Sectarian Parties Win Local elections in N. Ireland. Struggle for Independent Working-Class Voice Continues

Parties based on sectarian division were the clear winners of the elections to Northern Ireland’s eleven district councils on May 18th.  Sinn Fein are now the largest single party: it increased its share of the vote to 31% (up 8% on the last council election in 2019) and won 144 seats (up 39). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), until last year the biggest party in both the councils and in the regional Assembly, held steady on 122 seats with 23% of the vote.

For the first time since Northern Ireland came into existence in 1921 unionist parties (in favour of Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom) won fewer votes than nationalist parties (in favour of a united Ireland). Over the last several elections each bloc has won approximately 40% of the vote with unionism just ahead until now. At this election nationalism won out and many in the Catholic community are in a celebratory mood.

This apparent “turn” in the political situation is not the result of a political swing in the sense that would be expected in “normal” societies. The election outcome was decided based on the changing demography of Northern Ireland-it was a “sectarian headcount”. Every election is simultaneously a competition between the Catholic and Protestant communities, and a competition within each community.

Competition within Communities

The contest within each community has now been decided on the basis of stridency and a refusal to compromise. Sinn Fein are well ahead of its long-time competitors in the Catholic community, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which won 39 seats (down 20). In a parallel process in the Protestant community, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has been pushed aside by the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The UUP finished with 54 seats (down 21).

The logic of sectarian politics is clear: every issue, no matter how trivial, can and will be “sectarianised”. In other words, if left in the hands of the sectarian parties, the issue becomes a point of contention between the communities. Recently for example, there was a clash over which arterial route in Belfast should receive significant investment to improve public transport. One route was considered to more favour Catholic areas, and the other Protestant areas. The sectarian parties argued for an outcome which would favour “their” community. In this way a class issue is transformed into a conflict over scarce resources. The sectarian party which convinces voters that it is the best representative of “our” community and the hardest opponents of the representatives of the “other” community wins out.

In this context not just the SDLP and the UUP lose out but also other smaller parties as the tendency is for the vote to coalesce around the largest party. In the Protestant community, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) lost its last seat on Belfast City Council. The hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice – which has put pressure on the DUP over the post-Brexit trade checks many unionists feel undermines their place in the UK – failed to repeat the surge in their vote at regional level. It won three extra seats and now holds nine, but this is still below its previous high watermark of 13,. Meanwhile in the Catholic community Aontu, an anti-abortion split from Sinn Fein, lost its only two councillors. Independent Republican candidates had hoped to win new seats from Sinn Fein, but instead lost some existing seats. People Before Profit (PBP), lost three of its five council seats.

Competition Between Communities

The competition between the two communities is intense. The numbers identifying as Catholic are increasing, those who identify as Protestant decreasing. What appears to be a sudden switch from unionist dominance to the opposite has caught the imagination but has been over-interpreted.

A differential turnout in this election, with a higher percentage of Catholics voting than Protestant, magnified the long-term changes in the size of each community. Turnout in each community depends on the factors which act to mobilise voters. In this election, anger at the perception that the DUP are blocking Sinn Fein from taking the First Minister position acted as a powerful mobiliser for Catholics. Anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol and the creation of a border in the Irish Sea was a less powerful mobiliser for Protestants.

There is a longer-term trend of decreasing turnout in Protestant areas. As is the case all over Europe this reflects a general sense of disillusionment with organised political parties, but undoubtedly it is also because of a growing sense among Protestants that the peace process does not favour them. The lowest turnouts were in Protestant working class areas and this apparent turning away from electoral politics is a warning sign. It is in these same areas that a leaked police document suggests there are now 12,500 active members of Loyalist paramilitary organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). History tells us that when electoral politics appears to offer no way forward than marching feet will soon be heard, and the guns are not far away.

In the Catholic community the mood can be described as one of angry triumphalism: triumphant as history is seen to move inexorably in the favour of a united Ireland, but anger over the DUP “refusal” to allow a Sinn Fein First Minister to take power. This has resulted in calls for a border poll and “joint authority” (the UK and Irish governments jointly administering Northern Ireland) if the DUP do not return to the power-sharing Executive soon. In the Protestant community the mood is one of fearful watchfulness: fearful for the future, but for now watching and waiting. Within unionism a sombre mood has developed and calls for “unionist unity” are growing louder.

