Sinn Fein celebrates historic election success while so-called centrist party looks to play “both sides” card and assume Kingmaker role on behalf of Ruling Class. By: Alexander StottRead Now
A Historic Result
On the morning of Monday, May 9th, 2022, elected legislators returned to Stormont, the seat of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. This marked the first day of the new legislative session following a historic election result for the Irish Republican party, Sinn Fein. Voting for the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly began on Thursday, May 5th with the counting process continued into and through the weekend. Irish Republicans and voters in the Six-County state seeking an Ireland for all were hopeful in the buildup to the count, and by the evening of Sunday, May 8th, the historic result was coming into focus. Sinn Fein had netted a 29% vote count and 27 of 90 legislative seats, thereby becoming the largest party entity in Northern Ireland. According to governmental provisions, this result ensures that Michelle O’Neill, current Sinn Fein party vice-president and MLA for mid-Ulster, will accede to the executive post of First Minister. This is the first time that the Northern Irish executive will not be held by a unionist politician - a quarter of a century since the signing of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and 101 years since the partition of Ireland and creation of Northern Ireland.
Put simply, this is an electoral result that was never supposed to have been possible. Northern Ireland is the political offspring of copious amounts of gerrymandering married to ethnic displacement and disenfranchisement. In 1921, after several centuries of direct colonial rule over the whole of Ireland, Ireland was partitioned into two separate state entities. Southern Ireland (soon to become the Irish Free State and eventually, the existent Republic of Ireland), would be a 26-county state ruled by the Irish national bourgeoisie - influential nationalist and nominally republican politicians and businessmen opposed to direct-rule by Great Britain, but not necessarily its interests. In the north, six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster were identified to comprise the new state. Northern Ireland was literally gerrymandered by design to ensure that political power in the north would remain perpetually in Unionist hands. In the words of James Craig, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland: “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”.
This election result has struck a decisive and historic blow against the power of reaction in Ireland. Ulster-Scot Unionism, however, is pound-for-pound the most fervently reactionary faction within British politics and no means will its torchbearers go quiet into this dark night. Prior to the election, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) members had already floated the idea - should Sinn Fein gain the right to appoint First Minister - of not returning to Stormont and to ignore their duty as elected officials to aid in the formation of a government executive. This commitment to conditional non-recognition of electoral results will be all-too familiar for American readers. The same can be said of the gerrymandering of electorates to seize and retain political power through “democratic” means. This tactic, coupled with toxic social reproduction of sectarian conflict by way of segregated housing, education, and employment systems, presents a reactionary playbook infamous to residents of countries formerly of the British Empire.
Ulster-Scot Unionism – the Final Boss Battle that never was
At present, public attention belongs to O’Neill and the rest of the Sinn Fein MLAs as they work to set up the state’s executive branch against a backdrop of unionist melodrama. Incidents such as BBC Northern Ireland allegedly interviewing personalities such as Mervyn Gibson (leader of The Orange Order, Loyalist reactionaries par excellence) during their election coverage presents a seemingly ossified political landscape and highlights the symbiotic relationship between the stewards of ultra-reaction and stalwarts of a self-avowed liberal state. In such a contentious political situation, it is only for a pinpoint political focus to develop. Yet, a precision focus must not become horse blinders. Irish republicans must pick up their heads to examine the shifting field and state of play now that Sinn Fein is running with the ball in hand.
Both major unionist parties (DUP/UUP) lost MLA seats in the most recent election. Although not their worst election performance, the Unionist parties underperformed to enough of a degree that Sinn Fein was able to ascend to the status of the largest party without themselves having gained a single MLA seat since 2011. In fact, Sinn Fein’s total MLA count has decreased by one since the 2011 election. Unionist parties, for the part, while administering Northern Ireland for over a century (1921 – 2022), have recently registered the largest losses in history of assembly elections for Northern Ireland. In the game of electoral politics, one’s loss is always another’s gain. The question then becomes: which party has been gaining ground?
Episode IV: The British Empire Strikes Back (with a little help from their friends)
Typical to former British colonies, Irish politics have a cultivated association with instability and sectarian violence. In India, colonial authorities leaned into the Hindu caste system to aid in the division and conquest of the people of India. Undoubtedly, this technique was employed in ethnic or tribally heterogenous areas of Africa that the British sought to bring under their dominion. Still to this day, if westerners know anything about India it is the caste system while cheap slander about African infighting is a mainstay of the ideology of the enlightened European. In Ireland, the division to be exploited was Catholic against Protestant.
