Two parties both committed to a neo-liberal cuts agenda were the main winners in the Northern Ireland assembly elections where almost half the voting population refused to offer its backing to any of the candidates on offer.
It was to be the election where bread and butter issues dominated. The general narrative suggested by pundits was that Northern Ireland had moved on from the domination of constitutional issues, and parties would be judged solely on the key issues which matter to most of us.
The battlegrounds would be job creation (unemployment is high and rising), health (substantial cuts to the health budget has left 80 per cent of nursing staff doing unpaid overtime just to keep the system ticking over), education (there are serious issues with the number of students, both Catholic and Protestant, who fail to achieve satisfactory results at secondary level), and welfare provision (crisis in social housing and social care) and not simply by the allegiance to one community or the other.
There was some idea that this election might provide a spark for an impassioned debate on the economy. One commentator suggested this was the first truly “post troubles” election.
No sooner had the election period commenced and PSNI officer Ronan Kerr was killed when a bomb planted under his car exploded. Kerr was a Catholic PSNI officer from a community which had been badly scarred by the Omagh bombing a decade earlier.
The murder was condemned by all hues of the political process immediately; Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and the DUP’s Peter Robinson standing side by side in their condemnation of those anti-agreement republicans who it is believed had committed the atrocity.
From there on the distinguishing feature of the elections was agreement. With almost no difference between the major parties, the election campaign was lifeless. The leaders' debates were tedious. It is a positive development when everyone agrees that there can be no return to the violence of the past, but for the major parties the commitment to austerity is what characterised their campaigns.
There could be no alternative to the budget cuts, no alternative to a reduction in corporation tax which will leave a 300 million pound hole in an already reduced budget, no alternative to diminishing the public sector and opening the door for a “rebalancing of the economy” in favour of the private sector. On all of these issues the major parties largely agreed.
When the Alliance Party stepped outside the mould proclaiming the need for the introduction of water charges, as if the cuts on offer didn’t go far enough, they were quickly castigated by Sinn Fein and the DUP who committed themselves against the introduction of the charges.
The central argument put forward that the maintaining of a stable Assembly - the DUP and Sinn Fein (and the other parties) working together to reduce obstacles to business, therefore encouraging inward investment which they say will promote jobs growth - was driven forward with relentless monotony.
That isn’t to say that the alternative argument - the 4 billion worth of cuts to the budget once implemented will take Northern Ireland backwards, shedding between 20,000 and 40,000 jobs and paring services back to the bone; that reducing taxation on business will not create jobs nor boost the economy but has potential to replicate the crisis that exists over the border in Ireland; there is an alternative in the billions of pounds of unpaid, uncollected and avoided taxes of big business and the wealthy - wasn’t given an airing.
The minor parties - The Green Party, People before Profit, the Socialist Party and the Workers Party - did get to air party political broadcasts and were included in the election coverage, far more so than in previous elections.
The result suggests that at this point the argument just didn’t quite grip.
Nearly 50 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote, and in many Protestant areas the vote dropped well below 50 per cent. If you look even deeper into constituencies, in some areas and these appear to be predominantly protestant working class areas, the turnout was the lowest in memory. (At one local polling station in South Belfast only 98 people out of a possible 800 had voted by 8pm. Even a last minute rush barely improved the situation.)
Those that did vote, voted overwhelmingly for the DUP and Sinn Fein. If it wasn't for the vagaries of the transfer system the SDLP and the UUP would have fared poorly. The pro- business Alliance party appears to have increased its vote primarily at the expense of the UUP.
This has created quite a deal of discussion. An Irish News editorial suggests that:
“For a government, it is difficult to claim a credible mandate when around half the voting population refuses to offer its backing to any of the candidates on offer. This disconnect is not a new phenomenon, of course, but representatives who dismiss this as simply a symptom of normal politics need to take a reality check.”
The paper goes on to say that this disconnect needs to be addressed, but what they failed to see is that the austerity measures which all parties agree on are not popular and where there were opportunities to express opposition there were some very bright pockets of resistance.
Anna Lo of the Alliance topped the poll in South Belfast almost doubling her vote to over 6000; this despite her party’s willingness to advocate pro-business policies including the universally unpopular introduction of water charges. Anna has a personal popularity way beyond the Alliance’s natural constituency and is seen as a progressive reformer.
People before Profit (of which Counterfire has been a part) polled very well in Derry, coming close to winning a seat, and exceptionally well in West Belfast where the PB4P vote more than doubled from the previous election showing there is potential for Assembly seats in the future. The group polled respectably in other areas.
In the Belfast City Council elections Eirigi (a left republican group), running an anti cuts campaign, did well and gathered over 2000 votes between two candidates and would be within a few votes of seats in a future election. A number of left republicans polled well, some came close to contesting council seats, showing that there is some evidence of growing resistance to the general trajectory of Sinn Fein. People before Profit also increased its vote in some areas of Derry City Council.
While there was no generalised vote against the budget cuts it would be wrong to think that there is no potential for substantial resistance once the new Assembly begins to implement them. Many people are opposed to DUP and Sinn Fein’s pro-cuts consensus, but there simply hasn’t been much in the way of a fightback against them. While there is opposition it has no formal expression by way of an organised movement, like the Coalition of Resistance in England.
While the murder of Ronan Kerr established a backdrop to the election, the lack of industrial action also helped shape the result. Back in October the trade union movement held a rally against the cuts. Thousands of workers turned out to protest in Belfast in what was one of the biggest rallies since the 2003 rally against the war in Iraq. There was a sense then that the cuts consensus could be broken.
It will require similar actions over the coming months to ensure that whatever cosy consensus the Assembly parties have managed to create, that consensus is broken when the impact of their pro business, neo-liberal austerity policies becomes clearer.
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