Here’s to You Mr. Robinson
The defeat of DUP leader Peter Robinson provided a main talking point of the recent Westminster elections but with Tory cuts coming down the line John Lowry sees an opportunity, and a need, for the Left to come together and provide real representation for the working class in Northern Ireland.
The success of the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long in defeating DUP leader Peter Robinson in the Belfast East Westminster election can make a significant impact. It came only days after the Northern Ireland conference of the ICTU voiced serious disquiet at the continuing policy of heaping praise on the Stormont Executive and Assembly.
Rank and file trade unionists, who are battling to save jobs and frontline services, are only too aware of Robinson’s failure to counter these cuts in his role as First Minister.
Even with the growing criticism of Robinson’s leadership, his defeat was still undoubtedly the surprise story of the election. Robinson was badly hurt by the Westminster expenses scandal, the huge salaries himself and his wife were drawing down and, crucially, the revelations of his shadowy dealings with local property developers.
Long, a hard working MLA also benefitted from the decision of Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey to stand in South Antrim rather than East Belfast, where he also failed to win a seat.
These are serious times for Unionism with what will be a bitterly fought Assembly election next May. For the first time in their history, the Ulster Unionists are not represented at Westminster. Robinson may well regret his justification for standing in the Westminster election when he stated that it was essential that the leader of Unionism be represented in the British parliament. Well he isn’t there, so what are we to make of his future as leader of the DUP? Reg Empey has already announced that he is to make way for a new leader of the Ulster Unionists and don’t be surprised if Robinson goes too.
Unionists look on in horror at the prospect of Sinn Féin, already the biggest single party in Northern Ireland in terms of votes, winning the biggest number of seats at next year’s Assembly elections and capturing the First Minister’s job.
A formal coming together between the two unionist parties is a step too far, but there is real pressure for greater cooperation between them to stop Sinn Féin. This would be made all the easier with the ending of the UUP’s disastrous coalition with the Tories and a new leadership in the two parties.
All this points to what will be a nakedly sectarian election next year as both tribal camps seek to capture the First Minister’s job. That said apart from the admittedly significant defeat of Robinson, the DUP did well in this election and successfully saw off the challenge from Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, who are bitterly opposed to the present Stormont arrangements.
Sinn Féin too continued their upward path and the SDLP, who admirably rejected the offer of a nationalist pact with Sinn Féin, also held their 3 seats quite easily. The Alliance Party, as a result of standing in all 18 constituencies and with the strong showing of Naomi Long, upped their vote to 6.2% overall. The Green Party will be disappointed with their showing, particularly in North Down where they have a sitting MLA, and where their vote fell by two thirds.
So in terms of the upcoming Stormont Assembly elections it is very much as you were, with no real change in the balance of forces. Despite vocal dissident nationalists and unionists, the Stormont arrangement seems secure and under no real threat. But there is no room for complacency.
The election of the Tories in Britain will herald a whole raft of public spending cuts, £6 billion in this year alone, and Northern Ireland will not be spared the axe. Working class people in the North are in for a hard time and the Stormont Parties cannot be relied upon to protect their interests.
Remember they are already only waiting, as Finance Minister Sammy Wilson revealed during the election campaign, for the right moment to introduce water charges. Already we have had the decision to close major services at the Magherafelt and Whiteabbey hospitals with the loss of jobs and badly needed hospital services. People in Mid Ulster and South Tyrone, now without any hospital services in the region, are asking what is the use of having 2 MPs, both SF, and 12 MLAs from all the main assembly parties, if they cannot prevent this sorry state of affairs.
What is needed before the next Assembly elections is a serious effort by the left in Northern Ireland to put in place a socialist electoral force which will show that unionist and nationalist parties are just as culpable as the Tories. There is a constituency for a socialist alternative. The working class are in for a hard time. Will the left stand idly by?