Ireland Turns Left in Election

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Ireland Turns Left in Election

The left wing nationalist Sinn Fein party bucked the rightward European trend in winning the largest share of the popular vote in the Irish election last week on a platform of housing in a country with runaway housing prices and healthcare. Its voting percentage was not fully reflected in seat victories because it never expected to do so well based on previous results and so did not run a full slate of candidates. Nevertheless, its 37 seats was only one seat less than the right-wing Fianna Fail, who won the most seats.  Sinn Fein also said they would hold a referendum on unification with Northern Ireland, something that may well happen as England's abandonment of the EU hurts the island's economy on both sides of the border and as demographics mean Catholics will be a majority in the North over time as school children there are majority Catholic already, thereby putting an end to English colonial rule on the island, but it may take more than five years. 

It took nine years and three elections, but the economic crash of 2008 has demolished the Irish party system. The Great Recession stoked up a popular demand for change that the old political class was unable or unwilling to satisfy. On February 8, the established order collapsed under the strain as Sinn Féin overtook the dominant center-right parties, whose combined vote share slumped to an all-time low. At a time when left parties in Europe have been losing ground to their rivals on the Right and center, the Irish election bucked the trend. Whatever Sinn Féin does next, this was clearly a left-wing vote. The exit poll showed that health and housing were by far the most important issues for voters. Two-thirds wanted investment in public services to be prioritized over tax cuts. 31 percent agreed with the statement that Ireland “needs a radical change in direction”. It’s possible that this opportunity for change will be squandered. But right now, the momentum in Irish politics is with the Left, and the traditional conservative parties are on the back foot. An election that was supposed to call time on the political turbulence of the last decade has had the opposite effect.

None of that was meant to happen when the Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar called the snap election in January. Varadkar’s party had spent the past four years governing in partnership with its traditional rival Fianna Fáil. Both parties suffered major attrition in the first two postcrisis elections: by 2016, their combined vote share had dipped below 50 percent (in 2007, it was 69 percent). The only way for the conservative parties to stay in power while excluding Sinn Féin was through an unprecedented grand-coalition deal. Fianna Fáil didn’t take any cabinet positions, but its votes kept Leo Varadkar in the Taoiseach’s office. The two parties saw this as an unnatural arrangement and wanted to get back to their long-established routine, with a center-right government facing a center-right opposition and taking turns to steer the ship of state. ...

The outcome of the election came as a shock to everyone, including Sinn Féin. The party leadership was prepared for a battle to hold onto its existing seats, and ran a defensive campaign. Before looking at Sinn Féin in particular, we need to ask why there was such a widespread mood for change in search of a political outlet. To begin with, the much-vaunted economic recovery has never lived up to the hype. Headline figures for GDP are deeply unreliable, because multinational companies use the Irish economy as a clearing house for transfer pricing. In 2015, the official stats purported to show GDP growing by 26 percent. No government minister boasted about that “success story” — it was patently absurd — but they carried on bragging when the same questionable statistics gave a figure that sounded at least halfway plausible. The growth wasn’t all fictitious, but it by-passed the majority of Irish workers. In the exit poll on February 8, voters were asked if they had felt the benefits of the recovery: 63 percent said no.

Younger people stressed the importance of housing as an issue: nearly two-fifths of those under the age of thirty-four said it was the most important factor in deciding how to vote. Runaway home prices have made it impossible for most people in that age bracket to buy their own home, while landlords hike rents to extortionate levels and hotel construction swallows up residential space. When the Irish economy crashed in 2008, governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael spent tens of billions of euro bailing out the banks and property developers who were responsible for the recession. Public money salvaged the financial and property systems, but there was no structural change imposed as a quid pro quo, and certainly no attempt to restore the public-housing sector as an alternative to private provision. Now, the same banks that would have gone to the wall without state support charge interest rates well above the eurozone average, while politicians like Leo Varadkar claim that US vulture funds make a valuable contribution to the housing market. It’s hard to blame the shortage of affordable housing on impersonal market forces, when the people whose decisions were responsible for it have names and faces that are well known to everyone. ...

