For many years, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was the member of the British parliament for West Belfast in Northern Ireland, albeit one who refused to take his seat in London. Since 2011, however, he has served in the Irish legislature, without abstention, representing constituents across the border in the Republic of Ireland’s County Louth.
But if you can take the man out of Belfast, you can’t take the terrible history of Belfast out of the man. A few weeks ago he was back in his homeplace to face questioning about the 1972 disappearance and murder of widowed mother-of-ten Jean McConville, who the IRA apparently believed was passing information to the British army. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) arrested and held Adams, interrogating him intensely, for four days before releasing him. The prosecution service is now considering the evidence.
Why is this particularly shocking cold-case getting warmed over now? The background is murky, complex and divisive, involving a strange and accidental coming together of the interests of cops who haven’t forgotten their anti-IRA war and the memories of republicans who opposed the way Adams took the IRA out of that war. Adams denies any involvement in the murder. He continues to deny he was in the IRA. Few people believe the latter denial, at least. And so in early May the mainstream media in the Republic became convinced that this incredulity and the exhumed horror of the McConville murder would translate into a fall in support for Sinn Fein.
If it has had a negative effect, it’s hard to spot it. Counting continues in the local and European elections — not for the national parliaments — that were held North and South last week. Up North the Sinn Fein party has uneventfully held its status as the main political vehicle for Catholic-nationalists. In the Republic, especially in Dublin, its upward surge has been so dramatic that all of the party’s unsuccessful candidates will probably be able fit glumly around one table in the corner of the crowded celebration party. The past, of Gerry Adams and of Sinn Fein as the political wing of the IRA, was no obstacle to success.
The rise and rise of Sinn Fein is just part of a wider series of triumphs for the Left. (Whatever its political qualities in the North and in rural areas, there is no doubt that in Dublin, where SF will be the largest group on the city council, it is a left-wing party, typified by its newly elected member of the European parliament, Lynn Boylan.) Despite the acrimonious dissolution last year of the further-left alliance that promised so much at the 2011 elections, socialists and left-populists have had remarkable electoral success in councils across the Republic, and to a lesser extent in Northern Ireland too. If this was a protest vote against austerity and its Irish engineers, the protest largely spurned xenophobes, pro-lifers and sundry right-wing conspiracists, of the sort who have done well elsewhere in Europe. Instead it favoured leftists whose divisions may indeed have spurred them to work even harder to build support in working-class communities.
The emblem of this new Ireland, an electorate that refuses to believe that there are no alternatives to neoliberal dictates, is the poll-topper in the huge European-election constituency that stretches across the Irish midlands and around the border: Luke Ming Flanagan came to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s as a pro-cannabis campaigner and, yes, he got his no-longer-just-a-nickname from his resemblance to a Flash Gordon villain, Ming the Merciless. He has been prominent in support of issues ranging from the interests of small-scale turf-cutters on peat bogs to women’s reproductive rights. No, it’s not your granny’s Ireland any more.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the conservative civil-war parties that have dominated Irish politics for nearly a century, haven’t gone away, but they’ll have to accept their more modest place in a fractured landscape. In Dublin their combined vote in the European election was a mere 28%. Softly, barely social-democratic Labour, always in the shadows as a half-party in what was often called a two-and-a-half-party system, always ready to go into government with Fine Gael, has been beaten by the voters into near-catatonia for forming that coalition again after the last parliamentary election in 2011 — Labour leader Eamon Gilmore resigned that post on Monday afternoon..
Statistically, Ireland is in the midst of a modest recovery: unemployment is down, growth is back. But across the island, the heartbreaking social realities for those below the elite 1% are all about emigration, worsening public services, stagnant wages, new regressive taxes and charges, and a housing crisis to accompany the return of investors to the property market.
The so-called Troika of EU, IMF and European Central Bank no longer runs the country as directly as it did until recently. But international capital still calls the shots in Ireland, where the economy was crushed to make sure that bondholders of even the most delusional bubble-blowing banks got paid back every cent they had gambled.
The actual government won’t change here. As elsewhere in Europe, where the real left made gains but so did neo-fascists, the vote is being interpreted as a ‘midterm’ protest. The EU is an enormous influence on economics and politics across the continent, especially in those countries that are in the euro currency zone, but the EU’s parliament doesn’t wield much power: in Ireland, certainly, there is usually something rather ‘B team’ about the candidates for European elections, despite the fact that the job pays better than a seat in the domestic parliament. A couple of by-elections for domestic seats got at least as much attention as the larger Euro campaigns — and resulted in another trotskyist victory, for the Socialist Party’s Ruth Coppinger, in an increasingly red corner of Dublin.
The full Irish European-election results have been delayed, in part because of a push by eurocrats bent on ‘integrating’ the union to treat this as one giant election across the continent, in which all results arrive together, from Scotland to Portugal, Denmark to Greece. Although some common trends are apparent, this remains largely a nonsense, with campaigns dominated by local and national, rather than ‘European’ issues. And turnout in European elections continues to trail behind the turnout in ‘real’, i.e. national, ones.
But while the French National Front are nowhere to be seen in Dublin, the election weekend here did see an ironic bit of European-style economic reality hit in a rather trendy inner-city eatery called the Paris Bakery, in the shadow of the General Post Office where the Republic was declared in the 1916 Rising. The cafe’s owner is shutting it down, with €130,000 in unpaid wages owed to its employees. The workers and their supporters have occupied the premises for three days now to demand they get paid. From Athens to Madrid, from Paris to the Paris Bakery, the struggle continues long after the polls are closed.