North of Ireland elections

Support Sinn Féin struggle against Tory cuts and defence of peace process

By Tom Leary

The outcome of the latest elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly was broadly unchanged. But there was a modest setback for Sinn Féin which saw its representation fall by one Assembly member and its share of first preference votes dipped 2.9 per cent to 24 per cent. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) topped the poll once more with unchanged seats and 29.2 per cent of the vote, down just under 1 per cent.

The impact of the result has been gleefully and wildly exaggerated by the Unionist and Tory press. The outcome of the election means the composition of the Executive will be largely unchanged and the DUP and Sinn Féin will remain as leaders of the power-sharing arrangement in the Assembly.

The decisive election issue was austerity. The two leading parties, who are forced to work within Tory austerity budgets duly lost ground while a range of smaller parties gained modest percentage increases. The geographic concentration of the vote for the anti-austerity People Before Profit meant it was able to take a seat from Sinn Féin in its Republican heartland in West Belfast and a seat from the SDLP in Foyle. The SDLP also lost to the Greens in South Belfast.

Sinn Féin has led the resistance to Tory cuts in the assembly, often as a lone voice when all other forces were willing to capitulate. Most recently it won an extra £500 million to offset the effects of ‘welfare reform’, that is cuts to social welfare, even though Cameron threatened to bring down the Assembly if cuts are not made across the board. Yet these partial but significant successes are not widely understood outside policy making circles- and all of Sinn Féin’s political opponents and the media or in Westminster have an interest in hiding them.

Claims from liberal political forces that these results herald the beginning of ‘a new type of politics’ in the North are plain nonsense. The claim of being ‘neither Orange nor Green’, is supported in different ways by the Alliance party, the Greens, People Before Profit and the minuscule Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee. This attempts to promote the idea that partition is no longer important.  In reality, partition holds back the development of Ireland’s political economy, and Irish society in general.  Failing to outline a line of struggle for reunification is to accept partition. It also leads away from blaming the Tories for austerity in the North of Ireland, and pretending the source of austerity is the parties to the power-sharing arrangements.

In a prolonged struggle, such as the fight against austerity it is often the case that a minority of the population will become impatient or seek a short-cut. But declarations against austerity are not the same as effectively resisting it. Quitting the Executive in opposition to cuts would simply hand power to Unionists willing to implement the full extent of Tory austerity. This is the foolish line of Sinn Féin’s critics. It would also unravel the democratic gains of the Good Friday Agreement for no benefit to the population. The ‘new politics’ would look very like the old – unionist/Tory domination and economic stagnation.

The NI LRC secured a total of just 1,500 votes for 8 candidates.  This is less than the 1,800 Labour Party members resident in the six counties.  It is even less than the fringe vote for the Tories, just 2,500. Both parties are regarded as representing no-one in the North. Unfortunately, such a derisory vote will not stop Labour Unionists continuing to distract the Labour Party with demands for official candidates in future.

What the whole of Ireland including the North needs is more forces engaged in a determined and vigorous fight against austerity. This is the fight that Sinn Féin is leading.