In this final post on the Stormont election results, I want to take a look at the two forces aspiring to offer an alternative – the republicans and the left – and assess the likelihood of them being able to do so. I should state in advance that my conclusions will not be terribly optimistic. But to begin with, I should point out that there are two constituencies, which are distinct even though they overlap to some extent. This is the traditional republican constituency, which is mostly rural though with some urban support, and what might be termed a left republican, republican socialist or Connollyite constituency, which is almost exclusively urban. The election results partially illuminate these audiences.
The actual votes for dissidence are not all that much out of line with what I was expecting. They might have surprised outside observers relying on press reports (and, despite the effective media blackout on RSF, there was a remarkable boosting of mad Catholic reactionary Gerry McGeough by journalists who you wouldn’t expect to be sympathetic). Indeed, although disgruntlement with the Provos will be obvious to anyone even slightly acquainted with the republican base, there are good reasons why the dissidents were never going to do very well. Firstly, the Provo cadre – and this is where disillusionment is keenest – was never held together by ideology, but by military discipline. This explains why demoralisation and abstention are a more common reaction than dissidence. Bear in mind too that, as far as the majority of Northern Catholics are concerned, the details of the peace process are of little interest. What is important is that the war is over and, thanks to Gordon Brown’s voodoo economics, there is more or less full employment. Combined with the Provos’ massive apparatus, this gives some context for PSF’s continuing popularity and the lack of a large audience for critiques of the GFA process.
Then you have to consider the subjective factor. The dissidents had no organisation, no resources, no really attractive or well-known candidates and no record of doing the work on the ground that pays such dividends for the Provos. (Davy Hyland, who is personally very popular in Newry and whose appetite for hard work is legendary, is the exception here.) Lots of potential supporters weren’t on the register, having taken themselves off to avoid being impersonated. There was also the question of what political alternative the dissidents were putting forward. RSF stand for traditional republicanism, and traditional republicanism wasn’t all that brilliant that we would want to rerun the tape. Gerry McGeough stands for traditional republicanism, plus fascism and the Virgin Mary. As for Hyland, Paul McGlinchey and Martin Cunningham, it’s not terribly clear what they stand for. So you had candidacies that could only really appeal to people who were already fairly hardline republicans, and even among hardline republicans RSF, in particular, are far from being universally popular.
So the results for independent republicanism then become explicable. RSF’s six candidates polled a remarkably uniform 400 or so, as did McGlinchey in North Antrim and Cunningham in South Down; 800 deluded souls in Fermanagh voted for Catholic Reaction; Hyland got a little over 2000 in Newry/Armagh and Peggy O’Hara a little under 2000 in Derry. Mrs O’Hara’s campaign had some peculiar features that I’ll come back to presently. I hasten to point out that I’m not making excuses for poor results, simply setting them in context. So, taken together with the Hearts and Minds poll last November, we might say that the dissident vote this time out represents a baseline rather than a maximum, but it does shine a light on the sort of audience that is out there. And we can have some kind of feel for the audience that might be available to a more attractive project than actually existing dissidence.
The Hyland vote is easily explicable in parish pump terms. The vote for Mrs O’Hara, who is not to my knowledge in the IRSP but is certainly identified with them, is interesting in that it was the nearest thing we had to a left republican campaign (although trad republicans in Derry also supported her) and because of what it says about political developments up there. Basically, there is a relatively big audience for dissidence in Derry because Derry has had nationalist government for decades and had a peace process ten years before the rest of us. Things have been maturing slightly quicker there. That’s why so many of the names on the Letter of 500 came from Derry. But the sentiment of opposition is also quite confused. We could see that in the policing debate, where the dissidents organised a big rally in Derry, and then invited Eamonn McCann and Tony McIntyre to do the speaking. Predictably, neither of these balloons had much to say, though, predictably, that didn’t stop them talking at length. The hope would have to be that some people in Derry do some thinking and draw some conclusions.
