Can the Left march in time to the same tune?
Thousands have been left 'politically homeless' by sectarian attitudes. Could they form the basis of a realignment on the Left, asks Henry McDonald
During this year's May Day rally through the centre of Londonderry there was the unprecedented sight of loyalists marching alongside republicans and Left-wing socialists to celebrate International Workers' Day.
Although the loyalists did not parade under any party banners, the presence of Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Political Research Group activists marked a small but significant development in post-peace process Northern Ireland.
Once-deadly enemies, with only their class backgrounds in common, were now standing together not just to mark May Day, but also to protest against the public services cuts that are now going to bite across the province.
Was Derry's May Day rally in addition an indication that these former foes could put aside differences over the constitutional question and various cultural issues and work on a minimum programme? Could it be a small sign of a re-alignment on the local Left?
Is there, in a wider sense, a chance that a new alliance can be constructed across the traditional sectarian battle lines between working-class politicians of a Left bent?
These questions are particularly pertinent because of the current constellation of forces within the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Since the Alliance Party joined the power-sharing Executive in April the sum total of Opposition Assembly members in the chamber is three: the Green Party's Brian Wilson, independent health campaigner Dr Kieran Deeny and former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis.
Although the Stormont Assembly is unique in terms of parliaments, devolved and national, around the democratic world, it is still surely unhealthy that out of a chamber with 106 members only three constitute the official Opposition.
This is one of the main criticisms levelled at the devolved settlement by Jim Allister. The Traditional Unionist Voice leader has argued (with some justification) that the mandatory coalition now representing 103 Assembly members lacks a strong, robust and critical opposition which can scrutinise it. In fact, Allister contends, it is a travesty of democracy.
While Allister and the TUV failed to make any breakthrough in the General Election, he will undoubtedly be back on the hustings next year as the hardline unionist party seeks to elect a bloc of anti-powersharing MLAs in the 2011 Assembly elections.
Yet why should the only opposition bloc in the next Assembly emerge from the unionist Right? In certain pockets of Northern Ireland there are chances, albeit outside ones, that candidates with Left-wing or trade unionist backgrounds will get elected for the last seats.
Eamon McCann has an outside chance of getting elected in Foyle which would put one of the most articulate and entertaining voices on the Left into the Assembly.
McCann admits that he is working on some ideas that might create a kind of minimum platform a 'Left list' could be formed around. Such a list would mean only one agreed candidate standing in each of the 18 constituencies.
The former civil rights activist and veteran socialist advances the theory that, while the bigger parties, particularly Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, will continue to dominate the local scene by becoming part of the establishment running Northern Ireland Plc, they are in in danger of alienating small, but potentially important sections of their working-class support. "There are now a lot of people who are politically homeless - especially working-class supporters of the DUP and Sinn Fein," says McCann.
Of course, he is long enough in the tooth to realise that beyond religious sectarianism there is also the twin challenge of sectarianism-of-the-Left.
The tendency of Left-wing parties to hate their Leftist rivals hampers the emergence of a serious Left-wing force. Many Left forces believe they alone hold the Holy Grail of True Socialism.
McCann, however, has called for a new realism among progressive parties on the Left. He envisages that parties ranging from the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Party, Communists and the Progressive Unionists could agree on a minimum platform.
Unity could be promoted in the guise of opposition to George Osborne's cost-cutting programme. In reality, this would mean potential Left-wing voters in Derry, from the Waterside to the Bogside and beyond, would have McCann as the single Left-unity candidate. In East Belfast, however, the sole Left candidate would be the sitting MLA and former PUP leader Dawn Purvis.
The 'minimum platform' poses challenges even within the republican Left. Would, for example, the IRSP in West Belfast be prepared to back their old rivals in the Workers Party in that seat? What about the Greens? On ecological grounds the Greens are in favour of water charges while the other parties on the Left of the political spectrum oppose them.
Could a Left alliance recommend a vote for Brian Wilson in North Down, for instance, even though they are on diametrically opposing sides of the water charges debate?
Beyond McCann in Foyle, Newtownabbey Independent Labour activist Mark Langhammer could fight either East Antrim or North Belfast. Would it be too outlandish even to suggest that punk impresario and Good Vibrations' founder Terri Hooley could join the Left-list for, say, South Belfast? Thousands on Facebook are actually backing a campaign to get Hooley elected Lord Mayor of Belfast.
It would be naive in the extreme to predict that a disparate Left-list could challenge the hegemony of the established tribal parties. The lesson from the Westminster election - especially in places like Fermanagh/South Tyrone - is that confessional politics remains the prevalent norm. Nonetheless, there are thousands out there who are alienated from traditional power-play. They are, as Eamon McCann rightly puts it "politically homeless".
It will be fascinating to see over the next few months if the local Left can provide even a temporary, bolted-together shelter for them.