Austerity parties punished
Following the indecisive general election, Anne McShane discusses the rise of Sinn Féin and the divisions in the anti-austerity movement
The 2016 general election has resulted in a unique predicament for the Irish political establishment. The governing coalition of Fine Gael/Labour has taken a hammering, falling from a combined percentage total of 56% - and an unassailable majority in the Dáil - to a predicted 32%. For the first time Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are contemplating a ‘grand coalition’. And that loyal lieutenant of the capitalist class, the Labour Party, has been humiliated too. The combined vote of FF, FG and Labour was 91.3% in 1982. Now it is less than 60%. More than 30% of the electorate has gone elsewhere.
Key to the crisis is deep hostility to the austerity offensive of the last eight years. The outgoing government boasted continuously of how it had turned the economy around. It omitted to say that any recovery that might exist (which is of a very tentative and sluggish kind, even according to its own economists) has been achieved on the backs of the working class. Since the ignominious collapse of the ‘Celtic tiger’ in 2008, two successive governments have overseen major ‘economic restructuring’ - in other words, massive cuts. Public-service workers and social welfare recipients were the first to be targeted in 2008, with €4 billion of swingeing cuts to wages, pensions, child benefits and social welfare. Hospitals, schools, unemployed workers and families went under the knife. In his December 2009 budget speech the FF minister for finance, Brian Lenihan, boasted that the worst was over - “We have now turned the corner.” A blatant lie.
There have been eight budgets between 2008 and 2014, imposing a total of €18.5 billion in public spending cuts and €12 billion in increased taxation. Health spending has been cut by a third, while repossessions have resulted in enormous stress and homelessness. Landlords have taken advantage by jacking up rents - while the government has slashed rent supplements. It is an intolerable situation for more than two million adults and children in receipt of some form of social welfare. Figures show that 30% of the population are now officially economically deprived, including two thirds of lone-parent families.1 Meanwhile, according to a recent Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development report, Ireland’s rich have gotten richer - “there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest - the top 20% of the population earn almost five times as much as the bottom 20%”.2
The FF/Green coalition went to the country in February 2011 and suffered what was described by the Irish Times as “the worst defeat of any government since the formation of the state in 1922”. Fianna Fáil lost 51 seats and the Green Party had an electoral wipe-out. The previous November the government had adopted a ‘national recovery plan’, with a commitment to reducing public spending by €10 billion and raising €5 billion in additional taxes. That was in return for a bailout of €67.5 billon from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund - €35 billion of that to go directly to the banks. This sparked tremendous anger among the population.
In response Labour Party leader Eamonn Gilmore pledged to end the crisis and ensure that the poor, unemployed and “ordinary families” did not suffer any further. He would renegotiate the troika deal, declaring that it would be “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way” - and he would not back down. His party could be trusted to be the voice of the working people in coalition with Fine Gael. On the back of these undertakings Labour more than doubled its vote - going from 17 to 37 seats, and becoming the second largest party. The majority of those seats were in urban working class areas.
But after only days in government it was clear that Labour had made false promises. Gilmore did not stand up to Angela Merkel or to the IMF. Instead his party joined enthusiastically with FG in implementing the troika deal, imposing five years of pain and hardship on an already suffering working class. It was a Labour minister, Alan Kelly, who took responsibility for driving through what has now become their Achilles heel - the hated water charges.
The last eight years have seen huge outbursts of resistance. Protests erupted from late 2008 - firstly pensioners and then local groups began to stage regular marches against the bailout conditions. The first major demonstration - of 120,000 people - took place in February 2009 and public-sector workers launched a series of national strikes, with 250,000 taking action by November. Unfortunately - but characteristically - this militancy was sold out by the leadership in return for talks with government and employers. Further strike action was banned for four years under the ‘public service agreement’, with a pledge to cooperate with the reform programme. At a second national demonstration of more than 100,000 in November 2009, union leaders were heckled and booed. But by then they had stopped worrying about the rank and file - and had set about the task of getting Labour back into government.3
With the defeat of the public-sector workers, the protest movement was subdued until late 2011. Then students began to rebel in occupations and demonstrations. People returned to the streets in early 2012, with angry nationwide protests outside FG and Labour conferences. A mass boycott was organised against a new direct tax, the household charge, making it ultimately uncollectable. It became clear by 2013 that implementation was impossible without taking half of the country to court. That lesson learnt, its replacement, the property tax, was imposed through deduction at source.
2014 brought the water charge. This sparked a mass revolt, with demonstrations, occupations and the organisation of street and estate committees to prevent the installation of water meters. Stands-offs have taken place in towns and cities all over the country since 2014 and still continue. It is a war of attrition, with Irish Water being driven from a number of towns, as well as parts of Cork, Dublin and Limerick. Activists have been arrested and some are still awaiting trial for obstruction of water metering. As a result protests have now spread to the courts, with hundreds turning up to show solidarity.
The Labour Party leadership has taken a keen interest in hunting down transgressors. Current leader Joan Burton is chief state witness in a high-profile prosecution of Paul Murphy, the Anti-Austerity Alliance (Socialist Party) TD, and 33 others on inflated and hysterical charges of “false imprisonment”. In November 2014 Burton’s chauffeur-driven ministerial car was surrounded by protestors in Jobstown and the Gardaí were called in mob-handed. In the general election Labour lost both their Jobstown TDs - a fitting rejoinder.
