North of Ireland: local elections

Anti-Brexit protest by Sinn Fein supporters

At the local elections in May, it was the performance of smaller parties that made headlines in the North of Ireland. The Alliance Party, having gone into the contest with 32 seats across the North’s eleven ‘super councils’, came out of it with 53. The Greens made a little headway too. Their supporters rejoiced that Northern liberalism had at last broken the levee, escaping the confines of leafy South Belfast suburbia and the Ards Peninsula. The results were overdrawn by those touting for the restoration of Stormont and for a strong anti-Brexit showing in the European elections. To an excitable local media, some transfer of seats to the hallowed centre ground – if not quite heralding a sea change – was at least indicative of a ‘progressive surge’.

On a turnout of 53%, it was a surge that hardly dented the two-party dominance of the deeply reactionary Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the reformist Sinn Féin. In the Six Counties, local elections use a system whereby voters rank candidates by preference, meaning that smaller parties benefit from the transfer of surplus votes from the larger parties. So, yes, the DUP lost seats to Alliance – but it did so whilst increasing its share of first preference votes from the last council elections in 2014. And, it did that despite having made a holy mess of everything it has touched in the intervening five years: the ‘Namagate’ scandal, a murky affair of an Irish property sell-off and the alleged fixer-fee for a DUP leader (2015); the cash-for-ash scandal (2016); the collapse of Stormont (2017); the collapse of a deal to restore Stormont (2018); its crazily impossible Brexit policy (ongoing).

A vote on Brexit

The Alliance Party was born of the crisis that engulfed the old Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) at the end of the 1960s. Its vote share has hovered around the 7% mark for most of its existence, so an 11.5% share this time is noteworthy. In the 2016 EU referendum Alliance supported Remain, as did their UUP cousins. Once the results were in, it followed the UUP in accepting the decision of ‘the people’ – but has since advocated for a second referendum whilst the UUP sails in the opposite direction, trying to outdo the DUP on opposition to the backstop. Former UUP voters, opposed to Brexit, have defected to Alliance.

A vote on austerity

Although Sinn Féin suffered no net loss of seats, it did see two former seats in Derry and one in Belfast go to the People Before Profit (PBP) party. PBP was founded in 2005 as an electoral front of the Socialist Workers Party. In the North it competes for the votes of urban Catholics and does so by stealing Sinn Féin’s clothes – albeit those from its 1990s wardrobe: the double denim of municipal socialism and idle nationalism. PBP is anti-austerity but pro-Stormont; it peddles the fantasy that a new power-sharing government could solve the housing crisis by restoring funds to the Housing Executive; as a party of shamefaced Lexiteers it now joins Sinn Féin in calling for a post-Brexit ‘border poll’ on Irish unity. It presented itself on the doorstep as a protest vote. That it again polled well in Sinn Féin heartlands, and that it did so in spite of its pro-Brexit stance – and in spite of Sinn Féin constantly banging on about it – is proof that Sinn Féin’s base have something to protest about.

Welfare reform

In 2015 Sinn Féin and the trade unions signed up to the ‘fresh start agreement’, overcoming their previous hesitations in order to accept British welfare reform and the proposed restructuring of the North’s state sector. Knowing that ‘reforms’ and ‘restructuring’ are how the ruling class pronounce cuts and mass redundancy, this was never going to play well with large parts of Sinn Féin’s electoral base: those dependent on British state welfare to live and those for whom the growth of state sector employment brought social mobility. Sinn Féin needed cover then for its latest surrender. It got it in the form of the ‘mitigation schemes’: £585 million of funds from which to temporarily ’top up’ the welfare payments of the hardest hit. Thus, Gerry Adams could argue that his party had kept Stormont alive, saving the North from direct rule and, with it, ‘the full weight of a Tory assault on the welfare state’.

Several of these schemes supplement the income of those suffering reductions to disability-related payments, including Carer’s Allowance. For those transferred to Personal Independence Payment, mitigation ‘top-ups’ offset 75% of the amount lost but, as with the other disability-related payments, are available to claimants for a maximum of one year. For those targeted with the benefit cap and bedroom tax, the schemes – with payments available for up to four years – help pay the rent, making up any shortfall in lost housing benefit. There are currently 34,000 claimants on the bedroom tax mitigation scheme alone. All eight schemes expire in March next year. The full extension of Universal Credit to all claimants is also scheduled for 2020, affecting an estimated 100,000 people and their families.

For those who told Sinn Féin canvassers to get their party back to Stormont, they hope that a restored Executive might secure a further period of welfare reprieve. Where there should be resistance, there is instead desperation. The ‘full weight’ of austerity is about to fall and, for the working class, these elections changed nothing.

Patrick Casey


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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