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
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
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.
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
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
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.