In the recent local elections in the North of Ireland, held on 18 May, Sinn Féin once again emerged as the first party.
Having won 30.9% of first preference votes, yielding a total of 144 council seats, up from 105 councillors in 2019, Sinn Féin is now the largest party in both local government and Stormont.
The DUP held their ground, with an unaltered 122 seats and 23.3% of first preference votes – a decrease of 0.8 percentage points since the previous election. But the party is slipping further into its quagmire, and is increasingly falling behind Sinn Féin.
A comparison with the last local elections in 2019 demonstrates the changing political landscape: one of increased polarisation.
Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are the only parties to have experienced an increase in first preference votes. Everyone else experienced a net loss.
Sinn Féin leapt by a substantial 7.7 percentage points; the Alliance Party went up by 3.3 points; and the TUV saw a modest gain of 1.5 points.
A clear impetus for Sinn Féin’s increased vote is growing anger amongst nationalists towards the continued boycott of Stormont by the DUP.
The cost-of-living crisis is biting down on workers and young people, driving many into further poverty. The DUP, meanwhile, continue to paralyse the Northern Ireland Assembly, in a vain attempt to bend Westminster to its will.
The DUP have cited Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework as the key issue for their continued withdrawal from Stormont. They claim that it does not safeguard the North of Ireland’s position in the UK.
What they neglect to mention is that the DUP cannot fathom the prospect of Sinn Féin Michelle O’Neill taking on the role of First Minister in the power-sharing arrangement laid out by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
DUP decline and desperation
The Northern state was specifically set up by British imperialism over a century ago along religious sectarian lines. It was designed to ensure a Protestant majority, helping the Unionists to maintain their dominance. The sizable Catholic minority, meanwhile, faced discrimination in terms of jobs and housing, and were deprived of rights or representation.
The 2021 census, however, revealed shifting demographics in the North. Now, 45.7% of inhabitants are Catholic or from a Catholic background, compared to 43.5% from Protestant or other Christian backgrounds.
These demographic changes, combined with the terminal failures and fracturing of the Unionist camp, propelled Sinn Féin to victory in last year’s Stormont elections, and now again in these local elections.
Lacking a coherent plan to halt Sinn Féin’s forward march, the DUP have turtled up, hoping for a sudden sea change in the mood.
Desperation is creeping in amongst the DUP leadership. Former leader Edwin Poots described the local election results as a “wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment”. Current leader Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, has urged all Unionist leaders to show “greater cooperation” between unionist parties in order to check Sinn Féin’s rise.
These appeals for ‘Unionist unity’ from the DUP are all the more ironic given the turmoil and infighting that has gripped the party since the overthrow of Arlene Foster in 2021.
The cracks in Unionism are not the superficial product of intransigent Unionist leaders, however. They have deep roots in the crisis of capitalism, and the deepening polarisation across the North.
Increased polarisation is dividing Unionism and the support base of the DUP.
Many Unionist youth are simply exhausted at the constant attempts by the Unionist leaders to whip up sectarianism, particularly when economic conditions are spiraling ever downwards. Middle-class, Remain-voting layers are tired of the perennial stirring up of the Brexit question, and the Alliance Party has gained in these quarters.
Demagogically playing up to the sense of betrayal felt by working-class Unionists, meanwhile, the TUV are constantly threatening to outflank the DUP on the right.
The DUP for its part has been repeatedly forced to lurch right – to noisily oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol and Sunak’s successor, the Windsor Agreement – in order to staunch these losses to the right.
In short, Unionism is finding itself at an impasse, with nothing to offer working-class Protestants but more austerity, more insecurity, and more economic hardship. And there is nothing that the DUP leaders – or anyone else – can do to paper over these cracks and unite the forces of Unionism.
Disillusionment and betrayal
On the back of his party’s shrinking vote in the recent council elections, UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) leader Doug Beattie stated: “It’s clear also that many Unionists and people who are pro-Union are simply not getting out to vote, so we have a real issue getting people out of their doors.”
Beattie’s words are confirmed by a paltry voter turnout of 54.7% at the 18 May elections.
