Northern Ireland Assembly Election – A retreat to tribal politics

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The outcome of the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election can only be judged as a retreat to tribal politics.

With 18 fewer seats up for grabs compared to this time last year, Sinn Féin’s return of 27 seats leaves them clear victors, with a strengthened hand in negotiating with the DUP about forming a new power-sharing government. Comments from DUP leader, Arlene Foster, likening Sinn Féin to crocodiles, backfired terribly, damaging her party further and handing the Sinn Féin leadership a propaganda coup in the run up to the election. Combined with her handling of the RHI scandal, this had a galvanising effect on Sinn Féin voters. Foster’s future as leader of the DUP is uncertain now, with her party losing a total of twelve seats in the election.

The especially sectarian nature of the election squeezed the nascent left vote. The People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) will see the election as a setback, albeit perhaps a temporary one. Despite Eamonn McCann gaining an extra six hundred first preference votes, he lost out narrowly on the last seat in the Foyle constituency. In West Belfast, PBPA’s strategy of running two candidates failed, as their vote fell by 8% on last year’s election, although Gerry Carroll was returned comfortably as PBPA’s sole MLA. Despite the loss of a seat and the squeezed vote in West Belfast, PBPA will be happy that they polled strongly in North and South Belfast.

The Workers’ Party described the outcome of the election as a major setback, saying that the next Sinn Féin/DUP coalition will be no different to the last “with jobs, health, education, housing and deepening sectarian division not even on the agenda.”

Running five candidates, the Party achieved a total vote of just over 1,000. Colin Craig, standing for the first time, achieved a vote of 218 in the Upper Bann constituency and believes his vote indicates that “a level of class differentiation does exist and can be built upon.” Craig believes however that “the area remains deeply and aggressively divided upon tribal lines and that this will present a problem for the foreseeable future in trying to reach workers in traditional loyalist areas.” More generally, Criag described the results of the election as a “setback for socialist politics in Northern Ireland. As long as ‘national designation’ remains the basic feature of the system, class politics will struggle to gain a foothold.”