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   Vol. 67/No. 45           December 22, 2003  
London-backed parties decline in N. Ireland vote
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EDINBURGH, Scotland—Elections to the Northern Irish Assembly November 26 marked a decline for the two main parties that London has rested on to maintain its rule over this part of Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won 30 out of the 108 seats, becoming the biggest party and overtaking the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which won 27 seats. The DUP opposes the 1998 pact known as the Good Friday Agreement, in which the British government conceded a degree of self government to Northern Ireland. It also refuses to share power with the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein, which has led the fight against British rule and for a united Irish republic.

Sinn Fein won 24 seats, while the reformist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) gained 18 seats, a reversal of their tally in the 1998 elections.

The British capitalist daily the Financial Times described the electoral results as an emerging crisis. Commenting on a November 28 meeting between British prime minister Anthony Blair and his counterpart Bartholomew Ahern of the Republic of Ireland, the paper said, “The result was one they least wanted. Mr. Blair had actually delayed the election in the hope of cementing Mr. Trimble’s position.” David Trimble is a leader of the UUP.

From 1921—when British imperialism partitioned Ireland, maintaining its direct rule in the northern six counties—to 1972, the UUP was the sole governing party in the north. Since then it has remained the main prop of British rule. On the other hand, the DUP, led by Ian Paisley, has combined its opposition to a weakening of London’s rule with backing rightist street actions. The SDLP, which from its formation in 1970 has secured majority electoral support among Irish nationalists, has sought to collaborate with London rather than lead a mass struggle to end its rule.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said there was “a crisis of unionism that will need some patience for the rest of us to show in the time ahead.” Writing in the lead up to the election in the Irish News, Adams had said, “A vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for a new Ireland, a free, united and independent Ireland.” He stressed that nationalists should accept “nothing less than equality and justice.” The Unionists are the parties that support continued British rule.

Sinn Fein continues to campaign centrally on these themes. For example, the November 27 issue of its paper, An Phoblacht, protested the slaying a week before of James McMahon, a 21-year-old Catholic, by the rightist Ulster Defence Association in Lisburn. The Catholic population in N orthern Ireland has confronted systematic discrimination under British rule.

A November 29 editorial in the right-wing British paper Daily Telegraph stated that the rising electoral support for Sinn Fein was a product of the 1998 agreement. “The republicans dominated the political process, winning concessions from the British government over prisoner releases, troop withdrawal.” It complained, “Quite understandably, large numbers of Ulster Catholics, including many middle-class church-goers who abhor terrorism, have reached the view that Sinn Fein is the party that delivers.”

The rise of support to the DUP was, according to the Telegraph, part of the same process: “a substantial protest vote against the agreement by unionists fed up with government concessions to republicans.”

Some press commentators, pointing to these electoral results, argue that London will be forced to change course by the DUP’s success. “Victory for Paisley threatens peace hope” headlined the Telegraph, which editorialized, “Time for Plan B in Northern Ireland.”

Other papers showed some caution. An editorial in the Times headed “Ulster stalemate” points out that “seven in ten of those who cast ballots backed parties which explicitly endorsed the peace process.”

Much of the big-business press coverage has speculated about the evolving crisis of all the unionist parties. The Telegraph points out that the DUP is in fact divided between those who want direct rule from London and those who want to take office in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the UUP is divided between its Trimble-led wing, which favors working with the British government on the 1998 agreement, and the wing led by Jeffrey Donaldson, who opposes this.

The Times editorial cautioned about this situation, pointing out that further divisions among unionists could mean that Sinn Fein could not only be “the leading body among nationalists, but they will be the leading party willing to do business with Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern.” It warns, “This would be an extraordinary state of affairs and one that would hardly serve the interests of Ulster’s majority.”

London is holding talks with the main parties in the coming weeks over the future of the Northern Irish Assembly. The British government has suspended the assembly four times since its establishment, and it hasn’t met now for a year.

Ahead of these meetings, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is demanding London lift its suspension of the assembly. He vowed, “We’re going to press the government to move ahead.”

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said she hoped “progress could continue to be made.” Yet without agreement at this stage for the DUP to join with Sinn Fein in government, that maybe wishful thinking for London and its U.S. imperialist ally.  
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