Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have benefited from some recovery in the polls, but as the confidence and supply arrangement appears to be coming to an end, Brian O’Boyle asks, can the centre hold?
Delivering his budget speech in 2017, the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donoghue, stated that “those of us in the middle ground of politics have a duty to show that…things won’t just fall apart and the centre can hold—and stay firm”. This came after his Fianna Fáil counterpart, Michael McGrath, insisted “the centre must hold”. The common reference is to a Yeats Poem, the Second Coming, written during the turmoil of World War One and the Irish Revolution. Asserting allegiance to the ‘centre’ is a common theme for those seeking to protect the established order, but the Irish elites are anything but moderate.
Donoghue’s call came after a decade of austerity perpetrated by the richest section of Irish society on the poorest. During the crisis years, 650,000 people were pushed into poverty as successive governments took vital resources away from them to bail out bankers. Hospital waiting lists became the longest in Europe and social welfare was decimated thanks to a cumulative cut of over €30 billion. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people were thrown out of jobs or their houses. These were not the actions of ‘enlightened centrists’—but of neoliberal extremists’, hell-bent on protecting the interests of Irish capitalism.
The backdrop to Donoghue’s speech is the long running decline for the mainstream parties as measured by electoral support. As recently as the 1982 General Election, Fianna Fáil (FF), Fine Gael (FG) and the Irish Labour party had a vice like grip on the population, with more than 94% of the popular vote and a similar level of seats in parliament. Yet by 2016, this had plummeted to just 57%, with individual support for the two major parties falling below 50% for the first time in the history of the state. Neither FF nor FG were in a position to form a majority government, creating a shock to the two and a half party system from which they are still recovering. There has also been considerable polarisation of politics internationally, with the traditionally dominant Christian and Social Democratic parties coming under pressure from their left and right. In much of Eastern Europe the far right have made significant gains, but in Ireland it is the radical left that has harnessed working class anger and pulled it in a progressive direction.
The response of the Irish ruling class has been framed around three policy initiatives. Their first step was to form a ‘Confidence and Supply Agreement’ between FF and FG to last for three annual budgets. The primary aim of this arrangement was to stop Sinn Féin from becoming the main opposition party and to halt the rise of the radical left. Their second step was to rely on what was then an emerging economic recovery to reduce the level of class struggle in Irish society. Initially this meant granting concessions to working people on issues like water charges and bin charges, but as the recovery gathers strength, the right has become embolden in pursuing a more reactionary agenda. This is clearly seen in the ratcheting up of attacks on the left and in Leo Varadkar’s recent willingness to use dog-whistle politics to divide working people against each other.
The third element of their strategy is to successfully manage a liberalising population. Since the failure of the first divorce referendum in 1986, the trend has been to the left on social issues. Subsequent referenda have passed on women’s right to travel for abortion, on divorce and on equal marriage for the LGBTQ community. Here Varadkar has proven himself a skilful operator, successfully projecting an image of a leader capable of modernising Irish capitalism. Varadkar’s rise through the ranks of the FG party was built on a stable diet of reactionary conservatism. His initial positions on gay rights and abortion were firmly in line with Catholic teaching, but he has moved left to manage the aspirations of a new generation. Like the rest of his party, Varadkar’s new commitment to liberalism is skin deep, but along with Health Minister, Simon Harris, he has managed to attach the leadership of FG to the Yes side in the Repeal Referendum. Their aim is to get abortion off the political agenda in a way that stops the left from gaining. So far this has had some success at the top of the movement, but found little traction in the grassroots of the campaign.
The Centre Renewed?
These initiatives, taken together, have created a shift of roughly 10% back towards the two main parties in recent polls. This has to be acknowledged. But it is also the case that this recovery of support is built on a series of tensions and contradictions. The first centres on the relative advantages accruing to Fine Gael overtime. As the party in government, FG have managed to pick up the lion’s share of the shift back towards the political centre. FF were willing to sacrifice their immediate political ambitions for an election cycle, but as the traditional party of government in Ireland, their members will not be happy to prop up FG indefinitely. Neither party looks strong enough to form a majority government after the next general election, nor will FF be likely to grant another Confidence and Supply Agreement. This could cause trouble for Irish capitalism in the political realm, but it is the health of the economy that will be the strongest indicator of success for the ‘centre’ over the medium term.
So far the strength of the recovery has been impressive, although there are significant risk factors on the horizon. As a tax haven, Ireland relies on privileged access to European markets at the same time as it undermines the corporation taxes of its fellow EU members. Historically, this strategy relied on support from powerful interests in the City of London that will no longer be available after Brexit. Just ten firms pay nearly 40% of Irish corporation taxes showing just how vulnerable this part of the tax base really is. There are growing calls for a common consolidated corporation tax base (CCCTB) in the EU, which would decisively undermine the development strategy of the Irish establishment. The UK also accounts for 40% of domestic exports, creating the possibility for a major balance of payments crisis post-Brexit. There are also trillions of euros stashed in the shadows of the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) creating a further source of potential instability. More important still is the fact that capitalism remains afflicted by a chronic lack of profitable investment and is not capable of increasing living standards for the vast majority. Depressed living standards is the most likely trajectory for capitalism in the future, further hampering the extreme centre in its attempts to reorganise. Meanwhile, there is every possibility that another recession would disproportionately affect the highly open and unusually financialised Irish economy.
Were any of these things to happen, the political centre would come under renewed and sustained pressure. More immediately, the government risks being tripped up on domestic matters. The recent scandal over cervical cancer misdiagnoses has the real possibility of bringing down the current government. Here in full view is a rotten state institution, the Health Service Executive, which cuts corners in the care of female citizens and attempts to close ranks to protect itself from transparency and accountability. The Irish state has been happy to let women die in the course of protecting itself and as this becomes common knowledge, it risks undermining the carefully laid plans of the neoliberals. Coming in the midst of the scandal in the Gardaí over the Whistleblower Maurice McCabe, there is a real sense of crisis for the institutions of the state.
The left is meanwhile beginning to renew itself in ways that will cause problems for the establishment. The Great Recession (2008) came too soon for a working class tied into social partnership and a Left that was marginalised by decades of high growth and employment. Next time around, revolutionary forces will have a small but significant presence in Irish society and will be better placed to lead future struggles around jobs, conditions and social services. Whether the left is up to this challenge remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the so-called centrists will continue to “loosen their own form of anarchy on the world” in a bid to protect their power and privileges. The role of progressive forces must be to ensure that this neoliberal centre cannot hold.