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Ireland South: Can a “left“ vote shield against austerity? 

The story of the local and European elections in the South of Ireland is easily told. Voters took the opportunity to wreak vengeance on the government parties. The leading conservative party in the government coalition, Fine Gael, took a drubbing losing 8.4 per cent of its vote, but their Labour party partners were massacred, with their vote falling by half to 7%. The loss was of such an extent that party leader Eamon Gilmore was  immediately deposed by his followers. The protest vote was swept up by Sinn Fein who now hold 157 council seats and gained seats in all the European parliament constituencies. There were significant gains by socialist groups. The Socialist Party and its electoral front, the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), won 14 council seats and a seat in a Dail by-election.  The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and its front, the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA), won 14 council seats with smaller groups also taking seats. A variety of independents were elected in a widespread protest vote.


The significance of the poll is somewhat more difficult to interpret. That requires looking behind the vote at the consciousness and motivation of the workers and also an examination of the policies and strategies of the parties who gained from the vote.

A starting point is the last general election. It also saw a political earthquake, with the historic majority party of Irish capitalism, Fianna Fail, and minority parties such as the Greens who had served in coalition government, wiped out to such an extent that their utter extinction was predicted.

However the electoral revolt did not amount to a rejection of austerity. It was much more a revulsion against the incompetence and corruption of the Fianna Fail government and the  humiliation of being under the control of the Troika. The new coalition government was committed to a harsh austerity.  Workers understood this and voted tactically for Labour as the minority component in the hope that they would cushion the worst blows.

No cushion

There was no cushion. The coalition and Troika acted as one in the interests of capital. Attack after attack was launched on the workers, who were driven back, the Trade Union bureaucracy a fifth column in their midst.

The government knew that they would generate hatred. Their solution was to claim that their financial competence had led to recovery and that they had purged national humiliation by    leading the country out of Troika rule.

The strategy failed utterly. The "recovery" in Ireland is based partly on cheap money from the European bank that is fuelling another housing bubble. Profitably is based on a ruthless cutting of wage rates and workers rights. Profitability is 25% of Irish households living jobless, in abject poverty. For workers the austerity stretches on into the next generation. "Recovery" is to see another €2 billion cut in the coming budget.

The scale of the offensive overwhelmed Labour’s usual strategy of putting aside a hardship fund for the worst cases. There was outrage when children and the chronically sick lost their medical cards and when young workers were sold into slavery in the Jobbridge programme. People struggled to pay a property tax while the banks they had bailed out stepped up mortgage  repossessions.


At the same time it became evident that corruption was not  restricted to the previous Fianna Fail government, but was rather a trademark of the Irish capitalist class as a whole. They had managed to avoid any pain themselves and agencies supported by the government had used charitable donations for handicapped children to swell their already generous pension funds. 

The charity scandal was followed by the ending of criminal  proceedings against the bankers involved at the centre of the      bailout. No-one would ever be brought to book. The submissions made the reasons for this failure of justice crystal clear. It showed the Irish establishment, including the union bosses, as a criminal conspiracy, making decisions in back rooms, dealing by word of mouth and making sure no minutes were kept.

Finally it became clear that the Garda routinely wiped the slate of minor offenses - and many not so minor - again the great and the good. The police themselves had impunity. Their freedom was enforced by routine spying on all aspects of everyday life for the working class, tearing up of legal restrictions and persecution of individuals who saw their human rights abolished at whim.

Water charge

But perhaps the biggest catastrophe for the government was the water charge. The Irish water system is in a state of collapse. Rather than repair it, the government has set up a private     company and invested workers pension funds in installing water meters. The plan was that charging would then be justified as encouraging water conservation.

Unfortunately for the government only a third of meters have been installed. That meant that households would receive yet another substantial charge based on an estimate of water use and that the whole defence of water conservation no longer stood. It also meant that a large section of the population were to pay for water that was unfit to drink.

People wanted to strike back. Labour's claim that they had prevented the imposition of a standing charge only made things worse.


The electoral drubbing handed out by the electorate has staggered the establishment, but does it represent any existential threat? The evidence is against this. Fianna Fail, wiped out in the last general election, won the highest numbers of local government seats. The Greens, reduced to zero seats, are now recovering.

When we look at the elections to measure the consciousness and combatively of the workers we have to add to the recovery of Fianna Fail and Greens the large vote for independents. Many were members of existing capitalist parties who had not been selected by their parties. The very best of the independents are radical democrats rather than socialists. The majority were  figures from the right of the political landscape. 

