In the second part of Irish election analysis, John Molyneux looks at the election results North and South, where results for the radical left were very different.
In the Local Elections in the North on May 2, People Before Profit made a major breakthrough by increasing its representation from 1 councillor to 5. In the Local Elections in the South on May 24, People Before Profit experienced more of a setback, with seat totals dropping from 10 to 7 seats. Across the 32 counties, we increased from 11 seats before both election to 12 overall.
Viewed from above, as the mainstream media see things, the main story in the North is that the May 2 election shows a certain, limited erosion of the ‘hard border’ between unionism and nationalism, of the orange/green binary. The Alliance Party increased its seats from 32 in 2014 to 53 and its vote from 41,769 to 77,742; some of this may be due to ‘remain’ unionists voting Alliance and some of it to frustration at the non-functioning of Stormont. The Greens increased their seats from 4 to 8 and their vote from 5,515 to 14,284. Doubtless this is part of the international green tide as a result of increasing awareness of the climate change crisis.
People Before Profit Breakthrough
Viewed from below, from the stand point of the left, however, it is the expansion of People Before Profit that was really noticable. What made it so surprising, including to this writer, was that it came after Eamonn McCann’s MLA seat was lost in the election of January 2017, when every constituency had its number of seats reduced from 6 to 5, and in the teeth of a major propaganda campaign by Sinn Féin blaming PBP for the possibility of a hard border, which was clearly an attempt to wipe out, in terms of political representation, their rivals to their left. In those circumstances, for PBP to go from 1 council seat to 5 and to increase its total vote from 1,923 in 2014 to 9,478 in 2019 is a brilliant achievement. It shows that in the North, a non- sectarian space to the left of Sinn Féin continues to exist and that People Before Profit is more and more filling it.
And when you drill down into the detail of the results they get, if anything, even more impressive. For example in the Black Mountain ward in West Belfast, PBP Councillor Matt Collins came top of the poll, ahead of six Sinn Féin candidates, with 2,268 votes and 16.14% of first preferences. Of course this doesn’t mean PBP is bigger than SF in that area – SF won the next six seats and their combined vote far exceeds that of PBP – but it is still a stunning result. The result in the nearby Collin ward where Michael Collins polled 1,565 , 12.93% of first preferences, and was elected in second place is almost as good. On the face of it, Fiona Ferguson’s vote of 447 in Old Park in North Belfast might look less successful, but she was operating in much more difficult territory, with a stronger sectarian divide, and the fact that she was able to win on the basis of transfers – ahead of the second DUP, the Alliance and the Greens – was tremendous. And in this context it is important to mention the result of first time candidate, Cailín McCaffery, running in the Court ward. Court contains both the Shankill Road and the Falls Road and is a majority unionist area. The poll was topped by 4 Unionists – 3 DUP and 1 PUP – followed by 2 Sinn Féin. Cailín McCaffery was not elected, she came seventh in a six seater, but polled 686 first preferences, rising to 1010 after transfers – a superb result.
Belfast was matched by Derry .The richly deserved election of Eamonn McCann in The Moor was perhaps to be expected, given Eamonn’s long record and high profile, but the addition of relative newcomer Shaun Harkin, in Foyleside, in third place with 977 votes was a tremendous bonus. And as in Belfast some of the near misses were as impressive as the victories. Nually Crilly, in Ballyarnett, was a first time candidate with very few resources, but she polled 826 first preferences and came in seventh in a six seater ahead of two Shinners and the Alliance, and Maeve O’Neill in the Waterside, also a first timer with few resources, polled an excellent 752. In Derry and Strabane overall, PBP won 3590 first preferences.
How were these tremendous results achieved? Anyone who has watched our comrades in the North in recent years will know that part of the answer is prodigious amounts of work; not just hard work in the election itself but consistent work over years in which they support and engage with campaigns on the ground in the local community. But work alone, without political strategy, is not enough and PBP had a clear strategy across the six counties of focusing relentlessly on the issue of welfare reform and Universal Credit, as a symbol of rising poverty and inequality in general, which put the big parties who voted the measures through Stormont on the back foot. Importantly, this was combined with being consistent in campaigning over racism, sexism, abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights.
Southern difficulties for the Left
Obviously the story in the South was different. The local elections were a difficult day for all of the radical left and for Sinn Féin who, it is important to remember, are generally seen as part of the left. Unfortunately People Before Profit lost four excellent sitting councillors (Dave O’Keeffe, Andrew Keegan, Emma Hendrick and Tony Walsh) who had served their communities well. With the brilliant breakthrough victory of tireless campaigner Adrienne Wallace in Carlow, this left our total at seven. This was part of a wider pattern in which Sinn Féin lost about half of their council seats and saw their overall vote in the South fall by 6.4% to 9.5%, while they also suffered a heavy blow through the loss of Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada in the EU elections. Smaller left parties such as Solidarity and the Workers Party were also hit hard. Solidarity are reduced to four council seats and the Workers Party who lost their key figure of Éilis Ryan in the North Inner City are down to one.