Sinn Féin positioned itself as the party of choice for those who wanted to register their discontent. Unlike the Labour Party and the Greens, it hadn’t been in government during the recession, and didn’t bear responsibility for the bank bailout or cuts to public services. The party also had a much wider reach and activist base than Ireland’s radical-left groups, whose support is concentrated in the larger cities. The first opinion polls revealed a surge towards Sinn Féin, which held up on election day. It’s now the largest party by vote share (24.5 percent), and level with Fianna Fáil on seats won (37 each — although Fianna Fáil has an extra seat because the parliamentary speaker is automatically reelected). The result would have been even worse for the conservative parties if Sinn Féin had known how well it was likely to perform: the Irish electoral system has multi-seat constituencies, and Sinn Féin could have picked up an extra seat in several districts if it had run more than one candidate. When it looked as if Sinn Féin was catching up with the center-right parties, they responded with a barrage of attacks focusing on the party’s links with the IRA, past and (allegedly) present. To their great frustration, none of those attacks seemed to work. There were a number of reasons for that.

The party now has a younger generation of leaders with no IRA background who’ve come of age over the last decade: Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin. It was easier to associate Sinn Féin with the IRA when everyone knew that the party president, McDonald’s predecessor Gerry Adams, had been a central figure in the IRA leadership for decades. McDonald may not be to everyone’s taste, but nobody can accuse her of direct involvement in a campaign of guerrilla warfare that was deeply unpopular in the South. Politicians and media commentators who are hostile to Sinn Féin have also reduced the force of their own arguments by linking them to an unpopular political agenda. Every time they invoked the memory of IRA atrocities, it came with an implicit addendum: “And that’s why you have to put up with rack-renting landlords and a creaking health service.” ...

Sinn Féin certainly has a much better chance of achieving Irish unity by political means than through the resumption of a failed military campaign. Sinn Féin’s critics accuse the party of planning to scrap the non-jury Special Criminal Court (SCC), supposedly at the behest of its IRA masters. Originally set up to deal with subversive organizations, the SCC has since broadened its remit to cover gangland crime. Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties have called for its abolition. ...

Sinn Féin wasn’t the only party competing for the left-wing vote. Its rivals can be divided into two broad categories, left-center and left-radical. The Irish Labour Party used to dominate the first of these political niches, but it had a terrible election, winning less than 5 percent of the vote. Labour’s best-ever performance came in 2011 with an anti-austerity platform, but it reneged on that platform immediately by going into coalition with Fine Gael, alienating its new supporters. Five years later, it lost thirty of its thirty-seven seats. There was no recovery this time around, just continued decline. It’s hard to see where Labour can go from here. The party seems bereft of new political thinking. The Social Democrats, a group set up by two ex-Labour politicians, now have the same number of TDs, with some fresh, newly elected faces to articulate their message. You can get a very similar center-left policy offer from the Social Democrats without any of Labour’s recent baggage: we might end seeing a reverse takeover by the new party if Labour carries on treading water.

The Greens had a better day than Labour, with a 7 percent vote share and twelve seats. However, the result will have been a letdown for the party after the Green surge in last year’s European election. That increased support reflected a greater sense of urgency about climate change, especially among younger people. But the Greens are a profoundly inadequate vehicle for that sentiment: Ireland’s radical-left parties have a much better record when it comes to environmental issues. When the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan spoke in television debates, there was a striking discrepancy between his accurate diagnosis of the climate and biodiversity crises and the modest, incremental solutions he put forward. Ryan’s party has no equivalent of the ambitious ecological programs recently developed by left-wing forces in Britain and the United States. ...

