Blow to Adams' ambitions

The status quo prevails in the aftermath of Ireland's general election, bringing disappointment in particular to Sinn Féin. Anne Mc Shane reports

The government is still not formed. Just like every other election in the south of Ireland in the last 30 years, no party has won enough outright. But with Fianna Fáil in the lead with 78 seats in the 166-seat Dáil, Bertie Ahern looks likely to retain power, kept there by whatever independents and other forces he can muster.

With the election over and the real haggling for power in full swing, there is some surprise at the result. Many expected Fianna Fáil to be trounced. The stench of corruption has long hung over Bertie Ahern. And just weeks before the election, new charges came to the fore about his dishonest money dealings.

The Mahon tribunal, set up by Ahern himself to investigate corruption in politics, announced that it was not satisfied with his previous testimony regarding his financial affairs. Stories circulated in the press about complicated and underhand transactions between Ahern and a Manchester-based businessman. Others involved him receiving bribes from developer Owen O'Callaghan in return for favours.

Unsurprisingly the main opposition party, Fine Gael, decided Bertie's alleged corruption was not an election issue. It had no doubt made some kind of 'gentleman's agreement' with him to keep quiet. The Labour Party and Greens were pledged to form a 'rainbow coalition' with Fine Gael, so they too kept their mouths shut.

Opinion polls in the lead-up to May 24 showed voters demoralised and undecided. There was nothing to choose from. All seemed part of the same cynical operation. The way appeared to be open for a party free from this kind of sleaze and complicity, too long characteristic of bourgeois politics in the south of Ireland. In the election debates, Sinn Féin candidates contrasted well with the others. They challenged the sleaze and the gross inequalities within the Celtic Tiger. And, with Labour and the Greens tied in with Fine Gael, they appeared to have an advantage.

Expected to take at least 10% of the vote and increase their number of TDs significantly, there was even talk of them holding the balance of power in a new Dáil. The election message from Gerry Adams declared: "Sinn Féin is sharing power in the north and we are ready for government in the south "¦ In government we will immediately commence preparations for Irish unity, turning this aspiration into a reality" (www.sinnfein.ie).

But this was far from the outcome. Sinn Féin had what is acknowledged by its leaders to be a very bad election. It lost one TD and failed to get its most prominent candidate, Mary Lou McDonald, elected in Dublin Central. While it did increase its first-preference percentage slightly overall, it lost ground compared to 2002 when transfers were factored in. Its increased support appeared to be mainly in the border rural areas. In a press release Adams announced the party's disappointment. Sinn Féin will learn the lessons of the election in order to "build a process of change right across the island of Ireland, something which is unprecedented" (ibid).

And that is the key question. Adams' main message is a united Ireland. He had hoped that the Good Friday agreement would open up the conditions for achieving that through the ballot box. The British government and the unionists would be undermined by the success of an all-Ireland anti-partition party. But is that what people in the south want? Given the election result, it hardly seems so.

In fact it looks like British imperialism has been successful. Tony Blair featured prominently in Fianna Fáil's party political broadcast urging support for Ahern. Meanwhile Gerry Adams was portrayed as a foreigner who did not know anything about the Irish economy. He was berated for representing outdated ideas. People in the south are concerned about house prices and interest rises, not about unity with a people of whom they know or understand little. They are only interested in maintaining the present successful economy, it was said.

Of course, things are not as simple as that. The chasm between rich and poor in Ireland is growing ever wider. The health service resembles the US model, even to the point that you have to pay for your ambulance to hospital. Some have no doubt benefited from the policies of the Fianna Fáil government and foreign investment. Others, living in poverty in working class areas in Dublin and other cities, have not. But even here, in what was once its working class heartland, Sinn Féin's 'Ireland of equals' policies did not prove as popular as expected.

The issue of migration is also important. This is the first generation for centuries where young people expect to stay and work in Ireland. Now the problem in many minds has become migration into Ireland. There has been a 10% increase in population resulting from immigration. The resentment at being forced to emigrate has become resentment against newcomers. For the first time in Irish politics, anti-immigration candidates stood in the general election.

Certainly, for now at least, Sinn Féin's ambition to become an all-Ireland governmental party is off the agenda. It is of course a major setback for Adams. Yes, Sinn Féin is in government in the north, but that was always seen as a step towards the overriding goal. It does not want to be kept ghettoised in the north. The projected advance in the south was central to its strategic abandonment of the armed struggle. But Sinn Féin's all-Ireland programme (linked with the move to the centre ground on many social questions, it has to be said) did not prove as popular as it expected.

And other hopes were damaged too. The Socialist Party's Joe Higgins narrowly lost his seat in Dublin West, with 15% of the vote. Councillor Clare Daly expected to take a seat in Dublin North, but with 9% was unsuccessful. The SP's post-election analysis argues that they were squeezed between the major parties. It hopes that the future will bring new opportunities, "when the economic situation will force people into active opposition to the big business government" (www.socialistparty.net).

The loss of Higgins is undoubtedly a blow. For all his faults he was a leftwing voice of opposition within the Dáil.

The Socialist Workers Party front, People before Profit, had a good result in Dun Laoghaire, with Richard Boyd-Barrett on 8.9%. Its other three candidates polled less well, with votes ranging from 0.56% to 4.38%. It is a left vote, but of a very low level. With the exception of being against the war, the SWP candidates were more concerned with local issues, portraying themselves as local candidates.

When, as is undeniable, the working class struggle is low, the left must expect to take defeats. Rather than liquidating your politics, it is important to deepen that struggle. The issue of women's rights is a key point. The 'Miss D' case almost caused a major political storm in early May. Political parties were extremely jittery about it becoming an election issue. If it did, all of them, in particular the Greens, Sinn Féin and Labour Party were split right down the middle. They were extremely vulnerable on the issue.

Once Miss D was finally allowed to go to Britain to have her abortion, they and indeed the whole of the establishment heaved a collective sigh of relief. That was the abortion problem out of the way for a while. As long as women keep quiet and carry on booking their flights, they are not bothered.

But what about the left? I have been criticised recently by John, an SP supporter (Letters, May 17), for not getting my facts right in a previous article when I pointed to the left's inadequacy on this issue. John pointed to Joe Higgins's manifesto, which included a demand to "Support the choices of women with crisis pregnancies, including the provision of abortion facilities through the health service." Good as far as it goes, but clearly not far enough. What are "crisis pregnancies"? Does that refer to the likes of Miss D, who has a non-viable foetus? Or does it include any woman who wants an abortion? If so, then why not say it?

My argument was that the left in the election should have gone out and fought for a woman's right to choose. They should have taken up the demand and championed it. It is not enough to issue equivocal statements and press releases and leave it at that. True, given the deep divisions in Irish society on the question, this could well have resulted in greater electoral losses.

But for communists and those who say they are really for the working class, the point is not simply to get elected. The point is to use the opportunity of elections to put forward ideas to emancipate our class. Not kid them with reformism and parish pump politics.