The election of Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann from the radical left People Before Profit Alliance to the Stormont Assembly on 5 May has shaken the political establishment in Northern Ireland.
The vote for People Before Profit (PBP) was an unambiguous expression of deep anger and frustration at the political set-up, especially over austerity, and was based on a conscious appeal to break with the sectarian Orange and Green division. Together Gerry and Eamonn epitomise both the continuity of an enduring, though often marginalised, radical socialist tradition in the North and the emergence of a new generation of left wing activists. Eamonn was a prominent radical leader of the mass civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Gerry is one of a generation of young people radicalised in the movements against war, student fees, racism and austerity in the years after the IRA ceasefire of 1994.
The scale of the vote was impressive. Gerry, who was elected in 2014 to Belfast City Council, topped the poll in West Belfast with a staggering 8,299 votes, one and a half times the quota needed. Eamonn won 4,176 votes in Derry. Even more significant is the fact that the breakthroughs came in West Belfast and Derry, the two epicentres of the conflict in the North. Sinn Féin considered West Belfast its political heartland. Sinn Féin moved deputy first minister Martin McGuinness back to the Foyle constituency in Derry in an attempt to win an extra seat. McGuinness topped the poll, but Sinn Féin won only two seats out of six.
The election of two radical socialists has opened a crack in the political system in the North, where each new crisis is presented as a mortal threat to the peace process, with the only alternative a return to war and conflict. In his victory speech Gerry said:
“For too long, people in this community have been presented with a false choice — that they can support the shambles up in Stormont, that they can support the status quo, or that they can support a return to armed actions of the past. But today People Before Profit has blown that myth out of the water, because there is a clear alternative and it’s one not based on sectarianism, not based on armed actions…but one based on people power and socialist politics.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was built on the false notion that the conflict in Ireland was essentially about the clash of two tribes, one of which identified as Irish nationalists and the other as British Unionists, mainly on religious grounds. The disastrous and murderous role of the Northern Ireland state and British state in the Troubles was entirely written out of the narrative. The structure of official politics in the North since has locked in this sectarian division, giving each “community” a permanent veto on any change. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), for instance, focused its election campaign this year on stopping Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party and therefore having McGuinness appointed as first minister.
Liberal promoters of the Good Friday Agreement envisaged the gradual emergence of an indistinct middle ground of “normal” politics and then despaired as the hardliners of each side came to dominate the political structures. But this was the inevitable result of priority being given to community and identity in the political set-up. The only question was who would best defend the interests of their community as against the other. The “constructive ambiguity” at the heart of the agreement and the silence about Britain’s role have meant an almost total stalemate in dealing with issues such as justice for the victims of the Troubles. None of these issues can be addressed for fear of destabilising the delicate balancing act. It has also handed conservative politicians the power to block any moves over progressive issues such as same sex marriage or reform of the abortion laws.
The votes for PBP show that something else is moving below the surface and that it is moving in a radical direction. The peace agreement was sold on the basis that an end to violence would trigger economic regrowth. Sinn Féin pinned its hopes on the extension northwards of the then booming Celtic Tiger, based on foreign investment and a housing bubble. Unionist leaders, many of them deeply connected to property developers, were chasing a similar miracle. Regular joint visits to the United States by DUP and Sinn Féin ministers sold Northern Ireland as a low wage economy, with ready access to European markets.
Some investment, mainly low-wage call centres, did arrive and Belfast saw that familiar rash of new luxury apartment buildings around the now almost disused shipyards. Peace funding, in the form of grants from the EU and some US-based charities, sustained a host of community projects in deprived areas which papered-over for a time the gradual retreat of public services. But the 2008 crash put a dramatic end to all that. The British government followed with ever more stringent demands on Stormont to impose austerity and quickly.
What this has revealed is the underlying agenda of the British and Southern Irish establishment in shaping the agreement — to contain the “Northern Irish problem” in the six counties and discipline the power-sharing government to act as a conventional capitalist, neoliberal government. In the process the illusion that local politicians would be more responsive or act as a defensive shield against the attacks from Westminster is falling apart. The Fresh Start Agreement, which emerged from yet another round of crisis talks last year, saw the executive agree to 20,000 public sector job cuts and the same draconian cuts to welfare as those imposed in Britain. In addition, there are plans to privatise the NI Housing Executive, the body set up to take social housing out of the control of corrupt, Unionist-dominated local councils in response to the mass protests of the civil rights movement.
Opposition to austerity by the trade unions resulted in a widely-supported one-day public sector strike in March 2015, with rallies in towns and cities across the North and promises that this was only the start of the campaign. But the resistance was derailed by the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which eventually put an end to the campaign in the autumn, arguing that it could not be responsible for bringing down Stormont because the alternative of direct Tory rule was much worse. This was an added reason why the electoral challenge by PBP was even more charged. The election was the first opportunity to express the deep opposition to austerity and the establishment parties who were imposing it.
The fall-out from the election has led to yet more instability in Stormont, with the smaller Unionist and Nationalist parties, the UUP and SDLP, sensing the mood of disenchantment and formally moving into opposition. Sinn Féin, the party most associated with the struggle against the Northern state, is now stuck with a political strategy which has no Plan B. In 1998 Sinn Féin leaders confidently predicted that they would have a united Ireland by 2016, the centenary of the 1916 Easter uprising. A leading Sinn Féin member, Conor Murphy, when asked to explain the strategy for a united Ireland during the election campaign, could only fumble and talk about a possible referendum “like Scotland” in the distant future, discussions with economists about the costs of Irish unity and “outreach programmes to unionists”.
Sinn Féin’s response to the rise of PBP has been two-fold: to appeal for “pan-nationalist” unity, invoking the memory of the 1981 Hunger Strikes and the election of Bobby Sands as an MP, and to dismiss PBP as not taking the questions of British rule and the border seriously. In an interview before the election Gerry Adams claimed that PBP was a “two-nation” party, insinuating that it accepted the partition of Ireland. This is simply not true. Both the Socialist Workers Party, which is the main organised left group within PBP, and PBP itself are openly in favour of a united socialist Ireland.
On a wider level, there have been determined attempts in the press and by Unionist politicians to portray the vote for PBP as a phenomenon confined to Nationalist areas. A large part of the vote did come from areas which have previously supported Nationalist parties. This is unsurprising given the historical development of the North. But evidence from the election counts and many anecdotal reports also told of significant votes in what are regarded as traditionally Unionist areas.
PBP canvassed on both the Unionist Shankill Road and the Nationalist Falls Road in West Belfast, in all parts of North Belfast and in every area in Derry. As Eamonn notes, “Everybody was told, when you knock on a door and somebody answers it, what you’re to say is, ‘We are from People Before Profit. We are neither Orange or Green.’ I regard our success as a vindication of that.”
In the weeks since the election PBP has been inundated with membership requests from every part of Northern Ireland. There is now a real prospect of thriving PBP branches in every part of Belfast and towns across the North. Closely following the recent election of three PBP TDs (MPs) to the Irish parliament, its success in the North is of huge importance in encouraging movements of resistance.
Comparisons are being made with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and Eamonn has been described as “the Bernie Sanders of Northern Ireland politics” — they are both of the same generation. PBP’s success is without doubt part of a global phenomenon, but PBP and its predecessors have been contesting elections since 2001, steadily building their support and working tirelessly over local campaigns and at the forefront of every struggle.
On the way into Stormont to take his seat, Gerry quoted the great Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly: “The election of a socialist to any public body at present is only valuable in so far as it is the return of a disturber of the political peace.” Things won’t be the same inside or outside Stormont.
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