Further to the left, the Solidarity–People Before Profit alliance retained five of the six seats it won in 2016, while left-wing independents like Thomas Pringle and Joan Collins also held on — a much better outcome than seemed likely after last year’s local elections. These victories often came down to fine margins, and the socialist groups might not be so lucky next time. But for now, the radical left has preserved its foothold in national politics. That means there’s some breathing space to reflect on what they got right and wrong over the last decade. At their best, Ireland’s radical-left forces have punched above their weight on the wider political stage. They were centrally involved in the struggle against water charges, the most important anti-austerity movement after 2008, which mobilized huge numbers of working-class people and forced the government to scrap its plans. They were also the only political actors with a consistent pro-choice policy, before the work of feminist campaigners made it expedient for the bigger parties to get on board. On both water charges and abortion rights, Sinn Féin initially took an evasive and equivocal line, and organized pressure from its left flank had a real impact. The vote for successful left-wing candidates in Dublin and Cork builds on years of activism in communities that had been ignored and abandoned by the political mainstream. On the debit side, organizational fragmentation has made it harder for the radical left to develop a cohesive political identity and platform. In 2011, the socialist groups stood on a joint ticket as the United Left Alliance (ULA), but that broke up within a couple of years. One of the ULA’s component parts, the Socialist Party, then ran candidates for election as the Anti-Austerity Alliance, which in turn became Solidarity. Even for people who follow politics closely, these comings and goings must have been very confusing. ...

What will Sinn Féin do with its unprecedented mandate? The party’s tactical choices will stem from its underlying political character. One of Sinn Féin’s star performers during the election campaign was Eoin Ó Broin, the party’s housing spokesman, who represents a west Dublin constituency. Before Ó Broin became a TD, he wrote an important book, Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism (2009), which looked at successive attempts over the last century to blend republicanism with left-wing ideology. As Ó Broin noted, his own party had a clear hierarchy of political goals, with national reunification taking priority over socialism. This meant that Sinn Féin’s version of left-wing politics, “relegated to a future point in the struggle, would always be underdeveloped, as the more immediate needs of the national struggle took precedence.” Ó Broin urged his party to “end the hierarchy of objectives implied in the party’s ideology, policy and strategy,” by putting democratic socialism on a level footing with Irish unity. However, the pecking order he criticized remains firmly in place. It’s not that there’s anything reactionary or undesirable about the idea of a united Ireland. The partition settlement of the 1920s was a fiasco, and it’s perfectly legitimate for Sinn Féin to want to overturn it. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) contains an agreed mechanism for them to do so, by means of a border poll. Demographic change and the Brexit crisis have made the idea of a vote in favor of Irish unity seem much more plausible than it was at the time when the GFA was signed.

Sinn Féin’s time in government north of the border hasn’t resulted in any major social-democratic reforms, yet the party hasn’t paid a significant electoral price for that. However, things are likely to be very different in the South if Sinn Féin doesn’t satisfy the desire for change that powered its recent surge. In the North of Ireland, Sinn Féin is primarily a nationalist party, whose function is to represent a community that suffered many years of political exclusion. As long as it defends the interests of that community, while promoting the long-term goal of a united Ireland, it will have a solid base of support to draw upon, however little progress it makes on a left-wing economic agenda that was never central to the party’s appeal. In any case, Sinn Féin can always gesture towards the lack of decision-making powers: Northern Ireland is still a region within the United Kingdom, not a state with its own national budget. Sinn Féin won’t have the same leeway in the South: either it delivers on at least some of its pledges, or it may find its voters looking for a new home, just as Labour’s 2011 electorate deserted the party after it formed a government with Fine Gael and ditched its anti-austerity program. The volatility of Irish electoral politics cuts both ways.

The most important reform promised by Sinn Féin during the election campaign was its housing platform, developed by Eoin Ó Broin, which calls for an emergency rent freeze, a cap on mortgage interest rates, and the construction of public housing on a scale that hasn’t been seen for decades. If carried out, that platform would have a lasting impact on the quality of life for large numbers of people (and probably secure their votes for Sinn Féin, much like Fianna Fáil’s own house-construction program in the 1930s and 1940s).

