While electoral victory isn’t on the cards it seems likely that left-of-Labour parties and candidates will receive between a quarter and a third of the vote in the Irish general election, held tomorrow.
One thing seems likely: Ireland is heading for a period of political instability. In the vacuum created by the decline of the Irish establishment, new opportunities are emerging for progressive politics.
Irish poet WB Yeats, writing one hundred years ago after the Easter Rising in Dublin, spoke about how it left “all changed, changed utterly.”
Tomorrow’s election will, of course, not be as dramatic as the events of 1916, but the sense Yeats was trying to convey of old political certainties being swept away and replaced with a much more uncertain future is a clear parallel.
The latest polls suggest that Ireland’s political establishment, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour, who together have ruled the state since its inception in the 1920s, will secure around 55 percent of the vote.
This should be enough to ensure that they continue in government in some form. But, seen in historical terms, it is a remarkable drop.
As recently as the 2007 general election these parties commanded almost 80 percent of the vote between them. Indeed, for most of the history of the state Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the rival parties of Irish capitalism, got over 75 percent of the vote. Tomorrow they may fail to reach 50.
This performance for Ireland’s political establishment will be in spite of a much-vaunted economic recovery which, while it had little to do with austerity, has produced GDP growth in excess of 7%.
The untold story of this recovery in the international press is just how isolated it is. Largely limited to export-oriented sectors of the economy like information technology and finance, its success is barely felt by most of the population.
This means that, while Ireland’s 300 wealthiest individuals have doubled their wealth since 2010, half of all people polled before the general election said they felt “no benefit” from the recovery.
The same poll, as well as another conducted by Oxfam, showed increasing concern over inequality — 79% in the former saying Ireland was becoming a “two-tier society” and the same number in the latter believing the gap between “the richest and the rest” in Irish society was widening.
This gap can be seen prominently in the social crises that coincide with the election campaign. Homelessness has reached record levels, one aspect of a more generalised housing crisis that produces sky-rocketing rents for many tenants. A crucial factor underpinning it is a 90% reduction in social housing construction.
Ireland’s hospitals are also in a crisis of record proportions, prompting nursing union the INMO to threaten strike action over deteriorating conditions. According to the union’s figures the number of people on trolleys awaiting treatment in hospitals is up 26% from the same period last year. At one point a record 601 people were in this position in hospitals across Ireland.
But the malaise for Irish workers goes far beyond these crises. A recent OECD report showed Ireland had the second-highest number of low-paying jobs in the developed world, the result of which is a low-wage economy where half earn less than €28,500 per year. 1.3 million people are experiencing deprivation, an increase of 215,000 since the current government came to office. All of this despite the fact that 480,000, more than one in ten people, have emigrated from the state during the years of austerity.
Emerging Left Challenge
Widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, as well as disillusionment with the political system, peaked in late 2014 and early 2015 with the emergence of the Right2Water movement. It became the largest social movement since independence and was led by Ireland’s political and trade union Left. The energy of this movement was brought directly into the electoral campaign with a demonstration of tens of thousands in Dublin on February 20th.
The Left is not as positive as it was a year ago when Fine Gael, now on 30%, had fallen to 19% in some polls. But there is no doubt that factors have combined to create a much larger space for political alternatives, into which Sinn Féin, smaller left-wing parties and a wide-range of independents have emerged.
Sinn Féin is currently polling between 15 and 20%, lower than they would have hoped but still the strongest showing for a left-of-Labour party in Irish history. If this remains the case on election day it is likely Sinn Féin will receive somewhere between 20 and 25 seats, possibly reaching as many as 30. This will be an improvement from 9.9 percent and 14 seats in 2011.
Sinn Féin’s programme is progressive but not without criticisms from the Left. It has pledged to lower the tax burden on the working-class, including the abolition of water charges, and pursue tax justice by increasing taxes on capital and those earning over €100,000. It also pledges a properly-funded, universal and public healthcare system and to invest €2.2billion more in social housing than Fine Gael and Labour.
However, its minimum wage increase is meagre, the party will not to challenge Ireland’s 12.5% corporation tax rate and no clear commitments have been made to reduce the debt burden.
To the left of Sinn Féin, Ireland’s Trotskyists have come together in a new front for the election. Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) is composed of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and International Socialist Tendency (IST) respectively. They are standing on a platform of reversing all austerity cuts, abolishing austerity taxation, significantly increasing taxes on the wealthy and business, and repudiating the debt.
In keeping with its tradition, AAA-PBP sees parliament as a platform rather than a route to power, something that is reflected in the quality of its engagement in electoralism and its difficulty convincing those outside of its base of its viability as an alternative to establishment politics.
Formed after the collapse of a broader United Left Alliance which stood in the 2011 election, it has, however, been polling as high as 5 or 6% nationally. Its performance will be uneven but strong in the working-class communities where its activists have led anti-austerity campaigns. It will likely win five seats on Friday, with as many as eight possible.
The final election polls have independents and other small parties aside from the AAA-PBP on 23% of the vote, the highest share in history. One of these smaller parties, the Social Democrats, is largely composed of former Labour Party supporters and has a similar programme to Labour’s in 2011. It has used this election to argue for a “Nordic social model” but its refusal to rule out supporting Fine Gael and Labour in government, as well as a desire to distance itself from other parts of the Left, has led to scepticism of the party’s progressive bona fides.
