Northern council elections
Victory for DUP, SF hides a growing fragmentation
7 May 2019
The big story for the press in the northern council elections was the increase in the vote for the Alliance party, and to a lesser extent, the advance of the Green party and People before Profit. However we will learn more if we step back and look at the big picture.
The first is that the abandonment of politics in fervour of cultural dialogue has reduced interest in elections. In an area where everyone voted, including the dead, turnout is down to 50%.
The main outcome is that the Democratic Unionist Party, standing around a call by their leader, Arlene Foster, for protestant unity, was yet again successful, increasing their vote and leaving them as the biggest party. Sinn Fein's fell slightly, but they continue to dominate the nationalist vote.
The main outcome of the election will therefore be that talks to revive Stormont called by the British will almost certainly have no immediate outcome.
There is a back story. Both major parties have peaked, leading to a fragmentation of votes around the margins.
In the case of the DUP, their minor vote gain was at the expense of the Ulster Unionist party. It had had tried to compete by being even more right wing than the DUP and the result was that the right wing voters went to the bigger party while more moderate voters went to the liberal unionist Alliance party and to the Greens.
There are two immediate consequences. One is that DUP hegemony has reached its peak and the party will be weakened, as it depends on holding all unionist factions in one group to establish supremacy. The fall of The UUP means that there are limited opportunities for further growth. They will be even less keen on a local assembly and hold harder to the undeclared direct rule.
The other consequence of the fragmentation is that yet again the majority of the votes are for anti-Brexit parties, increasing the ongoing democratic deficit here.
The Sinn Fein vote fell slightly and the fragmentation around the party went in a number of directions. By far the most interesting area was Derry, where the Social Democratic and Labour Party, despite many difficulties, staged a revival. Also in Derry Gary Donnelly, independent republican, topped the poll, dispelling the idea that militant republicanism had seen an historic decline following the killing of journalist Lyra McKee. His election was mirrored by a number of independent election victories across the west. In Derry City Eamonn Mccann and Shaun Harkin were elected for People before Profit.
The results were a humiliation for Sinn Fein who in no cases topped the poll in Derry. A weaker pattern was seen in some Belfast wards. Their arrogance has distanced them from a growing discontent which, although fragmented, is very real.
The right wing anti abortion party, Aontu, had one victory in Derry but otherwise failed to make an impact. On the other hand, PbB topped the poll in a number of areas, leading to hopes of a new left revival.
These hopes appear to be misplaced. In West Belfast a substantial anti Sinn Fein vote seems to have moved from the SDLP to PbP. The vote itself is something of an alliance, involving youth, supporters of the Irish language and trade unionists. A number of radical republicans cast PbP votes on the grounds that ”the enemy of my enemy is my friend” - a rather foolish view given that PbP support the idea of a Stormont assembly even more strongly than Sinn Fein. From the other direction supporters of Sinn Fein will offer transfers as long as the PbP critique of their own organisation is not too sharp.
There are more substantial political difficulties to the birth of a new workers party. Since the liquidation of the Socialist Workers Party PbP has become more fragmented and more electoralist, with “people power” fading into the past. The weak pretence of socialist unity stops at the border, with the only Socialist Party candidate elected in Fermanagh standing on a completely separate ticket. There is no strategy for a workers party either North or South beyond the unlikely scenario of mass recruitment to Pop.
If a new party were to arise from PbP it would be a revived Northern Ireland Labour party. PbP in their election literature suggest housing powers for Belfast council - a remarkable idea given the sectarianism and corruption of that body. They have close ties to the trade union bureaucracy and, while they rail against austerity, are careful never to criticise the complicity of the trade union leadership.
The council elections show that nationalist voters continue to support a politics based on a local assembly. At the same time the objective interests of Britain and unionism are towards a further revision of the settlement in favour of unionism and a weaker Sinn Fein is less able to capitulate further. The situation is not in the long term sustainable.