This month’s General Election was a political earthquake. The cycle of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rule has been broken. Kieran Allen examines the reasons as to why this occurred.
Southern Ireland has experienced a political earthquake. The two main conservative parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, between them received just 43% of the vote. In 2007, just before the Celtic Tiger crash, they got 69%.
Many see them as identical twins who promote the same policies, looking after the rich and privileged. Ever since 1932, Fianna Fáil was the dominant party in Irish politics. It occupied government office for longer than any other party in Europe, bar the Swedish Social Democrats. It received almost an equal number of votes from all social classes—about 40-45%. It had active support bases amongst primary school teachers, taxi drivers, GAA officials and a wider membership of 70,000.
The crash of 2008 broke its grip and people looked to Fine Gael as the quickest way to get rid of them. This party was the spare wheel of Irish politics. In more recent years it sought to re-configure itself as socially liberal but right wing on economics. After Repeal and Varadkar’s ascension to the leadership this looked like a viable strategy. Today, however, it has fallen apart as the party slinks back to its worst record since 1948.
So this is truly a political earthquake. But how did it occur?
Here we need to examine the interplay between economic cycles and political consciousness. One of the features of a slump is that the ruling class gain the upper hand as they can terrify people with the prospect of unemployment or wage cuts. The workers movement hunkers down, goes quiet and moods of cynicism and despair emerge. However, when the recovery occurs, the resentments and bitterness that were stored up seek an explosive outlet. In the classic case of the US after the Wall Street crash of 1929, there was a terrible period of quiet when trade union militants were victimised and their fellow workers stood aside. But by 1936, there was an explosion of anger among those same workers that rocked US labour relations to its foundation.
In Ireland, the focus for anger was not union militancy because of the immense damage done by social partnership. It took a political form and its main beneficiary was Sinn Féin.
The great puzzle is how a party that suffered significant defeats in the Presidential and local election could rise so quickly again. Some attribute this to ‘a learning exercise’ conducted by the party hierarchy after the local elections. However, while some learning may have taken place, it was not the fundamental reason.
Mary Lou McDonald is a very popular figure today. So it is easy to forget that her ascension to leadership coincided with a drift to the right in Sinn Féin. Before her leadership, Sinn Féin had suggested that they would only join a coalition with a right wing party if they—and other left parties—were in a majority. They would not act as junior partners. Mary Lou shifted that position when she stated that she was willing to become a minority partner. To facilitate a move to respectability, Sinn Féin began to adapt to the theme of ‘let’s show understanding of the Unionist tradition’, which is dominant in the Southern establishment. Thus Sinn Féin’s Presidential candidate, Liadh Ní Riada, said she would wear a poppy to commemorate the war dead of the 1914-1918 war. In a bizarre move, Mary Lou apologised for being photographed behind a banner proclaiming ‘England Get out of Ireland’. While much of this was symbolic, at a more substantial level Sinn Féin Councillors began to work more closely with the unelected local authority managers, sometimes even supporting the sale of public land.
If they had gone into this election stressing their willingness to be junior partners with Fianna Fáil, they would not have gained so much. They succeeded, however, because they tapped into a subterranean anger in Irish society.
When there is pent up anger in society, the smallest spark can set it off.
One of those sparks was the bizarre attempt by the Fine Gael Justice Minister to commemorate the RIC and, by extension, the Black and Tans. This had two effects on the wider population. It re-awoke memories as to why the vast majority had supported the war of independence to drive out the RIC and the Black and Tans. But crucially, it also demonstrated how out of touch a small coterie of Fine Gael leaders and the network they inhabited among D4 heads that straddled the Irish Times, RTE and the academic hubs. Suddenly, there was an enormous outburst.
That in turn coincided with a wider awakening of the population to the reality of a partnership of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil that, despite all their self-congratulation about a recovery, had not delivered for most working people. Sinn Féin’s talent was to catch this mood quickly by stumbling left.
People Before Profit were the first to talk about the need to ‘Break the Cycle’ of endless Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael rule but it was Sinn Féin, with a bigger platform, that was heard. Similarly, People Before Profit were the first to point to the French strikes and raise the demand for a restoration of the pension age to 65. But, Sinn Féin, which had agreed to its rise in the North, also took up the theme—and was heard.
None of this is to cavil or begrudge the Sinn Féin victory. It should be celebrated as a significant move to the left in Irish society. Those who voted for Sinn Féin saw it as the enemy of the establishment and gave their second preferences mainly to Solidarity-People Before Profit.
However, while Sinn Féin shifted left during the election, they will still seek to revert to their original strategy—namely to get into coalition with Fianna Fáil, thinking that is the best way to push for a border poll. Thus, after speaking to left parties on a possible minority government, Mary Lou moved quickly to open discussions with Fianna Fáil about coalition. Eoin Ó Broin announced that Sinn Féin cannot govern without the participation of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
However, the political establishment despise Sinn Féin and are worried about the radicalising effect that even talk of a minority left government might have. They think that Sinn Féin have not yet demonstrated sufficient loyalty to the institutions of the Southern state—perhaps typified by the party’s muddled response to the issue of the Special Criminal Court. Significantly, the Irish stock exchange began to wobble even with mere talk of a minority left government. The fear of further radicalisation in the population will probably drive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael together into a grand coalition. But it will be met with huge anger that will explode onto the streets. The period of Southern ‘stability’ is over.