North of Ireland - Polarisation at the polls leaves Stormont suspended in mid-air

Voters in the north of Ireland have delivered their verdict on the Stormont Assembly. As we have consistently explained the Good Friday Agreement, and the institutions of devolution associated with it, could never begin to solve the problems facing ordinary working people no matter what their background. Indeed the divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been wider. The election result itself demonstrates a further polarisation in the shape of Paisley's DUP becoming the main Unionist Party, while Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP as the main Nationalist party.

Voters in the north of Ireland have delivered their verdict on the Stormont Assembly. This toothless devolved body was established as part of the so-called 'peace process' linked to the Good Friday Agreement. We have explained since its inception that it represented a scheme to share power between representatives of the main sectarian parties more than any attempt to solve the problems facing ordinary working people. It could never address the vital problems of health, housing and education, nor the wider questions of the border and the national question. It did not have the power to do so. In any case none of the establishment parties listed above is prepared to challenge the free market system which lies hidden beneath the sectarian quagmire. Nevertheless enormous illusions were sown in this agreement. Those illusions are gradually being eroded by real life experience.

As we have consistently explained the Good Friday Agreement, and the institutions of devolution associated with it, could never begin to solve the problems facing ordinary working people no matter what their background. It was a cruel deception, which promised peace to the communities of Catholic and Protestant workers, but was unable to deliver. It was a lie. There has been no peace. Sectarian beatings and killings have continued. Communities have become increasingly divided.

Election results

                                         1998                                    2003

Turnout                           68.84%                                  64.8%

Number of Seats

UUP                                     28                                      27
(Ulster Unionist Party led by David Trimble. Pro-agreement)

SDLP                                   24                                      18
(Social Democratic and Labour Party. 'Moderate' Nationalists, pro-agreement)

DUP                                     20                                      30
(Democratic Unionist Party. Led by Rev Ian Paisley. Anti-agreement)

Sinn Fein                             18                                       24
(Pro-agreement. Led by Gerry Adams)


Indeed the divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been wider. The election result itself demonstrates a further polarisation in the shape of Paisley's DUP becoming the main Unionist Party, while Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP as the main Nationalist party.

This gulf was created and nurtured by British imperialism in order to divide and rule, to protect their system in Ireland from the very real threat of united working class action. In carving up the living body of Ireland through partition British imperialism unleashed a "carnival of reaction" just as the great socialist James Connolly had predicted.

Those who created this mess are utterly incapable of solving it. Instead of peace what they have built are lots of "peace-lines" - brick walls, iron fences and barbed wire to divide communities still further. The British and Irish governments and the sectarian parties all represent the past, they have nothing progressive to say about the future. The failed policies of sectarian politicians have only served to widen the gulf into a chasm.

Temporary agreements between these sectarian politicians to share ministerial responsibilities at Stormont could never even begin to solve the underlying cause of this crisis. That has now been proven by five years real life experience, although big illusions in the agreement still exist in the population.

The reality of the last five years has been that remaining within the straitjacket of the capitalist system, sectarian politicians and government officials from Ireland and Britain have been trying to create a better environment in which big business could make money, a better environment in which to exploit Catholic and Protestant workers alike. What none of them could do, even in a boom, because of the limits imposed by the profit system, is build houses, hospitals and schools, create jobs or eradicate poverty pay. These social conditions, which are an inevitable fact of life in capitalist society, serve to fuel sectarian division, fear and hate. They are played upon and used as propaganda weapons by sectarian politicians. The Democratic Unionist Party, for example, has had some success with the argument 'we've made all the concessions, and we've got nothing in return.' In the absence of any improvement in their own lot, and without any real alternative on offer, it is inevitable that such propaganda has an impact within the Protestant community.

It is not ruled out even now that some kind of unstable deal could still be done to resurrect the Stormont assembly, though that now seems highly unlikely. The DUP fought on a programme of renegotiating the agreement. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have stated that this is ruled out. In reality the renegotiating the DUP leaders want is the exclusion of Sinn Fein. They will demand the complete decommissioning of all the Provisionals' weapons, and if they comply, the disbandment of the Provisional IRA. They will always find a further step, a further demand. To be clear there is nothing in common between the Marxists opposition to the Agreement based on exposing it as a sham which could solve nothing for working class people; and the DUP's opposition which is based on a reactionary position of maintaining the sectarian divide.

