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Elections lay bare the contradictions of imperialist rule

John McAnulty

31st November 2003

The outcome of the elections in the North of Ireland, in factual terms, is simple enough.

• Among nationalists Sinn Fein triumphed over the traditional leadership of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
• The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) scored a significant victory over its rivals in the Ulster Unionist Party and emerged as the largest party.
• There was a collapse in the vote of the smaller parties.
• There is now a significant two-thirds majority among unionists against the Good Friday Agreement and the progress towards a final British settlement in Ireland has now ground to a halt.

Election Results


% Vote
 % Increase/Decrease
UK Unionist

There is however one overwhelming fact that dominates even the significant changes registered by the election.  After the seemingly pointless election to a structure that would not exist lies the bare bones of British colonial rule led by Secretary of State Paul Murphy. He will certainly maintain the suspension of the Assembly, in effect collapsing for a fifth time the discredited structures of an agreement that supposedly resolved for all time the question of Irish self-determination.

This closedown will mark the final and formal switch-off of the life support for an Agreement that has been dead for some time.  It will not re-emerge, even in the battered and distorted form that the British had twisted it into, as they constantly squeezed it to the right in an attempt to placate unionism.  The idea that there is some formula that will lead Ian Paisley to form a government with Sinn Fein is sheerest fantasy.  Just as fantastic is the idea that the British will break with their unionist base to save the agreement or that Dublin will do anything about the continuation of British rule.

The statement by the governments after the result, directed more to the DUP but equally applicable to Sinn Fein, in effect said ‘So What?  What are you going to do about it?’  Behind the cant about respecting parties’ mandates was the sober call for them to live up to their responsibility i.e. follow the British agenda or face a long period of exclusion from office. Despite being the largest party the DUP cannot lead a return to unlimited sectarian rule and despite the undisputed mantle of leader of Northern Nationalism Sinn Fein face the same demands for humiliating surrender they couldn’t quite meet in the farcical deal that kicked off the election.

DUP Victory

The DUP victory is part of a familiar pattern going back at least to the start of the troubles and the premiership of Terrence O’Neill.  A ‘moderniser’ backed by Britain in a desperate attempt to stabilise imperialist rule falls to bigots on the right and a new rightwing leader is then eventually persuaded to support a new British deal. But this too proves too much for the bigots who now lead a new attack.  The spiral has continued until the ‘reform’ on offer is an Agreement that enshrines sectarianism, colonial rule and rules out Irish self-determination more or less indefinitely and this time the reformer is the arch-bigot Trimble!

The rule within unionism is that the biggest bigot will eventually rule the roost.  Trimble, a former organiser for the semi-fascist Vanguard movement of the early and mid-seventies, elected leader on the strength of sectarian posturing at Drumcree, was believed to have enough sectarian capital to keep the majority of unionists on board.  In the event Trimble himself didn’t believe this.  At the slightest sign that he was being outflanked on the right he would break from the Agreement and demand major modifications that were always accepted by the British.

Trimble has fought in vain and is now a minority figure in unionism, easily outweighed by the DUP and the critics in his own party who are openly calling for his head.  The idea that the DUP, whose name is synonymous with sectarian hatred, who have come to the position of being the major party on the basis of expressing that bigotry, will now share power with Sinn is too ludicrous to consider for even an instant.  A DUP first minister and Sinn Fein Deputy First minister?

The ‘winning team’

‘The winning team’ – the Sinn Fein election slogan – is clearly justified in terms of votes cast and seats won.  It’s quite laughable when applied to their overall strategy.  The Good Friday Agreement has involved them in constant retreat.  At their last outing the republicans decommissioned a large element of the IRA arsenal and indicated that they would give unconditional support to the British Statelet.  The payoff was supposed to be a series of concessions involving the return of former activists who were on the run, the demolition of some army bases no longer required and moves by Unionism to allow the restoration of the Stormont Assembly and Executive.  Instead they got a virtual election to a phantom assembly.