I have a faint hope that some opposition might arise from disgruntled republicans. I have no such hope in the far left, but it’s worth glancing at their performances anyway. It’s disappointing to note that the Workers Party seem to have slowed their inexorable decline. To be honest, the Sticks don’t serve any socialist purpose any more and their disappearance would at least clear away some undergrowth.
From the Sticks we turn to the most morose people in Irish politics, the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland (Kautskyism-Taaffeism-Peter Hadden Thought). They will be slightly cheered up by their vote having finally broken through the 200 mark, with Jim Barbour in South Belfast going up from 167 to 248 and Tommy Black in East Belfast rising from 176 to 225. These gains of 81 and 49 respectively are a clear vindication of SP strategy – not! This is despite flogging water charges into the ground over the past three or four years, with Peter Hadden having recently declared that the proletariat were being electrified by the We Won’t Pay Campaign (a mass movement of the SP in coalition with itself). Yet again bread and butter fail to deliver the goods. It’s true that water charges were much discussed during the election, but most of the punters seem to believe that Big Ian will abolish them.
Joking aside, the main problem with the SP’s perspective is their weird belief that you can build a base for socialism in places like the Beersbridge Road, if only you disavow anti-imperialism and strip out from your programme anything that might scare the Prods. The SP have been doing this for decades – so much so that their last manifesto only had one item on it. And they still can’t get votes in these areas! It would be interesting to see which boxes the tiny SP vote actually did come from – I suspect much of it actually comes from the Markets and Short Strand, and is an offshoot of the once substantial WP vote in those areas. The thing is that, for well over 30 years, the only places in the North where socialism could find any audience have been working-class Catholic areas, where there has been some radical and anti-imperialist consciousness. That means West Belfast and Derry, to a lesser extent North Belfast and Newry, and some small pockets elsewhere. In other words, the left republican constituency mentioned above. The SP’s schematic dogmatism doesn’t allow them to consider this; the SWP are dimly aware of it on some pragmatic level, although it contradicts their formal politics.
The SWP, as anyone who attended their Marxism event at the weekend will testify, are cock-a-hoop at the votes for Captain Eamo in Derry and the wee lad in West Belfast, running under their two different fronts. How their treasurer feels about having shelled out something like five grand for less than 3000 votes is undisclosed, but on the evidence of Marxism it would seem that Yo politics are alive and well. Actually, although Eamo’s vote has held up remarkably well – Mrs O’Hara’s intervention only slightly dented it – I am more and more convinced that this is an essentially personal vote and not evidence that 2000 people in Derry believe the Soviet Union was state capitalist. Rather, I suspect much of it comes from luvvie elements, of whom there are many in Derry. After all, if fellow journo Brian Rowan can score 1200 first preferences in North Down on a platform of anti-politics, it surely isn’t surprising that TV celebrity McCann, one of the best-known faces in the North, could get 2000 votes for a platform of right-on clichés.
Somewhat more to the point is the vote for the wee lad, who scored nearly 800 in West Belfast. This clearly wasn’t a personal vote, as nobody had ever heard of the candidate. (The Provos had a number of candidates I’ve never heard of, but then they have a machine.) It wasn’t a vote for SWP politics, as it wasn’t an SWP campaign. It surely to God wasn’t a popular endorsement of young Seán’s Ali G manifesto. The only explanation I can put forward is that he managed to get some votes from the left republican constituency, on the grounds that he looked a bit lefty and a bit anti-imperialist (only in Iraq, true, but in West Belfast that would be taken as a dig at the Brits). These are the same sort of people who would vote for an IRSP or Socialist Democracy candidate – indeed, the Irps or SD might have done better, as they would have run an explicitly anti-Stormont campaign.
I can’t see the SWP getting anything out of this in the long term. The Irps or SD, having acquired this audience, would go out and try to organise an opposition. The SWP can’t, not only because they don’t have the organisation, but, more importantly, because they don’t have the politics. What could they do with these people – sell them tickets to Marxism? The only consolation for the SWP is that they don’t think in the long term anyway. A short morale boost will suit them fine.