It is unlikely that there will be any new negotiation of the agreement, despite the vote for the DUP, or the successful implementation of the current one. The only certainty is that no such agreement, new or old, can ever meet the aspirations of the nationalist community for a united Ireland, nor assuage the fears of Protestants, stirred up by the sectarian parties. Such agreements assume the continuation of a sectarian divide. In fact they rest upon that division. One would search in vain for any mention in these agreements of any talk of saving jobs, or investing in public services. They consist of this or that compromise by each sectarian party, to allow them to sit in the same room with each other without causing uproar in their own ranks. When they eventually sat in that room however, they all proceeded to support privatisation, and other anti-working class measures.

In reality the national and social questions are inextricably bound together. Capitalism can no more offer decent housing or healthcare to the people of Ireland than it can in Britain or anywhere else. None of these problems can be resolved on the basis of capitalism. Whatever differences the sectarian parties have, they are all equally wedded to the market economy. It is this system, capitalism, which lies at the heart of all the problems facing all Irish working people.

These elections were for seats in an assembly which is currently suspended for the fourth time in its short existence. It has not met for over a year and yet is still consuming a staggering £30 million annually. A year ago we wrote that the assembly's suspension demonstrated that this so-called democracy could be switched on and off like water from a tap in Westminster. In reality, whilst they found it easy to switch it off they will now find it very difficult to turn back on.

The result of the election confirms the process of polarisation taking place in the six counties. On the one hand we have the victory of Paisley's anti-agreement DUP, and a strengthening of the anti-agreement elements inside Trimble's UUP. As a result Trimble himself is finished. His outspoken opponents David Burnside and Jeffrey Donaldson have been elected to the assembly and will be bolstered in their anti-agreement stance by the vote for the DUP. Donaldson immediately called on Trimble to resign, if he were to succeed Trimble in the leadership of the Ulster Unionists, the leaders of both unionist parties would be against the agreement.

The smaller parties were squeezed out by a polarisation between the main parties, particularly the DUP and Sinn Fein. Billy Hutchinson of the loyalist PUP lost his seat while David Ervine managed to cling on to his.

The Women's Coalition meanwhile lost their seats as a consequence of this process of polarisation. At the same time, we have the continued rise of Sinn Fein which, in these elections, overtook the SDLP as the main nationalist party. According to the rules of the devolved assembly the leader of the victorious party is meant to become First Minister, while the leader of the biggest party from 'the other side' must be the deputy. This would mean Paisley and Adams! These people, remember, have the temerity to call us utopian.

The fall in turnout at the polls, down by 4 percent on the 1998 election, confirms the growing disillusionment with the assembly. Supporters of the agreement in the leadership of Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the UUP point to the fact that the agreement was endorsed by a majority of the population in a referendum. Of course, as we pointed out at the time, the people were voting for peace. But it was a lie. They voted for peace, that is understandable but they didn't vote to set up a costly assembly that never meets, is suspended by Westminster and in any case has proven itself utterly incapable of intervening to prevent the haemorrhaging of jobs from industry in the north over the last few years.

This impotent assembly, laid off twelve months ago, cannot begin to solve the day to day problems of ordinary working people no matter what their background, let alone the entire future of Ireland. Therefore its passing, if that is what this is, should not be mourned. Without power sharing however, what does the future hold for Sinn Fein? Adams and co. tied their fate to the assembly. The DUP demand more concessions, yet in truth they will never be satisfied. The devolution they support does not include the participation of Sinn Fein. Although they favour devolution, direct rule from London will be a good second best.

