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Southern Elections reveal continuing need for an opposition

Joe Craig

21st June 2004

‘The political landscape has therefore changed,’ said the Chief political correspondent of the Irish Times, summing up the results of the local and European elections.  Why?  Because ‘suddenly there is an alternative government in waiting.’ 

In the last general election it was apparent to every observer that there had not so much been a victory for the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government as a failure of opposition.  Now this is supposed to have changed.  A Fine Gael, Labour plus ‘Another’ coalition is now a possibility.

This however is hardly a new phenomenon on the political horizon.  If that were all there was to the election then it would hardly have deserved the hype.  Such a replacement coalition for the current FF/PD government only prompts a reminder of that hackneyed phrase about deck chairs on the Titanic, more especially since Bertie Ahern’s reaction to the election results was to announce a cabinet reshuffle in September.

Fianna Fail

But the political landscape has changed, and further change is forecast.  Fianna Fail received its worst election result since the 1920s, when it was first created.  In the local elections its vote slumped to 32 per cent, down seven per cent on the 1999 local elections and nine per cent from the 2002 general election.  The party lost around 80, or 20 per cent, of its seats on local authorities.  Bertie Ahern has admitted that FF had ‘lost a lot of support in working class areas of different parts of the country, both in urban Ireland and rural Ireland.  ‘We lost this election, there is no doubt about that,’ he said.

In Dublin its representation on the council slumped from 20 to 11 dropping 13 per cent in votes, in Galway and Limerick it was reduced to two councillors’ dropping 10 and 12 per cent respectively, and it lost the council in Clare for the first time in seventy years.  Its vote in other urban areas fell as well, to 14 per cent in Waterford and 29 per cent in Cork City.  All this on a turnout of almost 60 per cent, the highest in local elections since 1985.  Its vote in the European election was even lower, falling from 38.6 per cent in 1999 to 29.5 per cent in 2004.  Its total of seats was cut in half from 6 to 3 and was overtaken by Fine Gael which captured 4.

It has been pointed out that Fianna Fail has suffered comparable losses in five of the previous seven local elections and in four of the five previous European elections and its chances of still being in government after the next general election has not been ruled out.  There can be no doubt however that the 2004 elections rammed home the long term decline and degeneration of the Fianna Fail party.  A generation ago the party received 45 per cent in two general elections in 1981 and 1982.  Its latest losses come on top of a steady decline.

The arrogance of the government, its lies about cuts in public spending before the general election, which were implemented straight after it was over; and the continued failure to solve the crisis in public services especially health, both contributed to the result.  The growth in the economy in the last year which has seen employment grow but only after a rise in unemployment, and more recent good economic news, could not compensate for disenchantment with the lies and corruption which has finally been reflected in votes.

The inequality generated by the Celtic Tiger has been felt more and more as the record growth rates of the 1990s fade into the past and working class people are left with a cost of living amongst the highest in Europe and property prices that exclude almost all of them from seeing their children ever find their own house to live in.  Stroke politics such as the decentralisation of civil service jobs didn’t work and only contributed to the downfall.  While the Celtic Tiger saw a turn-around in the economic fortunes of the State the neo-liberal policies of the FF/PD government faced the same rejection received by sitting governments across Europe.  The parallel with the position of Tony Blair’s Labour Patty is striking although no one could claim that Ahern’s support for the US war on Iraq played a significant role.

Fine Gael and Labour

The prospect of an alternative government that excluded Fianna Fail had life breathed into it by the performance of Fine Gael which had been seen as in terminal decline.  Its vote climbed from 22.5 per cent in the 2002 general election to 27.4 per cent in the local elections and 27.8 per cent in the European election.  This however must be put into context.  In the 1999 local elections the party had won 28 per cent of the vote.  It could not therefore be said that the party has definitively turned the tide.  Almost twenty-five years ago it was getting between 37 and 39 per cent of the vote.  Like Fianna Fail it is also a party in long term decline although this does not preclude occasional reversals of fortune.

The Progressive Democrats gained almost 1 per cent to record 3.8 per cent in the local elections but their marginal status is reflected in their inability to stand for the European elections.  Their open espousal of Thatcherite inequality has always been very much a minority taste.

