If you take the long view, perhaps the most striking story of last Wednesday’s elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly is this one: the party that ruled the “Protestant state for a Protestant people” for most of its history after the partition of Ireland was outpolled by a movement that up to a decade ago was in armed insurrection against that state.
Given Ireland’s alleged obsession with history, that story, of Sinn Fein overtaking the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in the popular vote, has been remarkably little noted. In fact, you would hardly know the two parties were competing in the same election. Instead, the election has been widely portrayed as two separate polls: one for supremacy among the Catholic/nationalist minority, in which Sinn Fein decisively overtook the SDLP (of which John Hume has retired as leader); and one contest for votes from the unionist majority, in which Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) trumped David Trimble’s UUP.
The bifurcated election, then, was united by a single headline, probably found somewhere in your local paper wherever in the world you’re reading this: “Hardliners triumphant”. Hume and Trimble may have picked up the Nobel Peace Prize, but it’s Gerry Adams, with his shady IRA past, and Paisley, with his fire-and-brimstone bigotry, who picked up the votes in their respective contests.
For a change, you can’t blame the media for the sectarian presentation of double results. It’s completely logical within the sectarian terms of the ‘power-sharing’ arrangement in Northern Ireland: government there must have the support of a majority in ‘both communities’, which means every elected ‘MLA’ (member of the legislative assembly) must tick a box to declare which side she or he is on. Thus the Alliance Party, which spent decades insisting it was neither/nor, opted for ‘unionism’ after the 1998 elections; Kieran Deeny, an independent newly elected on a protest vote in West Tyrone to preserve local hospital services, will have to declare (probably for ‘nationalism’) before he can start fighting for his constituents of whatever persuasion.
That’s why the DUP scored a decisive victory against the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, with just 27 per cent of the vote and 30 seats in the absurdly oversized 108-member assembly (itself a sort of welfare service designed to spread the booty of good government among a sceptical populace). Their majority of the unionist half of the equation, bolstered by a handful of anti-agreement individuals among Trimble’s elected UUP colleagues, means government can’t happen without Paisley’s blessing, even though pro-agreement nationalists and unionists together constitute a sizeable majority of the new assembly.
So the election campaign, already delayed when the British government got nervous last spring about the likely outcome, and begun stutteringly earlier this autumn after a Trimble-engineered fiasco over IRA ‘decommissioning’, has ended, only to give way not to a new government, but to the familiar scenario of bilateral meetings, talks about talks etc. The word games have already begun: do we need a ‘new agreement’? ‘Negotiations’? A ‘revised agreement’? A ‘review’? A ‘re-review’? (Will the present stalemate make the British more or less likely to propose a similar sectarian power-sharing arrangement for a new Iraqi ‘democracy’?)
Already the media seek cracks in the Paisleyite edifice, identifying the younger DUP smoothies who, we suspect, will eventually sit down with Sinn Fein (or “sup with Satan”, as the party leader might have it) if that’s the only way to a ministerial Mercedes. Gerry Adams appealed, smirkingly, directly to the Reverend himself: Christianity, Adams said, is all about “dialogue, conversation, and dealing with sinners”. No doubt thinking punningly of the nickname for members of his party, ‘Shinners’, Adams continued: “As a sinner, I offer myself on behalf of those I represent to be converted by Dr Paisley to his vision of the future.”
The institutionalization of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland only serves to make such miraculous conversions all the more unlikely. The cross-community Women’s Alliance took a battering in this election; the left-leaning Progressive Unionist Party, which despite its links to the paramilitary Ulster Voluntary Force has occasionally sounded open to nationalist arguments, was also badly dented; journalist Eamonn McCann, probably the most dedicated and admired socialist campaigner in Ireland over three-and-a-half decades, ran, hard, on a red-green ticket in his native Derry and got a fairly disappointing 5 per cent of first-preference votes, leaving him nowhere near the assembly.
You have to admire many of the individuals in Sinn Fein (e.g. Caitriona Ruane, a new MLA whose efforts on behalf of the ‘Colombia 3’ have been covered in CounterPunch). The party’s leadership has done extraordinarily well to preserve the IRA ceasefire while making historic compromises with unionism and the British government; they’ve got a helluva electoral machine to boot. But as Sinn Fein makes the by-now-familiar Irish trek from being a revolutionary movement to being a ‘slightly constitutional’ party of capitalist government (e.g. a Sinn Fein minister was in charge of health-service cutbacks in Northern Ireland under the last executive), one would hope that a clear political alternative would emerge on the left.
It hasn’t, despite the considerable advantage in these assembly elections of a PR system involving six-seat constituencies with a single transferable vote, roughly the same electoral system that applies in the Republic of Ireland. In US terms, it would mean you could vote for your favourite commie feminist for president; then see your vote shift to your number-two, say Nader, once she was eliminated from the count; and eventually watch it elect, gulp, Howard Dean, who would then know indisputably that he’d pushed past Dubya thanks to the low-preference ballots of left-wing voters. And you’d be drunk enough after 16 hours in front of the television watching umpteen counts of redistributed votes that you might even think that was a good thing.
Counterpuncher HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and a recently fired columnist for the Irish Times! He can be contacted at email@example.com