From Socialist Voice, March 2011

Changed utterly?


The most hyped general election since the early 1930s generated enough fodder for the pundits and chattering classes for the last couple of months to drive us all demented; and now, two weeks after the dust has settled in the count centres, there’s not much sign of it letting up.
     The Irish Times on 28 February trumpeted: “Political mould shattered by most remarkable election in State’s history.” Several of the “experts” who bleat on the air waves every Saturday and Sunday morning emotionally reminded us that “people in Libya are dying for what we just achieved here.” But how does the reality stand up to these extravagant claims?
     Fine Gael, having received 36 per cent of the vote, are now the largest party in Dáil Éireann, with seventy-seven seats, but in fact secured a slightly higher percentage in 1982; so, despite the hype, no sea change there.
     The Labour Party have their largest number of seats ever, at 37, with 19.4 per cent of first preferences, but it’s hardly earth-shattering, as they had 33 seats with 19.3 per cent of the vote in 1992. So no breakthrough there.
     The Green Party have gone the way of all the small boutique parties that pop up from time to time—Clann na Talmhan, Clann na Poblachta, Progressive Democrats, etc. They came, they helped prop up Governments that were lacking an absolute majority, they made noise for a while, they disappeared. So again, nothing unprecedented.
     What makes this election different is the destruction at the polls of Fianna Fáil, which has been the main party in the state since the 1932 election. To go from 41 per cent of the vote in 2007 to 17½ per cent in 2011 is a stunning reversal, more than 470,000 voters having deserted them, many taking the unprecedented step of switching votes to the dreaded “enemy,” Fine Gael.
     This, in my opinion, means that this election should not be dismissed as just the usual Tweedledum-Tweedledee of bourgeois politics.
     Fianna Fáil—like the Liberal Party in Britain, the Christian Democrats in Italy, the Unionist Party in the North—has since its early years been one of the great catch-all political parties of modern European politics. But previously, even when losing elections and being briefly out of government, they remained by far the largest party in the country, claiming, not without justification, to be more of a national movement than a mere political party.
     Now Fianna Fáil has gone the way of those other monolithic blocs. Its humiliation at the polls reflected the unprecedented hostility, bordering on hatred, with which their canvassers were greeted throughout the recent campaign. This goes beyond the 5 to 10 per cent swings that usually determine the outcome of elections.
     But the mass desertion of Fianna Fáil by the “common people” is less significant (in the medium term at least) than their fall from grace with the upper and middle classes and their media sycophants. Fianna Fáil for decades has been the weapon of choice for Irish and international capital in ensuring that their writ runs in this benighted state. Yet it is almost impossible to find a good word for Fianna Fáil from those who acted as uncritical cheerleaders all during the years of the so-called Celtic Tiger, when the self-same politicians could do no wrong.
     And what is the crime for which they are now pillorying Fianna Fáil? The return of mass unemployment? A generation of Irish youth yet again destined for emigration? The betrayal of whatever degree of independence the Irish people had won? A health service increasingly unfit for purpose? Thousands of homes lying empty and unfinished while thousands of people are homeless?
     No, Fianna Fáil committed the greatest of all crimes in the eyes of what passes for a ruling class and their hired hacks: they got caught out.
     Because not only does capitalism permit all the horrors listed, it relies on them to keep the people weak and divided. And the function of a political party is to ensure “business as usual.” Fianna Fáil, through its arrogance and recklessness, failed in this task and has therefore lost the confidence of the real paymasters: international finance capital and its agents, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. They have managed, albeit unwittingly, to expose to gaze the real rulers of Ireland, and that means they are no longer “fit for purpose.”
     However, despite all the protestations and blustering, the Fine Gael-Labour Government is totally committed to the same EU-IMF strategy. Oh, sure, they’ll tinker around the edges with some details; but they will ensure that there is no fundamental challenge to the power of finance capital. Their claim to fame is that they will be more loyal and effective local agents for capital than the collection of horse-dealers who preceded them and that they will be better at keeping the natives quiet and compliant than Fianna Fáil were.
     From the “new, improved” Blueshirts we will get exactly what it says on the tin and what their history dictates: hard times, cuts in essential services, and repression for those who resist. The Labour Party, also in keeping with their traditions, have again wrestled with their conscience and, again, have won.
     It is a sobering fact that for all the talk, work and struggle of many honest members and supporters through the years, the Labour Party’s most striking contribution to Irish politics has been to leap to the defence of capitalism in times of crisis, thus helping to secure its hegemony for another generation.
     If this sounds like a harsh judgement, consider the record. The Labour Party stood aside in the 1918 general election to let the various wings of Irish capitalism fight it out for electoral supremacy; they effectually supported the Free State government during the Civil War; they propped up various Fine Gael governments (more recently they also propped up a Fianna Fáil Government). In every case they claimed to be acting in the “national interest.”
     Their highest ambition—as they openly stated in the last week of the campaign—is to curb the worst excesses of Fine Gael. By doing so they yet again give credibility to the farce of bourgeois democracy, and yet again we will witness the obscenity of the Labour Party ministers voting for, and implementing, neo-liberal policies.
     On every occasion they have emerged demoralised and decimated from coalition with the main right-wing parties. This is exactly the fate that awaits them this time.
     Fianna Fáil will retreat to the opposition benches and seek to rebuild their shattered fortunes. But which direction will they go? The great catch-all populist party is being squeezed. On the right there is no room: Fine Gael and Fine Gael Lite have that sewn up; on the left there is now a vocal and assertive opposition with the five United Left Alliance TDs, Sinn Féin’s fourteen, and most of the twelve independents being broadly on the left. (Labour people will bristle at the term “Fine Gael Lite”; but the reality is that Fine Gael could not form a remotely “stable” government without them.)
     Will Fianna Fáil seek to woo Sinn Féin? Although Sinn Féin mounted an effective and generally progressive campaign, it is not clear how a party can oppose cuts in one jurisdiction while implementing them in another. Has the grand ambition of being in government on both sides of the border been replaced by a more consistently radical, class-based approach? Time will tell.
     The success of the United Left Alliance is significant because their candidates stood openly as socialists. However, Dáil Éireann is a new arena of struggle for all but one of them, the redoubtable Joe Higgins. Higgins has played a positive role on many issues but still on occasion betrays a left sectarianism that he needs to move on from. They will have to quickly master, as Higgins has promised, the combining of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forms of struggle.
     This injunction applies equally to Sinn Féin and the left independents. Between the United Left Alliance, Sinn Féin and the broadly left independents there is a potential bloc of twenty-five or more TDs committed to opposing the neo-liberal consensus. A progressive Labour Party, ambitious for the class it purports to represent, would have put itself, with its thirty-seven TDs, at the head of a serious left grouping consisting of more than a third of the 166 TDs elected to the 31st Dáil.
     Now wouldn’t that be a sight to see?—Fine Gael, the rump of Fianna Fáil and a few maverick right-wing independents openly endorsing and implementing the policies of their capitalist masters, with a vibrant and growing left bloc in the Dáil working in conjunction with a mobilised working class and a fighting trade union movement!
     It is far too early to suggest that this election has broken the mould of 26-County politics. Capitalism still rules, through the banks, the media, the majority of politicians; and that rule is not yet fundamentally challenged. Depending on the degree and effectiveness of mobilisation of and by working people, the next election may provide a better barometer of the maturing of class politics and the mounting of a real alternative.
[EG]

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