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Confidence and supply agreement extended

18 December 2018

A de facto government of national unity in Ireland weakens capitalism and poses a sharp challenge for the opposition.

In mid-December Fianna Fail and Fine Gael agreed a new confidence and supply agreement, maintaining the minority Fine Gael government in place until 2020. The event went almost unnoticed, with smiles from both parties, claims that the agreement was forced by the national interest and the imminence of Brexit. The smaller parties cried foul from the sidelines, having been deprived of an election contest.

At a superficial level this can be seen as horse trading between the two major capitalist parties in which Fine Gael got the better of Fianna Fail. Micheál Martin had to walk away without any quid pro quo for supporting the government. In the recent abortion referendum both leaders tried to pivot to take account of the more liberal attitudes within the population. Leo Varadkar succeeded and Fine Gael remain the most popular party. Micheál Martin failed because of the reaction of his own backbenchers stymied his own u-turn and blocked the path back to power for Fianna Fail. He really had no choice but to back down in the stand-off and wait for better times for his own party.

Yet what Martin wanted was very little. He wanted some cosmetic public concessions to justify his surrender to Fine Gael, but these were simply to demonstrate a supposed progressive element to Fianna Fail and its ability to gain reforms for its followers. He was trying to disguise the fact that there is only one government program supported in full by both major parties. The lack of concessions makes this crystal clear. We have a government of national unity and the programme of that government is austerity, privatisation, landlordism, the strangling of public services and the crushing of workers’ rights. The continued housing crisis and the handover of a new National Maternity Hospital to the religious orders are recent examples of the programme this government will operate.

The ongoing capitalist crisis has been managed by oppression of the working class and it has been successful in ensuring that the workers paid the bankers debt, yet there is a cost to pay in terms of the decay of political structures. Fianna Fail, once the party of government, has been reduced to a shadow. The new national government is strengthened in the short term but weakened in the longer term because there is no longer a serious opposition party with some choice of political programme. The myth of parliamentary democracy is torn away and weakens the illusions of workers in the pro-capitalist parties.

But this is bad news for the self-proclaimed left groups also. The Labour Party, themselves decimated by their support for austerity, are trying to claw their way back to the standard position as junior partner in a capitalist government. Sinn Fein are attempting to transition from an old leadership backed by the authority of the IRA towards a more liberal and right wing position. They are out of government in the North and have no prospect of returning. They suffered a setback in the recent presidential elections, and have seen a split to the right around the issue of abortion. The party is skipping and jumping between presenting itself as the main component of a future right wing government coalition and, on the other hand, signalling that it is at heart still a party of the left and willing to protest the right. A delayed election robs them of momentum and allows for greater fragmentation. As for the socialist groups and the independents, they bump along at the bottom of the poll, unable to convince the majority of the population that a programme of parliamentary reformism will be successful.

The lack of alternative does not end at the gates of the Dail. The trade unions have been leading lobbying exercises and demonstrations meant to resolve the crises in housing and in health. The formation of what is in reality a national government and the lack of even minimal reform to accommodate the new arrangement between the major parties means that lobbying exercises can have only a very limited effect. The whole reformist effort that has tended to blunt protest across the past decade is now running into the buffers.

There are small but significant signs that events are going to slip outside the network of partnerships that link Irish capital and the trade union leadership. So a mass campaign that halted with the withdrawal of the abortion question from the constitution and accepted quite limited legislation has not seen the issue closed down but has seen further discontent around continued links between church and state in the health services. Pleadings at the gates of the Dail around housing were followed by a government plan that will feed vulture capital and landlordism and smoother the path towards a mass giveaway of public land. However protests have not ended and we now have a context of terrorism by paramilitary forces employed by the landlords in evictions and direct action by communities to force them back.

The situation today will not stand still. The original confidence and supply arrangement was an attempt by Micheál Martin to avoid the bear trap of coalition. The history of recent times is littered with the corpse of junior partners in reactionary governments that acted as sacrificial anode for the major government party. The renewed confidence and supply agreement, his failure to win any concessions in the current negotiations means that Fianna Fail has been reduced to the junior partnership status he was trying to avoid without even the cabinet posts and patronage that are the lifeblood of capitalist parties. The possibility of reviving Fianna Fail must go downhill.

There are very large question marks over the ability of Sinn Fein to present itself as the new Fianna Fail and in any case their ambition is for that very target of junior partnership in coalition that has doomed parties in the past. The schemes of the left for a left unity government that would have to be built in conjunction with Sinn Fein have turned to dust. The promise to use the Dail to mobilise on the streets has been turned on its head and is now mobilising on the streets to gain more parliamentary clout. In the absence of any commitment to independent action by the workers there appears to be no realistic strategy for a general mobilisation.

As Yeats said in another context: "things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." The constant grinding of capitalist decay is eroding both the mechanisms of government rule and the standard responses of petition and reform.

At the end of the day reformism is based on the belief that the working class will never respond or turn to revolution. We are ready seen preliminary stirrings that will disprove these nostrums.

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