The radical left finds itself in a stronger position than ever before, but must build on this momentum, argues Rob Winkel
Ireland’s recent general election has shown a shift in traditional voting patterns in the country, and there are a number of important points from this that should be noted. Firstly, the traditional parties of the right, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, between them garnered less than 50% of the first-preference vote. This is a first in Irish politics and creates a crisis for the two-party system, which has seen these parties routinely trading places between government and opposition. Fianna Fáil, the opposition party in this election, ran a campaign with elements mildly resembling a left-wing programme, such as building social housing, abolishing water charges and increasing pensions. Their leader Micheál Martin could even be seen at debates mentioning the need to tax the wealthy more. This party, which oversaw the start of Irish austerity post-bailout, and that “won’t go there” on the issue of abortion, has nonetheless had its second-worst election in over 90 years. The ability of either party to appropriate the Easter Rising during this centenary year is severely diminished.
The result of this is that there are repeated calls from elite circles in Ireland for the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to go into coalition together, as this is the only option that either party has to govern with a majority. Both parties are in principle against this idea, because, they say, Sinn Féin would then become the official opposition. It is a good measure of the sense of entitlement held by the Irish right-wing that they do not even want to relinquish the position of opposition to another party. The rattled Irish establishment–their ideology socially out of touch and economically rejected by many Irish voters–is facing a challenge that they do not wish to be even partially represented in the Dáil chambers.
This decline in support for the Irish right has occurred hand-in-hand with a surge in support for the radical left. Despite some of anti-austerity and social justice votes being absorbed by Fianna Fáil and the discredited Labour Party, over 95,000 first-preference votes were picked up by the socialist AAA-PBP alliance (Anti Austerity Alliance People Before Profit ) and other left-wing independents, while Sinn Féin secured almost 300,000 first-preference votes. Sinn Féin have secured 22 seats so far (and are likely to win 1 more when counting concludes), making them the third largest party in the Dáil. The AAA-PBP grouping have currently won 5 seats, with a potential to win 1 more (all but one of these is in Dublin). This surge in support for the radical left owes much to the movement that emerged against water charges in 2014, and demonstrates a rejection of the idea that the only way to recovery is to cut spending and introduce regressive taxes.
Both before and since the election, politicians and commentators have repeated the same mantras: the left “can’t be trusted with the economy”, “how will they pay for those things?” and “they don’t have any policies, and just want to complain about everything”. In spite of the routine demonisation of the left experienced in the run-up to the election, at least 4.5% of first-preference votes were for candidates of the far-left, with a further 13.8% for Sinn Féin (outside of Dublin, support for the AAA-PBP drops significantly, with much of the working class anger being translated into votes for community leaders, populist independent candidates, Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil).
Exit polls showed that the support for the left parties came largely from the youngest in Irish society. The AAA-PBP have pledged not to work with any party that wishes to implement austerity measures, and Gerry Adams has ruled out the possibility of Sinn Féin going into coalition with a party of the right. These are welcome announcements, and they create a crisis for the Irish establishment who have for a long time been able to absorb smaller left-leaning parties such as the Green Party and the Labour Party into right-wing governing coalitions.
There are many struggles ahead for the organised radical left in Ireland. Sinn Féin is likely to seek to win over the support of those who voted for the radical left and absorb the new movement into their party, which has a poor track record in supporting mass movements to achieve change through protest and boycott: they refused to join the campaign against the regressive tax on all property in Ireland, and only joined the movement against water charges when the sheer scale of opposition became evident.
The issues of division and infighting within the left in Ireland remain. It was welcomed that the AAA and PBP reached an election agreement; however this did not happen until months before the election, a delay which diminished their ability to establish and present themselves as a united front on the streets. Worryingly in terms of fractures within the movement is that just days after the election, Brendan Ogle, trade unionist and prominent voice within the Right2Change campaign (which evolved from the Right2Water movement), has launched a divisive attack on the AAA-PBP grouping. Such divisive attacks from within the movement itself pose a threat to the formation of a united front to oppose government policy.
It is clear that the Irish radical left finds itself in a stronger position than ever before. There is everything to play for in the coming months, regardless of whether (as many are speculating) a fresh general election is called.The AAA-PBP have put forward a strong argument against continued austerity and in favour of progressive policies (such as free healthcare and rent controls), and have made significant progress with the Irish electorate in just the last few weeks. Preoccupied of late with the election, the organised left should now bring this momentum back to the streets, where the fight will continue on a wide range of issues, with a new confidence that their argument is being won in debates around the country.