The General Election in Northern Ireland: A Look in CLR’s Crystal Ball April 28, 2010Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.
The nominations closed last week, and we have 108 candidates for the 18 constituencies. In the absence of The Workers’ Party and other left groups like the Socialist Party, there is just one candidate unambiguously from the left, Eamonn McCann, standing for People Before Profit in Foyle. In terms of other candidates that identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, Alliance is running in every constituency, and the Green Party is running four candidates (and the areas in which the Greens are running suggest something about the class nature of their support). There is also 19 year old Martin McAuley (whose election agent easily has the greatest hair in Irish politics), who is running on a platform of cross-community and cross-class unity in north Belfast, and Ciarán McClean in West Tyrone, who comes from a left background, but who is running on a non-sectarian, enviromentalist platform. There is also John Stevenson in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, an independent candidate who states “Those with vested interests have never and will never succeed”, the founder of engineering firm Titanic Rebuilt 2010, said. “We are one people and we all have one future. It is a future equally shared. I am absolutely confident that our people will make the right decision on May 6.”
And that’s it. Less than a quarter of the candidates. None of these candidates, despite Alliance trying to talk up Naomi Long’s chances in east Belfast, has much chance of taking a seat, and many of their votes will be very low. The simple numbers tell us something about the weakness of those seeking to build a united community alternative, never mind a left alternative, to the tribal politics of unionism and nationalism. Even the numbers themselves are deceptive, over-representing the non-communal electorate, and the organisational strength of those involved. If you look at the Alliance candidate profiles, a lot of their candidates are standing in areas to which they have little connection. Although Alliance can get the required numbers in each constituency to sign the nomination papers, it seems that in some areas there is very little in the way of an organisation on the ground, and so candidates are being drafted in from areas in Belfast and parts of Antrim and Down where they are stronger. Next year’s elections for the Assembly and local government, where there are fewer than 10 members of the united community group, and no left members (the PUP’s Dawn Purvis probably being the most left-wing MLA), will see more candidates representative of non-sectarian and progressive politics, but without much hope of success. Eamonn McCann would be in with a strong chance of taking a council seat if Derry, but I’m not sure if he will stand for the council, and if the reform of local government goes ahead, cutting the number of councils to 11, the left’s task would become even more difficult. If the candidates committed to the united community group maintain their seats, that would probably be a good result, although the TUV’s presence may make it some gains more likely. We’ll have a better sense of that after the election.
As for the mainstream, it’s an interesting election for several reasons. The scandals surrounding the DUP, the emergence of the TUV, and the Tory-Ulster Unionist alliance make this a much less predictable election for unionism than at any time since the 1970s. I highly recommend Splintered Sunrise’s Know Your Constituency series of posts, especially the one for North Antrim, where Ian Paisley’s seat may be lost by Ian Jr to the TUV leader Jim Allister. The Ulster Unionist Party, which for 50 years ran a one party-state in the north, is seriously faced with the possibility of having no MPs. Reg Empey may be in with a chance of unseating Willie McCrea in South Antrim, and they have some hopes for Trevor Ringland in East Belfast (Peter Robinson’s seat) and for Mike Nesbitt in Strangford (formerly Irish Robinson’s seat). The DUP, which cannot expect a repeat of its vote in 2005 due to the emergence of the TUV and increased signs of life in the UCUNF, will be seeking to hold all its seats while minimising the amount of voters who defect to the UUP and TUV. The UUP needs to win at least one seat, and beyond that will have an eye on consolidating for the Assembly elections. The TUV is pushing hard to take North Antrim, and to a lesser extent East Londonderry, where former UUP MP Willie Ross is battling the DUP’s Gregory Campbell, and again will have one eye on the Assembly elections.
The only nationalist seats in danger are those in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast, which has raised the issue of electoral pacts once more. Although Gerry Kelly has been trying to talk up his chances in North Belfast, it is highly unlikely he can unseat the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, and I don’t really see any unionist seats being under threat from nationalists. His party’s joint priorities will be to hold on to Fermanagh/South Tyrone and to gain the most votes overall. The SDLP will be hoping to hold all three seats, with South Belfast the most difficult, and, as with the UUP, to gain back some ground across NI with the aim of securing their seats and possibly gaining in the next Assembly election.
So to stick my neck out, at a time where the balance of forces within unionism in particular might change, and make predictions. I think the SDLP will hold its three seats. I think the DUP will hold all its seats, though with sometimes greatly reduced majorities. South Antrim may fall to Reg Empey, but at the minute I think McCrea will narrowly hold on. It was a difficult seat for the DUP to win, and they have worked hard at trying to keep it, and the Tory link-up hasn’t had as transformative an impact as the UUP hoped. The TUV vote is again a difficult factor to judge, but I think their impact might be balanced by broadly pro-agreement unionists who shifted to the DUP between 2005 and 2007. Slyvia Hermon should hold North Down easily as an independent unionist. Which leaves us then with PSF. They should hold four out of their five seats easily. The vulnerable one is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where I’m guessing that enough nationalists will be angry at the unionist pact to switch from the SDLP to push Gildernew over the top, and so save the seat for the incumbent. So basically, I’m predicting no change, apart from the UUP being wiped out by Herman’s resignation, which is the case now anyway. The predictions for South Antrim, South Belfast, and Fermanagh/South Tyrone are made without any great degree of confidence.
Whatever happens, this has been a bad election for the left, and a bad election for the prospect of removing sectarianism and creating what we now seem to be calling a shared future. Anybody who doubts that should have a look at the election manifestoes. With the exception of the SDLP, when it comes to the big four parties, the concept is conspicuous by its absence. What this election proves is the strategic necessity not only of left cooperation, but also that the left must be willing to work with those seeking to end communal politics, and create a new type of politics in NI based on commonality and active citizenship.