In the run up to the NI Assembly elections on 5 May, BBC Radio Ulster’s Talk Back programme has been inviting listeners to call in and question leading figures in all the parties standing for election. On 27 April, it was the turn of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.
The first few calls in this one-hour, lunchtime programme didn’t bode well for McGuinness. They represented those in Northern Ireland who still find it difficult to move on from the past, perhaps because of direct personal bereavement at the hands of the IRA, of which McGuinness was a senior commander; or maybe due to deep-seated prejudice or bitterness against Irish republicanism as a political ideology. Indeed, the bold Martin came across as just a wee bit tetchy in the way he handled these hostile calls so he may have to be careful to avoid a Gordon Brown moment in the last few days of his campaign.
But then as if from the heavens came a remarkable call from a Protestant woman who expressed dismay at the condemnation that was so far being heaped on McGuinness’ head. She described herself as a woman brought up in the Orange tradition, as someone who once looked on McGuinness as her enemy, a man she would never have contemplated talking to, never mind voting for in an election. But she explained how his role in the peace process and his conduct as one of the North’s leading politicians changed her mind; and how she would be comfortable with voting for him on 5 May while still maintaining her Loyalist, Protestant identity.
Was this a freak call? An aberration? Well, it was quickly followed by a caller who described himself as a Scottish socialist from an Ulster Loyalist background. He too praised McGuinness for his leadership as deputy First Minister and for the courageous decisions he made along the road to peace. He too would vote for Martin. A couple of other Protestant callers and texters stopped short of a ringing endorsement of McGuinness but confessed that they might put him or his party down as their 2nd or 3rd preference.
Of course only time and voting statistics will tell whether these calls point to something objectively significant and historic in voting patterns here. But if they are in any way representative of even a small minority of the Protestant electorate, it will mark a profound breakthrough for Sinn Féin and lend further credibility to predictions that it will soon become the North’s largest single political party in share of the vote. Just think back to where the party was the last time we had a royal wedding in Britain – its vote hardly registered in 1981 – and you will appreciate the true scale of its electoral achievement since then. But to attract for the first time 1st or 2nd preferences from protestant, unionist voters would be to confound the so-called “sectarian headcount” that has been at the heart of the socialist critique of the peace process.
Yet socialists and others in the North have been talking in the wilderness about such an idea for decades. On the nationalist side, John Hume of the SDLP constantly preached that the solution to the conflict lay within the people, not in flags and the violent assertion of identities; that the future lay not in nations but in a Europe of the regions. Among Unionists, Alliance has always claimed to be a cross community, non-sectarian party; and, more recently, Loyalist politicians such as Dawn Purvis have been campaigning on a progressive, non-sectarian platform.
But such aspirations were never going to be realised in the cauldron of terrorist warfare and politically driven sectarian division. In the light of this recent history at least, it would seem ironic to most observers if Sinn Féin of all parties became the first to actually realise this aim in practice; ironic perhaps but totally explicable in the new dispensation of the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin is now part of the mainstream political establishment and can, with some credibility at least, point us back to 1798 and Wolfe Tone’s aspiration to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.
If this does happen over the next 5 to 10 years, it will present a real challenge to leftwing politics in the North, which is all too fractured and disparate to promise electoral success any time soon. Some have called for the British Labour Party to put forward local members for election to the Assembly. But this is not the answer because Labour isn’t really interested in the North and probably doesn’t understand us for that matter. The accent of our politics like our speech jars on the British ear. And besides, the Labour Party will have drawn lessons from the Tory alliance with the Ulster Unionists in last year’s general election.
In truth, the short to medium-term future of socialism in the North is unlikely to lie in electoral politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Solidarity is the key and whatever our differences of theory and practice, socialists must never march under the banner of “Ourselves alone”. As the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, wrote in 1872, “When it comes to exploitation the bourgeoisie practice solidarity. In combating them the exploited must do likewise.” The broad left front of socialists and anarchists here is already building a loose alliance with our trade unions and grass roots community organisations to campaign against the cuts and for social justice. Hopefully, this will continue to grow and have a lasting impact because socialism in the North has an opportunity to build something much more profound at a time when working people are feeling insecure and under pressure: a new kind of progressive, civil society. And while it might be a good thing if the mainstream parties attract votes from across the sectarian divide, we should remember that those same parties will be expected to sit at Stormont and carry out instructions from Westminster: cut, cut and cut again!