|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 197 April 2016
Ireland: government routed as new left rises
Ireland’s Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition government was routed in general elections on 26 February. A deep class anger at the government’s austerity, especially at the Labour Party’s betrayal of working people, saw voters inflict a humiliating defeat on both parties. The Labour Party crumbled down to seven seats, winning only 6.6% of first preference votes. That compares to 37 seats (19.4%) in 2011. Although Fine Gael managed to hold on as the largest party in the Dáil (parliament), it lost 26 seats (from 76 to 50), dropping to 25.5%. The political panorama has been totally transformed and fragmented, with a new socialist left rising to prominence.
The government parties waged a disastrous election campaign. Despite polls consistently showing no clear alternative government on the cards, support for Fine Gael and Labour declined steadily as polling day approached. They attempted to present themselves as the only option, threatening voters that chaos was the only alternative to the ‘stability’ they could guarantee. Their message to ‘keep the recovery going’ was central to this. The government, they claimed, had rescued Ireland’s economy from the doldrums, and they had to be allowed to continue the job. This slogan flopped dramatically.
As the Anti-Austerity Alliance – in which the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) participates – explained, this talk of an inspiring recovery jarred massively with the reality and mood in working-class communities throughout the country. While these communities were hammered by austerity during the recession, Irish capitalism’s ‘recovery’ is now passing them by. All the benefits have flooded towards the 1% as living standards for the majority languished. Rather than inspire faith in the government parties, this slogan and idea reinforced the sense of bitterness and injustice at the continued struggle to make ends meet, and at the inequality embedded in the so-called recovery.
This set the backdrop for the government’s election woes. Threats of stability or chaos did nothing to dent the resolve to drive for a change. The anti-establishment mood which exists in working-class Ireland was hard and strong enough to turf the government out, even in the face of blackmail and scaremongering. It signals a deep political crisis for Irish capitalism, along the lines of what is developing in other hard-hit European countries, such as Spain and Greece. The tried and tested parties of capitalist rule are in crisis, and can no longer simply alternate in power, ensuring ‘stability’ for the market system.
In Ireland this has been expressed historically in the domination of two right-wing conservative parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, alongside the ex-social democratic Labour Party. These parties routinely occupied around 90% of the electoral space. When the votes were counted this time, however, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael got less than 50% between them, and Labour was nearly decimated. The remaining support is greatly fragmented, with 30% voting for various independents and smaller parties, and just under 14% for Sinn Féin.
This opens up a serious political crisis. As it stands, the only seemingly ‘viable’ government majority can be composed of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, a species of Irish grand coalition. While both parties have for the moment ruled out such a scenario for political reasons (not wanting to leave the way open for a more anti-establishment opposition to dominate) there will be intense pressure from sections of the establishment, including within both parties, for such an outcome. A ‘rotating Taoiseach’ (prime minister) arrangement between the two parties, or a minority Fine Gael government facilitated by Fianna Fáil, are being floated as possibilities. Alternatively, new elections could be called within months.
Though it increased its percentage vote and number of seats – from 14 to 23 – Sinn Féin delivered well below expectations. It had topped 20% in polls last year, and was seen as a challenger to Fianna Fáil for second place. It even portrayed itself as a potential leader of the next government. It ended up with 13.8%, however, 10% behind Fianna Fáil, losing out in a number of key constituencies, including to the socialist left.
Hounded by the establishment press and parties over historical and security issues, Sinn Féin has made a concerted effort to court the establishment’s favour, to prove its ‘responsible’ credentials. While posturing as a left-wing alternative, it confined its election programme to the ‘fiscal space’ allowed by restrictive EU/troika rules, effectively ruling out the real change needed by working people. It also courted establishment parties as potential coalition partners, refusing to rule out coalition with Fianna Fáil – although the numbers for this do not now add up.
On the key issue of water charges, which has kicked off a mass movement over recent years, Sinn Féin was exposed and outstripped by the genuine left, especially by the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA). The most conscious workers and youth, who are playing an active part in the mass movement against water charges and austerity, tended to favour those who had built and led the movement, over those offering only weak, parliamentary resistance to it. Election results and gains for the AAA and Socialist Party in key constituencies, such as Dublin West, Dublin South West and Cork North Central, illustrate this.
The current capitalist crisis is leading to the demise of the Labour Party, founded in 1912 by the Marxist James Connolly, which has become a vicious tool of the bosses and markets. It is also throwing up a new left, in which revolutionary socialists play a key role, and which is poised for further breakthroughs. The AAA, in alliance with the People Before Profit group, mounted the most serious nationwide left challenge in the history of the state, standing in 31 constituencies in these elections. The AAA-PBP won 3.9% of first preference votes, despite not standing in almost a third of constituencies, an excellent result for a new fighting socialist initiative.
The Anti-Austerity Alliance successfully defended the seats of Socialist Party members Ruth Coppinger (Dublin West) and Paul Murphy (Dublin South West), and made an impressive breakthrough with the election of another Socialist Party member, Mick Barry, in Cork North Central. It also came within 270 votes of taking a seat in Limerick city, with Cian Prendiville, which would have been the shock of the election.
This stands testament to the fantastic campaign which was waged, especially the leading role played by the Socialist Party and AAA in building the movement against water charges. The People Before Profit group also won three seats, which means that a block of six TDs will have a valuable platform to assist workers’ struggle against whatever austerity government is formed.
A Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition would be disastrous for working-class people in Ireland, and would require a redoubling of the mass movements which shook the last government to its foundations. The Socialist Party and Anti-Austerity Alliance will turn their attention towards the building of such movements, to ensure the abolition of water charges, and to demand a real recovery in health services, education, housing and living standards.
This struggle must extend its aims beyond the capitalists’ and EU/troika’s ‘fiscal space’ to demand the re-orientation of the economy towards the needs of people, rather than the profits of a few. Only the socialist policies of democratic public ownership of the key sectors of the economy, as an alternative to the rule of the multinationals, can bring this about. Support for these policies can grow rapidly, with the assistance of the new fighting socialist left which is rising to replace the Labour sell-outs.