GDP up, turnout down
What explains this pattern? First that Irish capitalism has, in relative terms, been doing pretty well, with GDP growth rates of 5.1% (2016), 7.3%(2017) and 4.4% (2018) and unemployment falling from 8.4% in 2016 to 4.6% in April 2019. With all the caveats about the housing and homelessness crisis, rising inequality and substantial layers of desperate poverty, this means that the Irish ruling class and its representatives in government have not felt the need, in the last few years, to mount the kind of generalised assault on working class living standards that characterised the austerity years and which produced, especially among manual or blue collar working class, both the large scale resistance of the water charges movement and the seething resentment which manifested in the rise of Sinn Féin and, to a lesser extent, of the socialist far left.
This in turn resulted in a low turnout in the manual working class areas. This was compounded by the widespread feeling that there was ‘no point’ in bothering to vote in local elections. At the root of this is the erosion of the power of elected councillors and its concentration in the hands of Council managers or CEOs as they are now called. As a consequence it appears to a layer of working class people that ‘they are all the same’. In the North Inner City of Dublin turn out in the locals was only 35.3%; in Blanchardstown- Mulhuddart it was 30.3%; in Ballymun- Finglas it was 37.7%; in Ballyfermot –Drimnagh it was 36.4%; and in particularly impoverished areas within these manual working class constituencies such as Cherry Orchard in Ballyfermot or Fettercairn in Tallaght it was lower still. This contrasts with a turnout of 50.3% in Dundrum, 47% in Dun Laoghaire, 48.6% in Blackrock and 49.3% in Clontarf. It is very important for socialists to understand that this low turnout at the poorer end of the working class is not fixed and immutable. When there was a clear choice which they could see affected their daily lives such as the Repeal Referendum and before that the Marriage Equality Referendum these same people turn out in their droves. But in this election they did not and this disproportionately affected those parties whose voting base was, to a considerable extent, in this layer, ie. Sinn Fein and the socialist left. Interestingly in this election there was generally a much higher turnout in the usually more conservative rural areas than in Dublin, eg. 53% in Bandon-Kinsale, 58.9 % in Bantry-West Cork, 51% in Buncrana, 62% in Donegal and so on.
Another factor was the Green surge produced by the very welcome change in public consciousness about climate change and most likely particularly influenced by the excellent school strikes (with school students influencing their parents to vote for the Greens)in the run up to, and on the day of, the election. This varied across the country but was especially strong in parts of Dublin with the Greens effortlessly topping the poll in Pembroke (where Hazel Chu polled 4069 first preferences!), South East Inner City, South West Inner City, North Inner City, Kimmage-Rathmines, and in much of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown such as Dun Laoghaire, Blackrock and Dundrum.
Much of the Green Party vote clearly came from Fine Gael (a step in the right direction ) but some of it probably came from the left or captured the allegiance of leftward moving young people, particularly among white collar workers (teachers, nurses, office workers etc) who might otherwise have voted for the left. One effect of this is that in some places they were able to leap frog over well established socialist or left candidates. For example without the Green surge it is almost certain that PBP’s Cllr Tina MacVeigh would have topped the poll in the South West Inner City and very possible that PBP’s Lola Hynes would have been elected in Blackrock. Similarly in the Dublin Euro election, without the massive vote for Ciaran Cuffe, Sinn Fein’s Lyn Boylan would probably have held her seat.
In these rather adverse circumstances People Before Profit actually held up quite well – much better than more pessimistic sections of the far left – and in a few areas did very well. In Ballyfermot-Drimnagh Cllr Hazel de Nortuin came second with 1383 and the aforementioned Cllr Tina MacVeigh likewise with 938 in the South West Inner City. There were also a number of very creditable near misses such as first timer, Peter Dooley, in Kimmage- Rathmines and Annette Mooney in South East Inner City.
Two further points should be made about the Local Elections: Fianna Fáil on 26.9% nationally and Fine Gael on 25.2 % made no significant advance and Labour remains mired on 5.7% – so the three main establishment parties, despite the state of the economy, are not progressing; in contrast to much of Europe the far right racists got next to nothing, though Peter Casey got dangerously close in the Midlands –North West Euro Election, and the same was true of the anti-choice traditionalists (Aontú and Renua).
Regarding the Euro elections, these were always going to be very unfavourable territory for a small party like People Before Profit. We simply did not have the resources to mount effective campaigns over such massive areas, we got very little media exposure, and we were not running high profile candidates – they were all first timers. Despite this Gillian Brien got a splendid 10,846 first preferences (ahead of Alice Mary Higgins, Ben Gilroy and Gemma O’Doherty ) in Dublin, Adrienne Wallace a terrific 14,802 in Ireland South and Cyril Brennan a very creditable 8,130 in Midlands North West. In addition three high profile left Independents, with a reputation as challengers of the establishment – Luke ’Ming’ Flanagan, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace – were elected with big votes showing there is an audience for left ideas across the State.
All things considered the 24 May was not as bad a day for the left as the media and indeed some on the left are saying. Certainly, where People Before Profit is concerned the results constitute a serious base on which to build into the future always bearing in mind that, while contesting elections is essential, the purpose of the exercise is to serve and enhance the struggle in the streets, communities and workplaces where the decisive battles of the class struggle will be fought and won.