North: Assembly Elections - Time For a Working Class Voice

> By Ciaran Mulholland in Socialist Voice, Feb. 2003

IT IS now probable that there will be an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May, though it may yet be postponed by a government fearful of its outcome. This election will be a sectarian head count. The Agreement has copper fastened sectarian division and acts to strengthen the more stridently sectarian parties.

There will be a battle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP on the one hand, and between the UUP and the DUP on the other, to determine which is the largest party on either side of the divide. Sinn Fein are likely to emerge as the largest nationalist party. Even if the UUP stay ahead of the DUP, the new UUP Assembly grouping will be much more anti-Agreement than the old. Within unionism the overall balance will swing strongly against the Agreement.

The small "middle ground" will be squeezed further. The Alliance Party is not going to disappear overnight but its vote is dwindling with each election, its activists are ageing and it has more or less disappeared west of the Bann.

Some of the Alliance Party's vote has transferred to the Women's Coalition which has two Assembly seats, in South Belfast and North Down, areas where the Alliance Party was traditionally strong. Even if it retains its seats, it is extremely unlikely that it will develop in the future.

The Labour Coalition emerged at the same time as the Women's Coalition. This grouping brought together the Socialist Party, four elected councillors who considered themselves to be on the left and a broad range of left wing activists. It came tenth in the Forum election and gained two seats at the talks. Unfortunately, the Coalition did not last but the fact that it won two seats was a small indication of the possibilities for class based politics in the North.

There is no mass party that represents the independent interests of working class and young people in Northern Ireland. The main Assembly parties may squabble and argue on sectarian issues but they have a lot in common when it comes to social and economic issues. On the Private Finance Initiative for example they sing from the same hymn sheet.

A mass working class party cannot be wished into existence. A sense of proportion is required. Political consciousness has been thrown back and the majority of working class people do not clearly see the need for such a party. Even those who do, may not believe that it is possible to create one. One of the reasons that the Socialist Party stands in elections is to raise the need for a new party in the minds of the working people we meet on the doorsteps.

The history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) demonstrates the possibilities. At various points in time it had a huge base in working class areas. In 1962, it gained over 62,000 votes in Belfast, running close to the Unionist Party's 67,000. It won nearly 107,000 votes across the North in the 1970 Westminister election, just as the Troubles were really taking off.

Unfortunately, the NILP avoided taking independent class positions on the difficult issues then facing working people, in particular the Civil Rights campaign and on the question of the border. It is simply not possible to avoid these issues. Inevitably, a party that attempts to do so comes to be seen as sitting on one side of the sectarian divide or the other. This was the fate of the NILP, which became identified with unionism and the status quo. It quickly lost its support and had disappeared by the mid-1970s.

The last council elections demonstrated that small gains can be made, even at times of increased sectarian tension. Raymond Blaney won a seat on Down District Council on a save the local hospital ticket. In Omagh, Johnnie McLaughlin successfully defended his seat, increasing his share of the vote. This was in part due to the campaigning work he was involved in when he was a member of the Socialist Party (he left the Party shortly before the election).

Other hospital campaigners are considering standing in the next Assembly elections and voices have been raised inside the ranks of the Fire Brigades Union calling for an election candidate to highlight the case for a substantial wage increase for fire fighters.

Single issue campaigns are important but ultimately it is necessary to take on the established parties on the broader issues. A new mass working class party will be created by events not by decree but if various campaigners were to stand in May, along with candidates from left wing groups such as the Socialist Party, this would be an important staging post on the way to a new party.

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