Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh is standing as a Cross-Community Labour Alternative (CCLA) candidate in the 2022 Assembly election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST). Donal’s election to Fermanagh and Omagh Council in 2019, and his record of opposition to the main parties is a powerful demonstration that an alternative can be built. The Assembly election is the next step in the journey to build the type of new mass party we need. All genuine Left, and anti-sectarian, community and trade union activists should come behind Donal’s campaign, but also look to the future and consider what can and must be done in their area at the next local elections in 2024.
Failure of Sectarian Politics
Workers and young people are facing a future of falling living standards, cuts to services and tension and conflict on the streets. They are angry but see no credible alternative to the sectarian parties. There are very few independent voices who speak up on class issues whilst maintaining a firm anti-sectarian position. The majority of elected Assembly members win their seats by appealing to one community only and are proud of the fact. They cement division every day through their words and their actions. The fifth party of government, Alliance, does organise across both communities but stands on the Right-wing of the Executive on economic issues. A party which came back again and again to the anti-working-class policy of bringing in water charges will never provide a real alternative.
It often seems that there is no way out of the morass of sectarian politics and as a result many workers and young people give up on voting. The turnout in elections has fallen over recent years as a result, and the decades old trend for those who reject sectarianism and sectarian politics to leave Northern Ireland, never to return, continues.
The Third Tradition in Northern Ireland: Working Class Unity
In fact, there is an alternative: the third tradition of working-class unity, solidarity and socialism. At times this tradition has threatened the dominance of the unionist and nationalist parties, especially in the 1960s when the Northern Ireland Labour Party and other Left parties grew quickly. CCLA is seeking to re-build this third tradition and re-establish its credibility as a real alternative both at the ballot box and in day-to-day politics.
CCLA believes that the way forward is to bring together socialist and labour activists, trade unionists and community campaigners, environmental campaigners, campaigners for full equality for women and for LBGTQ+ rights in a coalition for a new independent party. We need to unite politically, through the creation of a new open, democratic and inclusive party which fights every election and campaign on the ground between elections.
The unity of campaigners and activists must be based around a basic level of agreement on anti-austerity, pro-working class and anti-sectarian politics. The class basis of society is the ultimate cause of the problems facing working-people. Ultimately it is only through the struggle for socialist change that we can solve our problems, including the divisions between communities. In a democratic socialist society, the needs of all will be met, and the democratic rights of all communities will be guaranteed. A Left version of either nationalist or unionist politics is a dead end. We need a militantly anti-sectarian, independent party which actively seeks to build in both Catholic and Protestant areas.
The idea of a new party sometimes seems abstract, or fanciful, even to those who want to see it happen. In fact, the evidence that it can be built is all around us. Workers from all backgrounds belong to the same trade unions and instinctively understand the need for unity and solidarity in the workplace. One result of this elemental understanding is that not one strike has been broken by sectarianism despite all the tension and bloodshed of the last fifty years.
Cross Community Labour Alternative: A New Party for the Working Class
When workers are taking strike action or uniting around a community-based campaign a discussion often emerges organically as to whether to stand a strike leader or a campaign representative in elections. Often no candidate emerges, but occasionally there have been major successes, such as when a hospital candidate was elected to Stormont from West Tyrone on two occasions. The very fact that such discussions are raised shows that workers instinctively understand the need to go beyond united action on the picket line or on the streets to united political activity.
There are thousands of trade union, youth and community activists who consciously reject sectarian division. It was primarily activists such as these, who swelled the ranks of the Labour Party (from 500 to over 3000) when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2016. Nearly 40,000 trade unionists in Northern Ireland take the active step of opting to pay into the political fund of their unions, making a conscious decision to financially contribute to the Labour Party and to other causes. When the idea of a new party for all working-class people is raised in the unions it wins significant support. The annual conference of Northern Ireland’s largest union NIPSA has recorded votes of more than 40% for the establishment of a “political fund” (the first step to becoming more political) on several occasions in recent years. Other unions, such as the Fire Brigades Union, and Unite have given financial assistance to CCLA candidates. There are voices in nearly all unions who are in favour of independent working-class politics. Most recently the Bakers and Allied Workers Union has disaffiliated from the British Labour party and indicated its intent to support independent left candidates in elections.
Going beyond a gut-feeling that something must be done is not easy. Sometimes results are necessary to convince significant numbers to take a chance. Donal’s victory in the 2019 council election – the first for a candidate standing on a Left, and anti-sectarian manifesto, in some years – was a landmark event. Donal is a thorn in the side of the big parties. He has consistently raised the issues that matter to ordinary working people. He has exposed the failings of the traditional parties and explained what socialist policies have to offer.
A few months after Donal’s victory Caroline Wheeler, a lifelong campaigner for carers’ rights and the NHS, stood on cross-community labour policies in the 2019 General Election. At the time Caroline was a member of the Labour Party, but she was prevented from standing as Labour by party rules which do not allow for candidates in Northern Ireland. She achieved a very strong vote for a first-time candidate. The combined campaigns of Donal and Caroline sent out a strong message of Catholic and Protestant unity in struggle.
Donal’s victory and Caroline’s stand have created a strong base from which to build. This is not just to win every possible vote on May 5th, but also to win a much wider audience for the idea that a new type of politics is possible. Caroline and many others have now left the Labour Party, frustrated by its unwillingness to allow candidates to stand and no longer feeling at home in a party which Keir Starmer has taken sharply to the Right, and one aim of the campaign is to mobilise and energise the hundreds who have left the Labour Party in recent months and who are considering their next steps.
Building for the Future; Building Cross Community Labour Alternative
There is no short-cut to success. It requires a patient approach and hard work. Donal won his seat by consistently taking up the issues which matter to working-class people, from both a Catholic and a Protestant background. A similar approach delivered before for others -including Davy Kettlyes and Gerry Cullen who won council seats in Enniskillen and Dungannon respectively – and will deliver again.
It is frustrating for many activists that there will be only one CCLA candidate this time, though there will almost certainly be candidates in other constituencies standing on broadly similar manifestos. Donal will be defending his council seat in May 2024 and the aim is to ensure that there are CCLA candidates in all council areas at the next election. Donal’s support team is reaching out, seeking public endorsements and active support, and raising the idea of wider slate of candidates at the next scheduled elections. There is no reason why a coalition of activists, similar to the coalition behind Donal, could not be built in all areas in time for the next council elections. The support of one or two unions, union branches, trades councils, and prominent trade unionists would add further momentum.
There is a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of anti-sectarian genuine Left, trade union, women’s rights, youth and community activists. The first step is to support Donal O’Cofaigh in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and become involved in his campaign. The next steps are to build beyond one constituency: raise the idea of standing a candidate in the 2024 local election in your area and start working today to make it a reality. CCLA will work with you and together we can ensure more and more workers and young people have a real choice at the ballot box.
Militant Left supporter Cllr. Donal O’Cofaigh is contesting the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency in the 5 May elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Donal is running as a Cross Community Labour Alternative (CCLA) candidate. In an election that is likely to be highly polarised and divisive, CCLA aims to offer a path out of this through workers’ unity and by laying the basis for a new mass party of the working class.