Local and EU Elections

Image by Joshua Fuller.

The results of the local and European elections show that Ireland has, for the moment, tilted to the right. However, we live in a volatile world where the prospects of sudden, dramatic change exist.

The drift rightwards can be seen in the modest rise in support for FF and FG; in the rise of predominantly right wing independents; in the dramatic decline of Sinn Féin and, while the radical left held their own, they failed to make substantial gains at SF’s expense; in the presence of far right candidates in some areas of the Dublin working class. Let’s look at each in turn.

The Centre Holds

The mainstream media want to project a narrative that the ‘centre can hold’. However, the story is somewhat more complicated. Both right wing parties have declined in the number of seats since 2019 but have maximized their impact by a new pattern of strong transfers between each other. There has been a modest increase in their overall share of vote when compared to the general election of 2020. Then both parties received 43% of the overall vote – now they have gained 46% on a reduced poll.

Nevertheless, the overall historical pattern is of a slide compared to the period 2008. Before then, they could command around 65% of the vote and had a stable two and a half party arrangement with Labour.
The main reason for the slight and, hopefully, temporary gain has been that that far right has helped shift the dial of Irish politics further to the right. This has occurred in two contradictory ways. First, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have tacked to an anti-immigrant sentiment which has been amplified by the mainstream media.

Symbolically, Harris ordered fences to be erected on the Grand Canal as a visible sign that refugees would be moved on. But second, and paradoxically, the spectre of the far right has been used to frightened voters into voting for those they know in order to ‘keep the nutters’ out. FF and FG have also, of course, gained from the decline in confidence in Sinn Fein. However, the biggest gains went to independents who captured 28% of the votes. Their growth shows a massive distrust and alienation from the political system. It is exacerbated at a local and European level as many do not see the results having a major impact on their lives.

Not So Independent

One important change has occurred in the diverse grouping of independents. The term ‘independent’ is now more overwhelmingly associated with the right rather than the left. True, there are a small number of left independents in Dublin local authorities but the general pattern is one where they belong mainly to the conventional right and sometimes the far right. Whereas in the past the term Independent was sometimes associated with being a rebel, most are likely to act as political hucksters who will sell their votes to FF and FG for a small piece of the local clientelist pie.

This is the reason why the political establishment is cheering. They now see the prospect of another FF-FG led government but this time with right wing independents support.

Whereas before now a section of the upper middle class was terrified that a Sinn Féin led government would lessen their privileges, they now rest easier in the bed with a belief that there will be more of the same.

SF’s March to Nowhere

Sinn Féin have only themselves to blame for this debacle. Their leadership tried to drag the party to the centre, preparing for a possible SF-FF coalition. This is why they set up meetings with Davy Stockbrokers and Silicon Valley capitalists. While unease was growing in their support base that Sinn Fein’s ‘change’ might not amount to much, the issue that really exposed the party was immigration.

The leadership looked at their own polling figures and decided to tilt to the right, announcing at every opportunity that they were against ‘open borders’ – event though they had campaign to keep the North-South border open.

Logically Sinn Fein deliberately moved away from any street politics in preparation for entry into government. Despite talking for months, the ICTU called off a proposed demonstration on housing – apparently to support a Sinn Féin bill.

The absence of struggle on the streets also hindered the radical left. The best challenge to reformist politics often comes when confidence among working class people grows from the prospect of ‘people power’, particularly if it leads to victories. When the water charges movement was at its height, the radical left could make major gains. Without struggle the gains are very modest.

The demoralization in working class communities has also created the breeding ground for the growth of the far right in some areas. When more nearly 3,000 people vote for far right and openly fascist candidates in Ballymun-Finglas, it is necessary to sound the alarm bells.

Far Right Gains

But why did it happen? First, the neoliberal policies of FF and FG have created great pools of poverty and deprivation where wages are low for those not working in the tech sector. Access to public services and to housing in particular is abysmal. It takes an average of 12 years, for example, to gain a council house in Dublin City Council.

Second, the left appeared unable to mobilise against this crisis, creating a mood of demoralization. To a small minority, it even appeared to be part of the establishment. This particularly affected Sinn Féin as they were the biggest parties in these areas. Third, Sinn Féin has no tradition of challenging racism. Its nationalist politics means that members can tack on leftist economic policies to traditional republicanism. But when you ask them to challenge any argument that ‘we must look after our own first’ they are lost.

These tendencies were amplified by a mainstream media who deliberately focused on immigration as the major issue facing people. RTE and the Irish Times could not conceal their delight that anti-immigrant sentiment might be a way to divert anger away from the political establishment. For individual journalists immigration appeared as a more ‘exciting’ story, more akin to what was happening in the rest of Europe. It would however be naïve to think that some had not learnt lessons from abroad, whereby millionaires like Trump or Sunak defend privilege by a policy of divide and rule. On top of that the far right in the US and Britain made assiduous efforts to target Ireland via social media as the one remaining country with no far right presence in parliament.

SF’s Next Step

It is crucial, however, to return to the overall volatility of the current situation. Local elections are an indication of where the country is going – but they are not the only one. In 2019, Sinn Féin suffered heavy losses in local election and then topped the polls in the general election the following year. This example will not necessarily repeat itself but this depends on political responses.

Here the ball starts in Sinn Féin’s court. Mary Lou McDonald has rightly said the choice is whether and FF-FG political dominance continue or whether there will be ‘change’. She needs to spell out that ‘change’ means an attack on privilege and wealth. And further, that Sinn Féin has turned away from looking for a coalition deal with FF.

The trajectory of the Sinn Féin in leadership makes this a very difficult about-turn. But if they continue with the same am ambiguity or try to tilt to their right they will face even more difficulty.

Anti-Racism and Anti-Capitalism

The elections also show that Ireland also needs a strong, vibrant anti-racist movement. And this is entirely possible as mobilisations on Black Lives Matter and Palestine were far bigger than anything the far right produced. Sometimes it is claimed that racist responses arise from competition over housing. This is true – but only half of the issue.

Racism has a specific autonomy within Western capitalist culture. It does not disappear even when there are mass mobilisation on important economic issues, although these would help considerably. Racist imagery, discourse and myth need to be combated in its own terms – and not just in words but with active street and cultural mobilisations.

Finally, the radical left needs to appear as the greatest proponent of ‘people power’ rather than just being stranded in the Dáil chamber making speeches. It needs to press union activists to break from the disastrous policy of ‘social partnership’, fostering and encouraging every sign of working class struggle. It needs to foment active mobilisation on the streets and direct action to capture anger. It needs to sink greater roots in working class are areas through leading struggle.

That’s how we can wipe the smile off the establishment’s faces.

This piece first appeared on Rebel News.