Ireland: Fianna Fail punished in elections

The result of the Local and European Elections held on June 11th has changed the political situation in southern Ireland.

A new instability has gripped the Fianna Fail / Progressive Democrat coalition after they were mauled in a higher than expected poll.

In power since 1997, this Government was re-elected in 2002 just as the record levels of economic growth fell significantly. However with a working majority, a shambolic opposition and a compliant trade union leadership, this Government set about the imposition of neo-liberalism in a more blatant and extremely arrogant fashion over the last two years. While a layer of fat still exists from the high levels of growth, their drive to impose service charges, de-regulations and privatisation’s also reflected their response to the economy’s loss of competitiveness in the tighter market conditions.

Their administration shifted from one that made some concessions on pay and spending to one that attacked living standards. Promises made before the election were immediately dropped afterwards. Likewise their popularity dropped sharply, particularly for Fianna Fail and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

On top of economic attacks they also used the media, the courts and forces of the state in an unprecedented way to try to curtail growing opposition and protest. Twenty two bin tax protesters and some anti war activists have been imprisoned and the right to demonstrate is being consistently undermined. The contrast of how bin tax protesters were jailed while corrupt politicians and business heads walked free sharpened people’s anger.

Important issues

Important issues were posed before the election. While Fianna Fail would do badly, could the damage be limited firstly by the lack of a credible alternative / opposition on a national basis and secondly would a significant layer who are disgusted with the different versions of capitalist politics on offer, just not vote at all? It was also clear that Sinn Fein would do well as they continued to be seen by a significant section of the working class as being a campaigning, anti establishment force. How well would they do? Would they become the overwhelming poll of attraction for working class opposition and be seen as the left alternative?

A Government sponsored referendum to limit citizenship rights for children born in Ireland to non-national parents, took place on the same day and was passed by an 80 – 20 margin. The Socialist Party opposed the referendum. Of the two elections, the result of the locals was most important. There are 883 council seats in the country and it was generally accepted that if Fianna Fail lost fifty or more, the stability of the Government and even Ahern’s position as leader and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) would be in jeopardy.

What was the outcome: A turnout of just under 60% in the local elections, a full 10% higher than in 1999, primarily explained by an increase in urban areas mainly reflecting a move against the Government? At 32% of votes cast, Fianna Fail’s vote collapsed, down 10% compared to 1999 and the General Election in 2002. They lost just over 80 local council seats and control of a number of important councils. Sinn Fein got 8% compared to 3.5% in 1999, which delivered them 54 council seats, up from 21. Fine Gael got 27.5% up 5% and Labour got 11.5% up marginally, on their 2002 general election performances.

Worst result since 1927

The underlining feature of the election was the massive opposition to the Government and Fianna Fail in particular. This was Fianna Fail’s worse vote in a national election since 1927. They currently have 81 TDs in the parliament and if this local election vote was repeated in a general election, they could lose perhaps 30 or so of those seats. Fianna Fail has no choice but to move to try and limit the damage.

In a brazen show of cheek and hypocrisy even by their standards, Fianna Fail are now blaming the 8 Progressive Democrat TDs for forcing them to accept the conditions of the unbridled market!

In contrast the PDs have stated that the problem was that the Government wasn’t decisive enough in imposing the neo-liberal agenda. While there has been no fundamental difference in policies between these two parties, Fianna Fail are likely to push for a slowdown in the attacks, some special initiatives and possibly for increased spending on health and education to try to claw back support. While neither party want an election in the short-term, the tension between the parties is likely to increase.

Bertie Ahern will try to cut across these problems by a purge of the cabinet which could be directed against elements in his own party and/or against the PDs. Such a re-shuffle in the Autumn could cause the Government to wobble. Given the scale of the problems facing Fianna Fail, unless there is a dramatic turn around, it is likely that Ahern’s leadership and position as Taoiseach will be challenged before the next election.

"Most cunning"

Ahern, referred to by Charles Haughey as the "most cunning and devious of them all", by others as the "Teflon Taoiseach" because no allegations of corruption could be made stick to him, is facing a severe crisis.