But it would also damage the interests of all those who benefit from the current setup, including the banks and the big players in the Irish construction industry. The same goes for every other social-democratic policy. To supplement their domestic power, conservative forces will also enlist the support of the European Union, whose budgetary rules they will cite as an insuperable barrier to any progressive economic agenda.

Trying to push through significant reforms in a governing alliance with the center right is the road to nowhere — especially since those parties will be anxious to cut Sinn Féin down to size by scuppering its projects and associating it with unpopular measures. Sinn Féin’s well-honed sense of political pragmatism may be enough to stop the party from going down that road, even if its core ideology allows for it. At any rate, the conservative stabilization of Irish politics so ardently desired by the “stake in the country people,” as Liam Mellows once called them, hasn’t arrived yet.


Sean in Ottawa

The analysis that this was support for left causes is borne out by polls of voters. The fact that it came form a nationlist party was not the deciding issue. I appreciate that the thread title, and the poster's comment emphasize what seems to be the real priority and motivations for the voters.


Ken Burch

Sean in Ottawa wrote:

The analysis that this was support for left causes is borne out by polls of voters. The fact that it came form a nationlist party was not the deciding issue. I appreciate that the thread title, and the poster's comment emphasize what seems to be the real priority and motivations for the voters.


As was long the case in Quebec, the organizing principle of most of the Irish left, from the time of James Connolly and the Citizen Army through the late 20th Century - has been some form of Irish nationalism-a concept which is currently expressed simply as support for ending the partition of Ireland into a 26 county Republic made up of three of the four historic provinces of Ireland, plus three of the nine counties of the historic province of Ulster in the North on one side, with the other 6 counties of Ulster hived off into a pro-British, Protestant-majority statelet known currently as Northern Ireland.   

The liberation project of the Irish people has had to be nationalist, has had to be run on the basis of organizing one part of the Irish population-the Irish Catholic community, though with some notable Protestant figures involved, such as Emmet and Wolfe Tone in the 1798 revolt and Charles Steward Parnell in the 1870s-because the pro-British community, having been convinced through British propaganda that the Catholic majority on the island would never allow them to survive in peace and freedom if Ireland became independent, refused to ever make common ground with the majority community, and refused, until the Good Friday Peace Accords of the 1990s, to even acknowledge that the pro-Irish community, either before or after partition, had any legitimate grievances against the status quo.

That said, if Sinn Fein ends up in a governing coalition in the Republic, they are going to have to resolve an interesting contradiction:  SF has run, in elections in the Republic, as a left-wing, anti-austerity party.  In the North, in their role as partners in the power sharing executive, they have spent years administering steep cuts in benefits and other austerity measures as a party of government.

If they stay with anti-austerity politics in the republic, they could undermine their position in the North, where they have been imposing austerity in the name of proving themselves to be a "responsible" party of government, possibly opening the way for a left-republican alternative to gain votes and seats from them at the next N.I. election.  If they join a coalition in the republic and become partners in austerity there, they could destroy their support there and create an opening for another left party to sweep past them there, a development the British and the Unionists in Ulster would likely use as an argument for continuing to fight against the political unification of the island.

Ken Burch

SF had an incredibly efficient distribution of its vote share in this election:   there were 42 SF candidates and 37 of them were elected.

Who knows how well they might have done had they contested most of the 159 seats that were up for grabs in Ireland's 39 multi-member constituency.

Were I to offer them one bit of advice, it would be NOT to join a coalition with either "old party".   If Fianna Fail OR Fine Gael tries to lead a government with SF as partner-Fine Gael actually finished third in the seat count and the first preference popular vote total-either "old party" will insist that more austerity measures need to be passed and that SF has no choice but to join them in pushing those measures through.   If SF agrees to do so, it's support is guaranteed to crash in the next election; this is what happened to the Irish Labour Party after the 2011 election.  Labour finished second in that election, with 37 seats and 19.4% of the first preference vote-the exact same number of seats SF took this year, though a much lower popular vote share- and could easily have chosen to sit as the official opposition and lead the fight against austerity, letting .  But Irish Labour's leader, Eamonn Gilmore, was a Blairite, and chose to join a Fine Gael-led coalition with implemented savage cuts in Ireland's already badly underfunded social welfare state.   At the 2016 election, Labour fell to seven seats and 6.6% of the vote, and both SF and various independent left parties started gaining.  This year, they fell to six seats and 4.4% of the vote, and I'd say it's an open question as to whether Irish Labour will survive the next election at all.



