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Irish by-elections reveal crisis

Part one: A crisis for capital

13 December 2019

The claims of triumph by the Dublin government before the recent by-elections were based upon the mantra advanced by right wing  parties everywhere. The years of austerity had simply been the fiscal rectitude necessary to restore prosperity. Ireland was booming, there was growth year on year. Unemployment was falling. The minority government led by Fine Gael had a headlock on their main rivals, Fianna Fail, through a confidence and supply agreement.

The new leader, Leo Varadkar, had won a distinct edge by fast footwork on issues such as gay marriage and abortion reform. Fine Gael were set to announce an election in the new year that they would surely win. Even Varadkar's surrender of the backstop guarantee, allowing Boris Johnson to push ahead with Brexit, was presented as a diplomatic triumph, preserving the bottom line for Irish trade.

What could go wrong? As Harold McMillan, former British Prime Minister once said "Events, dear boy, events".

One of the events in this case was a series of four by elections. Two of the seats were taken by Fianna Fail, one by Sinn Fein and one by the Green party. Fine Gael failed to win any seats. The elections were followed almost immediately by a vote of no confidence in the housing minister, where the government scraped through with a four vote majority. Following this came the resignation of Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy amidst a scandal about his non-attendance at the Dail while claiming his salary and related expenses.

So an election is looming and the minority government is three votes from collapse. Is this simply a perfect storm of electoral happenstance? Simply by-election blues?

No, this a sharp impact with reality.

The current economic growth is based on low interest rates from the European Central Bank and these are conditional on Ireland continuing to honour a massive sovereign debt that covers almost half the total European banking debt. Austerity has not ended. Most public services are on the point of collapse and many public sector workers operate a two tier pay structure,  with new entrants paid less.

The Irish boom is based upon its new role as a tax haven. Transnationals flood in, but little in the way of real value is added. As with other  recoveries,much of the wealth goes to the elites.

The austerity offensive did not meet significant political opposition. The trade union leaderships were largely committed to operating alongside the government and the left groups were reluctant to break with the unions. However the political system took a battering. Each  party took it in turn to implement austerity at the cost of their own survival and in turn were decimated at the polls.

The party least affected was the right wing Fine Gael party and they formed a minority government through a "confidence and supply" agreement with the populist Fianna Fail. The de facto national government has now reached the end of its role.

A period of chaos lies ahead. The capitulation on Brexit means that Irish capitalism is even less able than usual to deal with ongoing political turmoil in Britain. No political challenge has emerged to the government and its programme so voters are being forced to recycle parties such as Fianna Fail, Labour and the Green party who have all implemented austerity measures.

This is the election where the background dog whistle of racism became a roaring bullhorn. Demonstrations against asylum seekers were followed by vile racist rants from independent TD Noel Grealish and in turn the race card was played by Fine Gael candidate Verona Murphy.  The government disassociated itself from the comments but did not repudiate the candidate.  It's a political tool that will be used more freely from now on.

It is possible to argue that the left did well in the by-elections, but only if you rob the term of any meaning.  Sinn Fein and  the Greens  each gained a seat but it is only with the greatest of difficulty that one could  describe either as left wing. Labour gained a respectable vote despite their role in the last austerity government The reformist left parties were unable to halt the decline evident in the recent local elections.

A general election is looming. Irish capital is going to face difficulty in forming a stable government in the face of burning resentment from the working class, but  eleven years into austerity they face no serious political challenge and are willing  to invoke race hate to hold control.

A recent split in the Socialist party led to derision in the Irish press. The activities of the socialist groups were seen as unimportant. Yet any alternative to ongoing austerity can only come from a socialist programme. The socialist groups weakness on the national question in Ireland, incoherence on Brexit and doubling down on parliamentary reform move them away from their proclaimed role of advancing an alternative society.

Very recently thousands took to the streets in Dublin to protest the housing crisis. The demonstration was organized by the homeless themselves, despite claims by the trade unions, supported by the socialist groups, that they were running an ongoing campaign against homelessness.

The Socialist groups may decide to put their own interests above the needs of the working class, but there will be increasing resistance and, if they are unable to lead it, new leaderships will arise from the workers themselves.

Part two: A crisis for socialism

Ireland's socialist groups are not alone in having a very wide definition of the left which includes the Greens, a right wing Labour party and Sinn Fein.