We also have to consider the landslide for Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein are not a socialist party, nor do they claim to be. They sit in a reactionary colonial administration in the North applying austerity and in the last austerity round in the South they produced an alternative budget that matched, euro for euro, government plans to pay the bailout debt. Their overall strategy is to win seats in government and they plan to be in coalition with whatever capitalist party comes to the fore in the coming Dail elections. Not so long ago Adams, challenged about a wealth tax, publicly tore up the policy on the faint chance of a place in a Fianna Fail coalition.

Irish voters know all this. The fact that they voted Sinn Fein is an indication that, in desperation, they are dealing with the failure of labour by moving the shortest political distance possible. And this is what Sinn Fein offered - a fairer way of paying for the crisis with less pain.

There is a different picture in inner city Dublin (although not on the overarching Dublin City council). There, to some extent, the old pattern has been broken in working class districts. Fianna Fail has not recovered. The Labour party is now a small middle-class party of the right, even in defeat transferring votes to the far-right Fine Gael. The socialist groups, alongside Sinn Fein, have achieved a new prominence and an opportunity to attempt an implantation into working class areas.


If they are to do so they must overcome serious challenges.  Socialists normally focus on the action of workers to build a new society. The justification for an electoralist strategy is that it gives one a platform to advance socialist policies. Yet the socialist groups ran behind front organizations almost bereft of politics. The usual justification for a shift to the right is that it is necessary to promote unity, yet both the Socialist party and Socialist workers party had already exploded the United left  alliance in vicious sectarian infighting. The only reason for the front groups was a conviction that they could not win electoral support for socialist politics.

So how will they advance?  Both groups say a new working class party is needed, although the political platform that would support a new party is not advanced. An additional problem is that both groups mean very different things when they call for a new party.

For the Socialist party the strategy is to unite with the left bureaucracy in the trade unions. As these are joined with bonds of steel to the rest of the union bureaucracy and to the mechanism of social partnership it is a strategy doomed to failure. In the aftermath of the Labour Party implosion the largest union, SIPTU, are organising hustings to decide support for a new leader. This throws into prominence the fact that they organised to support the Labour party and the coalition in the elections and therefore the continued austerity programme.  At the meetings SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor trumpets that there should be no “unnecessary” austerity in the forthcoming budget – of course if it continues to be necessary the unions will continue their policy of betrayal. The socialist groups  comfort themselves with “left” leaders such as Jimmy Kelly of UNITE, yet he never breaks ranks with the rest of the bureaucracy.

Union leadership

The popular front approach of the socialist groups also means that they will continue to kow-tow to the union bureaucracy and are likely to seek links with a Labour “left” at a time when a principled campaign might well halt a regroupment of the party.

The SWP are slightly more critical of the union leadership, without ever breaking with them. They have consistently advanced a strategy of broad unity, stopping just short of alliances with the mainstream capitalist parties.  That means that they will mount a unity offensive aimed primarily at Sinn Fein and routinely make deals with them at council level. This is a recipe for disaster, given Sinn Fein’s obsession with winning seats in a coalition government. The strategy will keep the focus on the Dail and the councils rather than on building independent activity by the working class. If Sinn Fein win a place in government it will be on exactly the same basis as the labour party – implementing an austerity agenda dictated by the European central bank.  That crashing of hopes would be another defeat for workers that can only be headed off by politically opposing Sinn Fein today. 

The limitations of the socialist policy was seen on Dublin council as the dust of the elections settled.  Sinn Fein moved immediately to form an alliance with labour and the capitalist parties and   divide up council offices. This was protested by the left but only four independent councillors broke with the deal and set themselves up in opposition. It is quite evident that plan B for the SWP is to repeat plan A.

There are many signs of the retreat of the socialists. They made water charging central to the election. However the reality of water privatisation was not discussed - that it was part of a    modernisation agenda imposed by the Troika, given legal force by the Financial Stability Act and agreed by all the social partners. None mentioned the struggle in Ukraine – even though the violence there is driven by a programme of European expansion and a savage austerity for Ukrainian workers led by the Troika.

The overall level of political consciousness was illustrated by a poll just before the election.  A large majority favoured the    bizarre suggestion that the British royal family lead off the 1916 centenary in 2016 – and this included a 55% majority of Sinn Fein members!

The reality is that people have protested the crushing austerity, yet the crushing austerity is still there and can only intensify. There is only one way to go and that is towards rejection and independent activity. If that were to manifest itself even our moribund left would respond and the balance of forces would quickly shift.


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