Ireland finally forms a stable government - for 17 days!
18 July 2020
The 2019 election and its aftermath showed the deep instability of the Irish state after years of austerity in the service of the 2008 banking debt.
The two major capitalist parties between them could not muster a majority. It was a big setback when they had to put together a national government and an even bigger setback when they had to haggle and cajole the Green party into place as the meat in the sandwich. After months of bargaining Fianna Fail's Micheál Martin was installed as Taoiseach of the new tripartite coalition on the 27th June.
Just how unstable the political deal is was demonstrated when agriculture minister Barry Cowen was sacked on the 14th of July seventeen days after the formation of the government.
If the speed of the first crisis shows the depth of instability, the reasons for the sacking speaks volumes about Irish society.
Many years ago a speaker at a solidarity conference described Ireland as a "4th world country" meaning that Ireland was dependent in the same way as many other former colonies but what made it 'fourth world' was the absolute refusal to admit this. In public discourse the comparison state is Denmark, an imperialist power. Dependency is never discussed because the ruling class supports imperialist penetration of the economy. Through the Good Friday Agreement they support the indefinite occupation of the North by Britain and the jewel in the crown of economic policy is the subsidising of transnational companies via low rates of corporation tax.
But because Ireland is a dependent economy it has never been able to generate state funds on the level that would allow a welfare state. The absence generates a system based on patronage and clientelism, where people scrabble for access to sparse resources. With 3 parties in government how can the ministries and power be shared out? One response was to create a number of junior ministries and to pack each party's office with special advisors paid from the public purse. Responding to criticism, the Taoiseach replied that: “This is a tripartite government”... Everyone has to get a fair crack of the whip! Local reporters quipped that the Dail would need an extension to fit in the flood of extra appointments.
There was immediate civil war within the most populist of the parties, Fianna Fail. The west of the country had been left without a share of the spoils. The aggrieved TDs set out to get even. Aided by Garda corruption they released details of a drink driving conviction that minister Cowan had not disclosed. Attempts at a rebuttal led to further leaks until the minister was sacked and immediately replaced by Mayo TD and FF deputy leader Dara Calleary, who has no experience of agriculture but is seen as representing the west.
There are a whole series of consequences from this episode. Fianna Fail now have a vendetta rumbling in the background. Fine Gael, traditionally the party of big money, stood to one side and are eyeing their increased popularity to see if they can make a break for government power in the future. The Green party were slavishly loyal to Fianna Fail, clearly showing that any expectation that they would fight for progressive measures in government was seriously misplaced.
Rounding off the episode was an announcement from the European Court clearing Ireland and Apple corporation of wrongdoing in a scheme where over €13 billion in tax was hidden in an office with no location and no employees. This led to general jubilation and the conviction that running a tax haven for transnational companies represented the way forward for economic progress.
However the battle about patronage is not the only fracture point in Fianna Fail. The whole of the current party strategy is based on the exclusion of Sinn Fein from government. For the Irish bourgeoisie the Good Friday Agreement represents a mechanism for putting to bed the national sentiment for Irish unity. Immediately after the Dail row Micheál Martin travelled North, pledging that there would be no border poll on Irish unity during his watch and offering progress on "a shared Ireland" as an alternative.
The problem here is that many in the West have relied on rhetorical nationalism to hold their support and see an alliance with Sinn Fein as a way back to the driving seat in Irish politics. How that develops depends on how Martin wins the political jockeying for position that is a central part of coalition. Things are not going well. Yet again Fine Gael are gathering support as the more coherent voice of Irish capital, best able to ensure stability.
Many tests lie ahead. In addition to growing crises around the European economy and Brexit, the last informal national government fell because of the burgeoning crises in health and housing. The new programme for government promises to resolve these issues but the proposals are more of the same, founded on encouraging private investment for "affordable" housing. Pandemic emergency legislation saw the homeless housed and a temporary National Health Service, but as the emergency steps are withdrawn Fianna Fail have taken both ministries and will be the face of regression on housing and health. They will be to the forefront in the coming struggle.
As with the growing crisis across the globe what we see in Ireland is a jury-rigged system buffeted by events. Stability comes from the fact that the opposition is in as great a state of decay as the capitalists. Only the most marginal protest comes from the trade unions. Both the Irish Labour Party and Sinn Fein joined in the critique of government featherbedding but An Taoiseach was able to point out that Labour were the first to bring in special advisor status and that Sinn Fein had milked the system dry in the Northern administration.
It is clear that these parliamentary poseurs and the supporters of a Left government led by Sinn Fein will not be to the forefront in the coming battles.