Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Why is there no left-leaning party in Northern Ireland?

The normalisation of life here means there could be room for a new brand of politics, argues Michael Conaghan

Michael McGimpsey, one of the Official Unionist Party's most prominent anti-Tory refuseniks, once wrote about the joy of getting up on election day and 'going out and not voting Conservative', a happy prospect that his party now seems intent on denying at least a part of its constituency.

Their somewhat uncomfortable shoehorning in of Conservative candidates seems atavistic in a period when 'normal' politics, beyond the mere question of the state of the Union, are starting to reassert themselves.

Though brought up in a nationalist tradition, I've always been far more likely to see myself in terms of the traditional left-right spectrum; 'the bleeding heart on the left wing' as that sage political philosopher Nigel Molesworth so eloquently put it.

The influences that shaped my politics were to be found in the anti-racism that grew out of punk, the emergence of CND and various environmental movements, in other words an internationalist tradition that looked beyond what I considered then, and still do now, to be the overly introspective and self-important veneration of our own gruesome struggles.

This was not an uncommon position among my peer group. We might have had diffferent instincts on which flag we should be flying - but agreed that it should at least have a measure of red in it.

But as we came of age where could we place our gauchiste votes? Even during the heat of the Troubles there were some traditionally leftist outlets, with open university lookalike Marxist-Leninist candidates, trade union-backed hopefuls, even the occasional green. But without major party backing, none of them stood a chance. In a fit of karmically-inspired pique, my brother gave his last-ever vote in a Northern Irish election to the no doubt dumbstruck candidate of the new age Natural Law Party.

There are now, I suspect, many politicians in all our major parties who would probably describe themselves as left wing, but no party which defines itself as such. Sinn Fein would claim some sort of revolutionary tradition, but as with everything they say, it is so hidebound with cultural piety as to be essentially meaningless.

The SDLP were founded as a democratic socialist party, but were happy to move away from their Gerry Fitt/Paddy Devlin socialist roots to embrace a kind of Catholicism with a social face, as embodied by both John Hume and current leader Margaret Ritchie.

The Alliance have embraced both community politics and business leaders, but it was significant that when the Conservatives first put up candidtates here, how many of them were former Alliance party members, and the leaked statement of current leader David Ford on the Bloody Sunday inquiry seemed just a pale echo of the Tory position.

On the unionist side, both major parties claim large portions of the protestant working class vote

But the DUP especially, they would be appalled to know, remind me of no one so much as Fianna Fail, an essentially populist party prepared to tack left or right as the mood takes them. It is in the smaller, splinter Unionist groupings such as the PUP that the possibility of a left-wing consenus might start to emerge.

But there's the rub. There is no democratic socialist party that stands as a unifying force that could unite both communities under a secular, progressive banner. For, it seems to me, it is only a centre-left party that could do it. Conservatism of the British sort tends to fizzle out the further North and West it travels.

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