The course of history demonstrates that the maintenance of Empire often requires from the ruling class a granting of concessions to sections of oppressed groups. If an out-group appears too large or becomes overly organized and politically troublesome, a small section of said out-group can be granted elevated social status and used as a bludgeon against the unelevated remainder. For the majority of Ireland’s colonial history Irish Catholics experienced what qualifies as racial oppression. In other words, Irish Catholics were effectively barred from civil society and constantly faced the threat of legal and extralegal reprisal from a foreign government. We can likewise observe a historical change from colonial systems of racial oppression to systems of national oppression, wherein elite sections of the subject population are incorporated into the ruling apparatus. It is for this reason that throughout the colonial history of Ireland certain learned Catholics were permitted to engage in elite functions such as the practice of law. One of these Irish Catholics was James Napier, founding in 1928 the Belfast-based Napier Solicitors law firm. His (Fortunate) Son, Oliver Napier, was one of two co-founders of the ‘Centrist’ Alliance Party – Northern Ireland (AP-NI). It is at this point that the question “which party has been gaining ground?” warrants reexamination.
After the laying low of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland of the mid to late 1960s, the historical context which brought about the Alliance Party was escalating police and Loyalist militia violence against the residents of Catholic communities. August 1969, saw destructive police and militia violence perpetrated against Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast. Simultaneously, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terrence O’Neill, was under heavy pressure from hardline Unionists to “get tough” against those resisting the apartheid state. The ruling class sought to shore up its right-flank with the founding of the New Ulster Movement (N.U.M), a “political pressure group” with the twin objectives of supporting PM O’Neill and the promotion of “moderate and non-sectarian politics”. In 1970, the son of Catholic solicitor James Napier and a member of Ulster Liberal Party, Oliver Napier, alongside a former Ulster Unionist Party member, Bob Cooper, were brought in as joint chairmen of N.U.M’s political committee. This period marked the political defeat of “moderate Unionism”, culminating with the near defeat of PM O’Neill in his home district by hardline preacher Ian Paisley. As the “moderate” line of Unionism bled support, Napier and Cooper sought to chart their own course. They co-founded the Alliance Party – Northern Ireland in April 1970, taking with them, by Napier’s own estimates, 95-99% of NUM’s membership.
Catalysts of Sectarian Violence
In the context of sectarian conflict, a Centrist political designation raises questions of motive. Examining N.U.M documents from the years 1970-1972 provides insight into what qualified as Northern Irish centrist policy and what a ruling class’ vision of bridge-building looked like. With the founding of the Alliance Party, N.U.M was quickly obliged to change priorities. In a 1970/71 report the group stated: “This was the year that N.U.M changed its role. From being an electioneering organization…we became an ‘ideas’ organization and one which sought to influence and shape political thinking and action in Ulster…”. Northern Ireland officially had its first think-tank. So, what then were the ideas being sparked by Northern Ireland’s premier, moderate think-tank?
The first document we will examine is the above-mentioned annual report of 1970-1971. Lamenting the “re-emergence of the brute in Ulster life”, its authors practically give the game away in the opening sentences. This phrasing is an outright slap in the face to those that had been living for fifty years in underdeveloped Catholic communities and neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. Next, on the critical issue of Internment, N.U.M elaborates on “[trying] to make the fact of interment as acceptable as possible.”. How would cool, moderate heads at N.U.M make incarceration without trial acceptable? By demanding the extension of internment into the 26-county Republic of Ireland as well, of course! Not only that, but “protestant extremists” should also be interned alongside Republicans. For those who know the importance to the Republican cause that the political efforts of its prisoners played, the idea of loyalist paramilitary men finding themselves conveniently isolated in close quarters with Republican prisoners, having only prison guards between them, appears wholly unappetizing. These “moderate” policies amount to suspending habeas corpus on an international scale and providing opportunities for the prison assassination of civil rights figures.
The second piece from N.U.M is a 1972 think piece entitled “Two Irelands or One?”. The N.U.M bemoans an alleged overemphasis and biased cultural stance towards the Irish language and reminds the reader that “many” Catholics “have a tradition of serving the Crown…and accept unselfconsciously the label British.” Indeed, we recall that the family of the Oliver Napier made out quite well following in this tradition. The condescending rhetorical point of departure of this piece is encapsulated in its last section “Some Final Questions”. Here, the N.U.M takes Catholics, Nationalists, Republicans, and anyone in between to task for not simply conceding to the designs of Great Britain. “Are you serious about a united Ireland?” they ask, answering with: “The historical record suggests strongly that you are not.”. By N.U.M’s political estimations, Irish Nationalists or Republicans had only ever sought to divide what would be otherwise an already united (under the Crown) Ireland. Divisive Irish political acts cited include: the creation of tariff laws, military neutrality, and sovereignty from the British Commonwealth.
