There seems to be a fair degree of pessimism surrounding the outcomes of the recent national and regional elections, one resulting in the return of a Fine Gael-led right-wing government in Dublin, supported by centre-right Fianna Fáil, while in Belfast the dysfunctional power-sharing administration of unionists and nationalists is back in office, albeit with claims of a diminished vote among the latter community. However, though the situation is difficult it is not as bleak as it may seem.
Enda Kenny might be hoping to head a minority coalition of FG and conservative-leaning independent TDanna, with the connivance of Micheál Martin and the FF party, for the next three years or so but in truth the deal between the two has essentially gifted the role of the anti-government opposition to the parties of the Left. That is to Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance–People Before Profit (AAA-PBP), Independents 4 Change and so on. Of course Fianna Fáil will pose as the critical voice in Leinster House, pretending to be both of the government and not of the government, but that balancing act will only last so long before it falls flat on its face. FF is likely to discover over the term of the 32nd Dáil that it has set itself up as a dual-target by agreeing to a far more involved version of the 1980s’ Tallaght Strategy, which saw Fine Gael giving limited support to the economic reforms of a Fianna Fáil administration. Sinn Féin, which increased its number of TDanna from fourteen to twenty-three, will use its greater presence in the Oireachtas, boosted by a good showing in the election to Seanad Éireann, to hammer both parties of the Right, like a political version of whack-a-mole. It probably won’t be edifying, but it will certainly be entertaining. Standby for one of the rowdier Dálaí of recent decades.
Away from national politics some claim it is all doom and gloom in the north-east as as the benighted Stormont Assembly returns with much of the same composition as before. The bellicose Arlene Foster, leader of the hardliners in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), will be back in office as the First Minister in the cross-community executive. Though registering a slight drop in its vote the Dupe‘s careful stoking of unionist anxiety in relation to a predicted rise in Sinn Féin seats, the commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising and the simmering furore from the violent “Flags Dispute”, ensured the return of its thirty-eight MLAs (“Members of the Legislative Assembly”, in the studiously neutral language of the peace process).
Sinn Féin’s lacklustre, almost wilfully complacent, campaign has yielded it one less MLA, at twenty-eight, and a significant drop in its vote. The much discussed challenge to the unionist hegemony at Stormont never materialised though Martin McGuinness will once again act as the Deputy First Minister on behalf of most northern nationalists. While people have offered up several excuses for SF’s poor performance, from the focus on last February’s national elections to An Dáil and the subsequent interregnum in Dublin to the need to sustain cordial post-election relations in the northern executive, there is little doubt that the party is politically adrift in its regional power base.
The conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the liberal Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), smaller representatives of mainstream unionism, lost votes but not seats, returning with sixteen and eight MLAs respectively. The UUP was another predicted winner that fell at the hurdle, raising questions over the sustainability of the modest surge it witnessed in the 2015 UK general election. I suggested then that the party was simply riding on the coattails of the DUP, by agreeing to a number of pan-unionist, anti-nationalist candidates, and I’ve seen nothing since May of last year to change my mind on that matter.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), despite an unusually vigorous effort to raise its profile, albeit marred by controversy in some constituencies, saw another drop in its votes and the number of elected members, down to twelve seats at Stormont. The death knell of the SDLP has been rung so many times since the early 2000s that I am not going to join in, though it might have better hopes of riding this current storm with a smaller, more youthful crew. Alternatively, the no-holds-barred assembly campaign was a last throw of the electoral dice and being absorbed by its regional rivals or a national party lies in the not too distant future. I suspect the former.
The Green Party, which actually draws a fair degree of support from eco-minded individuals among both populations in the north (as well as anti-unionist votes among nationalists), increased its percentage support, gaining two MLAs. Meanwhile the left-wing People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) took two seats with outstanding performances by its candidates, Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann, in the electoral heartlands of SF and the SDLP. The two showed what was possible through years of dedicated activism in constituencies taken for granted by the larger parties, following in some ways the very path Sinn Féin trod when it challenged the SDLP in the 1980s and ’90s.
Finally the extreme unionists of the TUV, grumpy Jim Allister’s one-man band, proved itself once again to be just that, a one-man band, while an independent unionist, of the UUP gene-pool, was also elected.
