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The upper hand?

Stormont election success leaves Sinn Fein caught between voters and the British

John McAnulty

10 March 2017

The common assertion arising from the latest election in the North of Ireland is that Sinn Fein now has the upper hand. That reform of the local settlement is now inevitable and Gerry Adams has gone so far as to assert that a united Ireland is now back on the agenda.

However the loss of the overall unionist majority is largely a profound psychological shock rather than a practical issue. The seats are:
(inc 2 Green, 1PBP) 

So The DUP remains the largest party and would nominate the first minister. The loss of the overall majority relies on the dubious idea that Alliance is not a unionist party – they have in the past designated themselves as unionist to save the assembly and until recently fulfilled a role as lynch pin for the sectarian setup by holding the justice ministry position.

In addition in the coming negotiations Sinn Fein will be facing the British government. They themselves have complained that the pro-unionist positions of the British secretary, James Brokenshire, should make him unsuitable as chair.  They will also be appealing to a Dublin government hostile to Sinn Fein that acts as an agent of reaction in both parts of the Island. 

The settlement in Ireland is not designed to lead to a united Ireland and the issue depends entirely on gaining permission from Britain to hold a vote restricted to the six-county area – permission that will not be forthcoming. 

Lastly Britain is in the grip of a surge of right wing populism that focuses on Brexit. The government have shown no interest in accommodating Ireland as it heads for an exit that will reinforce partition.

The big losers in this election were those constructing a narrative of Stormont as a parliamentary democracy in which human rights and workers rights could be advanced. An electoral feeding frenzy by the Socialist Workers Party/People Before Profit group around a mixture of economism, reformism and opportunism was followed by a sharp fall in their vote and the loss of Eamonn McCann’s seat in  Foyle. Many liberals hail the result as assuring that gay marriage will be legislated for, but all that has happened is that the DUP will have to step outside their own ranks to assure that the undemocratic “petition of concern” can be used to block any progressive legislation. The Trade Union leadership have been struck dumb, having agreed to the loss of 20,000 public sector jobs and welfare cuts of £200 million to save a corrupt institution that promptly launched a £500 million “Cash for Ash” scam.  The power of magical thinking continues with assertions that the vote will lead to a United Ireland. In fact the central tenets of the peace process, equality of the two traditions and the government of Ireland Act, remain a barrier to anything other than the institutionalisation of sectarian division.


The claim that there is no unionist majority is paralleled by a claim that the unionists will now have to accommodate nationalism and cool down sectarian rhetoric.  There are a few unionist voices making this call, notable Ian Og Paisley seeking revenge for the ousting of his father and the more recent ousting of whistleblower Jonathan Bell, but it runs against the whole history of the movement. Arlene Foster is proving yet again that unionist leaders do not lose their place by being too harsh in their dealings with Sinn Fein. Under pressure the sectarians double down on their privilege.  Partition exists because the unionists set their call for Protestant rights above the democratic rights of the Irish people as a whole. The troubles occurred because nationalist calls for civil rights inside a British state were met with force.  At the moment we see an electoral explosion by young nationalists, but this is at a much lower level than the 2012 explosion of street violence around a democratic decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the British union flag to specific days. It is now openly admitted that sections of the DUP leadership organised this upsurge. 

The DUP strategy will be to reassert their sectarian rights and to respond to Gerry Adams’ claims that the unionist majority has been demolished by reasserting this majority. Publically that discussion has begun with a unity offensive towards the UUP. Tellingly that proposal was first made by a paramilitary figure, and behind the scenes the unionist alliance of the politicians, the Loyal Orders on the streets and the paramilitary groups will be remobilised. It should not be forgotten that the DUP entered this election in alliance with the paramilitary UDA, which is still illegal and active in gangsterism and intimidation.

Because of the many hidden dimensions of the unionist discussion, stretching well beyond the political arena, it will be some time before we see the full details of their strategy.  However they will come out fighting, and the first step has been the vote of confidence in Arlene Foster – a direct rebuttal of Sinn Fein demands that she step aside.

Sinn Fein demands

Sinn Fein, for its part, demands of the DUP that Arlene Foster remove herself as First Minister until she is cleared by an enquiry. It also demands action on “legacy” issues of state killings, an Irish Language Act and a Bill of Rights.

This needs unpicking somewhat. This was not Sinn Fein’s position in the run-up to the election. Then they were facilitating, and participating in, the corruption and sectarian carve-up of resources that is the everyday activity of Stormont.  Their proposals around the “Cash for Ash” scandal were designed to get the DUP off the hook and keep the Stormont show on the road. On the bare facts as known Arlene Foster bears full responsibility for the crisis. No enquiry is necessary. In a democracy she would be unfit for office and no reputable politician would share power with the party that continues to assert a right to public and unrestrained corruption.

On the legacy issues it was Sinn Fein that signed off on the “Fresh Start” agreement and kicked all these issues into the long grass where they would never be resolved. They joined with the state in pushing an Orange march through Ardoyne in the face of nationalist protest. In the last major Irish Language demonstration in Belfast it was they who were the main target as a result of their inaction.

So the idea that Sinn Fein are kicking against the traces is utterly implausible. They collaborated up until the last minute and were then faced by a revolt within their membership brought on by the constant rain of sectarian insult from the DUP. They were forced to collapse the local executive and in the subsequent election nationalists, especially youth, turned out in much greater numbers to teach the DUP a lesson. Voting Sinn Fein was the only mechanism they saw at hand to achieve that goal. At the moment this protest is limited. The majority of the population accept the framework of the Assembly and the idea of a balancing of sectarian rights. The anger and cynicism about the endless sectarianism and corruption at Stormont is seen more as the fault of individual politicians or their failure to form satisfactory working relationships.  However this will change if it becomes evident that no stable settlement can be built from the Good Friday agreement.