 The liberation project of the Irish people has had to be nationalist, has had to be run on the basis of organizing one part of the Irish population-the Irish Catholic community, though with some notable Protestant figures involved, such as Emmet and Wolfe Tone in the 1798 revolt and Charles Steward Parnell in the 1870s-because the pro-British community, having been convinced through British propaganda that the Catholic majority on the island would never allow them to survive in peace and freedom if Ireland became independent, refused to ever make common ground with the majority community, and refused, until the Good Friday Peace Accords of the 1990s, to even acknowledge that the pro-Irish community, either before or after partition, had any legitimate grievances against the status quo.

To understand why Sinn Fein ended up being a sectarian Catholic party despite many of the leaders of the Irish independence movement and the early days of Sinn Fein being Protestant, one only has to look at the quotes of Ian Paisley's, the founder and leader of Northern Ireland's by far largest Protestant unionist party, quotes. He followed a tradition of such vile rhetoric that has gone on since the rebellion of 1798 when the English faced the United Irishmen rebellion of Catholics and Protestants. After the rebellion, the English have enabled and encouraged, until recently, the most rabid vitriol to split Catholics and Protestants, with Paisley only being one of the latest in a long list. As elsewhere in their empire, the English used the strategy of divide and conquer. After the Good Friday Agreement, he did work with Sinn Fein in government, but his decades of hate-filled speech and the centuries of it from other Protestants, still leave a toxic legacy today. 

When St. John Paul II visited the European Parliament in 1988 (the Pope who brought down communism in alliance with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), Paisley heckled him saying,

I denounce you, Anti-Christ! I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine.

When Pope John XXIII died, he said,

This Romish man of sin is now in hell!

When the Queen Mother of England visited the Vatican, he said it “was spiritual fornication and adultery with the Antichrist.”

He said about the Church,

Seed of the serpent … Her clothes reek of the brimstone of the pit. Her words and opinions label her the parrot of Beelzebub, her father.

He was paranoid.  He called the European Union “A beast ridden by the harlot Catholic Church.”

As the peace process inched ever closer, he said:

This year will be a crisis year for our province. The British government, in cahoots with Dublin, Washington, the Vatican and the IRA, are intent to destroy the province. The so-called talks process is but a front. Behind it the scene is set and the programme in position to demolish the province as the last bastion of Protestantism in Europe.

Despite the fact that the IRA (with its Marxist roots) had no relationship with the Vatican, he imagined a troubling connection:

O Father, we can see the great pan-nationalist conspiracy, with the Pope as its head, sending his secret messages to the IRA.

"They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin" - talking about Catholics at a loyalist rally in 1969.

"Catholic homes caught fire because they were loaded with petrol bombs; Catholic churches were attacked and burned because they were arsenals and priests handed out sub-machine guns to parishioners" - at a loyalist rally in 1968 following attacks on Catholic homes.

"Save Ulster from sodomy!" - his slogan in a 1970s and 80s campaign against legalising homosexuality.

"Never, never, never, never..." - outside Belfast City Hall as he addressed tens of thousands of loyalists protesting against the signing of the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

"I am not going to sit down with bloodthirsty monsters who have been killing and terrifying my people" - opposing demands to sit down and talk with Sinn Féin.

"The scarlet woman of Rome" - his description of Pope John Paul.

"I don't like the president of the Irish Republic because she is dishonest" - his description of the then Irish president Mary McAleese.

"Talk about dancing at Christmas on the graves of Ulster dead, and to be given the facility so to dance by the British prime minister... Here we saw the godfathers of those who planned the bombing of Downing Street, standing outside there and piously pretending they were engaged in a search for peace" - reacting to the Downing Street meeting of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and then prime minister Tony Blair in December 1997.

