As we prepare ourselves for an election that could be a watershed moment for the left, we sent Jamie MacKrell to People Before Profit’s West Belfast Election launch. We ask whether their candidate for West Belfast Gerry Carroll, is set to make what could be an historic breakthrough in May.
Gerry Carroll’s face smiled at me from almost every lamp post between the Westlink and the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road. This was the location for the People Before Profit’s West Belfast Assembly election launch.
Sinn Fein had two or three posters to each of Gerry Carroll’s. The posters were a good reflection on last year’s Westminster election results for the constituency. Sinn Fein polled top with just over half the votes. Gerry Carroll came a clear second, doubling third place Alex Atwood’s votes. If he can pull in the 6,798 votes he did in the Westminster elections, he should easily make it to Stormont in May.
“People Before Profit has a real chance in here in West Belfast, where we got twenty per cent of the vote last year in the Westminster elections. And don’t forget, this is a constituency where we’re told it was dominated by two main parties: Sinn Fein and SDLP, so to get that twenty per cent is no mean feat,” he told me.
I asked him how he was doing now and how he thought he’d do this time around. “The first hurdle is to get elected, and obviously we’re still getting round the doors, but we’re getting a really good response. People who are fed up with Stormont, who are fed up with them not delivering, who are fed up with the constant rounds of cuts.”
“We’re actually an alternative to all that, so we’re getting a really positive message on the doors, and I think that, hopefully, by the fifth or sixth of May we’ll be in Stormont fighting with and on behalf of people from West Belfast.”
Gerry gave the answers of a confident politician who doesn’t want to jinx the result. People are less likely to vote for a foregone conclusion. The troops have to keep fighting.
The auditorium on the first floor was full. Extra chairs were being brought out. Around 150 people formed a diverse-for-Belfast crowd. Young parents with their children, older people, people in shirts, people in sports tops. The man beside me had a tidy, black beard and a hipsteresque, plaid fedora. His name was Mohammed. He told me he’s been living in the UK for six years and in Belfast for the last two, “I’ve known Gerry for four to five years. He’s been on the council. The party is popular, but he is the main face. I’ve come from South Belfast in support and to show my solidarity. The people from here would be his closer contacts.”
The launch was running behind schedule, but this didn’t bother the crowd, whose members were talking amongst each other. The three speakers were introduced: West Belfast People Before Profit candidate Gerry Carroll; Bernadette McAliskey, former civil rights MP elected to Westminster in 1969; and Richard Boyd Barrett TD and campaigner against water charges in the south.
“We’re actually an alternative to all that, so we’re getting a really positive message on the doors, and I think that, hopefully, by the fifth or sixth of May we’ll be in Stormont fighting with and on behalf of people from West Belfast.” Gerry Carroll
Gerry Carroll spoke first. In his opening comments he blamed sectarianism and neo-liberalism for many of Northern Ireland’s problems. “No solutions to the problems that affect this community, whether it be on the Falls or the Shankill, are going to come from the powers that be up in Stormont. No solution to sectarianism is going to come from a political set-up that is built on sectarianism in the first place. And no distribution of wealth, to areas like this which so desperately need it, is going to come from a status quo wedded to corporate handouts and tax cuts for the rich.”
The second speaker, Bernadette McAliskey, added to this. She talked about the generation who grew up after the Troubles, those who did not experience it first hand, being receivers of a narrative. “The story that has been passed down basically is, depending on which of the big narratives you buy into, is that the place was all right until the wreckers came and wrecked it. And then there was thirty years of wrecking. And then they got rewarded for wrecking, and the people have to put up with them as they now sit in parliament, letting on not to be wreckers.” The crowd laughed. “That kind of sums up one side of it.”
“The other simplistic side of it, is that the Protestants got all the houses, and then there is a bit of civil rights, and then Ireland’s heroes came along, and they fought their way to the negotiating table and secured massive gains for the people, and they are the people, and everything is great now, and don’t be believing anyone who says it’s not, because they’re either loyalists who got beat, or they’re the nay sayers who didn’t get with the program and don’t understand anything.”
These points of view were met with laughter, but are the reality of what People Before Profit are up against. Below Gerry Carroll’s posters on the Falls Road, Sinn Fein posters tell people to vote for them to get a united Ireland or to show the world Ireland is not a part of England. The DUP warn things will be bad for Northern Ireland if Martin McGuinness is returned as First Minister and not Arlene Foster.
It’s a familiar tactic, and one that works for those parties. Polling company Lucid Talk put the combined DUP/ Sinn Fein vote at 52.5% in their February tracker poll. It puts People Before Profit’s vote share across Northern Ireland at 0.7%. However the same poll gives them more of a chance at winning seats in a targeted, three-constituency campaign than other small party rivals of the PUP, UKIP, NI Conservatives and Greens.
Between Gerry Carroll’s critique of Stormont, Bernadette McAliskey’s anecdotes on socialism and Richard Boyd Barrett’s defence of striking Luas workers in Dublin, the message was policy light. “Politics is more than just policies,” said Gerry Carroll, “Politics for me should be what’s in your heart, what your beliefs are and what type of world you want to live in.” If he makes it to Stormont, it may not be as historic as made out to the troops at the Cultúrlann, but it will be a significant result for the party to win its first Assembly seat. His speeches may be policy light. It’s likely he will carry on his work from the council, being a dissenting voice in a higher chamber, like a socialist Jim Allister.
By Jamie MacKrell