Sinn Fein has to deliver

As a result of the election Sinn Fein has received an enormous boost at the northern polls and their support in the 26 county state has grown substantially. However this growth in support has within it an implied threat. Sinn Fein has to deliver.

This is going to be difficult. They are in a scissors between the expectations of their members and supporters on the one hand and the demands of Irish capitalism and the British on the other. Up to this point they have resolved issues by agreeing whatever deal keeps them a party of government in the North and supports their aim of becoming a member of a coalition government in Dublin.

Following the election they have renewed their call for Arlene to step aside, but they are also speaking out of both sides of their mouth, saying that it is not for them to dictate who leads the DUP and that they will of course negotiate with Arlene Foster. If the DUP do not give way then Sinn Fein will have to climb down and face the anger of their supporters or accept the suspension of the Assembly and the considerable loss of patronage that this will involve for them.

All the other issues they raise are aimed at the London and Dublin governments, stressing that they do not want to reopen the agreements already accepted but only for outstanding promises to be met. How will the British respond? We have an indication in the fact that Sinn Fein have already walked out of a meeting on legacy issues with James Brokenshire, British secretary of state in the north. They accused Brokenshire of waffle. As they already knew, he is the author of “alternative facts” complaining of persecution of state forces by state investigators. This is in line with a growing movement in the Tory party to declare impunity for soldiers committing war crimes in Ireland and more recently in Iraq.

In relation to the Irish language the British wrote it into the St. Andrews agreement and then immediately devolved it to the DUP. However the actual wording left it as a responsibility of the British government. Peter Hain, Secretary of state at the time, said that the elements of the agreement “were not written in stone.” They will not oppose some measures on Irish, but their main concern will be to avoid instability in the DUP.

A Bill of Rights, the third issue, is as old as time, being first proposed by the reformist Workers Party early in The Troubles. Assertions of rights are notoriously easy to declare and notoriously difficult to get applied, so an official statement should have been a formality.  However in this case one would have to overcome deep unionist hostility, the fact that the St. Andrews Agreement and the settlement around it is based on communal rather than civil rights and the additional fact that the British government have as a central policy the determination to sever connections with European human rights legislation.

British reaction

The British government’s strategy is quite simple. Twist arms, offer bribes and threats and get the ramshackle Stormont administration back on its feet. The reiterated threat to exhaust the parties and electorate with a new election arises because they realise that any long delay may make it impossible to revive the Assembly.  They will offer a fudge, but little else.  The Dublin Government were Britain’s enthusiastic supporters in the Fresh Start Agreement, their main aim now is concessions on the border following Brexit. 

From the British perspective the peace process has done its job in that there is no longer a large anti-imperialist movement in Ireland or any general understanding of the British role. They would prefer if society was not dominated by sectarian quarrels, but they are willing to live with that.  There are no longer gatherings of international diplomacy to calm Sinn Fein’s nerves or add more sticking plaster to the open wound of the peace process.

All other things being equal, in the absence of a major shift in policy by Sinn Fein, the most likely outcome will be a fudge, a new Stormont, demoralisation of nationalist voters and renewed sectarian offensive by the Unionists. The alternative is a collapse that will likely be permanent. Overall the decay of the settlement will continue apace, mirrored by the slow decay of the Dublin Government in the face of ongoing corruption, decay of public services and housing, and capitulation to the demands of the Troika.

But of course all other things are not equal. Brexit is looming. Nationalist youth, energised by the lash of sectarian insult and by a successful electoral counterblow, will react with horror to the reimposition of a hard border that will lock them into a sectarian prison-house and to the economic hammer blows in existing austerity plans, as well as the further economic blows of Brexit itself and the loss of free movement across Europe for work and study.

A workers alternative

A movement against Bexit must be built.  In Ireland one of the demands should be the closure of Stormont. Its main role will be to stoke up sectarian division and to serve as the justification for a renewed partition. The reconstruction of a sectarian Stormont also means the support of Sinn Fein for an institution bent on imposing austerity. Bringing down Stormont will not on its own defeat austerity but it will remove the illusion that Stormont can in any way protect the northern working class from capitalism's attacks or that British imperialism is an honest broker.

The Dail also cannot be a mechanism of defence. Its main activity is to act as a land agent for the Troika and for US vulture capitalism.

As in the years following 1916, we should not wait for the British and for Irish capital to grant us independence. We must take it for ourselves. Given the number of parties who claim that they stand for united Ireland and the widespread support for unity even while it is downplayed everywhere, is there any reason why a 32 county constituent assembly cannot be called to assert our democratic rights?

The workers need to organise independently in the fight for a workers republic. Existing political parties and the trade union leaderships have proved incapable of defending them. Only working class unity and struggle can defeat austerity and the imperialist system that stands behind it and that is a struggle that must unify the working class of all of Ireland in action and ally immediately with the fragmented but powerful working class resistance that sporadically wells up across all of Europe

We should organise around the call for a United Socialist States of Europe. We need to build today the alliances amongst workers across Europe that will offer common defence against a growing populist and racist menace while preparing the way for the alternative society organising around the interests of the workers.

Working class movements have been pushed back for decades.  It is time now to move forward. That can’t be done by trying to improve the decaying institutions of capitalism.

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