Sinn Féin gains

Socialist Party and SWP run on separate lists

The Irish elections have brought important gains for Sinn Féin in its bid to become a main player in the politics of the whole of Ireland, north and south. Its first serious intervention in electoral politics in the republic saw it increase its representation from one TD (member of parliament) to six, and gain an overall 6.5% of first-preference votes nationally. This brought upsets for both the Irish Labour Party and Fine Gael, who lost a number of seats because of the swing to Sinn Féin. In Kerry North Martin Ferris made history by becoming the first former member of the Provisional IRA's army council to make it to the Dáil. Ferris, whose platform was based on his record in support of the Good Friday agreement, pledged to continue to fight for a united Ireland by peaceful means. He beat the former leader of the Labour Party, Dick Spring, and almost certainly gained from an establishment-backed media campaign aimed at discrediting him through exposing his history. Sinn Féin's manifesto Building an Ireland of equals was for free healthcare, free childcare, social inclusion and taxing the rich. One of its newly elected TDs, Aengus O Snodaigh, said: "I will not be taking a TD's full salary - just the industrial wage. We will now push forward our agenda for action and tackling the hospital waiting lists" (Irish Independent May 20). Sinn Féin's politics - a mish-mash of reformism and nationalism - appealed to many in urban areas, where it gained over 10% of the vote. But the party was careful to temper its radicalism with a full commitment to existing power structures. The Gardái were to be supported - along with a series of reforms to make them more accountable and transparent. Sinn Féin did nothing to upset Fianna Fáil's majority, however. Bertie Ahern's popularity with those who vote continues. His own personal commitment to the Good Friday agreement and relatively clean political record have stood his party in good stead, despite the government's recent defeat in the abortion referendum. However, although it increased its vote compared to 1997, Fianna Fáil again failed to win an overall majority in the 63% turnout. But, with its compliant coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, waiting in the wings, this is unlikely to cause Bertie any headaches. Fianna Fáil can also turn to the Greens or some of the 16 elected independents for the additional seats needed to govern. A pact with Sinn Féin is out of the question - for the moment. The biggest setback came for Fianna Gael, Ireland's second party, which lost over 23 seats in the Dáil. Its votes went to Sinn Féin, the independents and the Greens. Fianna Gael leader Michael Noonan resigned in recognition of the humiliating defeat and his party for the moment at least seems consigned to the margins of Irish politics. Fianna Fáil is now established as Ireland's main party. There is no cohesive opposition. The left's best votes came in Dublin. The Socialist Party retained Joe Higgins as TD in Dublin West and just missed winning a second seat in Dublin North, where Clare Daly won 12.5% of first preferences and increased her vote from around 3,000 in 1997 to 7,532. The SP's other two candidates in Dublin got 2.6% and 1.9% of first-preference votes. Its only candidate outside Dublin, Mick Barry in Cork, got 2.1%. The Socialist Party has certainly built up a following in some proletarian areas of Dublin and Joe Higgins has made himself a reputation as an outspoken and critical TD. The SP has started to sink roots, but its manifesto as always is reformist - in many respects not a lot different from the type of 'bread an butter' issues that Sinn Féin stood on. That is, with the partial exception of demands around the 'bin tax', where the SP is for mass non-payment - ie, civil disobedience - a far more militant approach than Sinn Féin. Its position on the north of Ireland is subsumed by the SP's overriding economism - "To secure a decent future, protestant and catholic working class people must come together. Genuine community groups, trade unions and other working class organisations should organise a united struggle on issues like jobs, health, education, privatisation and poverty. With such an approach many of the contentious issues that currently divide the communities could also be overcome" (Socialist Party manifesto). No mention of political and democratic rights. No answers on how the national question will be resolved. Although the Socialist Party says it is committed to building a mass socialist party throughout Ireland, it will be impossible to combat the growing influence of Sinn Féin without answers on these issues. The SP wants to wish away the question of partition and the role of Britain - issues which continue to dominate politics north and south - workers should just get together and go on strike. The part played by the Good Friday agreement both in Sinn Féin's advance and in the increased support for Fianna Fáil bear testimony to the fundamental and ongoing importance of this question. The Socialist Workers Party stood seven candidates on an altogether more leftwing manifesto than its comrades in England and Wales insist upon for the Socialist Alliance. The dumping of the SA in Ireland allowed the SWP to stand under its own name. Its election manifesto began with the declaration that, "The Socialist Workers Party does not believe that socialism will come through parliament." A strong vote for SWP candidates is "therefore a signal that the number of activists and militants who want to challenge capitalism is growing". Further, its elected representatives would "use their position to encourage self-organisation - both to win small reforms and finally overthrow a system that puts profit before people". Although SWP candidates were described as individuals who were rooted as leaders in such struggles as the Campaign Against Service Charge and against the bin tax, there is no doubt that the SWP remains marginal to the working class in Ireland. This was reflected in its results - its candidates received between 0.4% and 1.6% of first-preference votes. It was certainly outflanked by the Socialist Party, whose work on the ground has brought it some real returns. But the failure of the Socialist Alliance has cost both organisations - the SP refused to join from the beginning and the SWP gave up on it six months ago. Although the two groups avoided standing against each other, a united, joint campaign would almost certainly have had a far greater impact and posed a much greater threat to Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin is talking left, but there is no doubt that its green radicalism is merely a manifestation of the current phase of its transformation into an all-Ireland party of the mainstream. The left needs a vision and commitment to democracy that goes far beyond the 'strikes today, socialism tomorrow' approach of both the SWP and SP. At the moment Sinn Féin's 'Ireland of equals' has a far greater appeal for those looking for answers to the big questions. Anne Mc Shane Left results (first preferences) Candidate Votes % Socialist Party Dublin West Joe Higgins (elected) 6,442 21.5 Dublin North Clare Daly 5,501 12.5 Dublin South West Mick Murphy 954 2.6 Cork North Central Mick Barry 936 2.1 Dublin South Lisa Maher 1,063 1.9 Socialist Workers Party Dun Laoghaire Richard Barrett 876 1.6 Dublin North Central Ritchie Browne 638 1.6 Dublin South Central Brid Smith 617 1.4 Dublin South East Shay Ryan 286 0.9 Wicklow Catherine Kennedy 400 0.7 Waterford Jimmy Kelly 300 0.6 Cork South Central Michael O'Sullivan 218 0.4