Fiona Ferguson reports on the Northern elections.
The 2016 Assembly election is over, and the result in terms of the Government is much of the same, with a few changes. Unsurprisingly, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been returned as the largest parties, and they were left to divide up the ministerial positions amongst themselves, following the formation of an official opposition, comprised of the SDLP and UUP.
The most striking change to the makeup of the Assembly has been the addition of two revolutionary socialists. The election of People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll in West Belfast, and Eamonn McCann in Foyle is a tremendous breakthrough.
Gerry topped the polls in West Belfast, a traditional Sinn Fein stronghold, with nearly 25 percent of the vote! Eamonn McCann’s result in Foyle was equally significant. In a constituency which saw the return of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, McCann’s vote increased by 1000 votes from 2011.
Fiona Ferguson contested the North Belfast constituency, and received 1300 first preference votes. This vote for a first time candidate shows a growing thirst for left wing politics.
There can be no doubt, from the impressive vote, to the discussion of socialist politics on local radio, to the hundreds of people wanting to get involved with People Before Profit that the left has arrived in the North.
While the Green Party, and the Alliance Party have for some time designated ‘Other’ in the sectarian role call on the first day of Stormont, Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann designated as ‘Socialist’. And while there are others who define themselves as neither Green nor Orange, People Before Profit candidates in this election went beyond that, defining ourselves as a radical left socialist alternative. This resonated in Belfast and Derry.
One of the most important aspects of the PBP vote was its non-sectarian element. There have been attempts by some commentators to paint our vote as nationalist, but that is to ignore a few things; first that the areas that PBP contested were some of the most deprived working class areas in the North. The left vote is rising in working class areas, not because they are nationalist or unionist, but because they have faced an austerity agenda from Stormont and they want change.
Secondly, we knocked tens of thousands of doors, and we saw a social media blast for Gerry Carroll in the days before the election. No one listed the reason for voting PBP as some contrived notion of nationalism.
Finally, it’s a fact that we didn’t only take votes from ‘nationalist areas’. We know from tallys, and many personal anecdotes, that our vote was up in ‘unionist’ areas.
Of course it will be a long struggle and there will be unevenness even where there is radicalisation in working class areas, but things are starting to shift. And as activist and author Brian Kelly said at the West Belfast victory rally: DUP, we are coming for your voters!
Another important aspect of the PBP campaign was its strong political basis. We were steadfast as always when faced with the national question – we want a socialist Ireland.
Where we faced organised anti-choice campaigns, we remained vehemently pro-choice. And when we were challenged about the past, we didn’t shy away from questions of state repression and the role of the state.
By basing our campaigns on strong politics, we have undermined the notion that the only way to build the left in the North is on a lowest common denominator economic basis.
There wasn’t a massive decrease in the DUP/Sinn Fein vote but there is no doubt that the forward march of Sinn Fein has halted. And while the SDLP hoped to make gains from this disillusionment, their seat count dropped.
The SDLP’s failure to advance progressive social causes means they been in decline. This disillusionment seems set to continue.
Already there has been contention about the choice of ministerial positions taken by Sinn Fein. Their failure to fight for the ministerial positions in the Department of Education, and the Department of Communities has broken promises to Irish language organisations and opens the door to savage cuts over the next few years, including to Irish language schools.
Instead, Sinn Fein have ministers for Health, Infrastructure and Finance, which will see newly appointed Máirtín Ó Muilleoir oversee the lowering of corporation tax, which been has been rejected overwhelmingly by Trade Unions and the left.
While cuts will continue to be made to vital community services, the public sector, unemployment, homelessness and mental health issues are at devastating levels. But Sinn Fein and the DUP remain in agreement on the reduction of corporation tax, which will remove millions from the block grant every year,
In fact all five of the old parties, opposition or not, accept a neo-liberal agenda. .
People Before Profit will use the platform of Stormont to speak out against these cuts and help the fight back against them, but the real work will be on the streets, in workplaces and in working class communities.
The Left has arrived in the North. Now we must throw ourselves into concerted efforts to build cross community campaigns against oncoming austerity. There will be attempts from Stormont to divide us, but we must remain strong in opposition and recognise that there is a space for a cross community, working class alternative. It will take time, but we’re up for the fight.