Ireland North: Seeds for future growth sown by anti-austerity, labour and trade union candidate

This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.

Caroline Wheeler, a prominent anti-cuts activist and trade unionist, was the only candidate standing on a genuine cross-community, labour and trade union platform in the recent Westminster election in Northern Ireland, in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.

Caroline received the full support of CWI Ireland members and her candidacy was proposed by our councillor in the area, Donal O’Cofaigh. Caroline’s campaign secured a creditable 754 votes in what was a very sharply polarised and closely contested ‘headcount’ poll between the two communities, Protestant and Catholic.

Parliamentary elections in the constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone have been highly contested since the constituency was established in 1950. Because of the first-past-the-post system used, Westminster elections are traditionally a sectarian headcount, with the relatively well-balanced and stable demographic balance meaning every election is closely fought.

In 1981, the constituency famously elected IRA prison hunger striker, Bobby Sands, who died only weeks after winning the seat. The victory demonstrated the Republican movement’s potential to score political success and was highly influential in the subsequent thinking and trajectory of Sinn Fein’s leadership. The seat reverted back to the unionists when Sands’ successor went on the run after he was caught transporting guns. Due to the split nationalist vote, that remained the situation for almost twenty years before the seat fell to current Sinn Féin incumbent, Michelle Gildernew, in 2001, signalling the party’s road to dominance as the largest nationalist party in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Tom Elliott, the United Unionist candidate, retook the seat in 2015 but lost it again to Gildernew, in 2017, with the collapse of the bourgeois-nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) vote.

This year’s election took place against the backdrop of increased community tension and concern over the impact of Brexit, and the threat of a ‘hard border’ with the Republic of Ireland – to which the constituency is uniquely exposed due to its geography. The rising sense of constitutional crisis is further exacerbated by an awareness of increased demographic change and the near three-year absence of functioning local government at Stormont. This was a particularly challenging contest for a Left candidate seeking to cut across the two behemoths.

Fermanagh-South Tyrone is a rural constituency, possessing two larger towns: Enniskillen, Fermanagh’s county town, and Dungannon, in county Tyrone. Despite its rurality and decades of underinvestment, the constituency retains significant industrial workforces; Dungannon, in particular, is a centre for meatpacking, with the highest migrant community anywhere in Northern Ireland (who unfortunately tend not to participate in elections).

Local campaigning

On the back of a decade of campaigning, primarily through local trade union structures, CWI member, Donal O’Cofaigh, won a council seat under a Cross-Community Labour Alternative banner, in May, of this year, in Enniskillen. The public profile gained since that time due to Donal’s use of the council platform to espouse cross-community, socialist and radical democratic politics is high in the Fermanagh end of the constituency but very much lower in Dungannon, which is located 46 miles away and located outside the council area.

Caroline Wheeler, who comes from a Protestant community background, has worked closely with O’Cofaigh, who comes from the Catholic community, to build a series of powerful local anti-cuts campaigns.

Caroline was a shop steward at a Fermanagh clothing factory for more than a decade before being forced through circumstances to become a full-time carer. She fought for years to secure her disabled son a comprehensive care package. She then used the freedom this gave her and the experience she had gained fighting for her son’s rights, to build a local cross-community carers’ campaign. The campaign went on to expose a £160 million ‘underspend’ on caring budgets in the region – a scandal that exposed politicians from both main camps.

Caroline currently sits as Treasurer of the Fermanagh Council of Trades Unions and is a member of the Labour Party, sitting on its Northern Ireland Executive Committee. But due to the London leadership’s injunction on Labour running candidates in the North, Caroline was left with no option but to run as an independent.

Caroline’s campaign sought to capture the positive response resulting from the Labour Party’s shift Left under Jeremy Corbyn. Her slogans were, for ‘workers’ unity’, ‘Save our services’ (the name of the local health campaign) and ‘A new type of politics’.

While Caroline supported Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit, including his call for a second referendum on a Labour Brexit deal, she pointed out how Tory deals with the EU had allowed the issue become ‘sectarianised’ in Northern Ireland, as a dichotomy of either a ‘hard land’ border (objectionable to Nationalists) or a ‘hard sea’ border (objectionable to Unionists).

The campaign was largely funded from small donations from well-wishers across the North although it received a sizeable contribution from the Labour Party’s Northern Ireland Executive. The campaign drew participation from senior members of the Labour party, extensive support from CWI Ireland members, as well as others. A layer of local trade unionists, including some local shop stewards, helped in the campaign. Caroline brought a radical labour message to communities up and down the 80 mile long constituency.

Credible vote

In the end up, Sinn Féin’s Gildernew once again narrowly defeated the ‘united Unionist’ candidate, Elliott, by just 57 votes – receiving 43.3% to 43.2% of the vote (both results down on previous elections). The SDLP vote increased to 6.8%, and the bourgeois-liberal, ‘non-sectarian’ Alliance Party vote doubled to 5.2%, with both results coming on the back of a Northern Ireland-wide increase for the two parties.

The vote for Caroline Wheeler was a creditable 1.5% of the total (754 votes) and a higher percentage than the total of 643 achieved by Donal O’Cofaigh in the same constituency in the 2017 Assembly election (a comparatively easier election for a Left candidate). The vote represents a firm foundation for Caroline in the future, potentially to join Donal on the council.

The wider importance of this is not so much in the percentage vote achieved but that at a time of mounting sectarian division, for the first time since 1992, a campaign espousing socialist politics and including Catholics and Protestants, has run a candidate for election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The seeds for the future have been sown.

Looking forward, local campaigners must refocus on building organisational cohesion and engaging more fully with those trade union activists who stepped forward to help. Opportunities that came up during the campaign to extend socialist organising into the industrial workforces and working-class communities of Dungannon and surrounding villages must be seized.

Prominent trade unionists who are members of NIPSA (the largest trade union in the North), including CWI supporters, supported Caroline’s election. But most of the trade union leaderships across the board stood aside from this campaign. They must now step forward to build wider working-class resistance to the new Tory government and use the baseline achieved in Fermanagh-South Tyrone to campaign to establish a democratic, mass working-class party capable of cutting across the slide to increasing division and the threat of conflict.