No alternative posed

Anne Mc Shane sees the economy and the failing capitalist system as the central question in Ireland

The election of Michael D Higgins as Ireland’s ninth president was certainly a resounding victory for the Labour Party. At almost 40% of first preferences and over one million votes, he was undoubtedly the clear winner. His election, as well as that of Patrick Nulty in the Dublin West by-election, reflect interesting developments in terms of Labour.

What is significant is that both Higgins and Nulty are on the left of the party. Higgins is a veteran supporter of progressive causes and has more often been seen as a thorn in the side of the establishment. He has  been a frequent critic of the Catholic church and a supporter of women’s rights - even, it is said, an advocate of abortion rights. Nulty is a young community activist who describes himself as a socialist. He was one of the early signatories to Hands Off the People of Iran here in Ireland.

Of course, there is no doubt that neither was voted in as a rebel as such. Nulty has professed his opposition to health cuts and the household charge (yet another new tax); but he has also said he will abide by the party whip. Higgins ran an extremely sanitised campaign, which was more about his poetry than politics. In fact he consistently evaded difficult questions about where he stood on, for example, the church and the constitution.

Higgins’ victory stood in contrast to the humiliation of Labour’s coalition partner. Fine Gael’s Gay Mitchell won only 6.4%. Mitchell - a craw-thumping conservative and ‘pro-lifer’, who once described abortion as akin to “the holocaust” - was well behind Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness at 13.7%. So humiliated was the Fine Gael candidate that he could not even bring himself to turn up for the official announcement at Dublin Castle. This was a slap in the face for the largest governing party.

Sinn Féin, however, will see it as a step forward in its attempt to build an all-Ireland republican party. McGuinness’s candidature had been greeted with horror by establishment and media alike when it was announced in September. The level of vitriol was astounding, as journalists and politicians alike went on the attack. McGuinness was put under huge pressure to confess his membership of the Irish Republican Army and his alleged complicity in a number of killings. He went from respected Northern Ireland politician to mad gunman overnight. Deep indignation was expressed at his effrontery in coming south to stand for the presidency. His republicanism is a kind that is very unwelcome, it was said.

The other candidate to receive such interrogation was David Norris. Norris, who is an openly gay man, is a member of the Senate and well known for being a supporter of progressive causes (including, incidentally, Hopi). Norris was one of the first to throw his hat into the ring and got a lot of support. But then the establishment turned their attention to destroying his character and digging up his past. He has always said that he does not support an age of consent. This, we were told, was evidence of softness on paedophilia.

Another example was the fact that he had written a letter to an Israeli court pleading clemency for his ex-partner, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old youth. And he had the nerve to write it on Senate headed paper. The real problem was not the letter, but the fact that it had been written for a gay man. The fact that the sex had actually been consensual did not matter at all. Norris initially withdrew from the race because of the scandal, but rejoined it after calls were made from the public for him to do so. But he remained deeply defensive and gradually his support fell away.

Fianna Fáil did not have a candidate - well, not openly. Instead, Fianna Fáil member Sean Gallagher, successful businessman and judge in Ireland’s version of The dragon’s den went forward as an ‘independent’. He did initially gather a large degree of support from Fianna Fáil members and seemed on course to win. But he was spectacularly outed for corruption and bribe-taking by Martin McGuinness during a televised national debate just days before the election. We were all immediately reminded of Fianna Fáil politicians with their snouts in the trough.

In terms of the left, Ruth Coppinger for the Socialist Party/United Left Alliance did well in the Dublin West by-election, coming third with 21.1% of the vote. She tied with the Fianna Fáil candidate in what had been the constituency of Brian Lenihan, the finance minister. The SP is rightly very pleased with the result, but it is hard to know what it will mean for the ULA, as the sectarian antipathy between it and the Socialist Workers Party continues to hamper the project.

It was a bad day for Fine Gael and a good day for Labour - I believe that this will exacerbate tensions within the coalition. Also for the left it poses the need for us to immediately address the constitution in a radical way. The Socialist Party said that there should be no president and so the election was a sideshow not worth getting involved in. Like many I agree that the presidency should be abolished. But the way to do that is to campaign around the election, if possible standing a candidate. The vote shows that those who stand against the status quo are popular.

The central question in Ireland remains the economy and the failing capitalist system. Yet there was no presidential candidate standing for the only viable alternative - Marxism. Nor can we leave constitutional questions to liberals and republicans. These are issues for which the working class movement ought to have answers.