WeeklyWorker

31.01.2020
Paul Murphy: now of Rise

In the balance

James Harvey looks at the contenders for next month’s Irish general election and the possible coalitions

With just over a week to go to polling day on February 8, the outcome of the Irish election campaign still remains in the balance.

The latest opinion polls record gains for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, whilst Fine Gael has slumped to its lowest ratings since Leo Varadkar, the outgoing taoiseach, became party leader in 2017.1 Other significant, if slight, movements detected by the polls are a small decline in support for independent candidates and Labour, and marginal gains for the Greens and the Social Democrats. The main left alliance, Solidarity-People Before Profit (PBP), remains unchanged. Thus Fianna Fáil are in the lead with 26%, followed closely by Fine Gael on 23% with Sinn Féin on 19%: the Independents stand at 14%, followed by the Greens on 8%, Labour on 4%, the Social Democrats on 3% and Solidarity-PBP on 2%.2

These are not just of interest to psephological anoraks: if accurately reflected at the polls, they would result in no party having an overall majority and thus produce a period of post-election coalition-building. So, because the exact configuration of seats remains uncertain, much of the campaign so far has focussed on who might be potential coalition partners and those who must be definitely excluded from the list of possible suitors.

It is important to remember that these crude electoral calculations and the dynamics of an Irish political system are shaped by proportional representation.3 This has been coupled with a growing electoral volatility and a breaking-up of the historical party structure, reflecting rapid economic and social change since the 1970s.4 From the late 1980s there has not been a single-party government: the dominant party in Irish politics since the 1930s, Fianna Fáil, has had to enter coalitions if it wished to govern. The declining share of the vote going to the two main parties and the growth of independents and smaller parties - especially in the greater Dublin area, where one third of the state’s population is concentrated - led many to suggest that ‘civil war politics’ had had its day.5

This view was reinforced by the impact of the downfall of the Celtic Tiger and the world economic crisis in 2008, which resulted in Fianna Fáil’s electoral collapse in 2011 and seemingly confirmed that the mould of Irish politics had finally been broken.6 When combined with popular protests against the harsh austerity of the bailout and the continuing scandals in the Catholic Church, these political shifts showed that key pillars of the Irish establishment were starting to crumble.

Despite the historical divisions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, there has been in practice considerable consensus within this political class about the direction of the Irish economy and society since the 1960s.7 Thus, despite the supposedly intense electoral competition, the fundamental interests of these bourgeois parties in defending the political and economic status quo are essentially the same.8 This was illustrated by the formal ‘confidence and supply’ agreement between the two parties, resulting from a hung parliament following the 2016 general election, as well as Varadkar’s suggestion that he would be open to a future coalition with Fianna Fáil.9 Although Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin rejected such a grand coalition, the experience of the last four years suggests that some form of accommodation between the two parties for the greater good of Irish capitalism is always possible.10

Furthermore, the nature of the election campaign itself shows that such an outcome would not be unexpected. The shape of the campaign has been drearily familiar to the electorate, with its focus on personalities, perceived competence and a host of scarcely credible promises on healthcare, housing and violent crime.11 The January 27 leaders debate encapsulated all of these elements and all of these themes, as the seven leaders vied for the audience’s attention and attempted to land the ‘knockout blow’ so beloved of political commentators.12

However, amidst the staged debate and carefully scripted interjections there were two related issues that deserve further consideration. One was the attitude of the mainstream parties towards Sinn Féin; the other the call by Richard Boyd-Barrett of Solidarity-PBP for a “left government”.13

Sinn Féin

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have ruled out any coalition with Sinn Féin, arguing that it is not a ‘normal’ party and that its continuing connections with the Provisional IRA make it unfit as a partner in government.14 The rejoinder - that it is inconsistent to argue that SF is an acceptable party for the government at Stormont, but unworthy to sit in a Dublin cabinet - is perfectly valid.15 SF has proven itself to be a reliable collaborator with both Dublin and London throughout the peace process. With such a record over 25 years, it has surely earned its place at the top table south of the border. SF itself has made support for any post-election government conditional on an all-party forum on reunification and a border poll by 2025, despite knowing full well that such a precondition would not be met by the two main parties.16

This posturing around the national question and Sinn Féin’s suitability for government suits both sides quite well. The mainstream parties have a clear internal enemy that can be utilised to frighten their electorate with fears that the constitutional order and status quo is under threat from dangerous revolutionaries, however implausible this is in reality: for Fine Gael this anti-republican tune is an old, familiar refrain, whilst for Fianna Fáil it is the Shinners’ utopian radicalism that is the main target. So it has proven to be in this election.17 For SF these attacks reinforce its radical image as a party challenging the system and fighting for the majority who have not shared in the Irish ‘economic miracle’.18 With a manifesto that promises large increases in public spending and increased taxation on big companies and the rich, the party is laying claim to the ‘radical left’ space that Solidarity-PBP hopes to occupy.

Behind this radical rhetoric Sinn Féin’s manifesto is one that merely seeks to restrain the worst excesses of Irish capitalism and mitigate some of the more draconian elements of the austerity programme, such as the Universal Social Charge. The utopian nature of such reformist programmes has been amply demonstrated historically: as the election campaign has shown both Irish, and more importantly, international capitalism would not tolerate even these rather limited taxation and public spending proposals. 19 Moreover, despite the leftist talk of Sinn Féin spokespeople, the party’s record of working within the confines of capitalism and implementing austerity in the Six Counties showed what would happen if the party got anyway near government in Dublin.