Unionist supporters, in other words, are growing disillusioned, as their living conditions dissolve before their very eyes, at the behest of politicians who falsely claim to represent their interests. Simply championing the Union won’t cut it anymore, with both Protestants and Catholics facing despair.
It is becoming increasingly clear to Protestants that they have been betrayed by British imperialism.
It is high time for workers and youth, from both communities, to take the necessary action in fighting back against the real enemy of all workers in the North: the bosses, their representatives in Stormont and Westminster, and the rotten capitalist system.
These common class enemies – the capitalists and their puppets in government – are making off like bandits while the majority continue to suffer and pay the price.
Across the North of Ireland, the working class and youth – of both Catholic and Protestant communities – are being hammered by inflation, by the cost-of-living crisis, by poor housing, by a collapsing healthcare system, and so on. There is no end in sight.
The North is now one of the top-ten most deprived areas of north-west Europe, and is the poorest area in the UK. Schools have experienced average spending cuts of 11% from 2011 to 2019 (the deepest in the UK). And the mental health crisis is stark, with an epidemic of despair and hopelessness, particularly amongst the youth.
A 2018 analysis revealed that 4,500 lives had been lost to suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). To put this in perspective, this is roughly a thousand more than the estimated 3,500-3,800 people that were killed during the Troubles.
The media, along with parties of various stripes, have thrown much of the blame for this on the paralysis at Stormont.
Sinn Féin have been speaking on these issues, advocating for increased funding of public services, and standing up to Tory austerity in words. This clearly gained an echo, with the party soaking up votes from PBP (People Before Profit) and the SDLP.
Momentum was already behind Sinn Féin coming into this election, following last year’s Stormont elections. Many in working-class Catholic communities see Sinn Féin as a pragmatic and immediate vehicle for delivering change – and to give a black eye to the Unionist establishment, and above all the arrogant leaders of the DUP who disdain to serve as ‘Deputy’ First Minister to a Sinn Féin First Minister.
Similarly, many in the Republic see a vote for Sinn Féin as a means of hammering the Southern establishment for its ongoing destruction of working people’s lives.
The decrepit status quo on offer to workers in both the North and the South is paving the way for future upheavals and explosions. The ruling classes on both sides of the border are losing their ability to rule in the old manner, as the tremors that prelude bigger earthquakes make themselves felt.
Socialist United Ireland
For over a century, ever since the founding of the Northern state, the capitalists have always feared a united movement of the working class. And they have sought every means at their disposal to prevent it.
In 1914, the heroic Marxist revolutionary James Connolly wrote that the partitioning of Ireland via Ulster would mean “a carnival of reaction both North and South”. This, Connolly correctly predicted, “would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement, and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured”.
In response to this sectarian madness, Connolly continued, “labour should give the bitterest opposition; against it labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.”
The rise of Sinn Féin has inevitably brought with it the question of a United Ireland. Partition has succeeded in creating a “carnival of reaction”, which has divided the working class for over a century. But now there lies ahead the distinct possibility of ending the sectarian divisions, and fighting for Irish unification.
A capitalist united Ireland, however, would inevitably fail to deliver for the working class in the North or South.
Just as in the North, the South is plagued with crises – from housing to healthcare. A United Ireland on a capitalist basis would not solve any of the fundamental problems facing workers: Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise.
Marxists are fighting for a completely different type of Ireland than that proposed by Sinn Féin. We are fighting for the same goal as Connolly: for a 32-county Socialist United Ireland; for a genuine workers’ republic, which meets the needs of the masses, rather than feeding the greed of the capitalists; for world revolution.
The wealth exists in society to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and provide decent jobs, wages, healthcare, education, and living standards for all the people of Ireland.
But this remains in the coffers of a tiny elite of parasitic bosses and landlords, who would rather return to the sectarian violence of the Troubles than risk seeing a united working class, fighting for their overthrow.
It is only by expropriating the capitalists, and tossing out their political henchmen, that we can deliver the basic needs of workers and youth in both North and South. This means seizing the commanding heights of the economy, and placing them under the democratic control of the working class.
The key question for workers across Ireland, therefore, is that of building a revolutionary leadership – one capable of fighting for the common interests of the working class, and taking the struggle to the end.
“The Irish people will only be free when they own everything, from the plough to the stars.” – James Connolly