The Labour Party’s vote increased marginally in the local elections from 10.8 per cent in 1999 to 11.4 per cent.  It became the largest party on Dublin council and could form an administration in coalition with others, but overall it failed to register any significant gains.  The Green Party also had decidedly mixed fortunes as it lost its two MEPs and its European vote fell from 6.7 per cent in 1999 to 4.3 per cent in 2004, while it increased its vote in the local elections from 2.5 per cent in 1999 to 3.5 per cent and increased its local representation from 8 to 17.

Ogra Fianna Fail

If Fianna Fail were the big losers, Ahern declared that Sinn Fein were the winners of the election.  In the local elections their vote increased from 3.5 per cent in 1999 to 8 per cent in 2004 adding 33 seats to their existing 21 while in the European election they gained one MEP in Dublin at the expense of the Greens and came close in the North West constituency.  Overall its vote increased from 6.3 per cent in the European elections of 1999 to 11.1 per cent in 2004.

It won significant votes in working class areas from Fianna Fail, especially Dublin where its vote went up by 10 percentage points.  It topped the poll in Artane, Ballyfermot, Cabra-Glasnevin, Donaghmede, Finglas, and North Inner City.  Growth of the Sinn Fein vote was expected but the increase was significant, as was the fact that they won votes not from Labour but from Fianna Fail.  They also succeeded in mobilising new voters.  The Sinn Fein vote increased partly by standing in new areas leading some analysts to claim its overall increase is less dramatic than initially claimed, rising by only 3.9 per cent in areas it had stood in before.

Nevertheless some pundits now predict that it could win up to 15 TDs in the next general election putting it on course to claim positions in a coalition government.  Although it has played down this prospect to promote its opposition image this is the only strategy that makes sense.  What is the obstacle since it desperately seeks a place in a coalition administration with Paisley’s DUP in Stormont?  Its Cavan-Monaghan TD Caoimhghin O Caolain couldn’t contain himself and has made a number of comments that hold out the prospect of Sinn Fein in government in the near future.

Sinn Fein has benefited from the unpopularity of the Fianna Fail government among its traditional working class support and has done this through striking radical poses while making sure not to turn its opposition into real action.  Thus it has claimed to oppose the bin charges that were introduced in Dublin while it made sure two of its councillors were absent from the vote that carried their introduction.  Nor have they really been forced to explain their support for bin charges in Sligo.  Their radical image has been allied to assiduous and hard constituency work that has in some way been portrayed as new when it is in fact, like so much else of their practice and policy, implementation of the same old politics of clientelism that has characterised much of Southern politics.

The party has not demonstrated any principled opposition to any of the major planks of the neo-liberal policy implemented by the government.  Its opposition to the government’s neo-liberal policy is entirely bogus.  Not just because the only alternative to neo-liberalism is revolutionary socialism that it does not profess to espouse but because it has not even put forward a coherent reformist programme.  On all issues its rhetoric is of the most vague and populist kind.

Thus Gerry Adams spoke recently to Dublin’s businessmen and made such vague comments about taxation that any policy would be consistent with them.  Failure to openly question a taxation policy that puts money into the hands of the rich speaks volumes.  Its policy of presenting George Bush with photo-opportunities when visiting Ireland while claiming to oppose the war, to oppose privatisation while it implemented it in the North or to oppose racism while calling for its own immigration controls all testify to its dishonesty.  Its increased vote from workers is not therefore anything more than a sign of anger with Fianna Fail and rejection of its programme.  It does not indicate a radicalisation that has any perspective of struggle from which lessons could be learnt and from which workers could outgrow inadequate leadership.  It is yet another blind alley that workers will have to experience before they can find their way out.

This depends on how quickly Sinn Fein grows and enters government, implementing the same rotten politics as the current coalition, and on the success of the left in putting forward an alternative.  Previous ‘radical’ parties have captured a significant minority of workers support only to crash when it became clear they had no real perspective of opposition but only one of collaboration. The experience of the Workers Party in the 1980s illustrates this experience.

Sinn Fein is bigger than the Workers Party of that time and has stronger roots.  On the other hand it has shown even more willingness to collaborate with Fianna Fail and give it its support.  The latter is now much weaker than it was even under the divisive leadership of Charlie Haughey.  The 1980s also allowed of no space for even the mildest of reforms while continued economic growth has allowed Fianna Fail to engage in pre-election spending in order, for example, to win the last general election.

