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Peter Hadden

They may “do the deal” but
can an Assembly last?

2007 Assembly Election Results

(March 2007)

From The Socialist [Dublin], March 2007.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The Assembly election results make it more likely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will “do the deal”.  Even if the “absolute deadline” of 26 March goes the way of all other such deadlines, Ian Paisley now seems firmly on course to eventually enter government with Sinn Fein.

A deal is now more likely firstly because both the DUP and Sinn Fein have emerged significantly strengthened from the election. The DUP were runaway winners with 36 seats, leaving the UUP on the verge of meltdown.

Sinn Fein, with 28 seats, has confirmed its position as the major nationalist party. The SDLP, down to 16 seats and the prospect of having only one Minister in the Executive, may not be in quite as precarious a position as the UUP, but neither are they a long way from it.

The second reason a deal has been brought closer is the poor showing of dissident republican and hard-line unionist candidates. Apart from their own results, DUP members no doubt saved the biggest cheer of the day for the news that Bob McCartney, after polling badly in other constituencies, had lost his own North Down seat.

Sinn Fein, as it turned out, was able quite easily to see off the challenge from dissident republicans. Overall they failed to make an impact and their presence on the ballot papers did not even slow up the Sinn Fein advance.

These results mean that the formation of a power sharing administration is now more a question of when rather than if. The real issue now is not so much whether it will be set up, but whether it will work.

The fact that a majority of people on both sides are now in favour of the DUP and Sinn Fein reaching an agreement does not mean a new coalition dominated by these two parties would solve anything or that it would last.

This election, like every recent poll, confirmed the almost total sectarian political polarisation that exists, thanks in no small measure to the past efforts of unionist and nationalist politicians alike to keep people divided.

A power sharing agreement headed by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness would reflect no meeting of minds on the key issues that divide  people. Far from trying to bridge the sectarian divide, both the DUP and Sinn Fein will do their best to make sure that it remains and is reinforced. Sinn Fein are agreeing and accepting that Paisley speaks for the “Prods” while Paisley is accepting Sinn Fein as the voice of Catholics. It is an arrangement to administer a society that both parties prefer to see remain permanently divided along sectarian lines.

The new Executive, if and when they set it up, will not be all peace and love between these parties. More likely it will be a sectarian bear pit. Ministers on both sides will want to cover their tracks in introducing the right wing anti-working class policies they all support. The easiest way for them to do so is by throwing up sectarian issues to divert attention and divide any opposition. They are more comfortable insulting each other over the colour of Easter lilies than debating school or hospital privatisation, never mind water charges.

It will be a fragile arrangement, liable to fly to pieces at any time. What happened in the few days after the election gives an indication of how flimsy it will be. The comment by Sinn Fein spokespersons that the arrest of right wing republican dissident, Gerry McGeough, outside the Omagh count centre, was “political policing”, was seized upon by Ian Paisley who said that, had he been First Minister at the time, he would have resigned over these remarks. Sinn Fein are about to discover that support for the policing, in DUP terms, means never criticising the police no matter what they do.

The DUP and Sinn Fein hope that a financial package from Gordon Brown will buy them a honeymoon period of relative stability. At the time of writing it is not clear what extra money Brown will be prepared to give. The package announced at the end of last year amounted to no new money.

If there is extra money this time, the clear priority of the parties is to spend it on subsidies to the rich, through cuts in corporation tax, a cap on industrial rates, and not on halting the cuts and privatisation of heath and other public services.

It may have an effect, but it will be a limited effect and will not permanently stabilise the very un-seaworthy vessel about to be launched by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.

A real solution must be built from below by uniting working class communities.

The anger over water charges that was felt by politicians on both sides during the election shows the potential to bring working class communities together, even though at this stage this anger was not reflected in the polls.

There were one or two candidates outside the main blocs who polled quite well. The Greens won their first seat in Bangor, although largely on a middle class vote. Hospital campaigner Kieran Deeney, who also stood as a supporter of the We Won’t Pay Campaign, managed to hold his seat in West Tyrone although his vote fell. Eamon McCann polled well in Derry, although his vote fell on the last election probably because he lost votes to the dissident republican candidate.

But overall the result confirmed that there is no mass party to express the anger that exists in working class communities as well as the widespread disillusionment with all the major parties.

A period of these parties in office would therefore be a good thing – not because it would solve anything, but because it would show working class people who vote for them where they really stand. This could prepare the way for the building of a new party of the working class that could offer a socialist challenge to their right wing and their sectarian agendas.

Vote goes up for Socialist Party candidates

The two Socialist Party candidates – firefighters’ leader, Jim Barbour in South Belfast and Tommy Black in East Belfast, both increased their vote. Jim Barbour got 248 votes while Tommy Black got 225. The increase in the vote came despite the quite low key campaign – by comparison with previous elections – that the party fought.

With only a month to go until water charges come in, party members had to continue to put most of their energies into preparing for mass non-payment and, along with others, continuing to build the We Won’t Pay Campaign.

Nevertheless some canvassing was done and street stalls were organised in working class areas across both constituencies.

One of the most successful stalls was for Tommy Black in the lower Newtownards Road/Dee Street area of East Belfast. This is an impoverished area that is simply neglected by the establishment politicians.

There was a warm response from shoppers and local people for Tommy and especial anger on the water charges issue. This type of support may only have shown up in second and third preference votes when it came to polling day – or not at all as many people in areas like this don’t bother to put themselves on the electoral register or, if they are on, don’t bother to vote.

All in all this campaign was a solid foundation to build the Socialist Party among working class communities in South and East Belfast and also a solid foundation to help build mass non-payment of water charges whenever they are implemented.

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Last updated: 7 October 2015