Sinn Féin’s success, left’s collapse
Anne McShane assesses the February 8 election and the rush by the Trotskyist ‘left’ to enter a bourgeois government.
The political establishment is in turmoil in the aftermath of an election which saw a massive surge in support for Sinn Féin. But what does this mean for the working class? Is it a qualitative shift to the left in society or simply a change of personnel at the top?
SF has moved overnight from being a fringe party to receiving a similar share of the vote to the two establishment parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. SF has gone from 22 to 37 TDs, as against FF’s 38 and FG’s 35. This is a remarkable result, given that SF only stood 42 candidates in the 39 multi-member constituencies - in comparison to FF’s 84 and FG’s 82. And SF won the largest percentage of first-preference votes, at 24%. SF leader Mary Lou McDonald received the highest number of votes of any candidate, while both Leo Varadkar, former taoiseach and FG leader, and Micheál Martin, leader of FF, received fewer first-preference votes than the SF candidates in their constituencies. Varadkar did not manage to get the quota to guarantee his election to the Dáil until the fifth count - remarkable for someone said to enjoy the level of popularity and prestige claimed by the media.
But the swing to SF was more than the party itself had imagined. It must be kicking itself that it did not stand more candidates. Now, although it is leading talks to form a government, 81 TDs are needed for a majority in the 160-member Dáil. FG has refused to play ball and FF is in crisis over the issue. Martin had been adamant that there was no way his party would go into government with SF. After the election he shifted his position, but other leading members of his party have refused to countenance coalition with SF. There are undoubtedly major tensions within FF, being as it is the traditional party of republicanism. There is now a real challenge to its status within the establishment.
Talks have commenced with the smaller parties and on February 12 it was announced that SF had held a positive meeting with the Greens, who have increased their TDs from two to 12. There is talk of SF dropping its opposition to carbon tax in an effort to get the Greens onside. Richard Boyd-Barrett of the People before Profit Alliance (PBPA), formerly the Irish Socialist Workers Party, expressed his organisation’s willingness to enter talks and government with a coalition comprised of SF, the Greens, Labour Party, Social Democrats (a split from Labour) and various independents. He said in a radio interview:
We very much want to see a left government … and I think it resonated with huge numbers of people that it was possible to break the cycle of Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael rule and open the way for a government of the left, so we’re delighted there’s been a big shift in Irish politics … and we want to explore with other parties of the left, or who put forward leftwing policies, the possibility of forming such a government.
But that looks very unlikely indeed. There are too many splits and divisions and the numbers do not add up. The only real prospect of government for SF seems to be with FF and the Green Party. The horse-trading could go on for days or even months, or there could be another election.
The question of whether SF would be a safe partner in government caused a running battle throughout the election campaign. Both Varadkar and Martin repeatedly stated that there was no way they would form an alliance with this party of extremism - the political wing of the IRA. They were united in condemning SF for its condemnation of the Special Criminal Court - an infamous non-jury court set up in 1972 to try members of the IRA and nowadays used to prosecute alleged members of criminal gangs. The court is a travesty of justice according to civil liberties groups. Unfortunately SF no longer calls for its abolition, but its reform.
But this did not deter Martin. As far as he was concerned, SF was the living, unrepentant embodiment of the armed struggle. Despite - or perhaps because of - these attacks, support for SF continued to escalate. Such was its rise that RTE, the state TV service, was forced to include McDonald in the leadership debate in the last week of the campaign. Even at that point Martin apparently did not realise that his words were having the opposite effect to what he intended. Just two days before the election he declared that it was disgraceful that SF had never said sorry for its role in the armed struggle. And, even worse, SF was proud of its history and “want to shove down the throats of a new generation a narrative about the atrocities” that will “poison future generations”.
So is SF’s success and the strengthening of modern republicanism a step forward for the working class? That is a difficult argument to make, despite the determination of comrades in the PBPA and Solidarity (Socialist Party) to convince us otherwise.
There is little doubt that the main reason for the SF surge is a rejection of the austerity policies of the previous government. Varadkar’s boasts of economic recovery stood in stark contrast to the real experience of the working class. The collapse of the Celtic Tiger in 2008 ushered in a period of painful belt-tightening for the majority of the population, while the banks and property developers received bail-outs. Lack of affordable housing is a serious problem, resulting in a massive increase in homelessness. Health and pensions are also key issues and the sense of anger expressed in the protests against water charges and property taxes in 2015 has not gone away. A very significant section of the working class wants change.
