We carry an article by JM Thorn of Ireland’s Socialist Democracy on the Irish dimension of the upcoming election for British Parliament. Yet more proof that, even by the peculiarly undemocratic notions of bourgeois democracy, the North of Ireland remains a glaring peculiarity. Splintered Sunrise is currently doing a “Know Your Constituency” series with his usual wit and insight in the run up to the 6th of May. Required reading for followers of the Wee Province.
One of the many claims made for the peace process was that it would allow “normal politics” to assert itself in the north. This was underpinned by the assumption that the political settlement had resolved the constitutional question and weakened the communal based politics that had been dominant for so long. Since the Good Friday Agreement, and through subsequent agreements and negotiations, we have been have been assured by a range of range groups in society, most notably the trade union movement, that the advent of “normal politics” was at hand. What normal politics was defined as ranged from a focus by existing parties on economic and social issues to a complete realignment along left/right lines. This perspective even included some socialist groups who held out the hope for the development of class politics.
However, such a perspective really flew in the face of facts. For as the peace process has developed and the political settlement taken shape it has became clear that sectarianism, rather than weakening and fading away, has actually been strengthened. People in the north, both in terms of how they live and the attitudes they hold, are more divided than ever. This is driven to some degree by a political settlement that is built on the acceptance and preservation of communal division. The most obvious example is that Assembly members have to designate themselves as belonging to one community or the other in order to exercise a full vote. Every issue, from education to health, from economic development to the arts, is death with within a sectarian framework. This has been reinforced by openly sectarian organisations such as loyalists and the Loyal Orders being promoted and patronised by the state. Sectarianism in the north has now taken on an institutionalised form.
Despite all the evidence we were still being asked to believe that the current general election was going to herald a new form of politics. Much of this focused on the linkup between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservative Party. However, the Conservative’s promise to bring “non-sectarian normal politics” into the north and its commitment not to “enter any sectarian pact” was looking shaky even before the election was called. In the run up to the election, during the negotiations over the transfer of policing and justice powers, it was revealed that the Conservatives had sponsored secret talks between the DUP and the Unionists. It was reported that the agenda included the establishment of a new unionist formation in the north and the terms under which unionist MPs would support a post election Conservative government. The Conservatives were also giving indications that they would be prepared to change the workings of the Assembly to further favour unionism, and to peruse an explicitly pro-unionist line when dealing with the north. David Cameron publicly renounced the statement by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major that Britain had no economic or strategic interest in the north. (It should be remembered that this was part of the Downing Street Declaration, and had been one of the main points on which Sinn Fein promoted the peace process among its supporters.)
Alongside the Conservative talks, the DUP and UUP were also engaged in talks sponsored by the Orange Order. These focused on attempts to agree on unionist unity candidates to unseat nationalist MP’s in the forthcoming general election. Such efforts came to fruition when both the DUP and UUP announced they would be standing aside in Fermanagh/South Tyrone in favour of former chief executive of Fermanagh District Council, Rodney Connor. Though styling himself as a cross community “independent” Connor made his unionist leanings very clear and also pledged to take the Tory whip if elected. Despite its earlier commitment on pacts, this arrangement received the endorsement of the Conservatives. This prompted the resignation of a local Conservative official who denounced the party’s aim of introducing a new brand of non-sectarian national politics into the north as a “a total sham”. Following on from this the Orange Order in Sandy Row wrote to the UUP leader Reg Empey demanding that his party and the Conservatives agree to a similar deal for South Belfast in order to unseat the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell. Just before the close of nominations the DUP made the extraordinary offer of gifting the UUP an Assembly seat if they would give their candidate a free run in the constituency. Nothing came of this but it did expose the lengths that unionists were prepared to go to in order to remove a Catholic/Nationalist representative.
The initial response of nationalists was to denounce the unionist pact as sectarian. But this soon gave way to their own form of sectarianism, with Gerry Adams calling on the SDLP to enter a pact with Sinn Fein to counter that of the unionists. His only justification for this was the claim that Sinn Fein was responding to what its members had “been getting on the doorsteps”. When Margaret Ritchie rejected his proposal Adams accused her of having “failed her first leadership test”. But what does it say of the leadership of Sinn Fein that they should pander to the base sectarian attitude of keeping the other lot out. Is this really so different to the motivation of the unionists? The call for a nationalist pact demonstrates the complete decay of Sinn Fein as a political party. Even the basic ideal of Irish Republicanism, of uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, has been abandoned in favour of mobilising people on a communal basis. However, such a trajectory is inevitable once it has been accepted that the struggle in Ireland is not one for self-determination but between two communities.
In many ways the election within nationalism is an irrelevance, as it will not change anything no matter who comes out on top. The only dynamic is the battle within unionism and how well the anti-power sharing TUV performs. A good election for them, in which they may not win seats but do establish themselves as a major force within unionism, will have a destabilising affect on the DUP and their ability to maintain support among their ranks for a continuation of power sharing. The general election will also serve as an indictor of the next year’s Assembly election. I f the results suggest a three way split within unionism the prospects for the continuation of the Assembly and executive in their current form are poor. What unionist leader would serve under a Sinn Fein first minister? In these circumstances there would be pressure to push the system towards “voluntary coalition” and then unionist majority rule. Indeed, the Conservatives, who are likely to be in Government at the time, and possibly dependent on the support of the UUP and DUP, have already indicted that they are prepared to introduce such changes.
So much for new politics coming through in the general election. If anything the north is sinking back into the political divisions that marked the old Stomont. This is even more the case now that the cross community Alliance party, which had styled itself as the official opposition, has joined the executive. 27 April 2010