Lots of superlatives have been employed to describe the results of the Irish general election, almost all reflecting the dramatic growth of the vote for Sinn Fein, which is now the largest party in terms of popular support with 24.5%. In 2016 it had only 14 % of the vote.
This is a bit of a surprise, not least to Sinn Fein, which was unable to capitalise fully on the votes received due to not having stood enough candidates. The party had suffered badly in the previous Presidential, local and European elections and moderated its expectations accordingly. Two stories indicate the abrupt turnaround. One successful candidate topped the poll in Clare with 8,987 first preference votes after having failed to become a local councillor last May when she only got 385 votes. Another successful candidate went off on holiday during the election and only campaigned for two weeks.
Two other changes were also notable. The first was the comprehensive rejection of the ruling Fine Gael party, which had its worst result in 60 years, and the second was the failure of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, which had its worst result since 2011, when it paid the price for its role in the crash of the Celtic Tiger. In 2007 these two parties totalled 68% of the vote, in this election only 43%. Lastly, also worth noting in relation to other countries, was the failure of the far right, anti-immigration candidates.
This last phenomenon reflects both well and badly on the Irish electorate. The Irish have no post-imperial hangover like the British and their history, in so far as they know it, is one of anti-colonial resistance. The Irish are also much more aware of their true place in the world, as a home for mainly US multinationals, for whom no prostration to their needs is too much. So, for example, the state’s inward investment agency gave a made-up award to the senior executive in Apple for the company having hung around Ireland for 40 years making money. It should be recalled that according to the EU, Apple owes the Irish State €13.5 billion which Apple is contesting and so is the Irish State.
In any case the existing constraints on immigration and the treatment of immigrants in direct provision centres demonstrates the harshness of existing government policy. The 80% majority in the racist referendum in 2004 is a stain on the country yet to be removed, although the views of younger people might now be very different.
So yes, the trouncing of far-right candidates is very much to be welcomed, just as long as we appreciate the context and its limits, which is what we should do when considering the overall results.
The election result is described as reflecting a ‘mood’ for change, and the sudden rise of Sinn Fein might reflect the fact that moods come and go and are never permanent. It might reflect not only the speed of change but also the indefinite character of the message being sent, just as we suffer moods but rarely experience them as well-thought-out drivers of definite objectives.
The ‘mood for change’ has however indicated some of the change demanded, primarily to housing availability and affordability and to access to health care, as well as a solution to the general malaise around state services, or sometimes their non-existence. But how this change will be achieved is unclear, and how Sinn Fein would achieve it is also not clear.
Clear enough however is the rejection of the main bourgeois parties and a hope that the state can play a bigger role in sorting out the shortcomings of existing economic growth. This growth has both caused the demand for change by making failures of the economic model and the government approach obvious, and made change apparently possible through the extra resources it has provided.
The question for socialists is how wide and how deep is the demand for change, reflected in the votes for Sinn Fein and rejection of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? An exit poll recorded that 48% felt it was ‘best to have a change of government’, while nearly one third believed that ‘the country needs a radical change in direction’. Fifty-one per cent said that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were wrong to rule out forming a government with Sinn Fein. These figures are significant without being overwhelming.
Part of the reason for the result is the fact that we have had a Fine Gael government for 9 years that only had the support of one quarter of the voters from 2016, a narrow base of support for a party that has never had real majority support. A lot of people started off not having endorsed it and Fianna Fail’s confidence and supply arrangement did not act to add any popular support.
Now the decline of the two major parties has allowed Sinn Fein to come to the fore and we have widespread commentary that we have the beginnings at least of the formation of a new Irish politics defined by a left-right division. So who is this left?
If we add up the parties to the left of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael we reach a total of 41.5% (SF, Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, Solidarity/People before Profit) which will only be slightly greater if we include some independents, most of whom are not left wing.
There is some coherence to this left in that Sinn Fein voters generally transferred to some of these parties and research has shown that the voters for these parties generally define themselves as left wing. Unfortunately, all this does is transfer the limitations of this purely relative term to the people who vote for these ‘left-wing’ parties. They are, of course, to the left of the two main bourgeois parties, but how much does this tell us?
Included in this list of parties is Sinn Fein, which has grown as it has dropped its core programme of support for armed struggle to force the British out of the North of Ireland. A list as long as your arm could be written of the U-turns it has accomplished as a result, but in the South of the country most notable is that it has gone from opposition to coalition with the two bourgeois parties to openly flouting their availability for a lash-up. If the development of Irish politics has been defined by the crash of the Celtic Tiger, it should not be forgotten that Sinn Fein voted for the bank bail-out whereby generations of Irish workers will pay for the debts of the banks.
It includes the Green Party with 7.1% of the vote, which as a partner in Government with Fianna Fail, took political responsibility for the policies leading up to the crash and those afterwards, including the bank bail-out, suffering for years afterwards as a result. Although apparently not long enough.
It also includes the Labour Party with 4.4%, which was the only party to vote against the bank bail-out, but then entered Government to inflict punishing austerity to pay for it. Never one to shirk this role in alliance with Fine Gael, the party may have performed this cynical trick once too often. The point of its existence is now regularly canvassed, since its brand is discredited and other parties appear to have taken up its claimed position on the left and apparently with greater sincerity.
The Social Democrats with 2.9% is the party that most clearly represents the alternative to Labour while Solidarity/People before Profit, with 2.6%, failed to make gains and lost one seat. In a number of seats it relied on Sinn Fein transfers to get elected, without it seems showing much appreciation. The left changed names, split again and ‘allied’ again for the elections and hailed the mood for change but no more defined it than before. That it failed to profit from this mood is a real failure.
For groups claiming to be Marxist it is its own judgement that their intervention always fails to call into question the role of elections or advance the organisation and political consciousness of the Irish working class. The limits of this consciousness have instead imposed itself on this left, by which we mean reliance on the state and failure to make reorganisation of the labour movement its aim.
Behind this motley history lies a coherence that is not apparent at first glance. Greater state intervention is common to all these parties with a preference for a left government to carry it out, however variously understood. Now Sinn Fein has said it wants to lead negotiations of these parties to create such a government.
The numbers do not add up but this is not initially the point. The point would be some agreement that these components should come together with their own proposal for government. Whether it succeeds is not within its control, but it sends a message. What happens when it does not succeed is something else again. It would at least form a benchmark against which voters in future elections might seek reference and therefore accord relevance.
Of course, some on the left ‘left’ might denounce Sinn Fein sincerity, pointing to its implementation of austerity while in office in the North, or its use of such an initiative purely for leverage with Fianna Fail in coalition negotiations, but this would be seeking to avoid the problem. If such denunciations were effective on their own Sinn Fein would not be where it is today. An alternative would be to challenge the party to make real on commitment to a left programme and a left government; because of the left’s own Keynesian-type policies there are no qualitative differences with its own programme.
If this is not the approach then the claims to fight for a left Government by Solidarity/People before Profit is a fraud, for what they can only mean in such a case is that their policy is for themselves alone in Government. Given the propensity to split this looks even further away than their already 2.6% vote would lead one to believe. One problem is that these organisations don’t trust each other or themselves, the latter leading to splits, and if this is the case, why should the working class?
Only a united, democratic left, whatever its political shortcomings, could begin to repair this situation.
Of course, this is not a very revolutionary perspective, but there are no smart political policies or demands that will make for one. It reflects where the working class is at, the degree to which the election results have shown the scope and extent of radicalisation. We either meet it, and seek to develop it, or we present it with ultimatums to be more revolutionary than it is.