From Socialist Voice, March 2011

The election is over, but the struggle continues


The result of the general election is a small but important step forward. The winning by a section of the left of five seats under the banner of the United Left Alliance is to be welcomed. The question facing all the left—both inside and outside Dáil Éireann—is how do we build and develop the influence of the left in every community in the country, urban and rural.
     Also to be welcomed is the election of a number of progressive independent TDs. The formation of the technical group should provide a stronger platform within the Dáil from which to articulate working people’s demands and concerns.
     The collapse of Fianna Fáil, coupled with the Labour Party’s undignified haste in joining Fine Gael in government, benefited Sinn Féin, who now have fourteen seats. This is a clear indication that a significant and growing minority of our people are looking for a change of direction but are not necessarily clear about that direction.
     If the United Left Alliance can set aside its sectarianism it could be in a position both to influence some of the more progressive independents and to find a working relationship with Sinn Féin, which could have a beneficial impact and strengthen the undoubted left forces within Sinn Féin itself.
     The election proved to be a significant if not a terminal blow to Fianna Fáil. The haemorrhage of working-class support that has been a feature over the last decade or more became a flood this time round. Serious questions now arise for the party. Will it be possible to reconstruct the all-class alliance that it so successfully built and sustained over the decades?
     While Fianna Fáil championed the integration and assimilation of the Southern state into the European Union, the policies of the EU itself have contributed to Fianna Fáil’s demise. They presented themselves as the defenders of the national interest, yet at every step, with every treaty, the EU eroded national accountability, undermining sovereignty and democracy. It forced through privatisation and the breaking up of public companies—areas that Fianna Fáil, along with the other two establishment parties, used for dispensing patronage, coupled with the corruption and graft endemic at all levels of the party.
     Fianna Fáil’s capacity to dispense the largesse of office was increasingly confined to the big boys, unlike the past, when even small supporters could look forward to a few more crumbs than their Fine Gael counterparts.
     The final straw for many was the sight of the European Union and International Monetary Fund formally taking control of the country and the façade finally falling, revealing clearly that we had really sold our sovereignty and independence a long time ago.
     Fianna Fáil’s only hope is if they can establish some relationship with Sinn Féin and present an alternative coalition when the present one collapses—as collapse it will.
     No doubt over the next few years Mícheál Martin will be vocal about how he has cleaned up the party and returned it to its members and to its core “republican” values, hoping that the fickle nature of people’s historical memory will work in his favour. But Fianna Fáil can find space to attack only if they are allowed by Sinn Féin and allowed to present themselves as the champions of the “national interest”—very difficult for them to do, as they have been central to the erosion of sovereignty and democracy.
     The new Government is what the establishment required if it could not have a Fine Gael majority Government. They have the best of both worlds: Fine Gael driving the economic and political agenda, firmly committed to the EU-IMF intervention, and the Labour Party using its influence in the trade union movement to manage and control workers’ expectations and aspirations. With the Labour Party in the Government, sections of the trade union movement will have to defend “better, fairer cuts,” as against a “better, fairer way.”
     This Fine Gael party is the most right-wing since Cumann na nGaedheal of the 1920s and 30s. For the Labour Party it is not that it wrestled again with its conscience (and won) but rather that it has no fundamental principles: it has few if any values distinct from the other establishment parties.
     Once again it rallied to the establishment, precisely at a point in history when the best option would have been to put itself at the head of a possible future progressive Government. But, like other European social-democratic parties, it has long since made its peace with the system and is more than willing to administer it and to manage workers’ aspirations within the system. As Seán O’Casey wrote of an earlier coalition, “their posteriors are aching for the velvet seats of office.”
     The programme for government is not some marrying of two opposite economic strategies or philosophies but rather a coming together of two similar economic and political outlooks.
     A strong, stable Government committed to implementing the agreement signed by the previous weak coalition with the EU and IMF is what both these bodies require. The images of Merkel and Barroso meeting Kenny during the election campaign were to convey the message that he was the man they could do business with.
     The programme for government essentially adopts the outgoing Government’s four-year plan. Instead of getting rid of 30,000 public employees, as Fine Gael wanted, or 17,000, in accordance with the Labour Party’s campaign, they reached a compromise and settled for 25,000 to go by 2015. They will cut €9 billion from public spending. They did not increase direct taxes but did increase indirect ones, so the elite will rest easy in their beds.
     The middle classes flocked to Fine Gael, with its promise of no tax increases, a review of the universal social charge, and its stated aim of squeezing out “waste” in welfare and in state bodies. It was a very class-conscious vote, to make the poor pay, to make lower-paid public-sector workers pay.
     The extent to which the Labour Party have abandoned any challenge to capitalism or any commitment to building an alternative society is seen in the fact that investment priorities and job creation will be centred on the private sector, with the Strategic Bank being the vehicle for delivering capital to it.
     The idea of a state strategic bank is of itself good; but in conditions where economic and social policy are determined by EU law and the primacy of the market, for such a body to be effective it would have to give priority to state-led economic and social development over that of market-led development; and this is outlawed by the EU treaties. The privatisation of €2 billion of what they call “non-strategic” state assets will only be the start. In the “Programme for Ireland” signed with the EU and IMF there are clear commitments to selling off state assets, including the ESB, An Bord Gáis, ports, airports, and much more. €2 billion will not be enough.
     The “compromise” about meeting the deadline of the European Central Bank regarding budget deficits is a sop to show that they played tough, that the EU blinked and they got concessions. They may well get an extension on the schedule of debt payment; they may get a reduction in the interest rate; but what is central is that they will commit themselves to paying every penny of the debt, regardless of the cost to the people. And both parties must hope that tens of thousands of our young people will simply leave the country.
     The make-up of the new Government is the hard right of Fine Gael, with the likes of Bruton, Shatter, Hogan, Coveney, Reilly and Varadkar all committed to making the people pay. We will see a sustained assault on workers’ rights, on public services, and on public companies.
     Joan Burton, as Minister for Social Protection, will take the responsibility for massive cuts in social welfare, with more and more people being denied benefits on the flimsiest of grounds and so contributing further to emigration. Brendan Howlin, as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, will oversee the removal of 25,000 public-sector workers, firstly by a voluntary severance package and, when that does not deliver the required numbers, forced redundancies.
     At the special Labour Party conference that decided to go into government a small number of delegates voted to oppose coalition. This is to be welcomed. What also emerged at this conference was the role played by leading figures from “Claiming Our Future” and “Is Féidir Linn,” arguing trenchantly for the programme for government and for entering coalition and confirming what many felt was the motivation of a significant number of the people behind both groups: to channel the dissent and anger felt within communities behind the Labour Party and to head off any possible alternative.
[EMC]

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