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Ballots and Bullets: Elections in a War Zone

by John O'Connor

From the Northern Ireland Report
September 20, 1992

For many who follow and learn from national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles afar, electoral setbacks in these movements are quickly and neatly interpreted as the work of disruptive, external influences. This response usually occurs automatically, almost as a first line of defense. Like many, I am as guilty of this both in the case of Nicaragua in 1990 and Northern Ireland in 1992.

While wiping the sleep out of my eyes (bad news from other parts of the world always arrives in the morning), I've been known to let loose with a steady stream of obscenities directed toward ( in the case of Nicaragua) Washington and (in the case of Northern Ireland) Dublin and London.

Fortunately for me, this knee jerk expression of moral indignation usually lasts only a short time. The election results in both Nicaragua and Northern Ireland are popular expressions that demand serious political thought and not contemptuous dismissals. In this short space, I'd like to sketch out some underlying issues that man lurk below the Sandinista (FSLN) defeat and Sinn Fein's electoral stagnation.

In the case of both Nicaragua and Northern Ireland, the above mechanical reaction is understandable. Prior to the 1990 election, the Sandinista government lived with eight years of contra war, five years of economic embargo, and continued private control of the economy. Likewise, the nationalist community in Northern Ireland has experienced over twenty years of violent conflict, high unemployment and discrimination. In both countries, with the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. skewed elections through financial involvement (a nine million dollar contribution to the United Nicaragua Opposition and a quarter of a million contribution to the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland between 1985-1990); With hunger, unemployment, and war (and American financial intervention) defining the context in which individuals select political representatives, the election results appear almost determined. However, such an interpretation is lacking in that the internal developments of the political parties are not considered at all.


In the case of Nicaragua, during the 1984 election, when the Contra war was hot, the FSLN polled 68 percent of the total vote. In February 1990, with the U.S. Contra army more or less defeated, the Sandinistas' percentage of the vote decreased to 41 percent, resulting in Chamorro's victory. While the human and economic costs of the war doubt influenced the way people voted, so did Sandinista policies.

For example, the FSLN's path toward a "mixed economy" allowed local economic elites to retain a "veto" over economic decisions. As James Petras has correctly argued, Nicaragua was plagued by having a revolutionary state but a counter revolutionary ruling class; that is, the ruling class could not control the state, and the state could not develop the economy. Moreover, in their prolonged attempt to consolidate power and maintain control, the FSLN was also guilty of the following: silencing criticism, abusing power, cracking down on labor, excluding women from leadership positions, becoming increasingly bureaucratic, and antagonizing the Catholic church. While prolonged military and economic war surely colored the decision of Nicaraguan voters, Sandinista political strategy also had a profound effect.

The real root of the FSLN defeat, as painful as it is to admit, may be located in the loss of importance of its mass popular organizations. such as the Committees of Defense (CDS) and th women's organization AMNLAE, were extremely important in channeling popular participation into the country's political life. These organizations were vital in mediating the relationship between the people and the state. Social welfare activities, the relaying of information, urban reconstruction, community policing and defense, and the provision of goods and education were all part and parcel of these organizations. The "socialism" that frightened the U.S. was a case of meaningful grassroots political democracy.

This decline in importance of the popular organizations manifested itself in a number of different ways. First, the Sandinista turned these grassroots assemblies, where policies were developed, into top-down organizations, where polices were carried out. And second, the FSLN, in replacing the Nicaraguan Council of State with the National Assembly, manufactured the loss of influence of these organizations in the legislative arena. These mass popular organizations were the essence of the Sandinista revolution. In curbing their importance, the FSLN may have curbed its own popular support.

Northern Ireland

Interpretations of the April Northern Ireland election mirror those found in the case of Nicaragua. Sinn Fein;s disappointing performance in the Westminster elections has been discussed in three major ways. First, there are those politicians and church leaders who have labeled the drop in Sinn Fein's vote and the loss of the West Belfast seat as a clear rejection of IRA violence.

Second, there are those who interpret the decline in SInn Fein's support as the result of war weariness, after twenty plus years of struggle, republicans are now getting tired. And third, there are those Sinn Feiners and Sinn Fein supporters who have focused solely on the 'collusion' between London, Dublin, the SDLP and the UDA in the 'stealing' of the West Belfast Westminster seat. Once again, like Nicaragua, protracted conflict and external involvement are believed to be the sole determinants of a poor election performance.

However, Sinn Fein's electoral problems may run deeper. While the decision to contest Westminster and local elections has resulted in SInn Fein becoming a serious political party, a clear articulation of Sinn Fein's electoral policy has not emerged. That is, is the party's agenda to just represent the interests of republicans in particular, or nationalists in general? This question is important given the ongoing IRA campaign to push Britain to the negotiating table by force. The problem for Sinn Fein is that jobless, working-class republicans may have no problem with the notion of semtex in one hand and a Sinn Fein election manifesto in the other, yet working, middle class nationalists may see no real need to transform the status quo.

This confusion over the electoral strategy of Sinn Fein is also seen in the latest Westminster results. Apart from the loss of the important West Belfast seat, Sinn Fein suffered a 5,000 vote drop in support. The results show that the party's share of the total vote continues to decline in linear fashion (13.4 percent in 1983, 11.4 percent in 1987, and 10 percent in 1992). In addition, Sinn Fein's share of the nationalist vote in Westminster elections continues to fall (43 percent in 1983; 35 percent in 1987; and 30 percent in 1992). While these results are not disastrous, they nonetheless show that Sinn Fein, in Westminster elections, is hardly moving forward.