Solidarity-PBP

The other main contender for the anti-establishment left vote is Solidarity-People Before Profit.20 This is a loose alliance of the Socialist Party (Irish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International), the Socialist Workers Network (part of the International Socialist Tendency) and Rise (Radical, Internationalist, Socialist and Environmentalist), which is a product of the 2019 split in the CWI.

The alliance’s manifesto is a standard set of ‘left’ demands on public spending, taxation, nationalisation and workers’ rights, combined with worthy proposals on other issues, such as education, pensions and public transport.21 However, its manifesto, together with its leading slogan, ‘Planet before profit: socialism for the 21st century’, reflects a strong orientation towards potential Green Party voters and a somewhat opportunistic hope that it ‘can catch the green wave’.22 There is also a familiar ring to its appeals to “elect socialist rebels to the Dáil”, fight to “ break the FF/FG cycle” and campaign for “a left government” - reflecting both the ‘activist’ tradition of the Socialist Workers Network and the left social democratic parliamentary road of the Socialist Party.

The limitations of both these forms of politics are clear: they point not toward the decisive break with capitalism through the conscious self-organisation and emancipation of the working class internationally, but rather contain the struggle within the political and economic status quo. The demand for a “left government” carries particular dangers, since the definition of ‘the left’ is deliberately vague, leaving the door open to an unprincipled and opportunistic cooperation with all sorts of ‘progressive’ independent TDs and the allegedly left Sinn Féin. Paul Murphy, a leading member of Rise, left the CWI because of his support for such “broad grassroots formations” and his openness to possible cooperation with Sinn Féin and the Greens.23

Whilst this approach might maintain the Solidarity-PBP’s limited base and presence in the Dáil, it is not only unlikely to expand it by very much, but it will do nothing to build a real Marxist party in Ireland committed to the international revolution.


  1. www.thejournal.ie/rise-in-support-for-fianna-fail-and-sinn-fein-according-to-poll-4980243-Jan2020.↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

  3. Under a proportional representation system even small percentages of support can secure electoral representation. For example, in 2016 the left groups that were to make up Solidarity-PBP gained 3.9% of the first-preference vote and secured six TDs in the Dáil, giving the left an important, if small, voice in Irish politics. Thus Richard Boyd-Barrett, a Solidarity-PBP candidate, took part in the televised RTE leaders’ debate alongside ‘mainstream’ politicians such as Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin.↩︎

  4. For some historical background on these processes see my articles, ‘From miracle to hard border’ (Weekly Worker July 4 2019); ‘From bailout to Brexit’ (July 11 2019); and ‘Brexit and unification’ (July 18 2019).↩︎

  5. See, for example, A Kavanagh, ‘An end to “civil war politics”? The radically reshaped political landscape of post-crash Ireland’ Electoral Studies Vol 38, June 2016: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379415000050.↩︎

  6. ‘From miracle to hard border’ Weekly Worker July 4 2019.↩︎

  7. ‘Brexit and unification’ Weekly Worker July 18 2019.↩︎

  8. K Allen Fianna Fáil and Irish Labour:1926 to present day London 1997.↩︎

  9. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/the-full-document-fine-gael-fianna-fáil-deal-for-government-1.2633572.↩︎

  10. www.independent.ie/irish-news/election-2020/fianna-fail-leader-martin-rules-out-going-into-government-with-fine-gael-38887723.html.↩︎

  11. www.irishtimes.com/election2020/election-2020-parties-pledges-on-housing-simply-don-t-add-up-1.4154426. For Sinn Féin’s contribution to the electoral auction see www.irishtimes.com/election2020/sinn-féin-unveils-plans-for-dramatic-increase-in-public-spending-1.4154513.↩︎

  12. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/election-2020-galway-debate-sees-no-outright-winner-emerge-1.4153818.↩︎

  13. www.rte.ie/news/election-2020/2020/0127/1111324-election-debate.↩︎

  14. www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/01/21/sinn-fein-will-join-coalition-government-return-irish-unity.↩︎

  15. www.irishtimes.com/election2020/main-parties-desperately-looking-to-exclude-sf-from-government-mcdonald-1.4151993.↩︎

  16. www.irishtimes.com/election2020/sinn-féin-demands-for-action-on-unity-the-big-coalition-stumbling-block-1.4152032.↩︎

  17. www.irishtimes.com/election2020/why-are-fine-gael-and-fianna-fáil-refusing-to-go-into-coalition-with-sinn-féin-1.4151911.↩︎

  18. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/sinn-fein-manifesto-spending-plan-would-destroy-jobs-fianna-fail-leader-38906901.html.↩︎

  19. Ibid.↩︎

  20. https://www.pbp.ie.↩︎

  21. Ibid.↩︎

  22. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/election-2020-people-before-profit-attempt-to-catch-green-wave-with-manifesto-1.4155139.↩︎

  23. www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/launch-of-rise-means-ireland-s-political-left-now-has-15-groups-and-parties-1.4035496. For a fuller discussion of these issues, see also ‘Another round of splits’ (Weekly Worker March 21 2019); ‘Taaffe goes for the throat’ (April 4 2019); and ‘Taaffe demands a split’ (April 25 2019).↩︎