Irish election: Downturn in workers struggle means Teflon Bertie rides again
29 May 2007
The Irish election of 24th May astounded all the political observers commenting on it. The election was called unexpectedly at a rushed early morning press conference in a transparent attempt to head of a judicial enquiry into suspect financial dealings by the Taoiseach , Bertie Ahern. The enquiry was immediately postponed. On the campaign trail Ahern was struck dumb when questioned about his finances. When he did make a statement a poll showed that over half the electorate did not believe him. In the background behind the corruption allegations was a major strike by nurses, a crisis in the health service, the repression of women’s reproductive rights, major incidents of pollution and a mass privatisation campaign.
The confident prediction was that Fianna Fail would be forced out of office and replaced with a ‘rainbow coalition’ of the right-wing Fine Gael party with the Irish Labour party as junior partners. The Green party and Sinn Fein were expected to substantially increase their share of the vote and the smaller socialist and local independent candidates expected to do well.
The actual result was that the Fianna Fail vote fell slightly, but they were returned as the major party, ready to form a new coalition government. The opposition was concentrated in a major swing to the right-wing Fine Gael vote, but Labour performed poorly and were not in a position to form a coalition. The Green vote was below expectation, but their six seats may put them in coalition government. For Sinn Fein and the small socialist organisations the vote was a disaster. Ironically the Fianna Fail partners in the last election, the far right Progressive Democrats, who always claimed to be watchdog over the probity of their coalition partners, were wiped out in the election. The best news of the election was the defeat of minister for justice, the Progressive Democrat leader, Michael McDowell, well hated for his ultra-right views, lost his seat and has said he will resign from politics
In the 30th Irish Dáil the final state of the parties is: Fianna Fáil 78, Fine Gael 51, Labour 20, Progressive Democrats 2, Green Party 6, Sinn Féin 4, Independents 5. In the 29th Dail Fianna Fail had 81 seats, Fine Gael had 31, Labour 21, PDs 8, Greens 6, Sinn Fein 5, Socialist Party 1 and independents 13
There were many issues in the election that spoke volumes about the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy. A major strike by nurses was defeated at the hands of the Irish trade union bureaucracy, locked in partnership with the bosses to prevent strikes like the nurses succeeding. The partnership deal is now leading to workers working harder for what is effectively a pay cut. The major issue of the collapse of the existing health service loomed in the background. In housing, the majority of workers cannot afford homes and there is no real programme of social housing. Parents pay over 30% of the direct running costs of schools. Water privatisation is on the agenda, while at the same time uncontrolled pollution is making water undrinkable. Housing costs that force workers to satellite towns and lack of public transport mean hours added to the working day. In the ‘D’ Case attempts were made to force a young woman to carry an unviable foetus to term. Shannon airport continues to pay a major role in the Iraq war despite Ireland’s status as a neutral country. Shell to Sea documents a campaign where the state is crushing the rights of its citizens in the interests of a major oil company. A new partitionist settlement pushed Irish unity further away than ever.
These were issues, but they were not election issues because there was no-one to present them. Sinn Fein’s populist pretence of social democracy evaporated within days of the election being launched. The small socialist movement lost its electoral voice in this election. It had lost its political voice long ago.
The political retreat of the working class had become a rout following the Irish Ferries struggle of 2005. A mass mobilisation of workers followed deregulation, casualisation and outsourcing of jobs – a ‘race to the bottom’ that saw mass redundancies and the employment of migrant workers on starvation wages. The mobilisation was firmly under the control of the trade union bureaucracy who used it, not to oppose this process, but to draft a new 10-year agreement with the bosses called ‘towards 2016’. This offered flexibility and wage restrain in return for promises that the government and employers would manage the offensive on employment rights by, for example halting wage cuts when they reached the legal minimum. The outcome of this policy was that the trade union leadership and sections of the working class began to actively support the privatisation process. The privatisation of the national airline Aer Lingus, was accompanied by the issue of shares to the workforce at the urging of the union. The privatisation was immediately followed by a predatory bid by Ryanair and the ludicrous situation of workers and unions collaborating in speedups and jobs cuts – tearing up their rights as workers in order to defend their rights as shareholders!
The downturn in class struggle was apparent in the national action by nurses during the election. There were a number of statements of support by left groups, but no solidarity action. The government’s counterattack – that social partnership with the unions prevented them meeting the nurses demands – went unremarked, as did the active participation of the union bureaucracy, through the partnership ‘National Implementation Body’ in forcing the defeat of the Nurses. Their demands will now be addressed through the partnership ‘benchmarking’ process, that exchanges concessions on wages and hours for speedup and redundancies that will see the workers pay for the so-called concessions.
