Establishment reaches a deal
The Irish working class needs its own party, writes Anne McShane
After two months of political paralysis it seems a deal is in the offing to put a government in place in Ireland. After weeks of stand-offs it now seems that we will have a Fine Gael minority administration. An agreement has been reached with Fianna Fáil to support this government by abstaining on important votes for a period of two years.
At the centre of the agreement is a major concession by Fine Gael on water charges. Charges are to be suspended for nine months, while an ‘expert commission’ is set up to consider the situation and report to another committee - of TDs - which will then report to the Irish parliament, the Dáil. This is a highly risky strategy for the establishment. Even now, with the deal not even confirmed, the reaction from some quarters has been vitriolic. The former minister for the environment, Alan Kelly, a leading Labour TD, voiced his rage at Fianna Fáil for its imposition of this deal. He declared: “Politics is failing the people of the country again. Utopian populism is winning again.”1 On the other hand, FF had promised in its election manifesto to abolish the hated Irish Water utility - which now stays. It had also said it would suspend water charges for five years, not nine months. So it has effectively reneged on these pledges - which will cause even more tensions within its ranks. Fine Gael, which made its obduracy on this question a badge of honour, has had to fall on its sword.
Six years of mass demonstrations, boycotts, direct action and working class self-organisation has inflicted an important blow against the austerity regime, which has been enforced by successive governments. This has been a long, bitter struggle and even this partial victory will boost self-confidence. But it also raises many challenges which need to be faced up to. At the moment our class can do no more than voice opposition to measures taken by the government. We need a mass political party which puts forward the completely realisable perspective of ending the rule of capital.
Unfortunately the two main leftwing groups, the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, fall far short of what is needed to make any real political advance. They have both formed ‘broad alliances’ to try and win more votes - through the Socialist Party-led Anti-Austerity Alliance and the SWP’s People Before Profit Alliance. Even the SP-SWP electoral pact was a very limited one - to win more seats through their combined resources, to gain more speaking rights for leftwing TDs in the coming Dáil. There seems to be an absolute refusal to go any further than this. The United Left Alliance, an important pro-party initiative in 2011, collapsed because of internal bickering and control-freakery.
Efforts need to begin again to unite our forces in a party. The left has a responsibility to lift its horizons. With all its limitations, the AAA-PBPA pact has meant an increase in the number of socialist TDs and given the working class a more coherent voice. Its newly elected TDs have been powerful voices. In the Dáil debate on the deal, Mick Barry of the AAA paid tribute to the working class movement and applauded the activists who had organised the struggle. He demanded the immediate abolition of water charges, their repayment and the dropping of all criminal charges against protestors.
That FG and FF are united over the need to provide a stable government illustrates the extent of the predicament. Never before has either party been forced into a position of sitting down with the other to form a government. Now Fianna Fáil has suspended its right to behave as an opposition party for two years, although this will not assist it in warding off the threat from Sinn Féin. FF may already be regretting its last-minute decision to include such radical pledges on water charges in its election manifesto. Of course, it only did so to prevent SF eating into its own vote.
There is also pressure from the European Union, which does not want any backsliding on austerity. On March 29 advice commissioned by Irish Water was leaked to the Irish Times, which reported that the“legal opinion commissioned by the utility company says the state is required under EU law to keep the contentious regime in place”.2 On April 25, with FG and FF closeted in talks, the European Commission issued a statement confirming that theEU directive on water is binding on Ireland. There is no way out without clashing with the EU.3
The aim of the ‘expert commission’ is, of course, to divert attention and allow some revamped charge to be introduced. Who the ‘experts’ are is anybody’s guess - presumably the usual dependable figures.
A major worry for the main parties is that all this will be a gift for Sinn Féin. SF has painted itself as the only coherent opposition and absolutely refused to discuss coalition with any of them. Instead it has pushed for FG and FF to bite the bullet and form a coalition. On April 6 SF lambasted leaders Enda Kenny (FG) and Micheál Martin (FF) for taking “so long to face up to the fact that neither can be elected taoiseach today without the cooperation of the other”. For SF it was “a matter of grave concern that the business of the Dáil has been effectivelysuspended for 40 days”.4 Instead, according to Gerry Adams, “Sinn Féin will seek to provide progressive opposition to the conservative majority that exists, and I am firmly of the view that those who share this ambition must work together.” SF would become the clear opposition and use the unpopularity of a FG/FF pact to continue building up its own support.
In less than 20 years SF has gone from one rural TD to becoming the third force in southern Irish politics - emerging with nine additional seats from the 2016 general election - bringing it to 23 - as opposed to FG’s 50 and FF’s 44. It is without doubt directing all its energies to emerging as a major governing party in the next election. That it did not do so this time around is a source of disappointment among its members. Despite success in hitching the official leadership of the anti-water charges movement to its bandwagon, Sinn Féin did not make the breakthrough that had been predicted.
At the SF ard fheis (conference) last weekend, vice-president Mary-Lou McDonald accused Fianna Fáil of having stolen her party’s policy of opposition to the hated water charges - of being “Sinn Féin lite”.5 The fact that she can make such a political attack tells us just as much about SF as it does about FF. They are rivals for a populist anti-austerity vote.
One of the biggest problems for the working class arises from Sinn Féin’s posing left. While no doubt there are SF members who consider themselves socialist, the leadership is certainly no longer of that persuasion. A brief glance of its record in power in the north is evidence of this - it has cooperated in the programme of cuts inflicted by the Tory government. Its representatives argue that it is in a more difficult position in the Belfast assembly because of the sectarian divisions. Apparently it will be a lot easier in the south. That is absolute rubbish. In the south there will be the same kind of pressures that Syriza had to face in Greece - pressures under which SF, which wants to run capitalism more humanely, will be bound to buckle.
But illusions in SF are perpetuated by its inclusion as part of the left by the PBPA. Despite the leftwing impact of its TDs, the PBPA continues to peddle a populist programme. Its election manifesto did not mention the working class or socialism. Instead it claimed: “We do politics differently. We try to empower communities and unions. We see ‘people power’ as the way to bring change.”6 The PBPA “represents a different form of politics, fitting for the 21st century. It sees ‘people power’ and the mobilisation of citizens in workplaces, communities and on the streets as the key to bringing change in society.” In its statement on the government’s retreat it continues to include Sinn Féin as part of the alternative.
The Socialist Party has been rather better. In fact there seems to have been a shift to the left within the AAA in response to Syriza’s defeat. It now makes a call for a socialist response throughout Europe and for the working class to play an active role in the setting up of popular assemblies and workplace organisations on a delegate basis. This would create “a weapon to take on and replace the old state machinery with a democratic and socialist state”. However, like its parent organisation, it persists in the call for a “radical left government” to lead this process.7 Of course, Sinn Féin says that it is out to create a left government, which means that the SP/AAA is open to the accusation of offering de facto support to SF.