The following article from Socialist Democracy (Ireland) analyses the results of the recent Stormont election.
SINN FEIN ELECTION ‘VICTORY’ BLUNTED AS DUP BLOCKS ASSEMBLY FORMATION
The huge significance of Sinn Fein becoming the leading political party in the north after its success in last week’s Assembly election has been emphasised in commentary across the board. In news reports words such as “historic” “seismic” and “generational” have been bandied about freely. The assumption is, that the political balance in Ireland and GB has shifted decisively towards Irish nationalism and that the movement towards a united Ireland has taken great strides. This is a view that is shared by a host of prominent figures ranging from Piers Morgan to Paul Mason, including Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole and the former US diplomat Richard Haass.
While Sinn Fein themselves have been cautious about the possible consequences of the election, talking in quite vague terms about “a decade of opportunities” and the possibility of a border poll within this timeframe, voices from what has become known as “civic nationalism” have not been as restrained. A prime example of this was the response to the election result from the pressure group Ireland’s Future. Its CEO Gerry Carlile claimed the result showed there is “no majority for the union anymore” and that the north is “on a one-way trajectory to a referendum”. For him there was now an “onus on the government in London to acknowledge that change is afoot and you cannot deny people a referendum”. Whilst these are bold claims, the assumptions behind them are widely held (even beyond Irish nationalism). If only due to their prevalence, they should be taken seriously and put under proper examination. The immediate starting point for this is the election result itself.
Results of the 2002 NI Assembly election
|Party||Vote share||Change since
|Democratic Unionist Party||21.3%||-6.7%||25||(-3)|
|Ulster Unionist Party||11.2%||-1.7%||9||(-1)|
|Social Democratic & Labour Party||9.1%||-2.9%||8||(-4)|
|Traditional Unionist Voice||7.6%||+5.1%||1||(-)|
|People Before Profit||1.1%||-0.6%||1||(-)|
Whilst it is a fact that Sinn Fein did emerge as the largest party with 29% of the popular vote and 27 seats in the Assembly its victory owed more to the splintering of unionism than growth of its own support. Sinn Fein did not add any seats to the total gained in 2017 while its share of the vote rose only marginally. In contrast, the unionist vote split three ways. The DUP vote fell significantly (-6.7%) though this was disguised somewhat by its seats total only decreasing by three (28 to 25). The UUP, which had positioned itself as liberal and pragmatic, also saw a fall in its vote and number of seats. The big winner within the unionist camp was the hardline TUV which saw its vote rise by five percent to 7.6%. While it did not gain any additional seats it took a significant portion of unionist votes, almost all of which were at the expense of the DUP. Whilst the DUP continues to be the leading party of unionism its advantage over its rivals fell sharply. The DUP took a majority of the unionist vote but at 53% that is a very marginal majority and puts the party in a precarious position.
In terms of the relative strength of unionism and nationalism things have remained quite stable. The vote lead of the three main unionist parties over the two main nationalist ones was narrow, at 40.1% to 38.1% — a 2% margin. (DUP, UUP, TUV combined got 346,080 votes, while Sinn Féin, SDLP combined got 328,625). In the new Assembly unionists hold a two-seat advantage over nationalists (37 to 35) compared to a one seat advantage in 2017 (40 to 39). While these figures show both unionism and nationalism falling back it is nationalism that is falling at a faster rate. This is largely accounted for by the poor showing of the SDLP which saw its vote fall by nearly 3% and its seats total go down by four. So, while Sinn Fein may be the biggest party it is within a broader nationalist camp that is in decline.
The beneficiary of the decline of unionism and nationalism was the Alliance party. It was the big winner in the election and saw a significant rise in both its vote (+4.5%) and seats (+9). It took nearly all the seats that changed hands in the election winning 4 from the SDLP, 2 from the DUP, 2 from the Greens and 1 from the UUP. After the election the Alliance is now comfortably the third biggest party in the north. However, using the success of the Alliance party as a basis for the claim (by Ireland’s Future) that there is no longer a majority for the union is highly dubious. Alliance does not support constitutional change nor does it support a border poll. The party originated as a pressure group within unionism and from its founding in 1970 up to the late 90s it had a pro union position. It was only in the wake of the GFA that it adopted a “neutral” position on the border. However, this is a neutrality that tends towards partition with the party drawing its support from a largely middle-class population that have gained most from the settlement and are heavily invested in the status quo.
The election results offer little encouragement to those hoping for a border poll or a transition to a united Ireland. Overall, Irish nationalism is in decline. While Sinn Fein is now the biggest party in the north this is more the result of divisions within unionism rather than a rise in its own support. It is also notable that during the election campaign Sinn Fein soft pedalled on the issue of a border poll instead focusing on the post of First Minister and the potential for reforming the northern state. Calls for a border poll were also dismissed by the leaders of the Irish government parties in the immediate aftermath of the Assembly election. None of this suggests that “change is afoot”, quite the contrary.
