Article from the July 2004 edition, Socialist Voice

Euro poll leaves just two main parties and...

No voice for workers

THE RESULTS of the European elections in Northern Ireland confirm how deep sectarian divisions now run. The big four sectarian parties won 90.7% of the total votes, repeating a pattern which is now well established. The clear winners were the DUP and Sinn Fein. Together they captured 58.2% of the total votes cast.

By Ciaran Mulholland

The battle for supremacy within the Catholic community is all but over. Sinn Fein decisively out-polled the SDLP, gaining 144,541 votes (26.3% of the vote) compared to 91,164 (15.9%). Sinn Fein increased their vote by 9% of the total whereas the SDLP lost 12.1%.

It is now virtually certain that the SDLP will be eclipsed by Sinn Fein at the next General Election. No SDLP Westminster seat is safe. John Hume, Eddie McGrady and Seamus Mallon are all standing down and their successors will struggle against Sinn Fein competition. Within the next two years the SDLP, once such a dominant force in electoral politics, will most probably be reduced to representation on local councils only.

The UUP lost very heavily to the DUP. The DUP have always been ahead of the UUP in European elections but this was explained away by the personal vote pulling power of Ian Paisley. Now there is no such excuse. The DUP gained 175,761 votes (31.9%, up 3.6%) compared to 91,164 for the UUP (16.6%, down 1%).

Trimble's position is far from safe after this drubbing. He may be forced out, further splits within the UUP are possible or the Burnside/Smyth wing might yet leave and join an increasingly secular DUP. No Westminster UUP seat is safe though it may hold onto one or two seats.

Despite the outcome of recent elections some commentators are arguing that the review of the Agreement will achieve a deal and re-establish an Executive. Some even argue that the outcome of the elections will result in greater long term stability as a deal reached between the extremes will be more likely to stick.

Their logic largely rests on the argument that the leading members of Sinn Fein and the DUP are competent and ambitious administrators who are keen to once again get their hands on the levers of power. Whilst there is some truth in this it is a minor factor and will not determine the course of events in the next period.

Of vital importance is the fact that two more elections are due in the next 18 months-the locals in 2005 and Westminster elections in 2005 or 2006. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP will see these contests as opportunities to emphasise their dominance over their rivals. They will not see any mileage in taking a more moderate position until all these elections are out of the way.

In these elections parties which stood outside the sectarian circus did not do well. Independent candidate John Gilliland won a respectable 36,270 votes (6.6% of the total). This was well up on the 14,000 votes his principal backers the Alliance Party gained in 1999 but it didn't seriously challenge the main parties. Gilliland's appeal for "no politics" is nonsensical though it probably attracted votes from those who reject sectarian politics.

The Socialist Party gave Eamon McCann (standing for the Socialist Environmental Alliance or SEA) critical support in the campaign though we do not see the SEA as possible vehicle for the creation of a genuine mass party of the working class. For this reason we did not fully endorse his campaign.

McCann's vote was what could be expected in such a polarised election. Similar votes have been achieved by other left or radical candidates in the past. His vote does not represent a breakthrough however.

A real breakthrough will only come when significant layers of working class people move into struggle and seek a political alternative. The most likely vehicle for such a development in Northern Ireland is the trade union movement. The recent break from New Labour by the FBU is thus of immense importance.

During the last firefighters dispute FBU candidates stood against New Labour in Scotland. In the North the question of standing candidates in elections has come up spontaneously in several recent struggles, including those of the term-time workers, the FBU and the airport workers. At some point the idea will take on flesh and candidates will stand. Such a development will act as a catalyst, bringing together trade unionists in struggle, campaigning groups and left groupings. That would represent real breakthrough.

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