The party fought the election promising an ‘Ireland of Equals.’  In fact everything afterwards will show that it is utterly incapable of delivering for its voters, as opposed to its functionaries, who now demand no more than equality within partition and reassurance in the illusion that a united Ireland is in some sense inevitable.  The unionist veto on the very operation of the Agreement, never mind the decisions taken within its structures, is a hard lesson that its supporters are not keen to appreciate and its leaders even less to openly acknowledge.  Already pundits speculate that the party’s strategy involves wiping out the SDLP in the next European and Westminster elections, but hypothesising about the next elections only illuminates the hollowness of the successes of the ones’ past.  The question becomes too readily asked, what for?  Or as the British have said – So what?

To understand the outcome of the vote we have to contrast the votes within unionism and nationalism.  The vote shift within unionism is much less dramatic, but it reflects a genuine strategic debate – not pro and anti reform, but rather if sectarian privilege is best defended from within or without the Good Friday Agreement.  In contrast there is only one strategy within Irish capitalism – that is support for the Agreement.  The battle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP was about whom was best placed to advance the strategy of meeting the demands of the Irish establishment for stability and accommodation of the interests of British imperialism.  The DUP defeated Trimble – Sinn Fein became the SDLP.  To be more accurate Sinn Fein has now become a Northern Fianna Fail.  As with Fianna Fail in the twenties they have made the transition from militarism to right wing capitalist politics. The lies and corruption necessarily involved in that transition make them a particularly dangerous political force, combining the ruthlessness of the militarist with the endemic dishonesty of the Irish elite.

The smaller parties

The 108 seats in the Stormont assembly, based on a population of 1.5 million, were designed to bribe everyone. The initial elected convention to negotiate the Agreement was structured at least partly so that the thugs in the loyalist death squads would win seats and this was further promoted by the PR system in the Stormont Assembly.  Fortunately the thugs of the UDA lacked the political skills to retain seats.  The UVF front organisation, the Progressive Unionist Party, managed to win seats and one MLA, Billy Hutchinson, was touted by the Socialist Party, in the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and a number of other groups on the British left as a socialist!  Left enthusiasm declined somewhat when Billy emerged as the spokesman of Loyalist mobs attacking Primary schoolchildren at Holy Cross school, but his departure is welcomed to the same extent that his sidekick, David Irvine’s, survival is mourned.

Less dangerous and more vacuous was the Women’s Coalition, a ‘postmodernist’ collection supported by the Communist Party.  Despite their name they generally stood back from supporting any issues of women’s rights and saw the latter in terms of women playing a more prominent role in the existing reactionary and sectarian political system.  Their only policy was to support imperialism and the Good Friday Agreement – at one stage defining themselves as unionist to do so! The only minor group with any material base was the Alliance Party based on the vain hope of non-sectarian unionism.  They were the only party to survive - just. The left disgraced themselves with their intervention, but as they had no influence to begin with that is an issue for the future of working class self-organisation rather than a real factor in the election today.

What next?

First there are the demands of unionism.  The DUP called for ‘A fair deal’.  This is the call of ‘white trash’ for the maintenance of their sectarian privilege.  A majority of unionists now call for that privilege to be protected by the dismantling of the Good Friday Agreement.  Nationalists voted overwhelmingly for it.

However it is the British State that will decide the next steps and their concern will be with their unionist base. When Trimble backed out of the last attempt to cement a deal what happened immediately was that British government’s commitments to the republicans were abandoned – a clear demonstration of British willingness to support unionism. It is unionist demands that will have effect despite ridiculous nationalist illusions that the default position is strengthened Irish government involvement in the North. The British will express this through a review of the Good Friday Agreement in which the nationalists will come under intense pressure to accept it is its re-negotiation. These attempts to put Humpty-Dumpty together will fail because, no matter what they say, there are in reality no circumstance in which the DUP would form a government with Sinn Fein.

British analysis suggests that the DUP may fail to retain their vote if they are unable to produce a formula for government or, alternatively, that the party may split into hard-liners and pragmatists.  What is noticeable about this is that it is a long-term strategy and is based on a long period of suspension of the Agreement. During this period the business of politics for those who support the Agreement will be lobbying the British colonial administration.