The outcome in electoral terms was that the small socialist movement fought small local and community-based campaigns that adapted to the retreat of workers. A good example was the demand for ‘affordable housing’. This reflected the widespread view that public housing or any general right to be housed is utopian. In the absence of this possibility many workers want their own chance to get on the ‘property ladder’ and join in the speculative bubble based on housing stock which made homes for workers unavailable in the first place!
With no challenge from the left the election became a battle between right and ultra-right. (The Irish Labour party can be included among the ultra-right. One of its key complaints was that the middle class were being taxed too heavily). The main ground – the corruption of the government – could not be fought too closely. Only the incurably naïve would imagine that corruption was restricted to one section of the Irish capitalist class. As a result the campaign became a presidential one, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern himself becoming the main issue.
Bertie was far from defenceless. In the campaign he was able to balance the negative reports of his financial irregularity against pictures of himself posing with the bigot Paisley as the man who had finally resolved the Irish question and images of Bertie as world statesman addressing the British House of Commons. The hidden sub-text of corruption played in his favour also. The right critique of corruption in Ireland is similar to American critiques of corruption in Africa, a mechanism for promoting further privatisation and deregulation. The right believe that the flip side of corruption – the patronage and populist clientelism that define Fianna Fail – is too inefficient and concedes too much to the working class. Social partnership, which grew out of Fianna Fail patronage of the trade union bureaucracy, is seen as an unnecessary concession. In fact during the election the Irish small business federation launched a bitter attack on social partnership from the right, complaining that the basic conditions in public service forced them to provide a basic wage in the private sector.
In fact the Irish expect corruption from their politicians. Bertie Ahern got over 30% of the votes cast – a figure reduced from over 50% by his parties voting advice in a multi-seat constituency. One figure in the top ten of voter preferences who may well support the new government as an independent is Michael Lowry, forced to resign as a government minister for breathtaking public corruption. Another figure is Beverly Cooper-Flynn. Elected on a high turnout and willing to support the new government, she may well lose her seat by being declared bankrupt. The bankruptcy would arise from legal attempts to contest media reports of corruption – attempts which failed. The Dublin working class vote for Fianna Fail indicates that, after two decades of partnership and following the collapse of republicanism as any kind of radical force, they are now looking to the populist wing of capitalism to defend them from the worst of the coming offensive.
An important footnote in the campaign was the weakness of Sinn Fein. Expecting to double their seats and have a good chance of positions in a coalition government, their vote and number of seats fell. There were a number of reasons for this. Their expectation of reward for delivering the imperialist settlement in the North was misplaced. Irish capital is grateful – but not that grateful. The 26-county state already has a Fianna Fail and has no need for Fianna Fail Óg. The party, having carefully crafted a mild social democratic taxation policy, abandoned it at the start of the election campaign to adopt the economic policy of the right. Finally, the party has not developed the skills of ‘normal’ bourgeois parties. Adams, put face to face with other politicians found that his grasp of political and economic issues was not sufficient. Years of cosseting by politicians and media urging on the republican surrender disguised the fact that the organisation is still run on regimented and military lines and its pool of political ability is very small.
Sinn Fein’s difficulty will not end there. In the North they will hold on desperately to the parliamentary positions that they already have and will be easy prey for further demands from the Paisleyites. In the South they will be very welcome to hold up the Fianna Fail minority government without reward, giving them all the disadvantages of openly supporting the capitalist offensive without any of the advantages of office.
Despite the loss of the one seat held by Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party, the small socialist movement’s vote was not insignificant in numerical terms (one candidate, Richard Boyd Barrett of the Socialist Workers Party, did come close to election, but not around any socialist demands). What did render it insignificant was the politics of the candidates. Localism and electoralism meant that what we got was a left gloss on the dominant capitalist programme. A few thousand votes for the workers republic would have meant incomparably more in terms of organising the fightback against the offensive that will follow this election.
The one distinct gain from the election was the defeat of the Progressive Democrats and the obliteration of their leader, the ultra-right former minister of justice, Michael McDowell. The fate of the PDs was both defeat and victory. It was victory in the sense that they party was formed to force on Fianna Fail the need for a Thatcherite deconstruction of Irish society. In this they were supremely successful. However when Fianna Fail did adopt their programme their reason for existence changed. They declared they were in government to act as watchdog on government corruption!
In fact the PD’s played a unique role in coalition – as heatshield for Fianna Fail. The PD demise indicates how unpopular their programme is, but Fianna Fail have been able to escape blame for implementing it by regretfully explaining that the rules of coalition tied their hands. Bertie Ahern understands how useful this role has been and is now trying to construct an informal alliance of the PD rump and independents which would again deflect blame for the government.
This is unlikely to work. The populist
and clientelist cover over a full-scale offensive on Irish workers is unlikely
to last for long. Fianna Fail will face choppy water long before
the 30th Dail runs its course. Just how difficult its task will be will
depend to the extent that the working class can begin to build independent
structures for its own defence.