The local government election has mirrored last May’s polarised Stormont poll. After another year of DUP obstructionism, the party’s one-time Executive partners continue to reap the rewards of its sectarian grandstanding. Accordingly, the DUP has been outstripped by its nationalist opponents at council level.
Unwilling to learn the lesson of 2022, the DUP’s rejection of the Windsor Framework – a deal designed as a sop to political unionism – saw voters flock to Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party in numbers. An improvement on the DUP is a low bar for politics, but it was enough to carry parties who have utterly failed working class communities to new electoral heights.
This deep polarisation overshadowed issues of workers pay, soaring rates, and attacks on public services. The socialist vote was squeezed as a result. In a context where smaller parties suffered significant casualties, the successful defence of two People Before Profit seats in Derry and Belfast is a testament to the tireless efforts of our activists across those districts. Shaun Harkin and Michael Collins will continue to be a voice for working class communities and a thorn in the side of the political establishment during the turbulent period ahead.
People Before Profit stood in more constituencies than ever before in this election. First-time council candidates, backed by teams of dedicated campaigners, have been a beacon for class politics across the North and offer fresh hope to the socialist left. A new generation of socialist activists will come out of this campaign with the necessary experience to make real gains in the future.
Unfortunately, we lost a number of sterling Councillors during this election –Councillors who fought for workers rights, challenged the sectarian carve-up in local government, and who championed progressive causes and the downtrodden. In Black Mountain, Matt Collins narrowly missed out on a seat despite obtaining over 1,600 votes and transfers – enough to win a seat in many other constituencies. Against stiff opposition, Fiona Ferguson increased her first preference votes in Old Park, but lost out on the balance of transfers. Maeve O’Neill fell short in a good outing in the Moor, running Sinn Féin very close for the final seat.
Socialists utilise the electoral arena as a means not an end. For us, the most compelling force for change remains the power of working people to organise themselves in their workplaces and communities. In this campaign we encountered a deep well of frustration that sooner or later will find an organised expression. You can be sure People Before Profit will be at the centre of that fightback when it emerges.
The votes counted this past week reflect an objective polarisation between contending establishment forces previously engaged in mutual misrule. If and when Stormont is resurrected, the DUP, Sinn Féin, and Alliance will work hand in glove to implement brutal austerity at the behest of the Tories. Our activists are ready to challenge them in future elections, in councils, in Stormont, and in the streets and campaigns where necessary.
Sinn Féin are the overwhelming victors in an election where political memory was clouded by the current crisis at Stormont. Contrasted with the unionist domination of old, most will relish in the symbolism of a nationalist majority on local councils. The decline of right wing, anti-worker unionism is to be welcomed, but we are reminded that both unionist and nationalist parties have presided over a generation of austerity, political corruption, and sectarian carve up.
To truly build an Ireland for all, therefore, will require going beyond the limits of an increasingly unambitious, corporate friendly, “civic” nationalism overly keen to get into bed with the establishment on both sides of the border and internationally. The leaders of nationalism, as James Connolly reminds us, will always make their peace with the system. Socialists have no illusions that the current leadership of Irish nationalism will be any different. The need for a viable, all-Ireland socialist organisation will become ever more apparent in the years ahead.
People Before Profit has every reason to be optimistic about the future. We are confident that the stasis at Stormont and resistance to a spiralling cost-of-living crisis will bring opportunities to renew class politics in the coming months and years. When workers and communities take up this fight, they will be aided by a growing body of principled and talented socialist activists who have been fired by their experience in the recent election campaign. There will be better days to come. We are sure of it.