One of the minor stories of the election was the disappointing performance of the various left groups. Very few votes were garnered by those standing outside of PbP. While PbP did retain its sole MLA its vote was well down on what it had achieved previously. This time round PBP polled just under 10,000 votes compared to 14,000 in 2017 – a fall of 0.6% to just 1.2% of the total popular vote. When we consider that the party was running in twice as many constituencies (12) in 2022 as it did in 2017 the decline in support is even more pronounced. Bearing in mind that PbP polled 2% of the popular vote in 2016 while running in just three constituencies we also see that this decline is long term. This is illustrated well by the performance of Gerry Caroll in west Belfast. In 2016, when the party made its electoral breakthrough, Carroll topped the poll with 8,299 votes (22.88%) and was elected on the first count. In 2017, his vote was down to 4,903 (12.15%) and he had to wait until the third count to be elected. In 2022, his vote fell further to 3,279 (7.51%) and it wasn’t until the eleventh count – and the distribution of the votes of the eliminated SDLP candidate – that he managed to scrape in narrowly ahead of the DUP. If this trajectory continues Carroll is likely to lose his seat at the next Assembly election.
Despite its disappointing performance there was little reflection in PbP’s post-election statement which talked up Carroll’s survival as a success and put the shedding of votes down to a general squeeze on the smaller parties. The statement was particularly disingenuous when it claimed that PbP would continue to use the platform of the Assembly to “raise class politics”. In reality PbP have done everything to avoid advocating for class politics over the last five years with Gerry Carroll adopting conservative positions that have aligned him closely to the trade union leaderships. The concept of assisting the development of an independent working-class movement, which should be at the heart of class politics, is completely absent. In its place is a purely electoral strategy and a platform that barely rises to the level of social democratic reformism.
DUP blocks Assembly
Any enthusiasm around the election result soon dissipated after the DUP indicated that not only would it not form an Executive but that it wouldn’t allow the Assembly to sit at all. The expectation was that the Assembly could exist in a partial form with caretaker ministers and scrutiny committees and with MLAs being able to draft legislation. It was hoped that this arrangement would ease the way to a complete restoration of government once issues relating to the Protocol have been resolved. The DUP adopting such a hard-line position points to a much deeper crisis that extends beyond the NI Protocol.
Whilst the DUP’s objections to the protocol appear to be the most immediate barrier to the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive the election result has revealed a decisive shift within unionism against the whole proposition of power sharing. In these circumstances a resolution of the problems associated with the protocol will not be enough to restore government. The DUP is unlikely to accept any proposals – even if they do address the practical issues related to the Irish Sea border – due to the overriding political imperative to maintain itself as the leading party of unionism.
This tension within unionism – between those who oppose power sharing outright and those who are prepared to tolerate it on the basis that they are the dominant partner and have the lion’s share of patronage – has always been there. It was evident in the election campaign with the refusal of unionist leaders to contemplate serving with a nationalist First Minister. They tried to dodge the implication that they had a problem with this arrangement by claiming that rather than being sectarian they only wanted to win the election and become the biggest party. Of course, this was not true. All elections in the north are sectarian – and while this election was relatively low key – it was still about which community came out on top. Despite all the talk it was certainly not about the cost-of-living crisis. The DUP ran on its tried and tested strategy of appealing for votes to keep Sinn Fein out of the top position. The problem for the party was that it failed this time as a section of its support was no longer pulled by the battle over who was First Minister but wanted the whole structure of devolved government swept away.
Sinn Fein’s symbolic “victory”
Despite talk of a border poll and a united Ireland Sinn Fein – like the DUP – primarily ran on the question of who would take the post of First Minister. Being the incumbents for the last 15 years, its campaign slogan of “Time for Real Change” could only have been a reference to this. The implication is that a Sinn Fein First Minister would boost the drive for greater equality and rights within the north. The problem with this schema is that the northern state is inherently sectarian and thereby unequal. It only works on the basis that unionists have the advantage. Any reversal of that – even at the symbolic level of a nationalist First Minister – sends the whole system into crisis. Despite its declining support unionism continues to be the most important political strand in the north. The DUP exercises a veto not just over the formation of an Executive but the sitting of the Assembly. The upcoming negotiations will centre around unionist concerns over the NI Protocol and the broader political settlement. Given that the support of a majority of unionism is critical to the continuation of the political institutions it can’t really be any other way. As Sinn Fein is totally committed to the settlement it will have to be part of the process of conciliating the DUP. This does not create an environment in which rights and equality will be advanced, never mind a united Ireland. Even the symbolic prize of a nationalist claiming the post of First Minister may not survive. But if it were necessary, is there any doubt that Sinn Fein would make that sacrifice? After all it was not so long ago that they proposed the renaming of the leading posts in the Executive as Joint First Ministers.
Whether moves on the NI Protocol and the operation of the Executive will be enough to draw the DUP back into government remains to be seen. Even if it does, the political settlement in the north will continue to be unstable. But as we know, without any opposition, it can continue lurching from one crisis to another.
What is absent from this is an independent working-class movement – which if it was taking up the issues of rights, equality and the cost of living – would certainly constitute an opposition to Stormont. If raising “class politics” isn’t about bringing such a movement into existence then that slogan is no more than empty rhetoric.
Ireland’s reunification – prologue to democratic revolution – Allan Armstrong, RCF