A Space Opening for the Left

General Election 2016 began with a sustained press campaign suggesting that Enda Kenny was a sure thing to be returned as Taoiseach. The FG-Labour government choreographed to the last detail a series of sweetners designed to push up their poll ratings. Their media friends joined in chorus to predict their return. Politics was presented as a spectator sport where punters could identify the favourite to win.

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A Space Opening for the Left

Kieran Allen, People Before Profit Director Elections, offers his overview of the 2016 General Election campaign

The political establishment, however, did not reckon on the surge of anger that has swept Irish society. Pensioners felt insulted by their €3 rise. Hospital patients and their families were horrified by the daily sight of over 500 people on trolleys. Many were scandalised by homeless crisis. There a rage out there that those who lived in a Dail bubble missed.

Under pressure of an election, Fine Gael let their masks slip. In reply to a question about the health crisis, Varadkar said, ‘when they have more beds and more resources, that’s what kind of slows it down. Because they (the hospital staff) don’t feel as much under pressure.’  With a philosophy like that, it was no wonder that he kept 1,800 acute hospital beds closed.

Matters got even worse for the coalition in the first week of the campaign. They tried to make a shift from their politics of permanent austerity by a series of promises. But when they were asked how to pay for these, their only answer was the ‘fiscal space’.

Fiscal fantasy

The term had originated in some obscure article by OECD research and ratings agencies such as Standards and Poors. In the dying months of the FG-Labour government, the mandarins in the Department of Finance began to use the term. It referred to the expected revenue that the state would have after paying off its annual €8 billion for the Irish national debt. The expectation was based on an assumption of continual growth.

Three problems quickly emerged.

First, the political agree could not agree on how much fiscal space they had. Was it €12 billion as Varadkar suggested or €8 billion which Noonan claimed? Or even  €3.5 billion as the neoliberals who run the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council thought? And if the whole thing was ‘manana money’, who cared anyway.

Second, news of stock market turbulence and the decline of the Chinese economy signalled that another global recession was not far away. Assumptions about year on year steady growth in the most globalised economy began to sound particularly stupid.

Third, the population had grown cynical of politicians making promises before an election- and breaking them afterwards. The famous words of Pat Rabbitte about ‘isn’t that the kind of thing you do’  was ringing about. Many knew that it was a case of ‘fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me.’

Thrown onto the back foot, Fine Gael retreated to their age old standard message of being  the party of law and order. As in everything else, Labour who had once opposed the Special Criminal Court on civil libertarian grounds, joined in the desperate chorus.

The missing debate

Throughout the whole election campaign, there was however one major item that was marginalised by the mainstream media: how the wealth could be shared.

There has been a recovery – but the main winners have been the super rich. You can see that easily in the way Denis O Brien’s wealth has grown from €2 billion to €9 billion. Or in the manner in which builders like Joe O Reilly or Bernard McNamara who owed billions of debt are rising again.

Recovery for tSW Its all her faulthe majority has meant a modest increase in jobs, at much lower rates of pay. According to the OECD, 23 percent of the workforce are now officially on low pay – as against 19% before the crash. Beyond all that there has been a major increase in youth emigration.

Yet despite this gross inequality, only the genuine left in AAA-PBP focused on a distribution of wealth. They called openly for increases in the corporation tax take, a Robin Hood tax on financial speculation and a wealth tax. These were relatively modest measures designed to take the tax burden off workers who had paid the cost of the crash.

Sinn Fein, by contrast, side-stepped  the issue of  making the rich pay. Their manifesto represented a rhetorical step backwards from previous ones. They did not call for a tax on financial speculation; they made no commitment to increase taxes from the corporations; they only proposed ‘ to examine’ the introduction of a Wealth tax. Instead of calling for public ownership of the natural resources which were handed over to Shell, Sinn Fein  backed an Oireachtas report which stated that ‘existing agreements should be adhered to.’

Sinn Fein proposals for alleviating austerity were also, ironically, based predominantly on €8 billion of ‘fiscal space’. The failure to attack the rich meant that they called for the retention of the USC tax for those earning between €19,000 and €70,000 –something which the AAA-PBP vigorously opposed.

All of this meant that the issue of re-distribution of wealth did not feature as much as it should have done.

Behind the din of the election, important shifts were taking place in the Irish political landscape.  Fine Gael, which received a huge boost in 2011, has begun to decline except amongst the more priviliged voters. Labour is in deep trouble. Despite a sustained media offensive, Sinn Fein is growing in support. But space for a more genuine radical left is also growing and the battle to shape the resistance to the next pro-austerity government will also start in earnest.


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