The Left

The left, mainly in the shape of the Socialist Party (SP) and Socialist Workers Party (SWP), but also smaller formations, increased its vote.  Joe Higgins doubled his vote in the Dublin constituency of the European election from 10,619 (3.8%) in 1999 to 23,218 (5.5%) in 2004.  The SP also doubled its council representation from two to four and extended it outside Dublin to include Cork.  The SWP had forecast that it would win two seats but failed to do so.  It did nevertheless increase its vote and will have some hope of achieving these two gains in the next election, in Ballyfermot/Dublin where it got 1,094 votes (11.75%) and Dun Laoghaire where it got 1,439 (7.94%) or even Clondalkin where it got 1,044 (7.36%).

These votes were largely achieved on the back of the organisations’ role in the anti-bin charge campaign as well as a longer history of work in working class areas by the Socialist Party.  As analysed elsewhere these organisations failed to build a democratic and effective anti-bin charge campaign but have received some support for their prominent opposition to the charges and the efforts they did make.

The gains however are relatively small and marginal and are dwarfed both by the rise of Sinn Fein and by the racist referendum result.  They could only have had real significance had one of two other things happened.  First, if the programmes these parties stood on had been open espousal of a revolutionary programme, in which case the votes, though small, would have indicated growth of a strong class conscious working class constituency. Or, if the votes were the result of, or launching pad for, workers own struggle and self activity.  Unfortunately neither is the case.

The manifestos were not revolutionary and in particular that of the SWP candidates was so narrowly local that they might have been designed to limit the political horizons of workers.  Far from recording or heralding mass activity the votes follow the defeat of the anti-bin charge campaign and the elections were presented as a way of making up for this failure.  While not immediately apparent to these organisations supporters following the high of the campaign it must become clear quite quickly that they could not, and are not, going to play this role.

More generally the combination of defeat for struggles combined with even limited electoral success is a guaranteed recipe for the development of reformism, notwithstanding the subjective views of the members of these organisations.  Neither is politically equipped to resist this and its development can be seen in the character of their electoral programmes and in their perspective of looking forward to the next electoral contest.  The ‘one solution – revolution!’ slogan of the young SWP members is not really taken seriously - not something to inform or direct its manifesto or campaigns.


The elections thus record a decisive rejection of the existing government and to this extent weakens its ability to continue its programme of attacks on the working class.  This is so even discounting the failures and weaknesses of the opposition.  The prospect of a Fine Gael/Labour coalition represents no alternative and neither does the rise of Sinn Fein herald a rise of struggle or an alternative road for a working class opposition.  The racist referendum vote is a devastating reminder of the obstacles and difficulties in building such a movement and while the results of the left are encouraging they are negated to a large extent by the political weaknesses of the organisations involved.

The real relationship of forces and the tasks of the left are thrown into sharp relief not just by the referendum result but by the ability of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to extend the latest social partnership deal while the elections were going on.  This involves the open declaration by David Begg of ICTU that he was going to sacrifice the interests of Aer Rianta workers and accept as part of the deal the break up of the company as the first step to its privatisation.

Faced with the continuing stranglehold of ICTU and programme of privatisation it is clear to see that the elections in themselves will not stop the government  continuing its attacks, no matter how acrimonious the finger pointing of blame becomes between the Fianna Fail/PD coalition partners.

The task of socialists is to make a sober assessment of where we are and to realise and act on the understanding that the existing leaderships of workers cannot be gone round but must be challenged and defeated.  This goes also for rising movements claiming leadership such as Sinn Fein.  This means an end to the left’s habitual sectarianism and opportunism.  It also means those socialists who think themselves free of such vices must understand that sectarianism does not mean exclusion of non-working class forces from united fronts, and opportunism can also mean seeking lowest common denominator unity with non-working class forces.

Working class unity, defined by politics, in opposition to the current and prospective misleaders of the class does not mean isolation from the latter, but is the prerequisite for effectively challenging them.  It means for example challenging Sinn Fein leaders who claim to be anti-war or anti-bin charges.  It means uncompromising opposition to the bureaucrats of ICTU in their attempts to sell the privatisation agenda in exchange for an extra 1 per cent on wages – not putting them to the head in the middle of struggle.

After the Celtic Tiger we may be entering a new period of political instability.  Creating a working class movement to take advantage of the divisions in the capitalist class and the disillusionment of increasing numbers of workers will require a break from the past practices of the small socialist movement.


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