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Divided By Class And Creed

The Northern Ireland Assembly Elections in May delivered a marginal political change that could develop into something more, reports Justin O’Hagan

In terms of the distribution of seats the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections on 5th May brought little change, with the Sinn Féin winning 28 compared to a previous 29 and DUP staying steady on 38. A return which ensures the two party coalition government will remain in place.

However, the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party to enter into formal opposition has brought to an end the era of compulsory coalitions at Stormont. Added to this, Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann from People Before Profit have each won seats in the Assembly and Steven Agnew has been joined by fellow Green MLA, Clare Bailey.

With continued and deepening austerity planned for Northern Ireland, Mike Nesbitt’s decision to leave government makes good political sense. Both he and the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (should the SDLP also jump ship) can blame the DUP and Sinn Féin for the worsening economic and social conditions that austerity will bring, hoping that this might enable them to claw back some of the support that each has lost over the past decade.

Meanwhile, although their vote is arguably drawn mostly from disaffected nationalists in Foyle and West Belfast, McCann and Carroll, will provide a much-needed left voice in Stormont, which may force the media to focus on the worst hypocrisies of the governing parties, particularly those of Sinn Féin, which talks left (sometimes) and acts right.

Although from the perspective of the two biggest parties the election brought some unwelcome results, the overall campaign was, in the words of Steven McCaffery of the Detail website, “a carefully choreographed sham fight” in which “the two parties who have spearheaded a hugely dysfunctional government since 2007, enjoyed a crisis-free election and were returned to power”. McCaffery notes that areas relating to continued paramilitary violence and intimidation and the toxic legacy of the Troubles were put on the long finger and largely ignored during the election, as was the fact that the Sinn Féin/DUP coalition had failed to meet nearly half of the commitments laid out in the last Programme for Government

It is perhaps time for Sinn Féin to have a ‘difficult conversation’ with itself

Changes in the political set-up at Stormont can be set against a backdrop of a longer-term change in sectarian politics in the North. Apart from the continuing steady decline in the number of people voting, which has been a fact of political life since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, there has also been a sharp drop in the share of the vote of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, which has fallen 3.6% since the 2015 General Election and 5.6% from their share of the Assembly election vote in 2011. One commentror, taken into account the decline in voter turnout, has argued that the combined Sinn Féin/SDLP vote has fallen from more than 70% of those who identify as Catholic in 2001 to less than 40% in 2016.

The electorate in Northern Ireland has risen to 1,281,595 from 1,210,000 in 2011. This year, despite the higher electorate, Sinn Féin won 166,785 compared to the 178,224 in took in 2011 and the SDLP won 83,364, whereas five years ago it took 94,286 votes.

The argument is that a key reason for this decline in the Nationalist vote is that ‘in recent years Catholic voters are significantly less keen on Irish unity than they have been previously’. Data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys, shows support for a United Ireland amongst Sinn Féin voters fell from 84% in 2006 to 42% in 2014, while the figure for SDLP voters in 2014 was 29%. In a speech on the Easter Rising given in April this year, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said “we believe that we are in the countdown to a United Ireland. We believe that together we can make huge progress and truly transform society on this island forever.” Given the contrary facts, and given that a United Ireland is its central goal, it is perhaps time for Sinn Féin to have a ‘difficult conversation’ with itself.

While the emergence of opposition politics is a step forward, there is no immediate prospect that any of the more progressive elements within the opposition parties will have the numbers to form a government. As such, the social and economic situation in Northern Ireland is bad and is set get worse as austerity measures that the Stormont Coalition parties implement will begin to bite. Recent reports from the Nevin Economic Research Institute and the Rowntree Foundation show the extent of poverty, precarious and badly-paid employment and housing stress and homelessness in Northern Ireland. In relation to housing, the current waiting list for social housing in NI stood at just under 40,000 in 2014/15, with 19,621 people presenting themselves as homeless in the same period. Despite this just fewer than 11,000 allocations were made by Housing Associations.

More generally Northern Ireland remains a low-wage economy. In 2013- 14 twenty per cent of people in Northern Ireland were living in poverty after housing costs on average, with more working-age adults, particularly young people, more private renters and fewer pensioners in poverty than before the economic crisis of 2008. After inflation average weekly pay is lower in Northern Ireland than it was a decade ago. Or, as the Thatcherite quango InvestNI breezily puts it, “Northern Ireland provides one of the most cost-efficient business environments in Europe.Salary costs are lower than in the rest of the UK, and around 30 per cent lower than other European locations locations such as London, Dublin and Paris. Operating costs overall are lower than the rest of the UK and Europe.”

It’s to be hoped that more left MLAs will join Carroll and McCann in Stormont as increasing numbers of workers begin to vote in their own interests.

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