Socialist Democracy statement on the local government elections in the north
14 May 2023
The chamber of Belfast City Council.
It would be true to say that the forthcoming local government elections in the North have generated little in the way of public interest. This is partly due to low expectations of what councils can deliver in terms of reforms. However, the overriding factor is the sectarian nature of the campaign and of politics more generally. For whilst the political parties may produce manifestos and discuss a range of issues the only thing that really matters is whether unionism or nationalism comes out on top. This doesn’t necessarily mean that election campaigns are becoming more strident. Indeed, the evidence of this campaign, and that for last year’s Assembly election, is that they are becoming increasingly low key and dull. However, that does not make them less sectarian. Rather it is a reflection of the fact that sectarianism has become so ingrained, and its underlying assumptions so widely accepted, that it is no longer seen as contentious.
And what are these assumptions? They are the same assumptions that underpin the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and which have been baked into every area of life in the northern state over the past 25 years. That imperialism isn’t a factor in the north; that Britain, the Irish state, the US and the EU have no interest in maintaining partition; that any conflict arises out of competing communal identities; and that there is a route to reform and a united Ireland. In this framework the “successes” claimed by Irish nationalism, whether they be Sinn Féin claiming the post of First Minister or the party having the most councillors, can be presented as an advance. But if these assumptions are false then what is claimed as progress looks very different. What if the reality is that partition is the most secure foundation of imperialist and capitalist rule in Ireland; that sectarianism isn’t driven by some abstract ideas of identity but is rooted in political and material inequality; that there is no possibility of reform; and that the prospect of a united Ireland will never go beyond the aspirational. Under these conditions politics in the North is reduced to the administration of devolved institutions and the management of sectarian patronage. This resembles more closely how things have actually panned out over the past 25 years than the claim that we are in a period of reform and transition that is bringing forward a united Ireland. The experience of the Stormont Assembly and Executive, in the periods when it has been operating, confirms this.
It has also been confirmed by the experience in local councils. Indeed, in some ways, councils provide an even better example. While resembling mini Stormonts they differ in one critical respect by the absence of requirements for power sharing and cross community consent. This has enabled them to continue functioning throughout the Troubles and the post-GFA period. In practice this has meant that unionist dominated councils have had a free hand to pursue policies that have often involved a high degree of provocation towards nationalists. In areas where the political composition of the council is more balanced there are informal understandings between nationalists and unionists on how things should be run and how patronage should be distributed. A prime example of this is Belfast City Council where a business committee, dominated by Sinn Fein and the DUP, determines what issues make it onto the agenda. An informal understanding between the parties reveals itself most clearly when it comes to the disbursement of “community” funds, such as the bonfire diversionary fund, which are carved up between organisations closely affiliated with republicans and loyalists. Despite their own supporters/members being the obvious beneficiaries, this is rarely contentious. That the other parties, including those who profess to be socialist, should go along with this, shows the degree to which the concept and practice of sectarian trade-offs permeates the whole political system. It’s so pervasive and perverse that anyone who voices the mildest criticism of a council funding loyalist bonfires and flag flying finds themselves being denounced as sectarian.
It is not just on so-called community issues where there is a remarkable level of agreement. It also to be seen in those areas of public services, taxation and planning, that are under the jurisdiction of local councils. Despite these issues presenting parties with the opportunity to demonstrate their reformist credentials they all, from Sinn Fein to the DUP, adhere to conservative policies. Once again this is epitomised by Belfast City Council where Sinn Fein and the DUP team up to push through nearly every proposal from private developers no matter how damaging. Large parts of the city centre lie derelict while homelessness and addiction surges and people die on the streets. Former industrial sites, such as Mackies in West Belfast, are designated as greenways despite being ideal sites for much needed public housing, so as not to upset the “community balance”. These are just a few examples of the toxic mix of sectarianism and right-wing economics that dominates local councils across the North.
The small number of candidates who were elected under a leftist banner in recent years have made little impact on local government. They have largely settled into the conventions of parliamentary manoeuvring and points scoring. The revolutionary approach, of using election campaigns and positions within elected bodies, as means to organise the working class is nowhere to be seen. They don't even get to the level of reformism and have actually taken conservative positions such as calling for rates - a mildly progressive form of property tax - to be cut.
Activists within the labour movement and in working class communities should have no illusions in local government. The type of society we want - a socialist society - that is free from sectarianism, free from oppression and exploitation – will only be brought into existence by an independent working-class movement. Whilst such a movement does not exist at the moment, Socialist Democracy is willing to work with other organisations and individuals to help bring it into existence.
In this election we are asking people to vote for any candidate who stands for independent working-class politics, opposes partition and sectarianism, and is fully in support of women’s rights. In the absence of such candidates, we urge people to register a protest by writing “For a Workers’ Republic” on their ballot paper.
If you agree with us and would like to find out more check out our website (www.socialistdemocray.org) or contact us through our email account: firstname.lastname@example.org.