Kieran Allen analyses the results of the Irish local and European elections.
The most important aspect of the recent elections in the South has barely been touched upon by the mainstream media. Namely that the two most conservative parties in Irish society have the support of just half of the electorate.
Before the Celtic Tiger crash, Ireland had a stable, right wing political structure. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil took two thirds of the votes and were able to set up a ‘two and a half party system’. This meant that the right wing could control BOTH the government and the opposition, playing a version of Tweedledum and Tweedlee. All they needed was for the Labour Party to play turns with propping up one or the other in government, by adapting to their policies.
The massive economic crash of 2008 shattered that system, forcing Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil into a partnership arrangement. Fianna Fáil tilted a little to the left in rhetoric and Fine Gael tilted a little more to the right – but they remained in fundamental agreement.
The most recent election shows that despite the signs of economic recovery, the two and a half party system is not fixed. Between them, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil got only 52% of the local election vote and 46% of the European vote. They – and their friends in the mainstream media – point to the big decline of Sinn Féin and, to a lesser extent, the radical left. But the temporary solution of a FG-FF partnership has not been overcome. They are stuck with each other, opening the prospect for a radical opposition to their rule within the Dáil
This is not to say that the backroom strategists who run the two big parties do not spot an opportunity. Even if Labour remains too weak to prop them up, they are hoping that some combination of the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour can be put together to form a stable right wing led government. You can almost hear the sigh of relief in the leafy suburbs of Dublin 4 that they will not have to tolerate the presence of Sinn Féin in government. Fine Gael strategists are not sure they can pull off a government based on a three legged stool – which is why they are both tempted and frightened to call an early election.
They face a huge problem, illustrated most aptly by a crude maneuver that occurred days after the election. Despite all the talk of a’ Green Wave’, Fine Gael and Seán Ó Fearghaíl, the Fianna Fáil Dáil Ceann Comhairle, cobbled together an obscure parliamentary procedure known as a ’money message;’ to kill off a People Before Profit bill that would have prevented the issuing of any more exploration licenses for oil or gas. After such a maneuver it should be obvious to any genuine environmentalist that there is no point joining government to greenwash Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.
The question remains, however, why did Sinn Féin and the radical left not make gains? Three main factors are involved.
First, there is a growing awareness among the young that we have only twelve years to stop the destruction of our planet. The more the situation becomes alarming, the more people want immediate practical solutions. The most obvious place to go, appeared to be the Green Party. Few read the very modest measures they proposed in their election manifesto. Many were at school when the Greens were last in government – cutting the Dublin bus fleet or issuing oil exploration licences. But taking all this into account, it was still a positive shift, indicating that the climate will become a central issue in Irish politics.
Second, the manual working class stayed at home in many cases. There is currently a depoliticised mood for a variety of complex reasons. No social movement was able to galvanise their energy like the water charges movements. The housing campaign grew but then appeared to falter before the election. Many workers feel they tried out different left options – and then drawn the conclusion that little has been delivered.
The case of Sinn Féin illustrates this dramatically. Up to recently, they were set to become the main party in many manual working class districts. However, beneath the surface important changes were taking place in the republican movement. While the election of Mary Lou McDonald to the leadership appeared to signal a stronger stance on abortion and women’s rights, few noticed that it also coincided with a more right wing drift in the ‘new Sinn Féin.’ One sign was a willingness to join with a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil government as minority partners in a coalition government. At a local level, the party sought to replace Fianna Fáil by perfecting the art of clientelism. In simple terms, this means telling constituents that they got them a house or funding for a local football club. Sinn Féin councillors thought the best way to do this was to cosy up to the unelected city managements and not challenge them. In Dublin City Council, for example, this meant letting a city management away with building just five standard council houses – or even going along with plans to sell off public land to private developers provided there was 30% social or affordable housing.
The plain reality, however, is that no matter how many individual cases Sinn Féin were able to help – the overall neoliberal policies of the city managers showed working class people that nothing had changed.
Unfortunately, the radical left was not strong enough to turn back this mood of demoralisation and fatalism that has grown.
Third, Irish capitalism is currently booming. Clearly, this is accompanied by a housing crisis and the benefits are not shared equally. The boom, however, has tempered the anger of working people and led to a greater search for individual solutions to the appalling lack of public services. This in turn interacts with deeper conservative strains in Irish society. The plain reality is that parties like Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael do not easily disappear overnight because they can draw on resources, networks and a culture of deference.
Breaking this will require the active mobilisation of working class people so that they begin to see their own strength. That requires a political perspective that goes way beyond reducing political activity to electoral cycles.