"I denounce you, Anti-Christ! I refuse you as Christ's enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine" - addressing Pope John Paul II on a visit to the European Parliament October 1988.

"This Romish man of sin is now in hell! - on the death of Pope John XXIII.

"The IRA's bishop from Crossmaglen" - describing the then head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Tomas Ó Fiaich.

"Line dancing is as sinful as any other type of dancing, with its sexual gestures and touching. It is an incitement to lust."

"No surrender. We will never bend the knee" - a regular cry aimed at those he believed were ready to "betray" Northern Ireland.

"Protect us from the shackles of priest-craft" - late 1970s in an attack on the Roman Catholic church.

"The breath of Satan is upon us" - his remark when he entered a Belfast press conference in a smoke-filled, whisky-sodden hall in the mid-1970s.

"Let me smell your breath first, son" - Paisley's regular request to reporters, whom he suspected of drinking, before he would allow them to interview him.

"The devil's buttermilk" - his description of alcoholic drinks, chiefly draught Guinness.

"This is the spark which kindles a fire there could be no putting out" - his criticism of a diversion ordered by the police of a "provocative" Orange Order march.

"Because it would be hard for you to poison them" - when asked why he had chosen boiled eggs for breakfast during a top-level meeting at the Irish embassy in London.

"I will never sit down with Gerry Adams... he'd sit with anyone. He'd sit down with the devil. In fact, Adams does sit down with the devil" - on Adams in February 1997.

"We are not going into government with Sinn Féin" - after the confirmation of IRA's decommissioning of its arms.

"We do not know how many guns, the amount of ammunition and explosives were decommissioned, nor were we told how the decommissioning was carried out. There were no photographs, no detailed inventory, and no detail on the destruction of these arms. To describe today's statement as transparent would be the falsehood of the century" - on IRA decommissioning of weapons, September 2005.


Sean in Ottawa

If you go back to unrest in Belfast at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century you can see that opposition to the British was more economic than religious. It predates the presumption of a total split from Britain and comes in a time of demands for home rule. The political demands of the country have been reduced to religious divides but this was not the case. The romantic stories of the catholics being shut out and then fighting for their freedom are only part of the story. The fact that they were shut out is why they were largely ineffective in being able to defeat the English for a long period. Opposition to English rule of Ireland was financed and fouhgt by many Protestants and by formerly people who had been loayl to the crown. This is why resources started to flow against the govenrment. Once the rebellion began as a hopeless stand, the over-reaction of the English changed public opinion and the rebels used a campaign of retribution for cooperation with the English regime. However, what is often missed in this story are the attempts to divide Catholics and Protestants including operations of murder by British agents in order to turn what was becoming more of a class and economic war that the British could not win into a religious war that could allow them to retain the most economically productive part of the island if they could not hold the entire thing.

This recent movement into one of class rather than religion is hardly a break from the past. It is a return to the roots of the struggle.

Religion in Ireland, arguably, has long been a tool of oppression rather than the cause.

Another point people often forget is that the English and Scottish are known for their colonization of the country. However, the English since Cromwell, have rewarded those who would convert to the their preferred religion with lands and royal favours. Some who made these conversions include families that had been in Ireland for 1000 years and many who came with the Normans in the 11th century. Sure the introduction of the Protestent religion is largely by colonizers but the participants long included the original population. The over-simplification of Protestant colonizers and Catholic indigenous people in Ireland is a disservice to history.

Another myth is the issue of identity. The Protestant parts of the north have a long history of loyalty to the crown (this divides the province of Ulster) but they also have an increasingly Irish identity quite distinct from the English. This includes significant interest in the Irish language among people who are in Protestant Ireland many of whom are descended from people who have been there more than half the time (500 years) that many of the most well known families of Ireland have been there. For example, the Dillons of Ireland only got there in the 1100s, just 400 years before some of the Protestant settlers who have now been there for 600 years.