Non-party independents, long a feature in Ireland because of its localist electoral system, will be elected in many constituencies this time around. The increase in their vote can be interpreted as a rejection of the political system – but it will go to both left and right in a relatively even split. There are numerous long-time socialist activists standing as independents, including sitting TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins.
In an attempt to produce a common platform among the Left for the election the trade unions who supported the Right2Water campaign – Unite, the CWU, Mandate and OPATSI – founded the Right2Change initiative. This is endorsed by Sinn Féin, People Before Profit (but not the Anti-Austerity Alliance) as well as numerous smaller parties and progressive independents. It commits the participants to policy principles as well as negotiations for a progressive government in the unlikely event that the numbers make it possible.
While electoral victory isn’t on the cards it seems likely that left-of-Labour parties and candidates will receive between a quarter and a third of the vote – a historic tally in a state that has never even elected a social-democratic government.
Unsurprisingly, the Irish mainstream media, which lacks even a modestly progressive outlet, has responded badly to the rise of an anti-establishment Left.
Twice this week the leading newspaper, the Irish Independent, has featured pleas from business leaders not to vote Left. The first, published on the front page on Tuesday, featured a letter warning of the “political instability” of voting for “populist left parties” and what it called “fringe elements”. The second, featuring business confederation IBEC, cautioned against a “lurch” to Sinn Féin and the Left, calling their tax policies “draconian”.
The Irish Independent is part of Independent News and Media, owned by oligarch Denis O’Brien. It has been a key opponent of Sinn Féin since the Troubles in Northern Ireland, adopting a stridently anti-republican position. Its coverage of this election, however, has verged on the ridiculous. It has featured attacks on the party on its front page on a daily basis, including headline stories on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week.
But the bias hasn’t been restricted to the Independent, with prominent political commentator Vincent Browne remarking that “the media, which to a large extent sets the agenda, has done so to the tune of the well-heeled and the corporate studded boots.” Such coverage is in keeping with their “relentless cheerleading for austerity” uncovered in a 2013 study showing almost six-times as many articles in favour as against.
But at times this bias has over-extended, leaving media outlets embarrassed. In one such incident the national broadcaster, RTÉ, ran bulletins throughout the day featuring footage of prominent Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald being accosted in Dublin by someone who described himself as “a small businessman” and “concerned citizen”. It later transpired that the man, who accused Sinn Féin of wanting to “tax people out of existence”, was an investment banker in a firm than manages an asset portfolio of billions and which itself had been embroiled in tax evasion scandals in the United States and Germany.
While it is possible that the extent of the pro-austerity coverage produces a backlash, other lines of attack, particularly on Sinn Féin, have proven more effective. Its recent drop in the polls came after its political rivals and the media pursued a strategy of discrediting the party by focusing on its IRA past.
Attacks on this line – such as those over the abolition of the Special Criminal Court and the party’s defence of convicted tax evader and former IRA volunteer Slab Murphy – do more damage than those targeting its economic policies, which are often more popular than the government’s.
AAA-PBP and the rest of the Left have been a relatively minor part of the campaign, lacking a vehicle of sufficient size or coherence to impact the debate at a national level. Where they have been afforded a platform, however, they have performed well, with TD Richard Boyd-Barrett’s interventions on national television during the leaders’ debate a particular highlight.
The campaign has revolved around stability and recovery, the themes established by Fine Gael in 2015. This fact partially explains their lead in the polls. But even on home territory Fine Gael has struggled. Taoiseach Enda Kenny this week described those critical of the recovery’s failings as “whingers” in a widely-criticised error.
Fine Gael’s coalition partners Labour have been hapless for some time and face a collapse of their vote, predicted to fall more than half from its 2011 level.
Instability and Polarisation
While the most likely outcome of Friday’s election is a government led by Fine Gael, the polls don’t make comfortable reading for Enda Kenny. His government, which was elected with the largest parliamentary majority in Irish history, could be forced to govern in a minority after Friday’s election, at least ten seats short of the 79 needed.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin could, in theory, win enough seats to govern, but all indications are that the establishment parties will reject Sinn Féin as a partner, not wanting to make concessions to left-wing policies or open up the question of national reunification.
With Fine Gael and Labour unlikely to reach a majority, the odds favour protracted negotiations with independents or smaller parties in the weeks to come.
But should these negotiations fail, or should Fine Gael fail to win enough seats to make them viable, the most likely alternative for a government would be a historic rapprochement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
These parties emerged from the Irish civil war as rivals and ruled in turns for decades. Despite their similar centre-right policies they have never shared power. Recently the historical animosity between their constituencies has lessened, but it has been replaced with a new reason to remain apart – the fear that coalition would “hand the country to Sinn Féin”.
If they were to coalesce, something long proposed by the Irish Left, new opportunities would emerge for progressive politics. Recognising this, the coalition would almost certainly be fractious, with both parties keen to prevent a path towards amalgamation.
All of this suggests Ireland is heading for a period of political instability.
In this context the polarisation of the country, between establishment and anti-establishment, those who benefit from the recovery and those who don’t, is likely to deepen.
The question for the Left after Friday is whether it can win a social majority for fundamental change. To date, despite its progress, it has come up short.