The Euro election results in the North
Loyalist reaction the dominant theme at the SDLP’s deathbed
Andrew Johnson and John McAnulty
25th June 2004
Anyone seeking to understand the outcome of the European elections in the North of Ireland must first of all understand the extent to which the mix of colonialism, partition and sectarianism dominate local politics and force other issues of the agenda. This has always been the case and the effect has become even more exaggerated with the signing of the Good Friday agreement, the political collapse of republican consciousness, and the further institutionalising of sectarianism within the tiny statelet.
So it was that in the local elections all the debates about enlargement and a European constitution passed the local politicians by. What we had instead was a sectarian headcount that showed yet again that the unionists continue as a mass base for the British presence in Ireland and, with British support, are able to mount a veto on Irish Unity,
That wasn’t particularly news. What was news was a reinforcement and confirmation of the results of the last local elections, that the Good Friday agreement had exploded in British faces, decimating the two parties it was supposed to benefit most and confirming majority support for Sinn Fein and the DUP, who are not able to come to an agreement and leave the situation as a permanent instability. The British are desperately (and successfully) moving discussion towards a new settlement lightyears to the right of Good Friday. They are winning further compromises from Sinn Fein, but it is hard to imagine any deal that the loyalists would be willing to buy.
The raw results are:
The DUP continued to top the poll, with Jim Allister taking Ian Paisley’s old seat; Bairbre de Brun of Sinn Fein slaughtered a Hume-less SDLP; and the low-profile UUP man Jim Nicholson took the third seat without many people noticing.
The raw figures, on a low turnout of 51.7%, are as follows:
Allister (DUP) 175,761
On the unionist side the DUP confirmed their new-won dominance and even gained a couple of percentage points further over the UUP. The UUP have traditionally done badly in the European elections and Nicholson’s performance shows that they retain their hardcore base despite frequent predictions of collapse. The UUP may be on the ropes but it is not about to expire just yet. But there is a real political significance to the DUP’s recent dominance of unionism. As local nationalist commentator Brian Feeney has pointed out, the majority of unionists don’t want power-sharing even with the SDLP, don’t want devolution if it involves power-sharing, and won’t support any settlement that gives Catholics even paper equality. The DUP is performing well because it speaks to that sentiment. The claim that always followed arch-bigot Paisley’s topping of each European poll was that it was a tribute to the big fella’s personality. The fact that Allister, with all the personality of a wet dishcloth, got a higher percentage turnout speaks volumes for the waves of bigotry and reaction sweeping through unionism, a current given force by the realisation that Britain remain determined to defend their unionist base
SF face contradictions
The turnaround on the nationalist side – SF gaining a further 10 points and the SDLP dropping 12 – was dramatic and confirms the reversal in fortunes of the two parties. The decline in the SDLP appears to be terminal – and while SF have lost some of their traditional base to abstention, this has been more than made up for by the human waves of new voters coming their way. The political significance of the Sinn Fein strategy is such that the decay of the SDLP is much less earth-shattering than the collapse of a major bourgeois party is considered to be. The fact is that while the SDLP as a party has failed, the politics of the SDLP – acceptance of the partitioned sectarian state, the search for influence within that state and the lobbying of the British imperialist rulers for reforms – these have all been adopted lock, stock and barrel by Sinn Fein.
There are some differences. The IRA is still extant and needs to be disappeared if Sinn Fein are to complete their political journey. The Adams leadership have a more radical tactic than the SDLP and imagine that if they become a major party in Ireland as a whole the British will be forced to make concessions to them – as if the whole history of partition didn’t show British disinterest in Irish voting patterns!
In fact the electoral successes of Sinn Fein – and their breakthrough in the South is hugely important here – serve as the republican leadership’s main alibi as they abandon republican goals. While the SF vote keeps rising the leadership can claim that republicanism is advancing while they carry out retreat after retreat. The historic parallel with Fianna Fail is striking indeed.
Not that SF’s pragmatic line will do them any good. Adams has frequently said that the DUP will negotiate with SF just as the UUP did. One hopes Gerry isn’t holding his breath. But even if they did, what then? Good Friday was a huge compromise by the Provos and its importance can be seen in the way SF leaders are constantly demanding the full implementation of the Agreement. What compromise can there be with a DUP harking after a majority-rule Stormont and an all-Protestant RUC? The DUP is only interested in surrender, and might not even accept that – while Mitchel McLaughlin was floating the disbandment of the IRA, Allister’s leaflets were full of pictures of balaclava-wearing gunmen. The Provos are coming to the end of the road for their much vaunted “peace strategy”.
But that end is not yet. There are further, major steps to be made. Now that the electorate has been put to bed and £90 million in ‘Peace 3’ funding is on its way from Brussels, the secret deals that pass for politics here can get under way again. Allister has made the DUP’s position absolutely clear: ‘ No more pushover unionism’ and ‘peace without terror’ – IRA disbandment is required even to begin talks. Adams has made his position absolutely clear: ‘The DUP must be put to the test.’ A child of two could decipher that one!
How not to build a left
The three minor candidates are of little importance in the scheme of things. The forlorn hope for non-sectarian liberalism has never made much headway in the Euro headcount, and the most one can say for John Gilliland – a “non-political” candidate backed by Alliance and the Workers Party – is that he did a little better than Alliance’s last disastrous performance. However, there was no mould-breaking going on.
Eamonn McCann’s candidacy for the “Socialist Environmental Alliance” – a postmodern combo of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party – does have some interest as the left should be the force trying to provide an alternative political leadership.
The main problem with the SEA campaign was not its presidential style. These Euro elections are presidential by nature, and in McCann they had an extremely eloquent candidate who has a high media profile and a personal following in and around Derry. No, the problem was that, especially as McCann had conceded he wouldn’t come close to being elected, the campaign could have provided a platform for educating radical workers and carrying out propaganda around socialism and its application to Ireland. Primarily it would have involved taking aim at the imperialist “peace process”, even if that meant losing the fiercely pro-Agreement Communist Party.
Instead, and this is now a tradition on the Irish left, the SEA appeared to be trying to actually lower political consciousness. The politics of the campaign could have been summed up as “It’s Iraq, stupid”. While the SEA congratulated themselves on being non-sectarian, it was impossible to see any strategy for breaking sectarian politics. Beneath the surface – we’re anti-war, non-sectarian and have fabulous film noir posters – there was little but a pink unionism that the old Northern Ireland Labour Party might have found a bit mild. The fact that the Socialist Party could denounce the SEA with the headline “Workers Unity Not Left Republicanism” only demonstrates their own drift towards a form of left loyalism.
The election has been trumpeted as the coming of age of republicanism, but its aftermath will see yet further major concessions to Britain and to loyalist reaction. The Irish socialist movement that can break us out of this cycle of sectarian reaction has yet to be built