SF did badly in the European and local elections last year, with the Greens getting the protest vote. But this year its commitment to a rent freeze, building 100,000 homes, reducing tax on the low-paid and introducing radical improvements for the ‘ordinary people of Ireland’ have made it appear as a real alternative.
The PBPA and Solidarity have consistently promoted the alternative of an SF-led administration - a “left government” which could make real changes in the lives of workers. They urged a rejection of FG and FF at all costs and made repeated calls for SF to state that it would refuse a coalition with these establishment parties. The SF leadership, of course, refused to make this commitment. In fact it regularly demanded of FG and FF that it be recognised as a legitimate government partner. Indeed no-one seriously believed that SF would be able to govern except in coalition with one of the two main parties - it would be the radical wing of such a government. As McDonald put it, SF would be a voice for “workers and families” against the “mega-wealthy”. At the same time it would ensure that there was no flight of capital by maintaining the Irish Corporation Tax at 12.5%, so that the US transnationals were not frightened off.
In reality SF is no radical threat to the established order. After initial post-election reports of panic, Brian Hayes, the top lobbyist for Irish bankers and a former FG finance minister, spoke out to reassure business and financial bodies that the claim that SF posed a risk to the markets was “exaggerated”. He said: “With Sinn Féin, it’s all about what a programme for government says. Manifestos are one thing, but programmes for government are a different animal.” In other words, while SF has made radical promises, it has also pledged to protect Irish business interests. Trying to deliver on its manifesto demands, while at the same time balancing the books, will be impossible.
And SF has already shown that it is a sensible government partner. First Martin McGuinness and now Michelle O’Neill have led their party colleagues in voting through austerity budgets in the Stormont assembly. When it comes to the crunch, SF will defend the interests of capitalism.
This was not a great election for the socialist left. The PBPA/Solidarity alliance lost one of their TDs - Ruth Coppinger of Solidarity (Socialist Party). The hope that the call for a left government would provide a boost to their fortunes proved illusory. SF transfers under the PR system went as often to the Greens as to the left. The alliance has been weakened by the loss of Coppinger - both politically and in terms of rights in the Dáil. Solidarity now has only one TD - Mick Barry in Cork. And Paul Murphy seems to have moved closer to the PBPA, led by Boyd-Barrett.
Socialist Worker in Britain produced a piece on SF on its website on February 8, which warned of illusions in SF. The piece, penned by Simon Basketter, argued that SF’s
main hope is to use anti-austerity rhetoric in the south to win state positions, then ‘move forward the peace process’ to a united Ireland. Yet growing economic integration of Ireland under pro-business governments will hardly bring the working class together in the north, never mind across Ireland.
And even for an SF-led government “the determination to put nation above class means workers, at best, will still be told to wait.”
These words of warning fell on deaf ears. The PBPA issued a statement on February 12, which declares: “The parties who gained from this upsurge - Sinn Féin, Greens, Social Democrats, People Before Profit - have a duty to carry through on this mandate by forming a minority left government.” PBPA anxiously want to go into government alongside not only SF, but also the Greens - a party that was wiped out in 2011 because of its vicious anti-working class role as a junior coalition partner with FF. The Greens and the Social Democrats are avowedly capitalist parties. They can be relied upon to attack the working class in power. But the PBPA statement goes on to say: “Such a government would meet with tremendous opposition from the rich and privileged. The mere prospect has started a tremor on the stock exchanges.” The PBPA calls for the working class to mobilise on the streets in support of this so-called ‘left government’.
This is quite honestly the stuff of desperation. The disaster that was the Greek Syriza government should tell us how impossible it is to achieve anything worthwhile through a reformist government in a single country. Although at least Syriza was nominally socialist - the Green Party is most definitely not.
The Socialist Party issued a statement which took a more guarded approach, but still called for such a coalition:
… if there was a choice … between such an alternative new government, that doesn’t have the involvement of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and a government dominated by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, we would advocate that left and socialist TDs vote to allow the new government to come to power, while not participating in it. In that way, ordinary people will see in practice what approach and policies the new government implements, and our job will be to hold them to account on their promise of real change and proceed to organise workers, women and young people to continue the struggle for such real change.
So there we have it. Abject political collapse from the PBPA. Opportunism from the Socialist Party. How can any self-respecting socialist organisation even promote the idea of such a government? In my view, however, it is very unlikely that it will be formed at this point because of the instability of the forces involved. But there could be another election soon, where Richard Boyd-Barrett may fulfil his dream of becoming a government minister.
Rather than promoting this putative coalition, socialists should be urging the working class not to support it. They should be warning of its dangers, not welcoming its formation. They should be acting, as the Bolsheviks did - as tribunes of the working class in the enemy parliament.