No doubt many of Sinn Fein's supporters genuinely want a republic. Their leaders, their strategy and their programme however can never achieve this goal. Those who genuinely want to struggle for a republic, especially the youth, must now look for a new path. Their thirty year campaign of 'armed struggle' failed and now power sharing has led them up another blind alley. The struggle for a republic cannot be separated from the struggle against the capitalist system. The idea that workers and youth should 'wait till the question of the border is solved' has led nowhere. Eighty years of waiting is long enough. A republic is not going to be negotiated with the southern government, British imperialism and unionism. A Workers' Republic, a socialist republic is the only means of solving not only the national question but also the problems facing workers and youth from all backgrounds.

The Belfast agreement did not represent a single step in the direction of reuniting Ireland. Yet the nationalist political leaders sowed illusions in the population that this was the solution to all their problems. It is not. It never was. From the beginning this deal was a cruel trap and a deception.

In reality the establishment of the devolved body itself represented a capitulation of that struggle by the Provisional IRA. It wasn't even a gesture towards Irish unity. It amounted to an acceptance of British rule and an acceptance of partition. If the devolved assembly is reconvened it can solve nothing and will lead to a new impasse. If they fail to resurrect it, that too will create an impasse. In fact, leaving this or that temporary accord to one side, all roads under capitalism lead to impasse.

The leadership of the Provisionals has clearly abandoned all hope of a united Ireland for the foreseeable future. Their goal now is a new instalment of the failed power-sharing scheme at Stormont. Whether or not it can be resurrected at all now remains to be seen.

Sinn Fein has nevertheless emerged as the largest nationalist party in this election, in fact they were only 2.2 percent behind the DUP in the share of the vote. The SDLP have paid for the heavy emphasis of Blair and Ahern on negotiations with Adams. Sinn Fein has rapidly transformed itself into a respectable party and moved to the 'centre ground.' They have in many ways mimicked the New Labour methods of Blair and co. with the spin doctors, the suppression of critical thinking, and the abandonment of ideology and their traditional policy. The Stormont elections are organised on the transferable vote system, and Sinn Fein's leaders actually appealed to their voters to cast their second preference for the UUP, that is the pro-agreement unionists, to keep the DUP out. These people tell us that it is utopian to try to unite Catholic and Protestant workers to fight for their class interests, to fight for socialism, yet in the charged atmosphere of Irish politics they think it is more realistic to ask Catholics to vote for the Ulster Unionist Party!

Nevertheless Sinn Fein's continued rise may see them overtake the SDLP permanently but in so doing they are in reality morphing into them. The transformation of Sinn Fein into 'New' Sinn Fein, and the stalemate produced by the Stormont elections must provoke new crises, and splits between nationalists and republicans. In these circumstances there should be ample opportunities for the socialist element within republicanism to gain support. All roads to a republic on the basis of capitalism have led to dead ends, the only path left open is the struggle for socialism, for the Workers' Republic

According to the press the British government and the establishment have been shocked by the election results. Yet in the circumstances they were inevitable. Understandably many question the point of holding elections to a body that is not even going to meet. Against the background of the failure of the assembly to solve anything, a polarisation to 'either side' and a fall in turnout was always going to be the result. We explained this in March of this year:

"Elections to Stormont may indeed go ahead at the end of May, yet they could be further postponed by yet another failure on the part of all parties to come to an agreement, or equally by the fear of Blair and co of the outcome, which will surely see a further polarisation, and a strengthening not only of Sinn Fein but also of the hard-line anti-agreement elements of unionism. In the absence of a party of Labour this election will effectively be a sectarian head count. There will be a battle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP on the one hand, and between the UUP and the DUP on the other, to determine which is the largest party on either side of the divide. Sinn Fein may well emerge as the largest nationalist party. Even if the UUP stay ahead of the DUP, the new UUP Assembly grouping will be much more anti-Agreement than the old. Within unionism the overall balance will swing strongly against the Agreement." (March 18, 2003)

Similarly in October 2002 we wrote,

"John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary, hopes that planned elections to the assembly next May will still go ahead. It is hard to see how you can hold elections for institutions that don't exist! If elections were held in the present climate, no doubt there would be a further polarisation, with growing support for the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP. How this would help matters is hard to imagine. Even then new temporary agreements are always possible, though far less likely, yet as we have always explained, temporary agreement or not, none of the daily problems of ordinary Catholic or Protestant workers would be addressed. Such unstable agreements will inevitably break down.

