Northern Ireland’s sectarian bear pit

Submitted by AWL on 21 June, 2017 - 10:04 Author: Micheál MacEoin

The recent General Election results in Northern Ireland reflect continuing sectarian polarisation, as the DUP and Sinn Féin won 17 out of the North’s 18 Westminster seats.

The background is the collapse of the fractious power-sharing Executive earlier this year, and the dramatic Northern Ireland Assembly election results in March. In that election, an increased turnout and a surge of support for Sinn Féin meant that unionists lost their majority in Stormont for the first time since the creation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921. Sinn Féin then piled the pressure on beleaguered DUP leader Arlene Foster, refusing to go back in to government with the DUP until an investigation in to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal had reported. Stalemate resulted.

In many ways, the Westminster election on 8 June was “round two” of the fight. However, this time, Unionists rallied back to the DUP, worried about the prospect of a further electoral triumph for Sinn Féin.

In the event, the electorate polarised. The DUP added 10% to its 2015 vote share, picking up two seats at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Sinn Féin increased its share of the vote by 5%, wiping out its moderate nationalist rival, the SDLP, in Foyle and South Down, and snatching Fermanagh and South Tyrone from the UUP. The result is an electoral map of Northern Ireland split east-to-west, between Sinn Féin and the DUP, with the so-called “centre ground” eliminated. A further Assembly election would likely see further losses for the SDLP and the UUP, cementing the grip of the DUP and Sinn Féin over Northern Ireland.

Amidst this sectarian polarisation, the prospects for independent working-class politics are bleak. Working-class Protestant voters have rallied to the DUP, a reactionary right-wing sectarian party. Working-class nationalists overwhelmingly support the centre-left Sinn Féin, a party which has little inclination or ability to reach out to Protestants. Almost twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the current state of Northern Ireland tragically vindicates those who feared that its structures, though largely bringing an end to sectarian war, would lead to the political “continuation of war by other means”.

Consociationalism, the idea that political structures in divided societies should work to regulate and contain ethno-religious divisions, has provided no means by which those divisions may ultimately be transcended. Instead, it has created a sectarian bear pit. The institutional infrastructure of power-sharing was once memorably dubbed the “ugly scaffolding”. However, scaffolding is supposed to be a temporary structure, erected until the building below has been constructed. There is, as yet, little evidence that the building is anywhere near completion. Rather, the power-sharing set-up has incentivised a form of communal bargaining for resources within the Northern Ireland sub-state.

Inevitably, unionists and nationalists have opted for the best fighters for their respective “sides”, and non-sectarian — including socialist — politics has been the casualty. Sinn Féin went into the election preaching that Westminster would be an irrelevant side-show, only to find the DUP holding the balance of power. It may be, then, that the prospect of a Tory government backed by the DUP hastens Sinn Féin’s to Stormont.

Yet, there is little prospect of stable government even if that happens, and any Executive formed will likely just be a warm-up for the next acrimonious collapse.