Such is the hostility towards the charges that even Fianna Fáil included a commitment to abolish them in its election manifesto. Talk of going into a grand coalition with Fine Gael is complicated by this promise and the massive climbdown that FG would have to make. Those who have already paid are demanding reimbursement. Both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have said that there will be no compensation, but this question will not go away if the charge is abolished.
Right to Change
The Right to Water (R2W) campaign was launched in April 2014 by the Unite and Mandate trade unions, along with Sinn Féin, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Ireland and the Workers Party. From the outset it has been dominated by SF, in particular through the main R2W spokesperson, Brendan Ogle, an official of Unite. Ogle has been particularly antagonistic to the Socialist Party from the outset and has only suffered the SWP if it behaved with toadying loyalty.
R2W’s main focus until the general election was to call national demonstrations around broad slogans. Despite the mass boycott and the militant organisation on the ground, it has refused again and again to call for a boycott of the charges, or to come out in support of local direct action. Ogle cites problems for R2W’s component parts in calls to break the law. No doubt SF is the chief obstruction.
In late 2014, R2W announced that it would shift its emphasis away from demonstrations to the forthcoming general election. It declared that it was time to elect politicians who “enact laws that are wanted and needed by the people they are elected to represent”.4 R2W held two national meetings in May and June 2015. These events, misleadingly titled ‘conferences’, were nothing of the kind. Two of the three so-called pillars of the campaign - the political groups and trade unions - were allowed to send their own delegates. But the third, the ‘community pillar’, did not enjoy such representation. Local groups were not allowed to choose their own delegates, with loyal individuals being handpicked by Ogle and his allies.
R2W transmuted into Right2Change - a campaign to elect a slate of TDs. A “fiscal framework document” was produced to argue for “more than €9 billion in spending over four years”. This would apparently “help to create a fairer, more equal society with greater investment in jobs, as well as our health, education and housing systems, which are consistently starved of resources”.
A list of 100 candidates was drawn up. It was dominated by SF - and not only because it is the biggest component. In Change, a publication produced by Right2Change for distribution, SF candidates are number one on every list. I have been told that this was an “administrative error”, but even if it was it shows a certain mindset. This impression was strengthened by the appearance of Gerry Adams on the platform at a demonstration organised by Right2Change on February 20, the week before the election. He was given a unique opportunity to put himself and his party forward as the solution for the movement just days before voting.
The left was in a strange position in the run-up to this election. The United Left Alliance, which saw the election of five TDs in 2011, had fallen apart because of internal wrangling in 2013. Clare Daly and Joan Collins, two of the original five, stood as ‘Independents for Change’ this time. The SWP-led People Before Profit alliance stood under the umbrella of Right2Change, but also as part of a bloc with the SP-led Anti-Austerity Alliance (which remained outside Right2Change). This bloc - the AAA/PBP - stood 31 candidates. Six have been elected, with the SWP gaining two new Dáil representatives. This is a major boost for the left, and puts it on par with the Labour Party in the new Dáil. Three others came very close to getting seats.
Hopefully comrades Daly and Collins (both re-elected) will rejoin the organised left in the Dáil, helping to form a bloc of eight TDs. This would mean increased speaking rights and provide a more effective way of championing the working class in the chamber. The left results show that there is the space for a working class party and we urgently need to get our act together.
The left has been a consistent opponent of austerity and has also been at the forefront of demands for the abolition of the constitutional ban on abortion. This has brought it a lot of support from young people and women - many of whom took part in the successful referendum to introduce same-sex marriage. Without overstating it, there is today certainly a sense of far more assertive secularism in Irish society. The continuing unpopularity of the church has undermined its position so much that the main parties are completely out of step with the electorate on abortion.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has increased its vote significantly - thanks to the efforts of Right2Change and the lack of a working class party. It now has 23 seats - not that far behind FG’s 49 and FF’s 44, with, as I write, one count still to be completed. Gerry Adams is currently refusing to discuss coalition with FF - something which he has previously hinted was possible. Having seen the demise of the Labour Party, he has said Sinn Féin will not be in a minority in a coalition government. An alliance of the two main parties would suit him to the ground, as that would provide a clear opportunity to build SF as the party of opposition.
Of course, SF is not a working class party, but it has been successful in increasing its support in the absence of such a party. Sinn Féin is far to the right of Syriza in Greece and does not pretend to support any form of socialism. The AAA has been very critical of SF for refusing to rule out a coalition with Fianna Fáil, but now the SP comrades in the AAA are under huge pressure to drop this criticism. As far as Adams and his leadership are concerned, SF is the only alternative and all the left groups should help to build it.
1 . www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/analysis/irelands-austerity-success-is-no-model-for-greece-340662.html.
2 . www.oecdbetterliFéindex.org/countries/ireland.
3 . ‘Old loyalties under threat’ Weekly Worker December 2 2010.
4 . ‘Desire to take power triumphs’ Weekly Worker January 1 2015.