It should be obvious by now that the N.U.M and its direct political offspring, the Alliance Party – Northern Ireland, was representative of the growing cross-community (Catholic/Protestant) business class that has a documented history of, and continues, to cynically invoke language of peace and reconciliation to rebuff assaults upon the economic status quo by Sinn Fein. We must detain ourselves a little longer in the world of the reasoned and moderate centrist to indulge in analysis of this piece’s final sentence, a phrase that would seem more fitting coming from Rhodesian ethnonationalists than learned bridge-builders: “Provided a just restructuring can be achieved in the north, would it not be better for all of us if you want your way and we went ours – two states acknowledging their different traditions, but ready to cooperate in all matters of common concern?”
Indeed, that is the self-described “[one of the] leading organ[s] of moderate opinion in Northern Ireland” endorsing - in 1972 - a policy amounting to what in America was the racist farce known as “separate but equal”. The US Supreme Court had ruled already by 1954 against such policies. One is hard-pressed to find a clearer illustration of the political depravity of Unionism and “moderate opinion” in Northern Ireland than that displayed by the endorsement of “separate but equal” policies two decades after such policies were overturned by an infamously complicit US Supreme Court.
Some Final Questions
The notion of non-sectarianism by virtue of an inherent correctness within their political line is fundamental to how Alliance Party sells itself. Deriding being “held hostage” by “those with vested interests” the AP-NI attempts to simply rebrand the brutal colonial history of Northern Ireland as petty squabbling between two equally malignant and self-interested partisan groups. The intuitive messaging from the AP-NI is: “If only we could stop all the ideologically-poisoned and violent Bad Guys that started this mess”. If only, indeed. Rhetorical pleasantries aside, those on the side of a peaceful and united Ireland must be mindful of politics that practically bolster the imperial interests that brought Ireland into its present political dilemma.
The government of Northern Ireland will not simply choose to rise above sectarian issues that have been, for decades (if not centuries), culturally entrenched and given political form and legitimacy by the United Kingdom (and the United States for that matter).The insinuation that the administration and people of Northern Ireland are being “held hostage” in equal parts by reactionary forces of Unionism and a party of national liberation is outright insulting to those paying attention. Only one party of one specific political designation has been blocking government formation in Northern Ireland: the DUP. In this author’s opinion, the fact that the N.U.M and the AP-NI were the brainchildren of the son of one of Belfast’s premier catholic solicitors from the early 20th century tells the tale itself vis à vis the party’s relationship to Great Britain.
At a turning point in Irish history, the Alliance Party – Northern Ireland is now the third-largest party within government and surely looks to play Kingmaker with its 17 MLA seats. Sinn Fein, for its part, has made electoral history in Northern Ireland and is now looking to do the same in the Republic. In heady times, Irish Republicans and their supporters around the world must be fully aware of the state of play. The election shows us that curb-painting, Marching and Bonfire Season Unionism may appear unattractive to a wider Irish public, and for that Irish Republicans have cause for celebration. However, Sinn Fein has not seen a surge of support in Northern Ireland in its own right. The northern winds, it seems, are shifting towards a neoliberalism that has been lying in wait. The self-appointed A-Team that was given the media spotlight during the climax of the last chapter of Irish colonial history were John Hume (SDLP) and David Trimble (UUP. The ruling class that roams the halls of power in Belfast and Dublin will be looking for a suitable replacement and practiced as they are in the cynical recapture of the rhetoric of peace and reconciliation, the AP-NI seems well-poised to step into the role. In the words of former British Prime Minister, Henry John Temple: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Irish Republicans and their allies would do well to take the former PM at his word.
In 1969/1970, much to the chagrin of the Unionist ruling class and their allies’ scenes of police and militia violence against Catholics was broadcast by newscasters. This anger brought on by losing face on the national stage is clearly demonstrated in the 1970/1971 NUM report. i.e “the news” and “the glare of the television”
1972 doc discuses how much “Westminster is worth” to northern Ireland and counts its economic and educational success “per capita” leaving out catholic wholesale segregation.
Even today the BBC published an article discussing the relationship between the rise of the AP and the fall of UUP and SDLP since 2003
Alexander Stott is a candidate-member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation’s Northeast Ohio branch and active within Irish-American circles. Alexander graduated from University College Dublin in Dublin,Ireland in 2017, worked in customer service and houseless advocacy, and is now staff at Cleveland State University.