By Frances Davis
In the north of Ireland the election was dominated by two factors: the economic situation and austerity; and the political and peace process. Sinn Fein have been at the sharp end of the fight against austerity and in resisting Tory welfare `reform’ cuts from being implemented in the six counties. They have also been in an on-going struggle to defend the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement against an anti-agreement offensive of unionism and the Tory-led government, which has attempted to stall and roll back progress.
In the 7 May General Election, the overall balance was largely unchanged. Whilst Sinn Fein and the main unionist parties’ percentage share of the votes remained broadly static, the SDLP saw a fall in their vote by 2.6 per cent (losing some 11,000 votes). The Alliance party, despite losing a seat, saw its vote increase by 2.5 per cent.
Sinn Fein fought the campaign on a left platform, with the issue of taking on the Tories in fighting austerity and defending the peace process at the fore. They did this in the teeth of a sectarian, right-wing unionist opposition, which presented a `pact’ in key areas with the sole aim of preventing the election of Sinn Fein MPs. Despite increasing the overall vote by some 4,000 votes, Sinn Fein lost one MP, as a direct result of the sectarian pact, and retained four. Sinn Fein’s vote significantly increased in some areas, in Newry Armagh and North Belfast, where the anti-Sinn Fein unionist deal was in place, and in South Belfast, where the party’s vote increased by 13 per cent.
Sinn Fein incumbent Paul Maskey was returned in West Belfast, adding around 2,000 votes to his majority and gaining over 50 per cent of the vote. In Newry Armagh Mickey Brady took the seat for Sinn Fein, improving on the majority of his predecessor Conor Murphy. And party incumbents Pat Doherty and Francie Molloy also retained their seats with majorities of over 10,000 each.
In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew was defending a seat with a majority of just one vote, and while Sinn Fein’s vote went up by nearly 2,000, sectarianism won the day with the single unionist `pact’ candidate Tom Elliot from the UUP taking the seat. Similarly, in North Belfast, Gerry Kelly received Sinn Fein’s highest vote ever in the constituency and increased the vote significantly, but the DUP’s Nigel Dodds held the seat, thanks to a similar unionist `pact’.
Meanwhile the SDLP saw their vote drop by around 11,000 votes overall, being pushed into third place in West Belfast, behind an anti-austerity candidate, and dropping votes in South Belfast where Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Mulleoir won an impressive vote.
Among the unionist parties, the UUP had a marginal recovery, after being wiped out at the last election, and now have 2 MPs, taking one from the DUP, who remain on eight (having lost one and gained one). Willie McCrea, a hard line DUP right-winger epitomising the worst elements of regressive and bigoted unionism, was defeated by the UUP’s Danny Kinahan, regarded as representing a relatively more moderate unionism. Despite increasing their percentage vote across the six counties, the Alliance lost their seat in East Belfast (Peter Robinson’s former seat) to the DUP.
Overall, the election indicates no dramatic change. Within nationalism, Sinn Fein are in an ever-more hegemonic position. Unionism remains dominated by the UUP and DUP, with a number of other smaller parties, some to the right (UKIP, TUV) and also the more moderate Alliance Party. In other words, unionism remains more fractured.
Some small anti-austerity parties also won some support in areas of Belfast but it has been Sinn Fein who have led the fight against the cuts in a very difficult period, confronted with both the weight bearing down by the Tory government and unionism’s failure to engage in any serious joint defence of the economic attacks on the population.
The next period is going to see a sharp deepening of this twin struggle against austerity and in defence of the peace process. The Tory government has made clear, in the name of `rebalancing the economy’ that they intend to try to force through the welfare cuts which Sinn Fein have so far held back. Reneging on agreements made at Stormont House, they are set on re-writing this and forcing through the welfare `reforms’ already in place here. George Osborne wants cuts of 5.25 per cent of GDP, which, in the six counties means inflicting the most far reaching, swingeing cuts seen to date. Cuts envisaged overall of £45bn could mean cuts of around £800 million in the north of Ireland, on top of the huge year-on-year cuts already imposed. Whilst it is not clear yet where the axe will fall, it is evident that this could decimate public services and living standards, drive down wages and put people out of work, as more money is taken out of the local economy.
For the people of the north of Ireland, where only 1.3 per cent voted for a Tory candidate, and where there are no Tory MPs elected, there is no mandate whatsoever for Tory austerity. And in the context of a society coming out of conflict, inflicting more cuts can only add to the existing political strains and tensions with a new economic crisis on the horizon.
In terms of the peace process, the past five years of Tory-led government rule has seen increasing attempts, in collusion with unionists, to roll back and stall progress and unpick the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.
Sinn Fein has made clear it will be continuing to resist austerity and not allow the peace process to be driven backwards. As party President Gerry Adams put it after the election:
`The newly re-elected Tory Government in London is wedded to austerity and this presents severe challenges for society and citizens in the North. These include the threat of more destructive cuts to the North’s budget and to the social welfare system as well as a referendum that could remove the North from the EU against the wishes and the interests of citizens here. It is now clearer than ever that austerity is the price of the Union. Sinn Fein’s immediate focus is to work with others to confront these challenges.’
Martin McGuinness echoed this and also urged all of the parties to work together to defend peoples interests against the Tory attacks: `The actions of the Tory party over the last five years have had a negative impact on the management of the political process and has been disastrous in terms of our budget, our economy and our people. The Tories are now threatening further savage cuts to our budget and to welfare… These Tory polices, which undermine the Executive’s ability to deliver public services and look after the most vulnerable in society, will continue to fail all of our people and our economy. It is time for all of the local parties to work together on behalf of all the people and public services particularly in health, education and welfare.’
In Britain, it is important that, as the left discusses the next steps after the election, there remains solidarity with Ireland, both in building alliances against austerity and in supporting the continued progress of the political process. A serious fight-back against the Tory attacks is already taking place in the north of Ireland. This is being led by Sinn Fein, who, as a left, pro-Irish unity party, is fighting austerity in both the north and south of Ireland, and, like Syriza in Greece, are seeing a significant rise in their support. The left here has to take every opportunity to link up with and support that struggle in the coming weeks and months.