Voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls for the fourth time in four years on May 18th when 462 councillors will be elected to 11 local councils. Like all elections this will be dominated by political parties which seek votes in one community only, claiming to represent the “interests” of Protestants or Catholics. The four largest parties are engaged in this form of divisive politics-often described as a “sectarian headcount”.
Parties that are based on sectarian division act to deepen the divide, seeking to convince voters that they are the best representatives of “their” community and the hardest opponents of the representatives of the “other” community. Over the last several elections unionist parties (in favour of Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom) and nationalist parties (in favour of a united Ireland) have won approximately 40% of the votes each, with the unionists just remaining ahead by a narrow margin of 2 or 3%.
The contest between the sectarian blocs is mirrored by competition within each bloc. The largest single party at the last election (to the Assembly in 2019) was Sinn Fein. It has eclipsed the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the most vocal representatives of the Catholic community over the last 20 years. The SDLP was the dominant party of nationalism but is now in a seemingly unstoppable slow decline. In a parallel process the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which effectively ruled Northern Ireland as a one-party state from 1921 to 1972, has been pushed aside by the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Both Sinn Fein and the DUP face competition from even more strident parties and groups. In the Protestant community the Traditional Unionist Voice, which opposes power-sharing, consistently picks up 5% of the total vote. In the Catholic community, several “dissident” republican groups oppose Sinn Fein which they claim has betrayed traditional positions. Independent Republican candidates have won seats in the 2019 local elections in areas Sinn Fein regard as its territory and it is possible that they will win more seats on May 18th.
The turnout in local elections is often low-53% in 2019-but there are factors which suggest a higher turnout this time. Sinn Fein are seeking to replicate their result at the Assembly elections and emerge as the largest party of local government. The DUP are seeking to retain the position of largest party on the councils but is unlikely to do so as the unionist vote is more splintered than the nationalist vote. The unionist parties are also treating the election as a plebiscite on the European Union-United Kingdom post-Brexit trade arrangement known as the “Northern Ireland protocol”. There will thus be pressure within both communities to turn out, and an increase in the total vote is likely.
Approximately 15-20% of voters have opted for parties which stand outside the sectarian mainstream in recent elections. The main beneficiary has been the Alliance Party which wins votes in both communities and is seen as an alternative by significant numbers, especially of younger people, and more middle-class layers. It does not provide a real alternative: the Alliance Party is firmly in the camp of neo-liberalism. It is in favour of lowering corporation tax and simultaneously of increasing taxes on working class people, arguing in favour of a new charge for domestic water supply and for an increase in student fees (which are currently set at a lower level in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales).
This is the background against which left political, trade union and community activists and campaigners have come together in Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA). Members of the Militant Left group, which is affiliated to the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), and others who also stand in the CWI tradition, have linked up with ex-members of the Labour Party (during the period when it was led by Jeremy Corbyn), and activists who were previously involved in the Workers Party and Democratic Left. It has the active support and participation of trade unionists and environmental and community campaigners. The increase in strikes in recent months and a mass campaign against the closure of a local hospital have helped to galvanise support. As has often been the case in the past increased sectarian division and an increase in class struggle have occurred together.
CCLA is a genuine attempt to build unity around key principles. CCLA candidates are opposed to the neo-liberal and pro-capitalist policies of the five largest parties represented on the local councils and in the Assembly, and fight to protect and build the unity of working-class people in struggle. CCLA demonstrates in practice that an anti-sectarian left alternative can be now, through patient and consistent work in local communities, and the promotion of socialist politics.
CCLA is distinctly different from other parties which seek to project a radical image. Over the last decade the Green Party has provided a home for many who wish to cast a vote for non-sectarian politics. At its peak, the Green Party held two Assembly seats, but it lost both at the 2022 election. It is going into the local elections in a weakened state but nevertheless may hold or even increase its vote given the absence of a credible left alternative in most areas. Ultimately it will not provide a way forward given its unwillingness to go beyond occasional, vague left rhetoric. When Green parties come to power, they implement neoliberal policies. There is no indication that this will be any different for the Green Party in Northern Ireland. It is a component part of the Irish Green Party which has entered government in the south of Ireland more than once, signing up to the anti-working- class policies of its bourgeois coalition partners.
People Before Profit (PBP) has also scored successes over the last years, and currently holds five council seats. PBP wins votes primarily in the Catholic community where it is in direct competition with Sinn Fein. It criticises Sinn Fein from the left, but it also seeks to out-flank it with a hard nationalist position which repels Protestant workers. People Before Profit will not build a base in Protestant areas and will mislead workers and young people from a Catholic background who are seeking a genuine vehicle for anti-sectarian, socialist politics.
Cross-Community Labour are standing two candidates in the local elections: Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh in Enniskillen and ex-Councillor Gerry Cullen in Dungannon. Since he was elected to Fermanagh and Omagh District Council in 2019 Donal has played an exemplary role, standing up for the rights of working-class people. Gerry was previously an elected councillor for 13 years winning three successive elections (standing for the Workers Party, Democratic Left and finally as an independent socialist). Donal and Gerry are both exceptionally hard-working individuals who represent the independent interests of the working-class.
CCLA activists are fighting hard to defend Donal’s seat but are very aware that it will not be easy to do so given the increased community tensions at this time. Gerry has a base of support in his hometown built up through decades of campaigning work and is hoping for a credible vote on which to build in the future. Two good results-even if no seats are won-will be an important step forward in the struggle to create a new mass party of the working-class.
Ideas matter, and Donal and Gerry are standing for principled working-class unity and the struggle for socialism. Actions matter too, and CCLA is demonstrating in practice the results of patient and consistent hard work in local areas. As we struggle to build the workers movement, both through the trade unions and in the political arena, CCLA in Fermanagh and Tyrone is showing the way forward.