the Assembly will collapse immediately. The DUP, despite their posturing, are comfortable with their ministerial positions and work with Sinn Fein on a daily basis.

Even if there is another suspension of the Assembly, the parties, Sinn Fein included, have no other strategy but to try to get it back on the road in some form.

But, as these election results remind us, the Agreement is unworkable in the long term. Sooner or later the sectarian divisions, which are maintained by the power sharing structure and which are daily reinforced by the four parties in the Executive, will tear the whole thing apart.

A workers’ alternative

IT IS now urgent that an alternative to the twin monoliths of unionism and nationalism is built. For working-class people in Northern Ireland this was a no choice election.

The four major parties may have been at each others’ throats on their favoured constitutional issues. Yet, they all sit together in the Executive and carry out the same policies.

They all support privatisation, PFI and the range of pro-market policies carried out by Tony Blair. The only “choice” they offer working class people is the same exploitation but under different flags.

As in Britain there was a landslide, in this case a sectarian landslide. And also as in Britain it wasn’t enthusiasm either for politicians or for their policies that produced this result. It was the lack of any alternative to represent the real interests of working-class people.

If the Assembly survives for a period, working-class supporters of parties like the DUP and Sinn Fein will get an even more bitter taste of their pro-market, pro-business policies. If the only alternative is an even more right-wing party this will not significantly dent their support.

But a new working-class party, fighting for a socialist way forward, could offer an alternative to those who are repelled by sectarian politics and to those who have voted for one of the main parties but who will be disgusted by their Blairite policies.

The three hospital campaigners who stood in the local elections in South Down (see below) gave a concrete example of how such an alternative could be built.

Trade unionists, community activists and socialists must now set about ensuring that a real challenge to the new sectarian monolith is in place by the time of the next Assembly elections.

A Bright Spot on the Political Landscape

AS WE go to press local election results are confirming the shift from the UUP to the DUP and from the SDLP to Sinn Fein. They mean that a challenge to David Trimble’s leadership is almost certain.

There are suggestions that South Belfast MP Martin Smith will oppose him at an Ulster Unionist Council meeting on 23 June. This is in advance of Trimble’s own deadline of 1 July for IRA decommissioning.

He has already submitted a resignation letter from his position as First Minister if there is no substantial movement on decommissioning by that date.

The one bright spot on this polarised political landscape is that it appears likely that Raymond Blaney, one of the Save the Down Hospital campaigners who stood for Down Council will get elected. He appears to have taken about 10% of the first preference votes and should get enough transfers to elect him.

Raymond is a former UNISON activist and has been the driving force beyond the mass campaign to prevent the loss of acute hospital services in County Down.

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