"The sectarian politicians will not negotiate themselves out of existence. The workers of all backgrounds cannot wait for new negotiations to drag out and slther back to square one again, while sectarian killing fills the vacuum. There is only one force capable of securing a lasting peace, only one force capable of defeating sectarianism and protecting all communities from attack. There is obly one force capable of taking on and defeating the source of all these problems - the capitalist system - and that is the united action of the working class. The working class and its organisations, beginning with the trade unions must intervene to take matters into their own hands." (October 22, 2002)

The decisive feature of politics in the north of Ireland remains the absence of a party of the working class. While this continues to be the case all elections represent little more than 'a sectarian head count.' Meanwhile jobs continue to be destroyed along with vital services. Nothing is done to resolve the crisis in health or housing.

Disillusioned with the UUP and the failure of the assembly many from the Protestant community will have stayed at home whilst others will have switched in frustration to the DUP.

Meanwhile in the Catholic communities illusions remain high - or more accurately all hopes have been pinned on this agreement, and Sinn Fein's part in it, improving their lot.

There is no party in the six counties able to address itself to these problems from a class point of view. There were some 'socialist' candidates in these elections but they received derisory votes. This would not matter if they had at least advanced bold socialist ideas and attracted towards themselves a new layer of workers and youth. In other words, had they used the elections as a platform to advance a bold revolutionary socialist programme. Or had they at least stood to publicise an appeal to the unions to set up a non-sectarian party of Labour. In other words, participating in the election not so much to win seats as to raise the banner of socialism. Not watering down policies in order not to frighten people off, but above all to raise the need for workers' unity to cut across sectarianism.

If the only solution to the problems of Ireland is the creation of a workers' republic, then it is abc to point out that the most vital and urgent task is the building of workers unity. This is not easy and could hardly be achieved overnight. Nonetheless surely socialists should take every opportunity, including participating in elections, to raise the banner of workers unity, to raise the idea of socialism from behind the screen of sectarianism.

Once again the potential for that unity was demonstrated at the magnificent anti-war demos and in the struggles of the trade unions in the past twelve months. All those who have argued that workers' unity is impossible or utopian have been proven wrong on many occasions in the past, and will be proven wrong again. In fact what has been proven to be utopian is the idea that any one of the problems facing Irish workers can be solved by sectarian parties, by Stormont, or by any government or body within the confines of the capitalist system. What is utopian now is to continue to believe that Stormont can play any role in solving any of the problems facing working class people in the six counties.

The hardliners, who have been gaining the upper hand within Unionism for some time, want a return to the idea of a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. The victory of the DUP means a crisis within unionism, beginning with the UUP. The DUP too will be under pressure to make compromises. Yet neither offer any vision of hope for the future for Protestant workers and their families.

A year ago we reported a poll in the Belfast Telegraph found that support for Stormont had fallen significantly, especially among Protestants, since its suspension: "But the key question in this poll was this: Do you want the agreement to work? Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes: 92% among Catholics, 60% among Protestants, 75% overall. That is the lowest it has been in four years. A new election if it were to take place would see a further strengthening of the hard-line elements within Unionism. Meanwhile the nationalists have cruelly raised illusions, demonstrated in these statistics, which will inevitably be dashed against the rocks of Stormont's failure - either its failure to meet, or if it does meet its failure to solve a single one of their problems."

A majority of the population voted for the creation of the assembly. That is not a surprise; as we have already explained it was sold as peace to a population weary of sectarian killing. After the horrors of the last three decades, the majority of people in the North want peace. Of course! Who does not want peace? But the question is: how do we get it? How is a genuine and lasting peace to be achieved? The only way to get peace is by dealing with the real problems facing the people in their everyday lives. This is the only way to tackle the social roots of sectarianism. That means fighting against privatisation, fighting for better pay, better housing and against job cuts.

