Socialist Worker

The neoliberal north of Ireland

As elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly take place this week, Simon Basketter looks at how the system entrenches sectarianism

Issue No. 2041

Sectarianism is still a strong force in Northern Ireland, as testified to by this Loyalist mural in Sandy Row, Belfast

Sectarianism is still a strong force in Northern Ireland, as testified to by this Loyalist mural in Sandy Row, Belfast

The most likely outcome of the Northern Ireland Assembly election this week is that the radical Republican party Sinn Fein will enter government with the Unionist bigot Ian Paisley.

This devolved government will be presented as the latest new start for Northern Ireland. Most working people in the North want to see the return of the Assembly – if only in the hope that it will put manners on New Labour.

Throughout more than 30 years of “the Troubles”, the endemic poverty and poor public services in Northern Ireland were blamed on the paramilitaries. Yet after over a decade of peace, most people in Northern Ireland have seen their living standards fall.

While rising inequality underlies the desire to see the Assembly restored, it is unlikely that a return to devolution will do anything to reverse these trends.

Sectarian bigotry is inseparable from the whole Northern Ireland set-up. The British state boasts of bringing “democracy” to the North, but it far outdid the paramilitaries in its capacity for terror.

An official report in January revealed that the majority of the leadership of the UVF – a Loyalist killer gang – were police Special Branch agents.

Ever since Britain’s rulers partitioned Ireland, Northern Ireland has been riven with sectarianism – from the police to the judiciary, in housing, education and employment.

The violence of the Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict. By the mid-1990s British governments had realised that they could not defeat the IRA by force.

Britain’s rulers wanted to stabilise Northern Ireland, so they pushed Unionist politicians into accepting that peace talks had to take place – and that Sinn Fein had to be part of the process.

Unfortunately, the peace in Northern Ireland is not based on drawing Protestants and Catholics together, but on policing people apart.

The consensus reinforces segregation by insisting that opposed “communities” must be represented by politicians who fight for one group against the other.

For instance, every one elected to the Assembly has to identify themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Principles of “parallel consensus” and “weighted majority” then come into play.

This effectively means that all important decisions have to gain the support of a majority of Unionists and a majority of Nationalists. The “others” are simply forgotten about.

Many people see Sinn Fein as the most radical party in Northern Ireland. But regrettably, Sinn Fein sees its job as one of battling over scarce resources, rather than challenging the poverty of the whole working class.

While Northern Ireland has seen systematic oppression of Catholics, the divide in the working class also holds Protestant workers back.

Managers in Northern Ireland earn 20 percent more than their counterparts in Britain – while average private sector earnings are 10 percent lower.

Now anger over inequality is starting to seep through into the Assembly elections – making it more than just the usual sectarian headcount.


A proposal to introduce water charges has galvanised public feeling. Yet on this issue there is no difference between Sinn Fein and Paisley’s DUP. Both oppose the water charge but speak out against a non-payment campaign.

And all the major parties are committed to maintaining or increasing direct grants to multinationals, while reducing corporation tax and other taxes on business.

Socialists predicted that the May 1998 Belfast agreement would institutionalise sectarianism – and it has.

The number of “peace lines” (a euphemism for segregation walls) and “interface areas” (neighbourhoods where sectarian tensions and violence are high) has grown since 1998.

But when workers fight back together – as they did a year ago when Protestant and Catholic post workers united against their bosses – there is a possibility for real change.

Fortunately socialists offered an anti-sectarian and anti-capitalist alternative at the ballot box this week. Eamonn McCann in Derry and Sean Mitchell in Belfast stood to provide an alternative to communal division and neoliberalism.

For more on the left in the Northern Ireland elections go to or the Irish Socialist Workers Party site at

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.