The usual justifications for coalition with right wing governments are being aired once again in Ireland, but as Barney Doherty argues, those on the left must learn the lessons of the disastrous history of such alliances.
“They trust us to lead on the kind of issues we stand for. They do want us to try and go into government and make it work,” this is the response Green Party leader Eamon Ryan gave at their party conference to a motion blocking coalition with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Ryan’s comments—like those from Labour before their last government coalition or the Social Democrats at their latest think in, or even recent statements from Sinn Féin’s leadership—justify coalition with right-wing parties on the grounds of pragmatism.
The unquestioned ‘truth’, they say, is that being pragmatic, and willing to compromise with the establishment is the only serious avenue for those seeking to make political changes. Anyone who suggests otherwise is written off by these ‘realists’ as impractical adherents of protest politics.
This debate re-emerges every election. Past examples of coalition are disregarded as mistakes and any discussion from the left on the lessons of these experiences are presented as merely political point scoring. Then the important and often genuinely urgent political issues of the day are used to demand that ‘something must be done’ and that the only thing to do is be willing to enter talks with the bigger parties.
A cursory look at the history of coalitions in the Dáil, however, should raise serious questions for anyone interested in building a strong left opposition to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, or those eager to win genuine action on pressing political or social issues. A frustrating trend is observed any time it appears that a party could break the post-civil war political stalemate: a left of centre party gains support on the back of working class frustration, at the usually Fianna Fail dominated parliament. That party, usually Labour, then squander this newfound support, by eagerly entering a coalition government with the more right-wing Fine Gael.
The result, then, isn’t surprising. The gains for the left are lost after the coalition fails to meet any of the aspirations of workers. Fianna Fail is returned to power and the conservative civil war politics lumbers on.
The two most recent examples of coalition government offer more important examples of the limitations of this strategy. They are the 2007 Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition and the 2011 Fine Gael/Labour coalition. What did the junior partners achieve during their time in office? Did they, as Eamon Ryan suggested, take the lead on the kind of issues they stand for?
Well if the election results following their stint in office is anything to go by, any trust the minority partners claimed was annihilated by the end of their term. In 2011 the Greens lost every one of their 6 TDs and in 2016 Labour were decimated going from 37 to 7 TDs.
While the Greens were not in power for long enough to warrant blame for the policies that led to the 2008 housing bubble and global recession, their coalition partners certainly were. That said, the Fianna Fail/Green Party government did oversee the immediate response to the crash, and in that there is more than enough blame to go around.
As bankers and developers were bailed out by the government, Fianna Fail and their Green Party partners unloaded the responsibility in fixing the situation onto the back of ordinary people. Years of brutal austerity and open class warfare began with that coalition.
That government coalition’s environmental record is similarly atrocious, despite the presence of Green Party TD’s and Ministers. During their term, the state continued its repression of the Shell to Sea campaign in Corrib. In 2008 two Irish Navy ships were sent to Mayo to help the Gardaí deal with the protesters.
In fact, while the Green’s John Gormley was Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and Eamon Ryan was Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the number of licenses for oil and gas exploration rose.
In 2011 a beaten population were finally able to hit back and in the election wiped out the Greens and reduced Fianna Fail from 78 to 20 seats. The Labour Party on a platform of ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’, a radical rhetorical challenge to the EU/IMF’s austerity bailout, doubled its vote and became the second largest party in the state—the party’s best ever electoral result.
The Labour Party surge was the outworking of working class desperation in communities, demanding an end to the austerity years and placing its hope in the party who historically played the half in Ireland’s ‘two-and-a-half party system’.
How, then, did Labour respond? It immediately got to work on wasting this historic vote by forming a coalition with Fine Gael, refusing to challenge or criticise the EU-IMF deal, and deepen austerity. Labour’s actions led to child benefit cuts, disability allowance and care grant cuts, fuel allowance cuts, school allowance cuts, job seeker benefit cuts, maternity benefit cuts, and an increase in retirement age to name but a few. Family homelessness skyrocketed, inequality widened, and Labour leader Joan Burton cut ribbons to open foodbanks.
Rejection on the streets
‘Frankfurt’s way’ had nothing to fear from a Labour Party in coalition, and indeed both were resisted on the streets. Mass protests eventually erupted in 2014 against the introduction of unjust water charges. Labour’s ‘practical politics’, far from stopping the water charges, had the effect of turning the party into the most stringent supporters of the charges, forcing them into a direct conflict with its own base.
