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Something changed in Ireland last Friday, when we cast our votes in parliamentary elections to replace the government that has overseen the utter collapse of the house of cards that was the state’s economy, and ratified our country’s debt enslavement to fund criminally bankrupt banks and their bondholders.
The traditional centre-right ruling party, Fianna Fáil lost nearly three-quarters of its seats, and will be replaced as the main party of the next government by Fine Gael, the centre-right party that is accustomed to spending most of its time in opposition. This has its own drama, to be sure, albeit rather predictable in outcome.. But in opening up a new space for the Left, putting Gerry Adams in the Dáil, along with community activists like Joan Collins and Seamus Healy, and old Trots like Joe Higgins, Richard Boyd Barrett and Clare Daly, this election has provided a new platform for a resistance movement that could extend far beyond the polite precincts of parliament.
Swapping Fianna Fáil for Fine Gael represents change mainly in the fortunes of those parties and their politicians. Apart from the usual opportunistic nitpicking, it has long been difficult to find any significant policy differences between them. Over the decades Fine Gael has perhaps leaned to the left on social issues and to the right on economics, and Fianna Fáil vice versa, but you’d hardly see it now, especially as Fianna Fail has mostly overseen the profound liberalisation, and neo-liberalisation, of the last two decades.
In the current circumstances, the most important point is that both parties agree, essentially, with the extortionate terms of the EU/IMF ‘bailout’, which has sealed the socializing of bankers’ debts at the expense of taxpayers and public services in Ireland, victims of a vicious austerity agenda. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny may believe that his colleague in the European group of Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel, can help him ‘renegotiate’ Ireland’s deal a bit more favorably, but this would be window-dressing. In light of the overwhelming impact of that agreement, the idea that Ireland ‘decided’ anything important when it went to the polls last Friday is a sick joke. As academic and activist Colin Coulter has written: “Almost all of the crucial decisions were taken some time ago, and most of them were made elsewhere.”
The fortunes of Fianna Fáil are nonetheless of great interest to the Left. The political descendants of the more radical sections of the IRA from the War of Independence 90 years ago, those who opposed the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the party has tended to have the support of most of the urban working class and rural poor. Indeed, some communists over the years have offered the party ‘critical support’, of the sort usually reserved in other countries for a social-democratic party rather than for populist nationalists such as Fianna Fáil. This week, as the party contemplates its battering at the polls, its members and leaders mumble unconvincingly about returning it to its “radical roots”. Since its adopted ‘base’ of property developers and financial speculators has largely moved on, the party will have to find some new angle, but it’s hard to imagine it can find its way to radicalism.
Its voters, however, are another story. Fianna Fáil lost 25 per cent of its vote in this general election, compared to the last one in 2007, falling from 42 per cent to 17 per cent. Fine Gael, however, gained just 9 per cent, winning the first-preference votes of 36 per cent of voters. (The vagaries of the system and expert local vote management mean that Fine Gael will have more like 46 per cent of the members of the new Dáil, the lower house of the parliament.) So Fine Gael directly exploited barely over a third of the Fianna Fáil decline. The rest was split between Ireland’s Labour Party, Sinn Fein and various independents, mostly of a Left disposition.
Overall, the Left vote in this election has been estimated at 42 per cent, with just under half that going to Labour. The combined share of the first-preferences shared by the two traditional ‘major’ parties was 53.5 per cent, the lowest in the history of the State: since 1927 the joint Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share has always been well over 60 per cent, often quite a bit higher.
So while there has been a significant shift to Fine Gael, there has been a more significant shift to the Left, a force, or set of forces, that have been marginalized in Irish parliamentary politics since the 1920s. In Dublin the shift is more pronounced: here the Left vote is about 60 per cent, with again about half of that going to Labour. This trend has been visible for some years, especially in Dublin and especially at local and European elections; last Friday it emerged full-blown on the national electoral scene, though pundits have largely managed to ignore it.
That is partly because the Left is so diverse. Sinn Fein, part of a rather conservative government in Northern Ireland, where it shares power with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party, ran quite a left-leaning campaign in the South and was rewarded with 10 per cent of the vote, an unprecedented performance for the party here in the Republic. (Its leader, Gerry Adams, “came down here” to run in the Louth constituency and proved to be one of the top vote-getters in the election, less than two decades after he was banned from the State’s airwaves under censorship legislation during the Northern ‘Troubles’.) Around the country another 10 or so leftists, including the colorful Mick Wallace, were elected, about half of them ‘far-leftists’ associated with a new formation, the United Left Alliance, whose candidates combined opposition to austerity and the ‘bailout’ with personal records of credible community activism.
Then there is the Labour Party, which having reached a new record level as the biggest section of the biggest Left in Irish electoral history, will do what it nearly always does given half a chance: go into a coalition government with Fine Gael. Daniel Finn’s magnificent overview of the Irish situation in the latest edition of New Left Review (Jan/Feb, #67) contained a half-century-old quote from Fianna Fáil leader Sean Lemass that still captures the essence of Irish Labour: "I gather… that someone accused the Labour Party of going ‘Red’… May I straightaway dissociate myself from any such suggestion? The Labour Party are, and always have been, the most conservative element in our community. Far from the Labour Party going ‘Red’, they are not going anywhere… The Labour Party are a nice, respectable, docile, harmless body of men — as harmless a body as ever graced any parliament."
This teasing passage remains a cruelly apt description of the party, with a slight amendment to recognize the presence of a group of women who, while occasionally formidable, ultimately resemble their respectable male colleagues in political performance. For any nominally socialist party to have made, and kept, its peace with capitalism in current circumstances requires a wellspring of docility that, sadly, feeds all too much of Irish public life; that is exactly what Labour has done here, red-baiting the United Left Alliance during the campaign and offering only the most vapid rhetorical opposition to the austerity agenda.
Indeed, Labour’s watery weakness in the face of neoliberal cuts and deals gave candidates to its left, including Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance, plenty of room to spout the most basic of social-democratic and Keynesian solutions to the Irish crisis and sound both reasonable and radical in doing so. Just as those candidates thrived in that space, they should continue to thrive as a Left opposition to the Labour Party in government with Fine Gael after parliament reconvenes on March 9. (The Green Party, by the way, paid dearly and appropriately for its own decisiontogointocoalition with Fianna Fail in 2007: it lost all its seats.)
There is no doubt that the next government will give us plenty to oppose. Many in Fine Gael’s leadership seem to relish the prospect of overseeing harsh cuts in government services and employment — they are among the baldest Thatcherites Irish politics has ever witnessed. Labour may indeed ameliorate some of its worst tendencies, though the experience of the Lib Dems in government with the Tories in Britain would not give us much hope in that direction. But what is certain that the new government’s policies won’t fix what is wrong with Ireland, a petri dish for neoliberalism.
In that respect, the election in Ireland changed nothing, putting in power a group of politicians who look forward to carrying forth the same right-wing policies with more technocratic zeal and ‘competence’ than their predecessors.
But, as noted above, in opening up a new space for the Left, this election has given us a fresh new vista for action.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is the author of Hammered By the Irish, published by CounterPunch / AK Press. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @harrybrowne