John McAnulty (Socialist Democracy, Belfast) analyses the election campaigns run by political parties for the Northern Ireland Assembly and what the results mean for the Good Friday Agreement.

The results

The outcome of the elections in the North of Ireland, in factual terms, is simple enough.

  1. Among nationalists Sinn Fein triumphed over the traditional leadership of the SDLP
  2. The DUP scored a significant victory over its rivals in the UUP and emerged as the largest party.
  3. There was a collapse in the vote of the smaller parties.
  4. There is now a significant two-thirds majority among unionists against the Good Friday Agreement and the progress towards a final British settlement in Ireland has now ground to a halt.

There is however one overwhelming fact that dominates even the significant changes registered by the election. After the seemingly pointless election to a structure that would not exist lies the bare bones of British colonial rule led by Secretary of State, Paul Murphy. He will certainly maintain the suspension of the Assembly, in effect collapsing for a fifth time the discredited structures of an Agreement that supposedly resolved for all time the question of Irish self-determination. This close down will mark the final and formal switch-off of the life support for an Agreement that has been dead for some time. It will not re-emerge, even in the battered and distorted form that the British had twisted it into, as they constantly squeezed it to the right in an attempt to placate unionism. The idea that there is some formula that will lead Ian Paisley to form a government with Sinn Fein is sheerest fantasy. Just as fantastic is the idea that the British will break with their unionist base to save the Agreement or that Dublin will do anything about the continuation of British rule.

The statement by the governments after the result, directed more to the DUP, but equally applicable to Sinn Fein, in effect said, ‘So What? What are you going to do about it?’ Behind the cant about respecting parties’ mandates was the sober call for them to live up to their responsibility, i.e. Follow the British agenda or face a long period of exclusion from office. Despite being the largest party the DUP cannot lead a return to unlimited sectarian rule and, despite the undisputed mantle of leader of Northern Nationalism, Sinn Fein face the same demands for humiliating surrender they couldn’t quite meet in the farcical deal that kicked off the election.

DUP Victory

The DUP victory over the UUP is part of a familiar pattern going back at least to the start of the Troubles and the premiership of Terrence O’Neill. A ‘moderniser’, backed by Britain in a desperate attempt to stabilise imperialist rule, falls to bigots on the right and a new right wing leader is then eventually persuaded to support a new British deal. But this too proves too much for the bigots who now lead a new attack. The spiral has continued until the ‘reform’ on offer is an Agreement hat enshrines sectarianism, colonial rule and rules out Irish self determination more or less indefinitely and this time the reformer is the arch-bigot Trimble! The rule within unionism is that the biggest bigot will eventually rule the roost. Trimble, a former organiser for the semi-fascist Vanguard movement of the early and mid-seventies, was elected UUP leader on the strength of sectarian posturing at Drumcree. He was believed to have enough sectarian capital to keep the majority of unionists on board. In the event Trimble himself didn’t believe this. At the slightest sign that he was being outflanked on the right he would break from the Agreement and demand major modifications that were always accepted by the British.

Trimble has fought in vain and is now a minority figure in unionism, easily outweighed by the DUP and the critics in his own party who are openly calling for his head. The idea that the DUP, whose name is synonymous with sectarian hatred, who have come to the position of being the major party on the basis of expressing that bigotry, will now share power with Sinn Fein is too ludicrous to consider for even an instant. A DUP First Minister and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister?

The ‘winning team’

‘The winning team’ – the Sinn Fein election slogan – is clearly justified in terms of votes cast and seats won. It’s quite laughable when applied to their overall strategy. The Good Friday Agreement has involved them in constant retreat. At their last outing the republicans decommissioned a large element of the IRA arsenal and indicated that they would give unconditional support to the British statelet. The pay-off was supposed to be a series of concessions involving the return of former activists who were on the run, the demolition of some army bases no longer required and moves by Unionism to allow the restoration of the Stormont Assembly and Executive. Instead they got a virtual election to a phantom assembly.

