The result in Ireland represents a seismic shock to the European establishment and can be a step towards radical change, argues Chris Bambery
What has just happened in the Irish Republic should set alarm bells ringing across the global neoliberal establishment. The outgoing Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar of the centre right Fine Gael party had called a snap election believing he could win and secure his future. Those hopes were based on him believing he could capitalise on the way he had been presented by the media and the European Union establishment as having outplayed first Theresa May and now Boris Johnson over Brexit.
Varadkar had taken a party which had traditionally represented Ireland’s big farmers and the most conservative elements of the urban upper and middle class and shifted it towards being socially liberal over matters such as LGBT rights and women’s equality and towards being the most enthusiastic champion of the whole neoliberal social and economic agenda.
The whole point of this snap election was, supposedly, to highlight Varadker’s success in championing Ireland’s interests in the Brexit negotiations with Britain.
But something went badly wrong for him. Exit polls following Saturday’s vote showed that the most important issue for voters was health (32%) followed by housing/homelessness (26%). Brexit came bottom of the list of voter’s concerns – bad news for Varadker!
First, the scars of what happened in 2008 when Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy collapsed in the wake of the financial crash and after bailing out the banks full blooded austerity measures followed, run deep.
The economy recovery of recent years has not benefitted the many, rather the few.
During the election Catholic bishops chose to speak out over the healthcare situation. Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin hit out at the “permanent state of crisis” of the health service, despite the hard work and dedication of doctors and nurses.
He said an economy which assumes that every able-bodied man and woman will be part of the workforce is, by definition, an economy in which it is no longer possible, as it was in the past, for the elderly and the sick to be cared for at home.
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said Ireland is marked by “a strange incongruence” where despite the “astonishing progress in medical science, so many aspects of our healthcare system are scandalous”.
Paying tribute to the quality of the country’s many “extraordinary and dedicated” doctors, nurses and carers he added, “Our extraordinary doctors, nurses and carers feel so often let down” by a system in which “sick children and elderly are left waiting and exasperated.”
The Catholic Church is still involved in healthcare provision, as it is in the school system, and the Church has traditionally opposed increased state health provision but for such a conservative body as the Irish bishops to speak out reflects the enormous concern and anger across the country.
During Christmas week there were 9,731 people homeless week across the Republic (the population is just under 5 million). The number of homeless families has increased by 280% since December 2014. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation is a child.
In 2018, 78% of 16-29-year olds were living with their parents, the highest percentage in the EU
The fundamental cause of the homeless crisis is the broken housing system. Ireland does not have a public housing system to meet the needs of its people. This lack of social housing together with private house building coming to a halt in the wake of the 2008 crash, and never fully reviving, means 1 in 5 households now live in a privately rented home compared to 1 in 10 before the crash. A shortage of homes to rents has led to soaring rents across the country but is at its worst in the capital, Dublin.
220,000 children live in poverty – that means in households on incomes below about €14,600 a year.
All of this fed into a widespread resentment against the two pro-business parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which between them have run the state since independence.
The party which benefitted from this, spectacularly, was Sinn Féin, standing on a left wing platform promising to build 100,00 affordable homes, tax cuts for those earning under €30,000, providing new 1,500 hospital beds and hiring thousands of nurses and free GP care.
The party’s success in winning the greatest share of the popular vote, 24.5%, was so spectacular that it far succeeded its expectations. After reverses in last year’s European and local elections it stood just 42 candidates. Under the Irish proportional representation system they topped the polls in constituencies they had not expected to win. If there had been a second Sinn Féin candidate there were sufficient votes to have secured their election when the winners’ votes were transferred.
The result is that while Fianna Fáil trailed Sinn Féin in terms of the popular vote it was able to win more seats. Fine Gael were in third place.
Prior to the crash of 2008 both parties had dominated Irish politics. One of the selling points used to woo US and European investors was that Ireland had such stable, pro-business governments. But today there is massive resentment of the tax breaks awarded those transnationals and the low wages that are also used to sell Ireland PLC.
For many, the dominance of both parties showed the innate conservatism of Ireland. In truth this was never true; rather the close links the trade unions had, particularly with Fianna Fáil, and the conservatism of the Irish Labour Party meant discontent over issues like tax did not find political representation.
That changed post-crash when the radical left, today’s People Before Profit and Solidarity, tapped into anger over abortion rights (until recently illegal), water charges and much more. Now Sinn Féin under its new leader Mary Lou McDonald has given voice to the desire for radical change.
The New York Times correctly noted:
“… conditions that fuelled Sinn Féin’s rise mirrored those that have driven support in Britain for Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left Labour Party leader, and in the United States for the Democratic presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders. Chief among those conditions are young people suffering from low pay and skyrocketing rents, and widespread anger at tax breaks and gentrification.”
This is why the alarm bells should be ringing globally amongst the elite because the conditions which fuelled Sinn Féin’s success exist everywhere creating the potential for more cases where politics suddenly and unexpectedly shifts left.
The radical left looks to have kept its five seats, which given the Sinn Féin surge, is good going.
Now weeks and possibly months of negotiations will commence over the creation of a coalition government. Mary Lou McDonald began talk with the Greens, radical left and Social Democrats about constructing a government, but the arithmetic does not look sufficient.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael could form a grand coalition, but both must realise that would alienate a huge mass of the population and threaten their electoral bases.
Fianna Fáil have indicated they are now open to a deal with Sinn Féin. Yet the experience across Europe is that in entering into such arrangements the radical left pay the price because they are seen to betray the hopes of those who voted for them. In Ireland Labour and break away parties from the Republican Movement have entered such deals, often with Fine Gael, and the result has been an electoral wipe out.
What is crucial is ensuring that the Sinn Féin electoral surge becomes the basis for a mass movement over issues like retirement age increases, housing and health. After all this electoral breakthrough is the result of social movements which won abortion rights and same sex marriage.
Sinn Féin is, of course, committed to Irish Unity and the Good Friday Agreement allows an all-Ireland referendum on unity to be held if the Irish Parliament and the Northern Irish Assembly vote for it. Sinn Féin is now in office in Northern Ireland in coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party. When in office previously it has proceeded cautiously, not seeking to rock the boat.
Irish unity was not one of the main issues in last Saturday’s election in the Republic, but it did feature. As the results came in Mary Lou McDonald said the support for her party is a "big statement of change" and that she expected a referendum on Irish unity to take place "in the next five years or so".
The exit poll on election night showed 57 per cent of voters in the Republic agreed there should be referendums in the Republic and Northern Ireland within the next five years. That was greater among younger voters.
But if such a referendum is to be held Irish unity can only be won in both states if working people are assured that such a new state would break from the sorry record of both states.
For instance, provision of affordable public housing must form a key part of any country’s housing system. It acts as a safety net for families and individuals pushed out of the private rental market due to the high cost of renting or lack of housing.
In Northern Ireland the NHS exists but health care is not free in the Republic. There must be a commitment to a fully funded all-Ireland health system giving free cradle to grave care.
This moment calls for extending and developing popular support for radical change on both sides of the Irish border.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.