EVERYONE loves an underdog but elections often condemn them, particularly in a political caste as entrenched as Northern Ireland. Proportional representation should in theory guarantee smaller parties a fair crack of the whip, but things rarely work out that way here. The Alliance Party should mildly increase its share of the vote and seats in the Assembly. Now one of the five parties of government, often playing a key broker role in disputes, Alliance can in no way be considered – if indeed they ever were – a small party. All that remains is a handful of Independents (15 in total) and a smattering of smaller parties on both the left and right vying for scraps from the Executive table.
At a testimonial event last February on the Lower Falls – a tiny red dinghy in an overwhelming green sea – gnarled veteran of the Official IRA and Workers’ Party Des O’Hagan spoke of how ‘it’s no use for us to become content with past successes, a ceremonial battalion bathing in our memories’. It was the astute comment of a man who knows full well the current incarnation of the Workers’ Party, running in the four Belfast constituencies (with a derisory two council seats in the South), is out of kilter with popular opinion in both parts of the island. If the entire votes of the Socialist Party – who are running the articulate Paddy Meehan in South Belfast – and the Workers’ Party were combined it is still highly unlikely it would muster a single seat. As the Workers’ Party’s own John Lowry stated on the 10 April edition of The Politics Show, sketching the difficulties facing all small parties in Northern Ireland, ‘Orange and Green politics do still dominate the Northern Ireland political landscape, and everything that we see is coming through the prism of that Nationalist and Unionist politics’.
People Before Profit field candidates both North and South as a Left alternative and performed reasonably well in February, winning two seats in Dublin (more of course than Fianna Fáil in the capital) – a result they are unlikely to repeat in the North. The only individual who may not have to bathe in his memories is Eamonn McCann, though even this Foyle seat will be an uphill climb for the Civil Rights legend. McCann will require considerable luck with transfers and a significant personality poll but is the sole light for People Before Profit and the far Left. He remains a canny, assured media performer, repeatedly making the most telling points in a BBC discussion of fringe parties: ‘We’ve got the legacy of a conflict which is often underestimated. Sometimes I get the feeling that half this society is in bits as a result of the conflict and that goes down generations, so we’ve got all those problems, and the idea that it’s people on benefits who are creating the problem is absolutely outrageous.’ So McCann will be tapping into wide scale hostility to the UK coalition government’s cuts – opposed vociferously by all the Left parties, who have already collaborated in the Stop the Cuts alliance – and Derryites who might recall more radical ‘60s days may feel he is worthy of a second or third preference vote.
In the last election in 2007 the Green Party made a breakthrough in North Down with party leader Brian Wilson picking up a seat. He has now stood down but his genial successor Steven Agnew is keen to stress the Party is part of a broader European movement: ‘We’re looking to triple our seats in Scotland, looking to get our first member of this Welsh Assembly, and we just got our first MP in England. So the Green movement is optimistic at the minute, it’s buoyant, and I expect us to continue our upward trend here in Northern Ireland.’ However as Kevin Rafter’s recent work on minor parties has shown such groups are normally swallowed up by larger parties who take the credit if things go well just as the minor parties get the blame if they do not (Democratic Left: The Life and Death of an Irish Political Party, 2011). In February the Green Party accordingly lost all six of their Dáil seats following its stint in government with Fianna Fáil. Nevertheless the Party is young and often speaks a lot of sense – Agnew for instance referring to the debilitating ‘dependence on foreign energy…which people can’t afford’ (The Politics Show, 10 April 2011) – and is indeed part of an international movement. At a push Cadogan Enright might perform strongly for the party in South Down (Irish News, 12 April 2011), but it is too soon and realistically the Greens’ best hope is that they will retain their North Down spot.
On the Right resides the principally single–issue UKIP. Nigel Farage’s Party, who are backed locally by such celebrity luminaries as Frank Carson (‘See that human rights…Send those people who are here, so many criminals, back to their own country. Just get rid of them’, Frank rails in a UKIP promotional video), has undergone a Pauline conversion from aiming to shut down all devolved government to now wanting to enter Stormont and ‘reduce the costs and reduce the number of MLAs’ in Farage’s outline. Sharing UKIP’s immigration focus is the BNP, who for the first time are running in the North with three candidates ‘at a time when it is being driven out of its home in England by mounting debts, internal division and allegations of corruption’ (Matthew Collins, Belfast Telegraph, 13 April 2011). While Northern Ireland might share the pockets of segregation and extreme poverty accounting for the slight rise of the Far Right on the English mainland, fear of immigration is not considered – despite attacks on the Roma in 2009 – to be as intense as it is in other British cities. Similarly the DUP, UUP and TUV are already pretty hot on immigrants and upholding ‘Christian values’ and so these hard–line attitudes are about as well represented in Northern Irish politics as it is possible to imagine. And unlike the BNP those Unionist parties – no slouches themselves when it comes to gaffes – have not managed to attribute a rise in AIDS and TB to the immigrant communities.
Also in the running again at local level is the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the political wing of the INLA who now spend their time giving interviews where they say things like ‘the current political situation dictates that armed struggle is not a viable option’, as their Oldpark council candidate Paul Little told the North Belfast News (4 April 2011). Finally we have the debut of Éírigí, the republican splinter group who campaign for a complete withdrawal of the British presence from Northern Ireland, running in both wards of the Falls. Unlike related paramilitary shadows these parties should not trouble the electorate too much come May.
Connal Parr is presently writing a PhD on Protestant working class politics and culture at Queen’s University, Belfast.