William Murphy Infomatique flickr cc

Irish Election: Austerity to Win, but Left On the Move

by Simon Price

This week’s Irish general election is the first real vote since the speculative bubble popped in 2008. The election of 2011, coming just weeks after the Troika’s arrival, was not a contest in the traditional sense. Centre-right populists Fianna Fáil, the dominant party since independence, experienced an extraordinary collapse leaving a centre-right coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to take power by default.

Since then, Ireland has paid 42% of the total Eurozone bank bailout costs. The social cost after eight years of austerity is not difficult to find. Put briefly, emigration has seen numbers leave in the hundreds of thousands. No community has been untouched by suicide. Those who remain live with an unprecedented crisis in housing, a health service on the brink and second highest rate of low-paid employment anywhere in the OECD.

How will all this shape the next parliament?

The old regime teeters on.

In many ways the Irish ruling class has emerged emboldened from a crisis that seemed like the greatest threat to its existence. The power nexus of finance, property and politics is battered but far from humbled.

On the European stage, every effort has been made to accommodate the wishes of fiscal sadism in the hope of maintaining power. At home, austerity has been enforced by a particularly cruel brand of fear, divide and rule. Many interests have been shielded, recruited into support for reforms, while an ever-growing bottom has been hardest hit. This divide will shape the political outcomes of Friday’s election.

Right-wing support is being slowly squeezed and there is now every indication that parliamentary arithmetic is set to unite Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in coalition for the first time since a split dating back to the civil war.

The direction of the Irish economy, be it over-reliance on foreign direct investment, global tax avoidance or property speculation, depends on power rotating between these two parties with little break in policy. A grand coalition would break that cycle, paving the way for the emergence of serious parliamentary opposition and the opening of a fresh political space.

A demand for alternatives.

A number of factors have disfigured Irish politics since the foundation of the state. The dominance of nationalism and clericalism, along with industrial underdevelopment, has meant a sustainable political left – even in the post-war social democratic sense – is yet to emerge.

However, while the new austerity consensus has replaced old certainties, there is an ever-growing demand for alternatives. While there has been no unified movement like that which carried Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza and Podemos into contention, for three years now the dominant trend in Irish opinion polling has been the rejection of established politics. Around 30% of voters have consistently indicated their intention to support parties and candidates falling under the Independent/Other bracket.

The Irish proportional representation electoral system (STV) means it is relatively normal for new and smaller parties to win seats. Class war has never been more evident and Ireland’s left contenders are on course for what will be their best election in decades.

The Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party have made an electoral alliance in the hope of building on the handful of seats they presently hold. After strong showings in the 2014 local elections, seven seats is the goal which will grant the alliance full parliamentary speaking rights and a chance to make a real impact. Left MPs have been among the strongest performers in the last parliament, winning many new admirers, so it is all to play for here.

The newly-formed Social Democrats could well double the three seats they currently hold by offering a fresh-faced alternative to legions of disgruntled voters. In terms of policy, they make all the right noises about investment in public services and ‘new politics’, however without the sort of militant mass movement and conditions traditionally required, they seem to be selling equally oblivious voters an impossible Nordic dream.

Sinn Féin on the rise.

The biggest beneficiaries by any measure will be Sinn Féin. Traditionally a micro-party in parliamentary terms, it is on course to become the ‘third wheel’ in Irish politics. Upon his election last January, the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras claimed it was the beginning of a “new era, and the victory of Syriza will be followed by the Spanish people electing Podemos and in Ireland, with Sinn Féin.” Aside from how that glorious new dawn panned out, these comments were met with considerable bemusement here at home.

While Sinn Féin may be perceived as untouchable sulphur-coated Bolsheviks by many – suffering sensationalist attacks that dwarf anything experienced by Jeremy Corbyn – on the broader left there remains suspicion that even Gerry Adams is ultimately content to assimilate neatly into the status quo, should the opportunity arise.

The party has a left and right wing running from socialist to conservative. Friction between the two is obscured by republican rhetoric. The allure of office on both sides of the border is tempting for a group whose ultimate aim is the unification of a 32-county republic. Ruthless pragmatism is not unique to any political party but for many on the left, the jury remains out until Sinn Féin are truly tested.

The end of Labour?

Meanwhile, having spent the last five years implementing an IMF programme, the Irish Labour Party faces its day of reckoning and certain wipe-out. As a party amenable to ‘compromise’ long before Blairism ever existed, the extent of Labour’s betrayal is enormous. Having completely and contemptuously abandoned the working class, the party will be lucky to return a handful of seats. While it retains the majority of trade union support for now, other unions have begun to work with parties and activists orbiting the unprecedented mobilisation around water protests.

The left is well placed to capitalise on widespread immiseration and the largest grassroots movement in the state’s history. The election result will be known just weeks ahead the centenary of the 1916 Rising. No election will be seismic in itself, but like that rebellion it may well sow the seed of greater change to come.

Photo: William Murphy/Infomatique/Flickr

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Published 25th February 2016

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