It is difficult to imagine Labour recovering from this betrayal. The party lost its vote in its heartlands, and were wiped out of most working-class areas. Accounts of their campaign in the 2016 election detail the genuine anger still felt towards the organisation.
The actions of these coalition partners were clearly huge treacheries of the party’s respective bases. Though the point of this article isn’t simply to trudge up past betrayals but to argue that these betrayals are inevitable in coalition governments with a right wing majority, and that the strategy stems from a serious political mistake.
And despite all of the lessons which could have been learned, especially those in recent memory, centre left politicians and liberal media pundits continue to present coalitions with the establishment as the only sensible and pragmatic option for bringing about change.
As well as ignoring those recent experiences, this also ignores the very nature of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Fine Gael continue to undemocratically block People Before Profit’s Climate Emergency Measures Bill, and many others, which would ban any further oil and gas exploration and drilling in Irish waters. They continue to support the development of the Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal in Shannon, which will bring in fracked gas from North America and lock us into using fossil fuels for a generation.
They support the EU-Mercosur deal, which will encourage the Far-Right president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, to destroy the remainder of the Amazon rainforest—a major carbon sink whose effectiveness has already been severely diminished.
All of this is in addition to presiding over the worst housing and homelessness crisis in the history of the state, increasing inequality and precarious work conditions, the racist Direct Provision system, and the near collapse of the health service.
Fianna Fail, meanwhile, continue to back up the minority Fine Gael government, apparently unconcerned with its many scandals, and shirking opportunities to put their government’s record to the people in an election. How could it be pragmatic to rely on these forces for the kind of progressive and radical change that will be necessary to overcome any of the myriad crises we face?
The socialist solution
What would be pragmatic, rather, in seeking to end these crises, would be to refuse to compromise with the right, and focus on building strength where change can truly emerge to challenge the status quo: from below.
After the 2016 elections, a sentiment emerged from disgruntled Labour supporters who argued that without Labour in government, the pro-choice movement was dead in the water. Two years later the historic Repeal the 8th Referendum was won, why?
Because across communities, workplaces, campuses and town centres, ordinary people began to organise. Whether it has been the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Suffragette Movement, the Trade Union struggles for a minimum wage and the 8-hour day, or the recent campaigns like Right2Water and Repeal, history shows us that when ordinary people get organised and active through strikes, protests and direct actions, we have the best chance of winning.
Any serious and pragmatic left then should not look towards the hostile right-wing forces in Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to tackle the Climate Emergency, they should turn to movements like Extinction Rebellion and the school student strikers in Ireland and around the world,and provide them the political support and platform which could dramatically elevate the campaigns.
This, the socialist strategy of building the grass roots movements which can challenge the status quo rather than capitulating to it, is the most pragmatic because it recognises not only where the power to change exists in society, but importantly that there are fundamental divides within society. These divides make finding common cause with the establishment and who they represent impossible because our interests are fundamentally conflicted.
In essence, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael cannot be relied on to implement necessary changes through parliament because they represent the section of society who are fundamentally hostile to those changes.
When the interests of workers are counter to the heads of industry, when environmentalists and the future of the planet come up against the interests of the fossil fuel industry, or when there is a choice between building homes and ensuring the profits of developers, the establishment parties know their side, and have stood demonstratively by their side throughout history.
Members of the Green Party, the Irish Labour Party and Sinn Féin who argue for coalition with these parties have not drawn this political conclusion. To them, politics is not a reflection of irreconcilable differences and interests in society. Rather, they see politics as the art of compromise and consensus building in a society with a vague shared national interest. Therefore, while they may have a different elementary emphasis than Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, coalition is seen as a sensible avenue to finding consensus.
The fact that it is never the establishment or the elite who have to compromise in these coalitions does not seem to faze the ‘realists’. James Connolly’s famous retort to the demand for moderation on the part of the left was to declare that our demands are moderate, that “we only want the earth”. This is all the more timely and pressing today, as climate catastrophe approaches.
The parties of the right understand the reality of conflict in politics. Their class consciousness goes some way to explaining their perceived stability. As centre left forces refuse to acknowledge the same conflict at the core of our society between the masses and elite, and by extension their respective parties, the frustrating trend of coalitions will roll on.
Those serious about breaking from this repetitive cycle of dead-ends and challenging the many important issues facing society today should leave pragmatism aside, join forces to focus on building power for change from below and demand the moderate: our earth.