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Establishment parties in crisis, as a new Left rises

Ireland’s Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition government was routed in general elections on 26 February. A deep class anger at the government’s austerity, especially at the Labour Party’s betrayal of working people, saw voters inflict a humiliating defeat on both parties. While counting still continues for some seats, results already show that Labour has lost at least three quarters of its seats and won only 6.6% of first preference votes, down from almost 20% in 2011. Fine Gael (FG) has lost over 10% and more than 20 seats. The political panorama has been totally transformed and fragmented, with a new socialist Left rising to prominence within it.

“Keep the recovery going”

The government parties waged a disastrous election campaign. Despite polls consistently showing no clear alternative government on the cards, FG an Labour’s support declined steadily as polling day approached. They attempted to present themselves as the only viable option, threatening voters with chaos as the only alternative to the “stability” only they could guarantee.

Their central message, of “keep the recovery going” was central to this. The government had removed Ireland’s economy from the doldrums and had to be allowed to continue the job, they claimed. However, this slogan flopped disastrously.

As the Anti Austerity Alliance - in which the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) participates – explained, this talk of an inspiring recovery jarred massively with the reality and mood in working class communities throughout the country. While these communities were hammered and devastated by austerity during the recession, Irish capitalism’s “recovery” was now passing them by, with the benefits flooding towards the 1% as living standards for the majority languished.

Rather than inspire faith in the government parties, this slogan and idea reinforced the sense of bitterness and injustice at the continued struggle to make ends meet and inequality embedded in the so-called recovery.

This set the backdrop for the government’s election woes. Threats of “stability or chaos” did not dent the resolve to drive for a change. The anti-establishment mood which exists in working class Ireland was hard and strong enough to turf the government out, even in the face of blackmail and scaremongering.

Unprecedented crisis of the political establishment

These elections signal a deep political crisis for Irish capitalism, along the lines of what is developing in other crisis-hit European countries, such as Spain and Greece. The tried and tested parties of capitalist rule are in crisis, and can no longer simply alternate in power ensuring “stability” for the market system.

In Ireland this was historically expressed in the domination of two right-wing conservative parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, alongside the ex-social democratic Labour Party. These parties routinely occupied around 90% of the electoral space. On Friday, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael got less than 50% of votes between them and Labour was near decimated. The remaining support is greatly fragmented, with 30% voting for Independents and smaller parties, and just under 14% for Sinn Fein.

This opens up a serious political crisis. As it stands, the only seemingly viable government majority can be composed of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, a species of Irish “grand coalition”. While both parties have for the moment ruled out such a scenario for political reasons (not wanting to leave the way open for a more anti-establishment opposition to dominate) there will be intense pressure from sections of the establishment including within both parties for an outcome such as this. A “rotating Taoiseach" (Prime Minister) arrangement between the two parties or a minority government of Fine Gael facilitated by Fianna Fail, have been floated as possibilities.

Alternatively, new elections could be called within months.

Sinn Fein come up short

Though it increased its percentage vote and number of seats, Sinn Fein delivered well below expectations. It had topped 20% in polls last year, and was seen to challenge Fianna Fail for second place and portrayed itself as potential leader of the next government. It ended up with under 14% of the vote, around 10% behind FF and lost out, including to the socialist left, in a whole number of key constituencies.

Hounded by the establishment press and parties over historical and security issues, the party has made a concerted effort to court the establishment’s favour, to prove its “responsible” credentials. While posturing as a genuine Left alternative, it confined its election programme to the “fiscal space” allowed by restrictive EU Troika rules, effectively ruling out the real change needed by working people. It also courted establishment parties as potential coalition partners, refusing to rule out coalition with FF (though the numbers for this now don’t add up).

On the key issue of water charges, which kicked off a mass movement in the last years, SF were exposed and out-stripped by the genuine left, especially by the AAA. The most conscious workers and youth, who played an active part in the mass movement against water charges and austerity, tended to favour those who had built and led the mass movement, over those offering only a weak, parliamentary assistance to it. Election results and gains for the Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) and Socialist Party in key constituencies such as Dublin West, Dublin South West and Cork North Central, illustrate this.

Socialist Left rising to replace Labour

The current capitalist crisis is leading to the demise of the Labour Party, founded by Marxist James Connolly, which has become a vicious tool of the bosses and markets. However, it is also throwing up a new Left, in which revolutionary socialists play a key role, which is poised for further breakthroughs.

The AAA, in alliance with the People Before Profit alliance, mounted the most serious nationwide Left challenge in the history of the state in these elections, standing in over 30 constituencies. The alliance won 4% of 1st preference votes despite not standing in almost one third of constituencies, which is an excellent result for a new fighting socialist initiative.

At the time of writing it seems that the Anti Austerity Alliance has successfully re-elected Socialist Party members Ruth Coppinger (Dublin West) and Paul Murphy (Dublin South West) and made an impressive breakthrough by electing another Socialist Party member, Mick Barry in Cork North Central. It also came within 270 votes of taking a seat in Limerick City with Cian Prendiville, which would have been the shock of the election. This stands testament to the fantastic campaign which was waged, especially the leading role the SP and AAA played in the building of the water charges movement.

The People Before Profit alliance seems to have also won 3 seats at the time of writing, which means that a block of 6 TDs will have a valuable platform to assist workers’ struggle against whatever austerity government is formed in the next period.

A Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition government would be disastrous for working class people in Ireland, and require a redoubling of the mass movements which shook the last government to its foundations. The Socialist Party and AAA will turn its attention towards the building of such movements, to ensure the abolition of water charges, and demand a real recovery in health services, education, housing and living standards.

This struggle must necessarily extend its aims beyond the capitalists’ and Troika’s “fiscal space” and demand the re-orientation of the economy towards the needs of people, rather than the profits of a few. Only socialist policies, of democratic public ownership of the key sectors of the economy, as an alternative to the rule of the multinationals, can bring this about. Support for these policies can grow rapidly, with the assistance of the new fighting socialist Left which is rising to replace the Labour sell-outs.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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