The party fought the election promising an ‘Ireland of Equals.’ In fact everything afterwards will show that it is utterly incapable of delivering for its voters, as opposed to its functionaries. They now demand no more than equality within partition and reassurance in the illusion that a united Ireland is in some sense inevitable. The unionist veto on the very operation of the Agreement, never mind the decisions taken within its structures, is a hard lesson that its supporters are not keen to appreciate and its leaders even less keen to openly acknowledge. Already pundits speculate that the party’s strategy involves wiping out the SDLP in the next European and Westminster elections, but hypothesising about the next elections only illuminates the hollowness of the successes of the ones’ past. The question becomes too readily asked – ‘What for?’ Or as the British have said – ‘So what?’

To understand the outcome of the vote we have to contrast the votes within unionism and nationalism. The vote shift within unionism is much less dramatic, but it reflects a genuine strategic debate – not pro and anti reform, but rather, is sectarian privilege best defended from within or without the Good Friday Agreement. In contrast there is only one strategy within Irish nationalism – that is support for the Agreement. The battle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP was about whom was best placed to advance the strategy of meeting the demands of the Irish establishment for stability and accommodation of the interests of British imperialism. The DUP defeated Trimble – Sinn Fein became the SDLP. To be more accurate Sinn Fein has now become a Northern Fianna Fail. As with Fianna Fail in the Twenties they have made the transition from militarism to right wing capitalist politics. The lies and corruption necessarily involved in that transition make them a particularly dangerous political force, combining the ruthlessness of the militarist with the endemic dishonesty of the Irish elite.

The smaller parties in the Assembly

The 108 seats in the Stormont assembly, based on a population of 1.5 million, were designed to bribe everyone. The initial elected convention to negotiate the Agreement was structured, at least partly, so that the thugs in the loyalist death squads would win seats and this was further promoted by the PR system in the Stormont Assembly. Fortunately the thugs of the UDA lacked the political skills to retain seats. The UVF front organisation, the Progressive Unionist Party, managed to win seats and one MLA, Billy Hutchinson. He was touted by the Socialist Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and a number of other groups on the British left as a socialist! Left enthusiasm declined somewhat when Billy emerged as the spokesman of Loyalist mobs attacking primary school children at Holy Cross school, but his departure is welcomed to the same extent that his sidekick, David Irvine’s survival is mourned.

Less dangerous and more vacuous was the Women’s Coalition, a ‘post-modernist’ collection supported by the Communist Party. Despite their name they generally stood back from supporting any issues of women’s rights and saw the latter in terms of women playing a more prominent role in the existing reactionary and sectarian political system. Their only policy was to support imperialism and the Good Friday Agreement – at one stage defining themselves as unionist to do so!

The only minor group with any material base was the Alliance Party based on the vain hope of non-sectarian unionism. They were the only party to survive – just.

What next?

First there are the demands of unionism. The DUP called for ‘A fair deal’. This is the call of ‘white trash’ for the maintenance of their sectarian privilege. A majority of unionists now call for that privilege to be protected by the dismantling of the Good Friday Agreement. Nationalists in contrast voted overwhelmingly for the Agreement.

However it is the British State that will decide the next steps and their concern will be with their unionist base. When Trimble backed out of the last attempt to cement a deal what happened immediately was that British government’s commitments to the republicans were abandoned – a clear demonstration of British willingness to support unionism. It is unionist demands that will have effect despite ridiculous nationalist illusions that the default position is strengthened by Irish government involvement in the North.

The British will express their position through a review of the Good Friday Agreement in which the nationalists will come under intense pressure to accept its renegotiation. These attempts to put Humpty-Dumpty together will fail because, no matter what they say, there are in reality no circumstance in which the DUP would form a government with Sinn Fein.

British analysis suggests that the DUP may fail to retain their vote if they are unable to produce a formula for government or, alternatively, that the party may split into hard-liners and pragmatists. What is noticeable about this is that it is a long-term strategy and is based on a long period of suspension of the Agreement. During this period the business of politics for those who support the Agreement will be lobbying the British colonial administration.

There are fewer difficulties in this for the unionists. They have found the past 30 years of direct rule adequate in protecting their sectarian rights and holding the nationalists at bay. Where some concessions have been made – for example in employment – they at least have the comfort of having made no concessions themselves. In the meantime there are a whole series of committees and quangos through which they can carry on political life. It is perfectly correct that the early mass phase of the civil rights struggle brought down Stormont, but this was hastened by the unionists, even against British pleading, refusing to accept reform.

