The general election has thrown the political establishment into a panic. Despite a highly orchestrated propaganda campaign about Ireland’s success story, the people delivered a massive blow to the pro-austerity agenda.
The FG-Labour government was heavily defeated. Fine Gael returned to the voting levels they won before the 2011 election. The Labour Party has been reduced to virtually the same size as the AAA-PBP group. The right wing Renua party, which was assiduously promoted by the media, has collapsed.
Some have claimed that the main feature of the election has been the resurgence of Fianna Fail. However this is to ignore the larger picture. The general trajectory is the decline of the two main civil war parties and a sharpened contest between them for who will represent the interests of the elite.
Fianna Fail increased their votes by 6.9% but this was from an extremely low base. The party has come nowhere near to the domination that it exercised on the Irish political landscape for decades. Talk of Fianna Fail being part of the Irish DNA is plain silly.
The modest growth in Fianna Fail support arose from a number of factors. First, they gained primarily in the rural areas where more traditional views are dominant. Second, they adopted a fake left rhetoric and attached FG-Labour from the vantage point of ‘fairness’. In some constituencies they even mimicked the left by producing posters ‘Abolish the Water Charges- Vote Fianna Fail’.
Third, the election was characterized by a high degree of uncertainty as approximately 20% of voters made their mind up on the day before the election. Michael Martin did far better in the election debates. But he also gained a hearing from those sections of workers who desperately wanted change but who had not yet the confidence to support either Sinn Fein or the radical left. This lack of confidence arose the fact that there was a pause in the anti-water charges campaign and workers have not yet entered major battles with their unions.
One of the key features of the election was the under-performance of Sinn Fein in terms of the poll figures Throughout the course of the year Sinn Fein appeared to be getting 20% and over in the opinion polls and there was some talk of them replacing Fianna Fail. When it came to the votes, however, Sinn Fein scored 13.8% of the vote – a very modest increase of 3.9%.
One reason for the gap was the ferocious campaign mounted by the political elite and the media to attack the party. The judgment issued against Thomas Murphy for tax evasion timed for the day of the election itself was an example of the approach. However the media attacks alone do not account for the gap.
During the election campaign, Sinn Fein positioned themselves as a responsible party of government with Keynesian style policies. They did not advocate a wealth tax; they refused to endorse the idea of a Robin Hood tax on financial speculation; they did not demand a bigger tax take from corporations. Instead, they accepted the parameters invented by the Department of Finance about a ‘fiscal space’ being available which allowed for some relief from austerity without attacking the rich.
This concept rested on an assumption of continual economic growth and took no account of the instability in the world economy. It was used as a mechanism by the establishment to make election promises. Sinn Fein’s embrace of the concept signaled a shift away from a fundamental re-distribution of wealth.
Despite an attempt to present themselves as a ‘party of government’, Sinn Fein is identified in the minds of many workers as a party that is effectively controlled by the old army comrades of the IRA. Many do not consider this an appropriate vehicle for left wing policies in the 21st century and this gave the political elite a space to attack Adams in particular.
The advance of the radical left was evident in this election. AAA-PBP gained six seats. While this is modest, it needs to be set in the context of a new challenge emerging from the softer left Social Democrats and a sustained media attempt to present the radical left as simply the support chorus for Sinn Fein.
The growth of AAA-PBP is also accompanied by a welcome increase in the number of genuine left independents like Catherine Connolly, Seamus Healy and Thomas Pringle who often saw off a challenge from Sinn Finn to win their positions. These will be joined by other genuine left independents like Clare Daly and Joan Collins and as a result there will be a strong left voice that is distinct from Sinn Fein in the coming Dail.
Overall, the decision of both the AAA and PBP to come together as a joint entity for this election was a key initiative. It meant that the radical left had a national presence in the election. Both organizations were able to more effectively promote an argument about taxing the rich and repealing the 8th amendment.
In the coming months, People Before Profit will target the political establishment as our main enemy. We will advocate a boycott of water charges and will be demanding that the ninety or so deputies who promised to abolish water charges stick to their pledges. We will work with others in Right2Change to propose the abolition of water charges.
But People Before Profit will not be pressurized by union leaders to act as a support chorus for Sinn Fein. We shall instead seek greater unity to create a stronger left beyond Sinn Fein. We shall also be urging unions to move into real opposition to the ‘Fresh Start’ austerity programme in the North –which Sinn Fein actively supports.
A new chapter has opened in Irish politics. The political caste which dominated the country for decades has been forced into doing a macabre dance to see who will be the dominant partner in an informal alliance. And the radical left has finally arrived as a small but important factor in helping to shape events.