The recent election highlights three distinct issues embedded in the republican movement's ballot and bullet struggle.

First, in contrast to the unionist political community, there appears to be no real chance of unity within the nationalist camp. The antagonistic relationship between Sinn Fein and the SDLP has hurt the communities they both claim the serve. In 1988, both parties came together "to explore whether there could be agreement on an overall nationalist political strategy." The results of these interparty talks were extremely disappointing, with both sides perceiving the roots of the Irish conflict very differently.

This lack of agreement between the two main nationalist parties has resulted in the loss of two Westminster seats in areas with a nationalist majority. Sinn Fein has been extremely critical of the SDLP for not considering agreed upon single candidates yet, Sinn Fein themselves would not stand down their candidates in the light of SDLP intrasigency. The result is unionist representation of nationalist areas.

This lack of nationalist unity may be an obstacle to the development of any supranational initiatives (from either the United Nations or the European Community) or diplomatic offensives (from Dublin or elsewhere) aimed at resolving the northern crisis.

The second area that needs to be addressed in assessing Sinn Fein's electoral performance is the republican movement's response to the policies of Ulsterization, Criminalization and Normalization. In the early seventies, Merlyn Rees, then the Northern Ireland Secretary of Stat, implemented a number of policies that were intended to stabilize the six counties. Ulsterization was the policy where Britain allowed Northern Ireland residents to police the province.

Normalization was a combination of policies intended to counteract the IRA's economic campaign and undermining of normal political activity. Criminalization was the British move to criminalize the political activities of all paramilitaries.

In the almost twenty years since these policies were implemented, the republican movement has had a mixed record of success in turning them back. The H-Block struggle by republican prisoners over political status was a clear victory over criminalization. In terms of normalization, up until this year, the violence in Northern Ireland has been, in the words of the British, "acceptable". With this new round of increased violence, the rumors and whispers of selective internments abound. As the IRA has shown with their bomb attacks in London and Belfast, and the mortars fired at the British war cabinet, the IRA still commands the will and technology to make the six counties very abnormal.

The one policy which the republican movement has failed to address adequately is the policy of Ulsterization. This shrewd move ensured that all attacks by the IRA on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the N.I. police force) and the Ulster Defense Regiment (a locally recruited militia operating within the British army structure) would be perceived by unionists and the world as sectarian in nature. Because the REC and the UAR are mostly protestant in their make-up, all offensive actions by the IRA (which is predominantly catholic) are viewed as attacks against the unionist community. It does not appear that Sinn Fein, as an organization, has attempted to deal with Ulsterization policy sufficiently. This can be seen in that Sinn Fein does not have a specific department that deals exclusively with the unionist community, in terms of either outreach or reconciliation. This is odd given that the party does have foreign affairs, culture, women's, and POW department. With the IRA attacking security forces that are culled from the unionist community, it is very easy to argue, as unionists and some nationalists do, that Sinn Fein is a sectarian organization. With the republican movement painted as sectarian, it is extremely difficult to make electoral inroads.

Sinn Fein is certainly correct in stating that the unionist community should not be allowed to have veto power over national independence. Yet, Sinn Fein's assertion that, faced with British withdrawal, the unionist community will automatically accept the wisdom of negotiation is dubious. Because they want to transform the status quo that the religious and civil liberties of the unionist community are respected and protected. This active engagement must occur now, not after a British declaration of withdrawal.

Third, like Nicaragua, there is limited evidence that suggest the Sinn Fein may have lost touch with what had been happening in its own constituencies. This can be seen in two main areas: Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Mid Ulster. These constituencies had been sites of previous Sinn Fein victories and near victories. It was in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by elections where Bobby Sands and Sinn Fein's Owen Carron won Westminster seat in 1981.

In the 1983 general election, Sinn Fein's Danny Morrison came within 79 votes of winning the Mid-Ulster seat. In the last election, Sinn Fein's vote total has fallen by 13 percent in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and 17 percent in Mid-Ulster since 1987.

Prior to the election, at a news conference launching the party's election manifesto, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams stated that he was "particularly confident about our prospects in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster, Sinn Fein is the only party which can unseat the bigots in these constituencies/" Such sentiments were also echoed by other Sinn Feiners. Yet, one week after the election, An Phoblacht/Republican News interviewed Sinn Fein's Director of Elections, Jim Gibney, who was quoted as saying, "Fermanagh/South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster accounted for most of the slippage and the organizational weaknesses in those areas are well known to party activists." In the interview Gibney did not go into detail about what constituted "organizational weaknesses." Given its usual strong showing in these two areas, and Adams belief that the party would do well, it appears that Sinn Fein may have lost touch with its supporters in these constituencies.

Revitalized Party Strategy

In both Nicaragua and Northern Ireland, electoral defeat and decline have brought promises of renewal and increased determination in their struggles of national liberation and anti-imperialism. In Nicaragua, the FSLN has undergone extensive self-reflection and self-critique, in hopes of rebuilding the popular support that carried the Sandinista revolution to victory. In Northern Ireland, Gerry Adams, at an Easter Rising Commemoration in Belfast, stated, "these problems must be address. There are lessons to be learned and there are aspects of our election campaign which need critical examination." For the Sandinistas and Sinn Fein to be successful in the future, party strategy must be consistent and clear.

Nicaragua and Northern Ireland illustrate that war and external interference can influence voting patterns, yet, so does party policy. For those who follow and learn from national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles, the lesson could not be more clear--voting behavior is a major consequence of party strategy.

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