It may seem odd at first but the second most significant outcome of the Stormont Assembly election is the turnout, which fell from 55.71 per cent in 2011 to 54.91 per cent in 2016. And even if the number of votes cast actually increased by nearly 30,000 it’s hard to overlook the fact that nearly half the population don’t bother to vote. But this disenchantment with the political outcome of a world-renowned peace process is a faithful reflection of the utter and complete inability of many to identify anything in the current political arrangements that they want to support.
Of course history has been rewritten, even as it was being made, to explain that this political agreement brought an end to political violence, and is still necessary for this to continue, but many (without thinking) are not buying the lie in practice. While some will never vote, a greater proportion are disillusioned or have never bought into the sectarianism that saturates Northern Ireland politics. The Stormont Assembly, its Trumpton Government and its third-rate politicians have been so utterly useless in even the most mundane of political terms that their unchallenged corruption is the stand-out feature of the regime. Or it would be if the sectarianism that is the foundation of the regime and overlays every aspect of it were not primary, sometimes missed only because it is so taken for granted.
The turnout went down by under 1 per cent but this masks a fall in the combined DUP and Unionist Party share of the vote of 1.5 per cent and a fall in the nationalist vote of over 5 per cent; with the SDLP vote-share falling by 2.2 per cent and that of Sinn Fein by even more – 2.9 per cent. The combined nationalist vote is now back to where it was in the early 1990s. A majority for a United Ireland is not only a long way off but it’s getting further away.
Even the not very bright political commentators who had previously put this decline down to nationalist contentment with the new political arrangements are now forced to recognise that nationalist abstention is a result of precisely the opposite, and is a protest against the rotten Stormont regime. Nationalists know they can not look to a united Ireland but the tolerable Northern Ireland is barely tolerable.
It is therefore the continuation of the sectarian regime which is the most significant outcome, despite its abysmal track record. The largest unionist party, the DUP, has been validated in its nakedly tribal campaign to prevent election of a Sinn Fein First Minister, even when this was never a realistic possibility. The sectarian card is played no matter what the game.
We now have another five years of sectarian dog-fighting, periodically interrupting a shared implementation of reactionary austerity policies. It matters not that barely half the population took part in the election never mind the smaller number who voted for the two parties leading this austerity – the DUP and Sinn Fein. This marriage made in hell is sold every five years based on one party claiming the greatest threat to hearth and home comes from the spouse. The spouse continues to sell it as a progressive example to the world.
The sectarian gloom is never lifted. There appears no alternative. The trade unions first oppose the austerity policies but then welcome and support the political agreement, the ‘Fresh Start’, that saved the regime that now implements the austerity, the austerity that is codified in the political agreement now supported. The other political parties oppose the big two Parties that dominate but are also in ‘Government’ and also support all the big two’s policies in all essentials and in almost every detail.
Opposition exists in the same way it exists inside the Stormont Assembly – it is assumed not to exist and no provision was made for it to exist. Sectarian division means that all conflict must be contained lest in go down this cleavage so no real opposition to the sectarian agreement can be conceived. The setbacks, conflicts and struggles are thus all internal to the arrangements which can brook no alternative. We have an arrangement that seems rigid but at the expense of little flexibility. Opposition within it is thus no threat as long as the political framework is accepted by that opposition at which point no real opposition can exist.
In other words a real opposition would oppose the very foundations of the Stormont regime. It would however be the wildest dreams to believe that right now such an opposition can set itself the immediate task of bringing it down – any putative opposition is too weak and there is currently no alternative.
This however brings us to the third, but most dramatic, outcome of the election. And that is the election of two self-declared revolutionary socialists from the People before Profit (PbP) organisation.
In the heart of Sinn Fein – West Belfast – the PbP candidate Gerry Carroll topped the poll with 8,229 votes, a stinging rejection of Sinn Fein by many and a rejection all the more cutting for not being unexpected. The cronyism of the organisation has disgusted many and its disregard for its base illustrated by its support for building a new GAA ground with safety concerns in the heart of the constituency. This will have particularly resonated in the last few weeks given media coverage of the victorious campaign by the relatives of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster. This rejection has grown following complete capitulation to Tory welfare changes which Sinn Fein swore to oppose but eventually facilitated the implementation of.
While Gerry Carroll is pictured carried aloft by supporters all waving the red flag the other victorious left candidate, Eamonn McCann from Derry, was to be heard on BBC Radio Ulster singing the Internationale. Eamonn explained that he was surprised by how many during his canvassing expressed their opposition to being labelled ‘Orange’ or ‘Green’, as is required by the Stormont rules, but said they were ‘Other’, the only alternative designation allowed. How fitting a sectarian designation’s only alternative is ‘Other’ rather than ‘Anti-Sectarian’ or even ‘Non-Sectarian’.
PbP success represents a dramatic rejection of Sinn Fein but if it is to represent something more it must not just declare an alternative but create one. Two successful candidates allows PbP to present itself as more than a protest but how much more will depend on how it thinks its revolutionary socialism can be applied outside the Assembly. As we have seen, what happens inside it is not taken seriously even by those who support it, especially by the DUP and Sinn Fein who carve up the jobs and the decisions between them.
A light can now be shone on the darkness through the election of two socialists but to begin to dispel the darkness will require an alternative labour movement that can offer practical alternatives to sectarian division. What role will PbP play in that task?