Left gains in Northern Ireland elections

Submitted by Matthew on 11 May, 2016 - 2:33 Author: Michael Johnson

On 5 May, Northern Ireland went to the polls for the first Stormont elections since 2011.

Once again we see an Executive dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein (SF), but with the exciting breakthrough for the far-left People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and an increased vote for the non-sectarian Green Party. 102 of the 108 seats have gone to the five parties who comprised the last Executive, with the main two parties, the DUP and SF, taking 66 seats between them. Both now have a mandate to continue with the so-called Fresh Start agreement, involving welfare cuts and a reduction of corporation tax to 12.5%.

The two main parties domination of the Executive will be aggravated by the continuing decline of the junior partners in Northern Ireland's permanent multi-party coalition. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were down 0.2% to 12.6%, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) fell 2.2% to 12% and the liberal Alliance Party declined by 0.7% to 7%.

However, the DUP clearly emerges as the stronger of the two main parties. Despite predictions of a decline, it held its 38 seats with only a slight drop in support, owing to a successful keep Martin McGuinness from becoming First Minister campaign and the baffling popularity of its new leader, Arlene Foster.

SF did not have a great election, a fact masked by the SDLP having an even worse one. Despite the electorate increasing in size since 2011, the combined vote for SF and the SDLP was down 5.1% and there are only 40 nationalist seats in the new Assembly. SF is shedding support particularly in its urban working-class heartlands, where its long-held dominance and complicity in government cuts mark it out to younger voters and disillusioned former supporters as the establishment.

Disgruntled former nationalist voters are turning to the socialist left for answers. In SF's West Belfast power-base, Belfast City Councillor Gerry Carroll from the SWP-linked People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) grabbed the headlines with a poll-topping 8,229 votes, blasting through the quota with around 3,000 votes to spare and depriving SF of one of its seats. Veteran leftist and journalist Eamonn McCann took a seat from the SDLP in Derry with 4,176 votes. First-time candidate PBPA Fiona Ferguson scored an impressive 1,286 votes.

PBPA will designate itself as Other in the new Assembly, rather than as Nationalist or Unionist, and when elected Carroll said: "People often are presented in this city as Unionist or Nationalist. We see ourselves as representing working class people of Belfast, from the Shankill or the Falls."

Younger, more liberal-minded voters, disgusted by ostensibly left of centre nationalist parties equivocation on issues such as abortion rights are also behind the strong result for the Green Party, which took a seat from the SDLP in South Belfast.

In the last Assembly, legislation providing for an opposition was grafted on to the sectarian architecture of Northern Ireland's political system, in which the main parties had hitherto formed a permanent cross-community coalition. The UUP pulled out of the last coalition, and the other two junior partners, the SDLP and Alliance, will now be weighing up the merits of opposition. Provision for an opposition can only cast in sharper relief the DUP-SF domination of the Executive and their responsibility for the next Programme for Government. This is likely to hurt SF more than the DUP, and the presence of the PBPA on the opposition benches will further expose SF's attempt to both impose and be seen to reject austerity at the same time.

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