There was nothing in the Good Friday Agreement that could achieve any of these aims, in fact there was nothing progressive in it at all, and we did not support it, although it got a majority in the referendum. We were in a minority, but we told the truth. Today too, we must honestly say to the people of the six counties: this deal did not solve your problems, nor will any new version. Blair and Ahern are adamant that despite the vote for the DUP there will be no renegotiation. No doubt a new game of semantics will now ensue in which some kind of 'review' of at least some of the details of the agreement, its implementation rather than its content, will be offered. This will be paraded as a new step forward and new talks will follow that can drag on and on and on. In any case if the present deal is resurrected in any form it will not be able to solve anything.

The failure of Stormont is proof once again that British imperialism cannot solve the crisis it has created. They - along with the supporters of the agreement in the leadership of the establishment parties - are now scurrying around like all the king's horses and all the king's men trying to find a way to put Humpty together again. Even if they do cobble together new temporary agreements between sectarian parties, this will offer no solution to the problems of the working class. Such unstable agreements will inevitably break down. The sectarian politicians will not negotiate themselves out of existence. For now the DUP are able to return to their favourite pastime - talks about talks. They will be under pressure to do a deal with Sinn Fein. Even if this were possible, no such deal would have anything to offer workers from any background. But such a deal is hardly likely. With the British and Irish governments refusing to renegotiate we are left with a stalemate. Direct rule from Westminster will continue whilst like the three wise monkeys, the leaders of the pro-agreement parties, will continue with the pretence that the agreement remains intact. The current crisis within unionism will be mirrored by a crisis in the nationalist parties, the SDLP having lost their predominance to Sinn Fein, and Sinn Fein themselves because their strategy of power sharing is now left suspended in mid-air.

The key to the situation remains the fact that there is no mass party that represents the independent interests of working class and young people in Northern Ireland. The main Assembly parties may squabble and argue on sectarian issues but they have a lot in common when it comes to social and economic issues. None of them are prepared to challenge the profit system, they are all firmly wedded to the continuation of capitalism. Trade unionists in threatened workplaces, in the fire service, teachers, nurses, public and private sector workers in general, were not represented in these elections. An independent party of ordinary working people, based on the trade unions, with a socialist programme to transform society is what is required. Trade unionists from all backgrounds should push their own unions to participate in a conference of Labour, with links to both British Labour and the Irish Labour Party, on a non-sectarian basis to begin the process of setting up a real Labour Party in the north, to represent the interests of ordinary workers. Such a party could gain an enormous echo and begin to cut the ground from under the feet of all the sectarian parties.

We repeat again, the working class and its organisations, beginning with the trade unions must intervene to take matters into their own hands. That is the urgent task of the hour.

These elections only confirm the impotence of British imperialism to repair the historic damage it has done in tearing Ireland apart and, at the same time, the crises within both unionism and republicanism. None of the establishment parties can do anything for the constituencies they claim to represent. Those unionist politicians who trade on the fear of 'too many concessions being made to the republicans' have nothing to say to Protestant workers about defending their jobs or improving their services. That would require a struggle against capitalism and for socialism in Ireland and internationally. Meanwhile those republican leaders who continue to sow illusions that the problems of Catholic workers can be solved by sharing office with the leaders of other sectarian parties in the devolved management of capitalism, those who argue that 'labour should wait', have only led to a new impasse. In fact, as we have consistently argued, all roads lead to impasse - all roads except one that is, the struggle for a Workers' Republic, the struggle for a socialist Ireland.

In the long run without the intervention of the working class there will be a new descent into chaos and violence. Under modern conditions there can be no solution anywhere to the national problem within capitalism. We have entered a new period in world history dominated by wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Ireland will not be immune from this turbulence. The Irish working class will take their rightful place in the struggle for socialism in the coming years. United by the need to struggle over social and political questions, the working class alone can provide the only realistic lasting peace in a Workers' Republic, a Socialist united Ireland linked by a free and voluntary federation to a Socialist Britain and a Socialist United States of Europe.