Janus was the patron saint of beginnings and endings: when the gates of the double-gated temple were open, this meant war; and when the gates were closed, this symbolised peace. The Roman God, Janus, was also double-faced. This duality was emblematic of success or failure, victory or defeat, past and future. Janus as the patron of the four seasons also, essentially, represents the dialectical whole. The victories registered by progressive, green and left-wing forces at the elections to the Assembly on 5th May 2016 in Northern Ireland represent a new opening for the left in the north.
The stunning electoral victory of the People Before Profit Alliance (PBP) in two constituencies in the north, Belfast West and Foyle, with Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll, is a testament to the arrival of this New Left in the north. Both are political campaigners of integrity, grit and determination. Their capture of two seats represents a victory for the New Left here. The significance of this is already being registered by mainstream commentators. One esteemed academic has described the election result as, ‘nothing has changed, but a lot has changed or is changing’. Many in Northern Ireland feel under threat by such a principled left-wing opposition-especially, but not only Sinn Féin-and it will be interesting to see how PBP orientate with respect to the rest of the left. When we incorporate the vote for other left-wing alliances in the Assembly election then it is also clear that the socialist and radical Green left is stronger than it has been since the elections to the Forum in 1996 which preceded the Good Friday Agreement. This victory by PBP is a victory for the New Left in Ireland, but this is also Janus-faced: it represents the victory of the new, but some old limitations remain.
The biggest limitation, at this stage, seems to be the reaction of the rest of the left. It appears that much of the rest of the left is muted, at best, in their welcome for Carroll and McCann. Some purists explain PBP as one of a narrow victory for ‘republican socialism’; whilst Republican-Socialists are not so sure, seeing PBP as a form of narrow ‘gas-and-water socialism’ that ignores imperialism and the issue of Irish identity. There is more significant opposition from the largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, which may be forced to tack leftwards due to PBP’s pressure. There has also been a limited attempt to downplay the significance of the victory, some describing the vote as merely a ‘protest vote’. However much we qualify the victory of PBP it is clear that they won, twice, because they built their vote, campaigned on the ground and offered a genuine radical, anti-sectarian message to working-class people. PBP have set a new marker for the left as a whole across Ireland today. But, and arguably more significantly, they represent the development of a New Left on this island. The victories by McCann and Carroll may well represent the opening of the gates.
PBP have also appealed for anyone on the left to get involved: I would second that call, for the good of the left and working-class people across these islands.
As a registered supporter of Labour Northern Ireland, I will also be seeking to expand the opportunities for collaboration across the left and all causes for equality. I will return to the topic of the New Left in Ireland, but for now: Red Salute from the North.