On the other hand there are difficulties for the Republicans. There is plenty of business to do with the British in terms of troop reductions that the British want to make anyway, and ‘on-the-runs,’ those still formally wanted by the British State. What the Republicans crave most however, Governmental seats, are not on offer in the immediate future. At the same time there will be increased pressure from Dublin. Fianna Fail and Irish capitalism in general are already quite clear about what went wrong – the Provos were too tardy in their surrender to imperialism. They didn’t give enough and they will reckon that a new dramatic capitulation that is clearly total may yet win unionism over. Sinn Fein’s election propaganda was support for the Agreement, the boast that they were best placed to get further peace grants from Britain and the EU and finally a law and order ticket. The have already set up unofficial policing in some areas but can only fully operate their new programme if they sign up to the real police and give unconditional and full support to the state.

While the nationalist working class voted in support of the Agreement yet again, this time they selected the Republicans to lead the demands for implementation. These Republicans promised equality and the perception is that they will be harder and more militant in confronting the British. Support is now tinged with a certain impatience to see the democratic society that they believe is hidden somewhere inside the deal. There are two illusions here. One is that the Agreement contains reform. The other is that Sinn Fein will be able to produce that reform. The opposite is the case.

The ghost of Good Friday has only survived on the back of constant retreat and concession by the Provos. This process will continue into the future. In past blockages to implementation of the Agreement the Republicans allowed things to move forward by conceding to unionist demands. Signing up to the Northern State without the GFA structures would please many of their new middle class voters. But it would alienate many traditional supporters and the capitulation demanded currently by the DUP would, at the moment, be several steps too far even for them. Gerry Adams has optimistically stated that the DUP are where the Ulster Unionists were six years ago. That is, the DUP will come round to dealing with and sharing office with Sinn Fein.

What this prompts is a reminder of where the Republicans were six years ago – promising significant steps to a united Ireland, disbanding of the RUC, support for Articles Two and Three of the southern constitution, ‘not a bullet, not an ounce’ and some lingering claim to be an opposition party. Holding on to all their support, while shifting their programme by as much again, even if it were possible, cannot but create severe strains in the movement. This does not herald a future for the republican ‘dissidents’ since their policy of repeating the past holds even less attraction.

The overall turnout for this election was relatively low by local standards and in part this reflects a section of the working class who have already turned away from the charade, although as yet to nothing very positive. In West Tyrone Dr. Kieran Deeny polled more than 6,000 votes to win a seat, standing as an independent solely on the fight to keep acute services at Omagh Hospital. This does not represent a conscious political break from the GFA process but it is a significant slap in the teeth to Sinn Fein.

While in office they were responsible for implementing the health cuts. It would be a gross mistake however to believe Dr. Deeny represents any sort of political alternative or that his election is an effervescence of class consciousness. It represents the fact that people no longer feel bound to support the GFA above all else. This represents both an acceptance of the Agreement and rejection of its necessary outcomes.

In the months to come the pro-Agreement analysts will come to accept that there will be no deal with Paisley. What they will not accept is that there was no deal with Trimble either. The fact is that the slow decline of Unionism continues while the British stand frustrated, unable to see any other base for their presence in Ireland. The main resistance party, Sinn Fein, have surrendered. They surrendered first to Fianna Fail and Irish capital before being led by them to surrender to the British. Now, even in this instant of capitulation, the British are unable to underpin victory with stable institutions. This instability provides proof that the contradictions of imperialist rule will continue to provide anti-imperialist politics, socialist politics, with an objective basis.

Accepting or challenging British imperialism?

All the parties in the Northern elections agreed on one thing – that British imperialism was the mechanism that could guarantee the future of the Irish people. The rivalry between them was about what programme they should lobby the British to adopt. No-one challenged the British right to rule and only Sinn Fein made symbolic protest when the British indicated that they would once again switch off the lights in the comic-opera assembly

However the suspension of the assembly – effectively for the fifth time if we include the odd glitch when abortive attempts were made to re-establish the Good Friday structures, means that there is a crisis of British rule and that, despite its overwhelming support, it is unable to offer a stable solution for the North or a democratic solution for the Irish population as a whole.