There are fewer difficulties in this for the unionists.  They have found the past 30 years of direct rule adequate in protecting their sectarian rights and holding the nationalists at bay.  Where some concessions have been made – for example in employment – they at least have the comfort of having made no concessions themselves. In the meantime there are a whole series of committees and quangos through which they can carry on political life.  It is perfectly correct that the early mass phase of the civil rights struggle brought down Stormont, but this was hastened by the unionists, even against British pleading, refusing to accept reform.

On the other hand there are difficulties for the republicans. There is plenty of business to do with the British in terms of troop reductions that the British want to make anyway, and ‘on-the-runs,’ those still formally wanted by the British State. What they crave most however, Governmental seats, are not on offer in the immediate future. At the same time there will be increased pressure from Dublin.  Fianna Fail and Irish capitalism in general are already quite clear about what went wrong – the Provos were too tardy in their surrender to imperialism. They didn’t give enough and they will reckon that a new dramatic capitulation that is clearly total may yet win unionism over.  Sinn Fein’s election propaganda was support for the GFA, the boast that they were best placed to get further peace grants from Britain and the EU and finally a law and order ticket.  The have already set up unofficial policing in some areas but can only fully operate their new programme if they sign up to the real police and give unconditional and full support to the state.

While the nationalist working class voted in support of the GFA yet again, this time they selected the republicans to lead the demands for implementation.  These republicans promised equality and the perception is that they will be harder and more militant in confronting the British.  Support is now tinged with a certain impatience to see the democratic society that they believe is hidden somewhere inside the deal.  There are two illusions here.  One is that the GFA contains reform.  The other is that Sinn Fein will be able to produce that reform.  The opposite is the case.

The ghost of Good Friday has only survived on the back of constant retreat and concession by the Provos.  This process will continue into the future.  In past blockages to implementation of the GFA the republicans allowed things to move forward by conceding to unionist demands.  Signing up to the Northern State without GFA structures would please many of their new middle-class voters but would alienate many traditional supporters and the capitulation demanded currently by the DUP would, at the moment, be several steps too far even for them.  Gerry Adams has optimistically stated that the DUP are where the Ulster Unionists were six years ago.  That is, the DUP will come round to dealing with and sharing office with Sinn Fein.  What this prompts is a reminder of where the republicans were six years ago – promising significant steps to a united Ireland, disbanding of the RUC, support for articles two and three of the southern constitution, ‘not a bullet not an ounce’ and some lingering claim to be an opposition party. Holding on to all their support while shifting their programme by as much again, even if it were possible, cannot but create severe strains in the movement.  This does not herald a future for the republican ‘dissidents’ since their policy of repeating the past holds even less attraction.

The overall turnout for this election was relatively low by local standards and in part this reflects a section of the working class who have already turned away from the charade, although as yet to nothing very positive. In West Tyrone Dr Kieran Deeny polled more than 6,000 votes to win a seat, standing as an independent solely on the fight to keep acute services at Omagh Hospital.  This does not represent a conscious political break from the GFA process but it is a significant slap in the teeth to Sinn Fein, who, while in office were responsible for implementing the health cuts. It would be a gross mistake however to believe he represents any sort of political alternative or that his election is an effervescence of class consciousness. It represents the fact that people no longer feel bound to support the GFA above all else, which represents both an acceptance of it and rejection of its necessary outcomes.

In the months to come the pro-agreement analysts will come to accept that there will be no deal with Paisley.  What they will not accept is that there was no deal with Trimble either.  The fact is that the slow decline of Unionism continues while the British stand frustrated, unable to see any other base for their presence in Ireland.  The main resistance party, Sinn Fein, have surrendered.  They surrendered first to Fianna Fail and Irish capital before being led by them to surrender to the British.  Now, even in this instant of capitulation, the British are unable to underpin victory with stable institutions.  This instability provides proof that the contradictions of imperialist rule will continue to provide anti-imperialist politics, socialist politics, with an objective basis.



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