The Government could collapse without causing an election. There are enough independent TDs originally from Fianna Fail gene pool that would support a Fianna Fail Government if they ditched the PDs in a bid to try to recover their support or if the PDs themselves split from the Government.

A desire to punish the Government was the basis for the rebound for Fine Gael, which is a centre right party that has been without direction and purpose for a number of years. It is clear that sections of the middle and upper classes switched from the Government in protest. It will depend on developments but it is possible that switch in support will be maintained as the mood against Fianna Fail is generalised and Fine Gael would be the vehicle for a change of Government.

The gains for Labour were marginal nationally but more pronounced in Dublin. They, with Fine Gael and the Greens, are posing now as an alternative Rainbow Coalition Government [these three parties formed a coalition government of the same name in 1995-97]. The anger toward Fianna Fail can push some, including some working class people who had turned away from Labour, into supporting the party at the next election. Labour to a degree reflects those looking for a softer alternative to this Government. For some sections of society who are looking for this alternative as an expression of their hatred of Fianna Fail, the memory of the betrayal by Labour, when in government, has faded somewhat over the last seven years.

Any such shifts will be limited and of a temporary character. Such a Rainbow Coalition would have to make up a lot of ground if it was to be in a position to form a Government but a repeat of the recent local election votes would be enough.

Sinn Fein’s increase in vote is the main news as far as the media is concerned. They went from 3.5% of the local vote in 1999 to 8% this time. They got 11.5% on average throughout the four Euro constituencies. Of all the major parties they are the only ones with a real momentum and enthusiastic support. However as we have explained in other material this growth is taking place at the same time that the party leadership is moving sharply to the right. In a recent speech to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce Gerry Adams stated that Sinn Fein would operate "pragmatic politics" when it comes to service charges like the bin tax and privatisations i.e. Sinn Fein will support these policies. However it is likely that Sinn Fein will only be fully exposed to the mass of working class people when they participate in an anti working class Government.

Until then, they will continue to grow. Given the votes they received in some areas, it is quite possible that they could be returned with up to 15 or 20 TDs in the next general election. Such a result would be the most dramatic electoral breakthrough in Ireland in decades but it would also bring closer the time when Sinn Fein are likely to assume "responsible" positions in Government.

The pull of Sinn Fein however is far from universal or irresistible. The fact that a layer of activists are really disgusted with their political manouverings and lack of a willingness to fight, as in the bin tax, indicates that they will be exposed. There are significant layers of the working class who show a clear preference a left alternative as opposed to Sinn Fein. Labour still retains a significant section of working class support. In the four local councils in Dublin Labour has 34 councillors while Sinn Fein have 14. In the Dublin European Constituency, with huge resources Sinn Fein polled 60,000 votes while Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party in a campaign with very few resources, polled a very credible 23,200 or 5.5%.

Excellent results for Socialist Party

The Socialist Party has demonstrated a capability of withstanding the sweep of Sinn Fein. In the seven wards in Dublin were we and Sinn Fein stood in competition, the Socialist Party out-polled Sinn Fein in five. In one of those areas, Tallaght Central, while we didn’t out-poll the combined votes of the two Sinn Fein candidates, our candidate Mick Murphy with 2,505 votes, did top the poll and was elected first. In the process we significantly reduced both Sinn Fein and Labour’s share of the vote from the general election in 2002 in that area.

The Socialist Party did excellently in the local elections. Our two sitting councillors Clare Daly in Swords and Ruth Coppinger in Mulhuddart were the first elected in their areas. The party got just under 20% of the vote in both wards. We won another seat in Dublin through Mick Murphy in Tallaght. Of particular significance was our victory in Cork North Central. This is our first elected position outside Dublin. Again our candidate Mick Barry topped the poll, getting over 17% and passing the quota on the first count. That was a huge increase on the less than 4.9% we achieved in that area in 1999.

In its own right and certainly in comparison to other forces on the left, getting four councillors elected was a significant achievement and indeed an endorsement of the Socialist Party. We are confident that we will build on these successes in terms of recruiting in the communities, in the unions and amongst the youth.

This Government has been significantly weakened and instability is now built in the political situation. We will need to be alive to the potential for significant changes in the political, economic and industrial situation over the next months and years.

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June 2004