“The Middle Ground”

Whilst political parties which seek votes in one community only win 85% of all votes not everyone accepts this situation. Nature abhors a vacuum and the vacuum in Northern Ireland politics is filled in different ways. Many see no alternative to “voting against the other side” and vote for the sectarian parties reluctantly. One third refuse to vote: there are many reasons for not voting, but for many it is quite simply that none of the parties represent their interests. 

Approximately 15% of voters opt for parties which stand outside the sectarian mainstream. The main beneficiary has been the Alliance Party, which is seen as an alternative by significant numbers, especially of younger people, and more middle-class layers. It came third in the council elections with 67 seats (up 14). Alliance does not provide a real alternative: it is a neo-liberal party, in favour of lowering corporation tax and simultaneously of increasing taxes on working class people, arguing in favour of a new charge for domestic water supply and for an increase in student fees.

The other prominent alternative voice over the last 15 years has been the Green Party. At its peak, the Green Party held two Assembly seats, but it lost both at the 2022 election. It lost three council seats this time out and now has 5 in total.  It is in a weakened state but nevertheless may hold or even increase its vote in the future given the absence of a credible left alternative. Ultimately it will not provide a way forward given its unwillingness to go beyond occasional, vague left rhetoric and its willingness to prop up pro-capitalist governments every time the opportunity presents.

Building a Class Alternative

A genuine alternative was on the ballot in only a handful of areas. Most importantly Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA), which brings together trade unionists and environmental and community campaigners, and members of left parties, stood two candidates.

The results for the two CCLA candidates were disappointing but not unexpected. Donal O’Cofaigh was elected in Enniskillen in 2019 with 10% of the vote but fell back to 7% this time around. Since he was elected to Fermanagh and Omagh District Council he has played an outstanding role, standing up for the rights of working-class people and exposing the sectarian parties. This election did not provide favourable conditions, however. The seat was won in very different circumstances after several years of austerity imposed by both Sinn Fein and the DUP. Both were blamed for the cuts and Donal was able to capitalise on the mood and win a seat. This time out the mood was different and even though the vote mostly held up it was not enough to win.

Gerry Cullen was an elected councillor in Dungannon for 15 years until 2002. He gained nearly 3% of the vote, a very credible achievement against the odds. It demonstrates both that he retains a vote because of his fighting record but also that his campaign represents the future.

Where to Now?

Marxists are well-aware that the class struggle will not wait for the next election. In Northern Ireland tens of thousands of workers are engaged in strike action and a mass campaign against the closure of a local hospital continues. CCLA activists are at the fore of these struggles. The wave of industrial struggle will create new activists though this may be a slow process given the legacy of previous defeats.

CCLA activists are already discussing the next electoral contest: the next scheduled election will be the UK-wide general election, which must be held by January 2025 at the latest. It is most likely to take place in the autumn of 2024. As we struggle to build the workers movement, both through the trade unions and in the political arena, it is important that we show the way forward. We cannot, should not, simply wait for a new generation. We must fight today.

Years of uncertainty, increasing tension, and conflict lie ahead if we leave our future in the hands of the parties of nationalism and unionism. The general election will be difficult terrain, but the workers movement must actively consider contesting it. Even if no seats are won-and they won’t be-it will be an important step forward in the struggle to create a new mass party of the working-class if principled candidates stand in as many areas as possible.

The last general election was not contested by the anti-sectarian left with one exception. Caroline Wheeler stood as an independent candidate on a labour platform in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. She was actively supported by members of the UK Labour Party, CCLA activists, and many others. She gained a very credible total of 750 votes. If her vote had been replicated across all 18 constituencies more than 10,000 votes would have been won. This would have provided a powerful base for further efforts to build a mass, left alternative.    

There are small left parties and groups which could, and should, come together around a common platform.  More importantly, we must reach out to the broader layers seeking an alternative. It is only six years since 3000 flooded into Corbyn’s Labour Party, making it one of largest political parties in the North, and many must still feel a sense of frustration that their aspirations were not met. The trade unions organise 250,000 workers, 40,000 of whom consciously chose to pay into the “political levy” (extra dues on top of their membership fee) indicating their support for the unions engaging in political activity. Many must be open to voting for a credible alternative party with strong trade union links. Broad community campaigns often discuss the idea of standing a candidate in elections and sometimes it happens-as in the case of Emmett McAleer who was elected as an anti-goldmining councillor at the 2019 local election but who unfortunately lost his seat this time.

CCLA intends to initiate discussions about our struggles today and whether to contest the general election. CCLA could be the joint banner for all genuine activists, or a new banner may be preferred. The details can be discussed: the point is to start the necessary serious debate on the way forward now.

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