The poor showing by the two big parties of Irish nationalism in the north, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and the collective drop in their vote (just 36% of first preferences), has been taken as a sign by unionist and British commentators of that community’s relative weakness. After decades of predictions declaring that “history was on the side of the Green“, much of the unionist commentariat went into hyperbolic overdrive, declaring Irish nationalism dead as a motivational force on the island of Ireland (much as their predecessors proclaimed the same in 1921, 1916, 1885, 1867, 1848 and so on and so forth). The PBPA victories in Belfast and Derry were taken, in particular, as proof of these claims. All of which gives one the distinct impression of people clutching at straws. In truth, the vast majority of the vote for the People Before Profit Alliance came from the nationalist electorate, including some more avowedly republican voters unhappy with Sinn Féin’s progress towards reunification and the seemingly cosy consensus with unionists up at Stormont. In the eyes of quite a few nationalists SF is no longer the anti-establishment party – it is the establishment.
Sinn Féin knew of this groundswell of negative opinion from its own campaigning which is why Gerry Adams, the party leader, tried to vilify PBPA as a “two nations” organisation, referencing the pernicious ideology of partitionism, which argues that there are two distinct and separate “nations” in the country, Irish and British, and that an “international border” is the natural outcome of that division. However the PBPA, several of whose members have a distinctly republican background, were having none of it:
“Asked about the left wing challenge to Sinn Féin in the coming Northern elections, Gerry Adams defended himself with a blatant lie. People Before Profit were, he said, a ‘two nations’ party.
The ‘two nations’ approach was used by the late Conor Cruise O’Brien to defend partition by suggesting Ireland was one island but had two distinct, Catholic and Protestant nations in it, incapable of uniting.
This has never been the position of People Before Profit and Gerry Adams was trying to deflect from the real issue.
People Before Profit is a 32 county party that stand in the tradition of James Connolly who predicted that partition would produce a carnival of reaction. We believe that the only way to bring people together across this island is by building a grassroots movement from below, based on people power and socialist politics…”
Simply put, the People Before Profit Alliance is an all-Ireland political party. I should know, because I voted for one of its candidates in the last general election to Dáil Éireann, and three of its TDanna now sit in the Oireachtas as part of the AAA-PBP electoral coalition. Even though the PBPA will probably declare itself to be “Other” in the communal classifications at Stormont by any reasonable definition the party is an Irish nationalist one. It is the equivalent of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, which also defines itself as “Other” but which is avowedly unionist in nature. If the APNI is also the benefiter of votes from middle-class Catholic unionists, then the PBPA may also be the benefiter of votes from working-class Protestants nationalists (though there are far, far more of the former than the latter). To pour further water onto the loyalist bonfires of the pro-union media camp, the Green Party in the north-east and its two MLAs represent the regional wing of the national Green Party (Comhaontas Glas) of Ireland. Yes, it enjoys links with other sister parties in the UK, but it is counted among the electoral assets of the all-Ireland party, along with the current crop of two TDanna. And, as I stated above, in some constituencies it is very much a way for nationalists to register a “safe” vote against pro-union candidates.
It is an inescapable fact that in 2016 three Twenty-Six County parties, or their local branches, will sit in the “Northern Ireland Assembly”, just outside of Belfast. No national parties from the UK, neither Conservative or Labour, have any similar representation in the Six Counties. It might be just one small sign of the growing all-island polity, and of the reintegration of north and south, but it is a significant one (to be possibly joined at a future date by the inclusion of Fianna Fáil, though I remain cautious about that yet-to-arrive bus). That is not to deny the general apathy, and disappointment, gripping the northern nationalist electorate. The combined vote of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and PBPA is 38%. Even if one were to corral in the Green Party vote, an admittedly dubious proposition given its mixed composition, it would still be only 40.7%, well below where the demographics tell us it should be. This of course artificially inflates the unionist vote, though on the day it is ballot papers that count, not ifs and maybes. SF is suffering from its image as the party of the status quo, of right-leaning conservatism in alliance with unionism, which may be keeping the peace but is loosing the war.