In this situation the socialist movement, as a potential leadership in waiting, able to offer an alternative to imperialist rule, have an importance out of proportion to the tiny vote they attract.

However the election campaign in the North shows that the organisations of the Marxist left are unable to mount even the bare bones of a political challenge to imperialism and are in fact locked in a strategic crisis where the interests of their individual organisations blind them utterly to the interests of the working class as a whole. The left disgraced themselves with their intervention, but as they had no influence to begin with that is an issue for the future of working class self organisation rather than a real factor in the election today.

The Left?

Worth mentioning briefly is the wolf in sheep’s clothing – Billy Hutchinson of the PUP – not that Billy was of the left. The Progressive Unionist Party, a front organisation for the Ulster Volunteer Force, is an organisation of the far right, representing sectarian death squads. Billy only enters on the list because of the attempts by the Communist Party, Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, in the face of all the evidence and direct critiques from ourselves, to present Billy as a socialist, They only finally fell silent when Billy surfaced at the head of howling mobs attacking Catholic primary school children at Holy Cross. Billy’s electoral demise was entirely predictable, given his actual role, not as spokesman for Protestant workers, but as muscle for the Official Unionists of the UUP.

Also presented as the ‘left’ especially by the Communist Party, was the much loved Women’s Coalition. It was especially loved by local capitalist politicians and by the British press precisely because it was innocent of any left policies. Despite its name the Women’s coalition failed to prioritise the fight for progressive polices on women’s issues in an area where there is ferocious opposition to women’s rights. It had only two policies: women should be active in politics, even if the politics were those of utter reaction. Secondly Irish women should support imperialism and the Good Friday Agreement. The coalition was a good example of the old Stalinist theory of ‘stages’ pushed to absurdity.

The CP opposed fighting on socialist demands on the grounds that there was a preliminary stage of Irish independence to go through. Then they argued that democracy in the North was a necessary preliminary to this. Now the Women’s Coalition indicates that a preliminary stage of imperialist rule and sectarian division should also be supported. Unfortunately the voters who agreed with this view preferred to vote for the sectarians themselves rather than the Women’s Coalition. The electoral campaign of the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions deserves mention, even if they did not stand or formally endorse candidates. NICTU (or NIC, as they prefer to be called to avoid hurting unionist sensibilities) and some affiliate unions such as ATGWU and UNISON campaigned around a ‘bread and butter’ campaign that patronised workers. Workers shouldn’t bother their head with politics but restrict themselves to prices and wages. The fact that this line is always rejected by workers, who always vote on political grounds, is never an issue as the main role of the campaign is to avoid the necessity of the trade union movement taking up any progressive policies. The unions however did have one political position that they were determined to put.

Workers must vote to save the Agreement and bring back the Stormont assembly. The movement founded by Connolly and Larkin now had only one policy they were enthusiastic about – the return of an Assembly that cements British rule and that splits the working class between North and South and then splits it again in the North on sectarian lines. What makes the present position of the unions so utterly shameless is that they spent thirty years banning politics from the trade union movement on the grounds that they were divisive – even then, of course, it was only socialist and democratic politics that were banned.

Socialist Party

There was one organisation which tried to put the trade union line into practice. The Socialist Party stood Tom Black in East Belfast and Jim Barbour of the Fire Brigades Union in South Belfast (even though Barbour apparently isn’t a member of the Socialist Party). The SP candidates received utterly derisory votes. One commentator pointed out that Barbour’s vote of 167 was half that of the Natural Law Party in the last election – a group of cranks who believed in yogic flying! Black did little better on 176 votes.

This represents a serious crisis for the Socialist Party strategy in the North. Briefly summed up it can seen as a sort of pink unionism that links frantic support for a Stormont Assembly with the ‘gas and water’ municipal reformism dismissed by James Connolly over a century ago. This strategy has failed four times now. It failed when they tried to set up a ‘mass labour party’ with loyalist paramilitaries. It failed when they set up a ‘Labour Party’ for the pre-Stormont convention. Not only did the party collapse, it turned out to have nothing to say! It failed in the last election when they stood themselves and now it has failed utterly when they thought they could capitalise on Barbour’s prominence in the Fire Brigades Union.