This wide definition is necessary because central to their strategic thinking is the idea of a broad left party that will be able to win a majority in elections and form a left government able to shift capitalism's path away from austerity and towards reform. Indeed, one of the main disputes among the main socialist groups is in seeing the labour party supporters and union bureaucracy as the core of a left party as opposed to Sinn Fein and their supporters. The departure of TD Paul Murphy from the Socialist party involved this question.

So one would expect that among the socialists both sides of this argument would be happy. They did badly, but their prospective partners in building a broad front, the Greens and Sinn Fein won seats and Labour had a satisfactory vote. However the whole idea of broad left electoralism is flawed and this is reflected in the by-election results.

The Greens triumphed in Dublin with a seat in the Dail. The high profile of climate change helped them and sections of the middle class seem to have tired of socialist electoralism in favour of Green radicalism. However it is not so long ago that the party was part of the last Fianna Fail coalition. Their support for austerity then left them for a period without any elected representatives and they entered the current electoral cycle again expressing an interest in coalition with the right.  In any case Irish Greens, more so even than in Europe, are focused on piling guilt on the individual worker. "We" must cycle to work to save the planet while the devastation of the capitalist system is largely ignored.

The Labour party will feel quiet satisfaction at a decent turnout, indicating that they are on their way to being forgiven for their own appalling record in the last government, one that included a sustained attempt to criminalise water charge protesters. The fact that this forgiveness process is under way is an indication of the failure of the reformist socialists to make any deep impact and the success of sections of the trade union bureaucracy in sponsoring Labour's return to polite society.

The election of a Sinn Fein candidate in inner city Dublin has been hailed as a victory. That has yet to be decided. Sinn Fein did what they do well - turning out their vote in a low poll. Repeating this in a general election will be difficult.  There is a more basic problem. The vote that turned out was in the working class wards. The middle class stayed at home.  Sinn Fein succeeded as a left party.  That's not what they want. They want to be simultaneously a party of the left and right, eligible for coalition government. Wearing their left mask they will be excluded from the next coalition.

The devastation of the reformist left continued. Their model was fairly simple. Win elections by constantly making yourself visible in an electoral area. Put forward a rather vague and liberal political programme that does not offend. Electoral office attracts state funds and campaigns attract members.

Both can be used to enter other electoral areas and repeat the process.

The mechanism doesn't work. An opportunist policy leaves each area free to travel its own path. Liberal moralism is no defence against the growing forces of racism.  The groups tout their power in the Dail and the councils and then express shock when it turns out that the institutions won't support the workers.

Independents 4 Change, despite having an excellent record in exposing state corruption, followed the left reformist model.  Left unity became Independents for equality, became Independents for change. The two TDs, Claire Daly and Mick Wallace, stood for the European parliament.  Their victory made greater resources available but the gamble that they would be able to anoint successors in the by-elections did not pay off.  A vague programme for change seems unlikely to have a future.

Is there an alternative to the parliamentary strategy the reformists are following? In 2011 there was a massive march, organized by the trade union leadership, against the austerity budget being introduced on the instructions of the troika. SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor announced that the march's demands would remain “within the narrow confines set by the troika”. In other words, it was a quest for some 'loose change' while accepting the overall austerity agenda. The socialist groups united behind O'Connor and have stuck like glue to the trade union bureaucracy ever since.

What were the results? The water charge campaign was brought to a halt with the structures for privatisation left intact. More recently a large protest march on housing was organised by the homeless, even though there is supposed to be a national campaign on housing and homelessness organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In fact the union leadership slowly suffocated the movement in favour of an understanding with the government. In one of the campaign's early meetings SIPTU insisted on the inclusion of the Labour party, just out of a government coalition where public housing provision had been set at zero.
It is important to try and pressure the trade unions for mobilisation, but that pressure is from the bottom up, not from the top down and it certainly cannot quietly coexist with a policy of union collaboration with the capitalists.

The alternative starts with the socialist programme. For example, in the case of housing, socialists proclaim the right to a home in defiance of profit and market.  The immediate expression of this need in Ireland is the call for mass public housing. The mechanism is mass mobilisation, building an independent working class party, occupation, defence against the state and against evictions.

The truth is that at every step along the way in the current housing crisis attempts have been made to mobilise, originally around the Apollo House occupation of 2017 up to current protest where people hang winter coats for the homeless on Halfpenny Bridge and the council try to suppress solidarity by stealing the coats.

The only way that the current socialist groups can survive as socialists is by taking the lead in defending the working class and advancing the call for a workers republic. By continuing to focus on political theatre in the councils and the Dail they are condemning themselves to further decline.

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