By Frances Davis
This week, as Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams’ announced the party’s new Ministerial Assembly team, the party emerged from the fourth consecutive election this year which has seen Sinn Féin’s vote steadily rise – north and south of the border. The 5 May Assembly and council elections in the six counties saw a continuation of a trend in the north – that of an increase in support for Sinn Féin, and of endorsement for the Good Friday Agreement.
In the Assembly elections Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remained the largest parties. The DUP’s vote stayed more or less static on just under 30 per cent and Sinn Féin’s vote rose slightly overall to just under 27 per cent. The SDLP’s vote dropped by 1 per cent, down to 14.3 per cent, with the loss of two seats. The Ulster Unionist Party dropped 1.7 per cent, down to 13 per cent.
In some areas Sinn Féin’s vote increased significantly such as in West Tyrone by 6 per cent, in Foyle by 3 per cent and Fermanagh South Tyrone by 4 per cent. The Alliance vote increased to 7.6 per cent, in line with their improved vote at the Westminster election. The anti-Agreement Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) saw a drop in their vote from their high European election polling, down to 2.5 per cent, only narrowly gaining just one Assembly seat. These results continued a trend in favour of the least sectarian part of unionism, and a rejection of the most vociferously rejectionist party of unionism.
The council elections saw Sinn Féin’s vote increase, gaining 12 seats with 138 councillors. Sinn Féin significantly emerged as the largest party in Belfast City Council – an important achievement. The DUP were down 7 to 175, the SDLP down 14 to 87 and the UUP losing 16 seats with 99 councillors. The Alliance won 14 seats, with a total of 44 councillors elected and the TUV elected just 6 councillors. The greens retained their 3 seats, and others won 30.
The results take place in the context of the first ever term of the Assembly to be completed without suspension: incredibly, the first time this has happened since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Despite the fairly negative campaign of the SDLP and UUP, even though they themselves are part of the power-sharing Assembly executive, the verdict of the vote represents a clear endorsement for the ongoing progress being made. That anti-Agreement parties gained very small votes on the side of unionism, and negligible votes on the so-called republican rejectionist side, underlines the huge support for this first assembly term being completed. Secondly, despite the huge cuts imposed from the Tory government in Westminster, the fight against this, led primarily by Sinn Féin, and the alternatives being put forward by the party, clearly won support. Sinn Féin continues to be the hegemonic party of nationalism in the north, with the SDLP now reportedly in a crisis over their leadership as a result of their poor showing.
Within unionism, the DUP vote broadly held up in the Assembly elections, though less well in the councils. The UUP were thrown into deepening crisis following their poor vote, worsened by the comments of their leader’s response (labelling Sinn Féin as ‘scum’ in his election acceptance speech) being roundly denounced. The higher vote for the Alliance and poor vote for the TUV further underlines the lack of appetite for the rejectionist, sectarian agenda, in the context of the political process moving forwards.
The vote follows on from Sinn Féin’s successful election result in the southern General Election earlier in the year, which saw their vote rise to 10 per cent and with the election of 14 TDs. The recent Seanad election in the south also saw Sinn Féin win 3 Seanad seats.
Taking the elections in the two parts of Ireland this year (in the Dail and the Assembly), and on the basis of the actual first preference votes cast north and south (some 2.882m), Sinn Féin are in fact the third largest party on the island with 399,000 votes and 13.8 per cent. This is behind Fine Gael on 27.8 per cent and very closely behind Labour on 15 per cent, with Fianna Fail behind Sinn Féin on 13.3 per cent. As the only all-Ireland party (with the possible exception of the Greens who run separately north and south), Sinn Féin’s electoral support across the island of Ireland continues to be strengthened.
Moreover, Sinn Féin’s progressive, left alternative to the right wing cuts and austerity agenda, coupled with its resolute position on Irish reunification, is gaining more resonance. As one of the few mass left parties in Western Europe advancing a clear line of investment and growth to tackle the economic crisis, Sinn Féin are pointing the way forward, not only in Ireland but also more widely across Europe.
The significance of the election results are equally underlined by the timing: 5 May was the 30th Anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, followed by 9 other republican political prisoners who died in the H-blocks in the struggle for political status. The huge impact of the Hunger Strike, and the struggle in Long Kesh and by the republican women prisoners in Armagh, shaped the strategy and course of the Irish national struggle in the decades since. It did indeed represent a seismic turning point. The conference in London on 18 June to mark this momentous occasion in history will be an important opportunity to learn some key lessons. It will be a chance to discuss how to take the struggle forward today – in Ireland, in Britain and in the wider anti-imperialist struggle.
Conference 1981: a turning point in Irish history
Sat 18 June London Irish Centre, 52 Camden Square, NW1. 1pm-5.30pm
Registration: £5, payable to ‘June 1981 Conference’, PO Box 65845, London EC1P 1LS