The Barbour campaign represented another right-wing element of Socialist Party policy. For some years now they have operated as a handmaiden of the bureaucracy rather than their left opponents. Barbour’s candidacy represented this perfectly. Rather than a representative of rank and file fire workers sold out by the FBU bureaucracy, Barbour was the local representative of a bureaucracy that surrendered to the bosses and then rammed the sell-out through the branches. Even from a trade union perspective it is hardly surprising that Barbour got such a derisory vote on the day that his members got a 3.5% wage increase tied to productivity after the FBU promised them 40%!

One last element of the Socialist Party perspective deserves mention. There has for several years been a rather confused unity debate on the left. The SP has always demonstrated an absolute and politically sectarian refusal to participate or consider any unity proposals. Its case has been that the left is irrelevant but that the SP stands in a unique position in real unity with a section of the working class. The election shows how hollow these claims are in the North.

Socialist Workers Party

The narrow sectarianism of the Socialist Party is counterbalanced by the blatant opportunism of the Socialist Workers Party. Politically there was little to distinguish between the two campaigns. Yet again the workers were advised to ignore real politics and vote ‘bread and butter’ politics. Where the SP supported a Stormont executive the SWP ignored it. An election is held to a capitalist, colonial, sectarian structure that is in permanent crisis and whose survival is the main item on the agenda and the left tell workers to ignore the issue! Instead the SWP try to build an opportunist alliance with the Communist Party and Workers Party, with whom they should have nothing in common and who their own supposed programme sees as pro-capitalist parties! A hilarious meeting is held in Belfast where the WP say they are not interested in unity, the CP say that unity must be in support of the Women’s Coalition and the Good Friday Agreement. Other groups argue for opposition to the GFA and the SWP say the issue isn’t important!

The initiative falls apart under its own contradictions but the SWP go ahead with a mini alliance with the CP in Derry. Even the SWP hesitate to call the 2,257 vote of Eamonn McCann a victory. Contrasted with the 137 vote for running mate Marian Baur of the CP, McCann’s is clearly a personal vote, a fact underlined by the transfers to the SDLP and Sinn Fein (the votes splits 50-50 between the two parties, with a handful for the unionists). This indicates that building working class consciousness, the lynchpin of any Marxist intervention in elections, is clearly absent here.


Last, but very definitely least, we should mention the intervention of the republican opposition. A group of six republicans led by Tony McIntyre of ‘the Blanket’ website endorsed the McCann campaign. Nothing illustrates more clearly the bankruptcy of republicanism in modern Ireland. The majority of the signatories have spent their whole lives fighting for self-determination and a number have spent long periods in prison. They refuse to go along with republican capitulation but they not only fail to build a republican alternative but end up endorsing a candidate who says that the National Question doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be an issue!

The truth is that the strategic crisis of the left is not confined to the North. All the tricks of political sectarianism and blind opportunism can be found as readily in South and North Dublin as in South Belfast. Dirty deals behind the scenes, putting their parties before the class, forming alliances with the union bureaucracy against the class. These are all familiar themes.

The tragedy is that a working class resistance is possible. In the North a layer of traditional working-class republican vote has disappeared with no-one to vote for. In Dublin the one sizeable trade union demonstration against the bin charge sees rank and file members of SIPTU throw their union cards at SIPTU secretary Jack O’Connor. The Socialist Party stay well back while the SWP members merely looked confused.

There is only one alternative to imperialist rule in Ireland. That alternative is socialism. The Northern elections show that the left are throwing away a chance to lead the new wave of struggle and are in fact, helping to smother it.

John McAnulty

Northern Ireland Assembly Election Results

Party Seats Increase/Decrease Votes % Vote % Increase/Decrease
DUP 30 10 177944 25.71 7.49
SF 24 6 162758 23.52 5.89
UUP 27 -1 156931 22.67 1.43
SDLP 18 -6 117547 16.98 -4.98
Alliance 6 0 25372 3.68 -2.82
Independent 1 1 19256 2.79 2.22
1 -1 8032 1.16 -1.39
UK Unionist 1 -4 5700 0.82 -3.69

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