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Dublin Bay South

Irish by-election shows a prison for the workers

11 July 2021

Labour's Ivana Bacik claims a seat in what is traditionally a Fine Gael heartland.

The loudest sound to be heard in the aftermath of the Dublin Bay South by-election was the sound of sharpening knives as members of government parties eyed their failing leaders.

The seat was expected to go to Fine Gael but they fell short. Their partners, Fianna Fail, were humiliated when their vote fell from 15% to under 5%. Junior government partners, the Green Party, saw their vote fall from over 20% to 8%.

The results were shocking but not unexpected. The parties have claimed an era of prosperity, but in fact they have overseen acute austerity, mass privatisation, a failing health service, the handing over of the new National Maternity Hospital to the church and above all a massive house price bubble seeing government in partnership with vulture capital with profit driven schemes that force even the children of relatively well-off parents out if the housing market.

To make things worse, voting doesn't change matters.  The current government is substantially the same as the last coalition that was forced out, with many of the same policies. The outcome of this vote was that Labour, decimated for their role in the coalition that fell in 2016, were recycled in a protest vote while the Greens, who had been wiped out following their role in coalition from 2007 to 2011, had been rehabilitated, joined the current coalition, and were now being thrown back in the dustbin of history. They were replaced by Labour Party candidate Ivana Bacik, elected without reaching the quota on an overall turnout of 35%.

This should not be construed as a move to the left. Labour is long established as the meat in the sandwich of right-wing coalitions. Vote transfers go back and forth between Labour and Fine Gael and Bacik is known as an establishment figure who parades socially liberal views on feminism and gay rights.

Further explanation is needed for the collapse of the Fianna Fail vote. Once the natural party of government, they have been driven to the point of collapse in many areas. In part this is because they were facilitators of the last coalition government through a confidence and supply agreement and the junior partner frequently suffers most because they pretend to be protecting the public but don't do so.

However, there is a deeper issue.  Fianna Fail held power in the past by playing the Green card and promising Irish unity. Following the Good Friday Agreement, the leadership wants to bury that issue and replace it with rhetoric about a shared island. They want to suppress Sinn Fein as their chief rivals. Sections of the party see no harm in renewing bluster around the national question and are open to a deal with the former republicans. In Dublin Bay South they fell between the cracks. The working-class areas saw Sinn Fein as the better nationalists, the middle-class areas saw the Labour Party as a better bulwark against the Shinners.

That class divide is a problem for Sinn Fein also. They held their vote in working class areas but were unable to make gains in the middle-class areas. They are determined to be in the next coalition government and to do that they need to advance among the middle class without alienating the workers.

They are already hard at work. They have dodged votes on extra powers for the Gardai to avoid appearing too left. Their left cover is an elaborate scheme in opposition to government housing policy that appears to promise mass access to homes. Yet Sinn Fein are not a left party. Their economic alternative is merely smoke and mirrors. In the North, where they share the administration with the Democratic Unionist Party, they are leading the shrinking of the Housing Executive and mass privatisation of public property by investment companies.

Despite these problems Sinn Fein have made a great deal of progress. Their big selling point is that they have never been in a Dublin coalition and seem to offer an alternative to an eternal merry-go-round that never responds to the needs of the workers. But the Irish economy is dependent, operating as a tax haven. There is only one programme for government - subordination to transnationals, vulture funds and the European Central Bank. Even in the face of public rage at the rise of "Cuckoo Funds" buying new houses en masse and then setting extortionate rents, the government were only able to blather for a few weeks before affirming the status quo and renewing the zero-tax status of the funds.

The left alliance People Before Profit/Solidarity scored 759 votes, (2.8%) of the total vote. This would be a significant vote for a revolutionary party but represents little progress for a reformist and parliamentary grouping. The group is likely to look more closely at winning Sinn Fein transfers by touting a "left government" led by the former republicans.

But the runes do not point in that direction.  The most likely outcome of the next general election is a coalition between Sinn Fein and all or part of Fianna Fail. Will this count as left government? It will hardly matter to PbP. If the SF surge continues, they will lose most of their seats.

The collapse in political activity and close alliance with the trade union bureaucracy has left the left wedded to action in the Dail. Yet the Dail acts to rubber stamp the interests of transnational capital and a local comprador capitalism. Voting cycle after voting cycle has no effect. The viability of this strategy is coming to an end.

The need now is for a socialist and anti-imperialist programme to mobilise the working class. There really is no Irish road to socialism through the Dail.

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