By Kevin Henry
This year’s Assembly election was historic with Sinn Féin emerging as the largest party, the first non-Unionist party to do so in the 101-year history of the state. As a BBC commentator noted, “Northern Ireland was literally designed, so that that wouldn’t happen.” However, while a nationalist party is now the largest party, the largest political designation in Stormont, although splintered, remains Unionism.
The DUP lost 6.7% of its vote, but given how it was projected to do in recent polls actually made something of a recovery. Primarily they lost votes to the hard-line TUV which received over 65,000 votes, including challenging for several seats. This has been an important pressure on the DUP, alongside broader discontent in protestant communities, particularly as a result of the protocol, and this election will only intensify that.
DUP gift election to Sinn Féin
Despite being in government for nearly quarter of a century and being prepare implement attacks on working-class people, Sinn Féin’s main slogan was “vote for real change”, and near the end of the campaign to vote for a “first minister for everyone” as they sought to turn the election into a presidential-style vote. But it was neither its clever campaigning nor any enthusiasm for Sinn Féin’s record, but the approach of the DUP, which was seen as intransigent among Catholics, that gave Sinn Féin its victory.
While ‘historic’ this election resolves nothing. If anything, the crisis facing the ‘peace process’ will intensify. As key figures in the Orange Order put it, “Unionism now has a mandate” not to join the executive short of significant movement on the Northern Ireland protocol. Pressure is also mounting on the British cabinet, which is divided on this issue, to move towards unilaterally tearing up the protocol, which could provoke a trade war with the European Union and even raise again the issue of hardening the border on the island of Ireland, which would not be acceptable to anyone.
Alliance surge – no alternative for workers
The other story of this election was the Alliance surge. While most pronounced in Protestant middle-class areas, which are pro-Union but voted against Brexit, Alliance’s vote increased across the board and saw its number of seats more than double. For a section of young people, the Alliance Party is considered to be a ‘progressive’ break with the politics of Orange and Green.
Far from being a progressive, however, its record is that of an establishment party which has often been enthusiastic about attacking workers and young people — from the introduction of the hated welfare reform to advocating increasing student fees. Most recently, Alliance was decisive in voting down Gerry Carroll’s bill to repeal Thatcher’s anti-union laws.
The smaller so-called moderate parties of the SDLP and UUP lost out to Sinn Fein and DUP in the battle for First Minister, and to Alliance as a better reflection of “moderate” politics. SDLP was hardest hit losing four seats, and it no longer has the number of seats necessary to take part in the Executive. As the larger parties hoover up their voter base, these parties, which dominated the early days of the peace process, now face existential crisis.
Similarly, the Greens fell victim to the Alliance surge losing both its seats to Alliance. Likewise People Before Profit, which succeeded in retaining Gerry Carroll’s seat in West Belfast and stood more widely, saw its vote significantly decline in its core areas as Sinn Féin galvanised the vote in Catholic communities. While all small parties to some degree suffered a squeeze this should be taken as a warning of the dangers of building a political project based on a one-sided position on the national question, which will not be able to compete with the sectarian parties when things are polarised.
Build a socialist alternative
Young trade union activists Neil Moore and Amy Ferguson ran in South Belfast and West Tyrone for the Socialist Party. Our votes were modest, but our main reason for running was to put down a marker for the workers’ movement and for young activists that there must be a cross-community socialist challenge to the Executive parties in Stormont. Our campaign was successful in its key aim of connecting with young people and workers interested in building that alternative.
Importantly, most of the election campaign was dominated by discussion about the ‘cost of living’, which saw workers in the public and private sector take industrial action. It is among these struggles, and young people fighting oppression, climate crisis and exploitation, that a significant cross-community socialist alternative can be built.