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Socialist Democracy statement on the Irish general election
Election setback in Ireland
The outcome of the Irish election of 2016 is best understood through the lens of political developments in Europe. The savage austerity has seen the collapse of traditional capitalist parties and institutions and, to an even greater extent, the collapse of support for traditional institutions of the working class. Social democratic parties have implemented the capitalist offensive and been decimated. Time and again the trade union bureaucracies have channelled workers opposition into formal and limited protest before going on to betray them. As workers frustration increased the left of the bureaucracy and of social democracy have set up new “broad” parties. The socialist movement has played a regressive role. Lacking any faith in the possibility of revolution, they have attached themselves to these parties and endorsed reformist and populist measures that in turn fail (the Syriza/Podemos model). The old order gains confidence and sections of the workers turn towards revolution – only in Greece is this situation beginning to mature, with strikes and demonstrations against Syriza in government.
In Ireland the weakness of social democracy is such that the possibility of popular political mobilisation leading to a new party is limited. The components are there – a left bureaucracy, a party posing as a broad left, a socialist movement wedded to reformism and opportunism – but all are weak and they have not been able to cohere together or pose a convincing alternative. In that absence Fianna Fail, a totally corrupt populist party of Irish capitalism, has strode back onto the stage.
In the run-up to the election there was a wide expectation that the Labour Party would be punished. Their supporters had expected them to soften the blows of the austerity offensive led by their partners in government, the right wing Fine Gael party. Instead they led the offensive. In an echo of their European clones defeated Labour candidates said: 'We put the country before our party” – that is they put capital before labour.
Fine Gael's own base among the well-off supporters of austerity suggested that they would survive the backlash. However in the run-up to the election their support fell sharply and they lost many seats.
Government strategy was to point to economic recovery as the fruit of responsible management of the economy. To that end fiscal rules were changed by the Troika to allow announcements of increased spending. When this proved not to be enough the new rules were bent out of shape to allow more promises to be made.
However promises in 2011 to end corruption and renegotiate the debt were not kept. Capitulation to the Troika saw the debt burden extended to 2054. Corruption continued to be a major factor in every area of public life with the perpetrators benefiting from an absolute impunity. Rebalancing the economy boiled down to further subsidies for capital and a plan to reduce corporation tax to 6%. The vast majority of the workers had seen no recovery and one in five families feared for their homes in a growing housing crisis. To a large extent the recovery for business and sections of the middle classes was based on the mass transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalists, and few were unaware of the storm clouds over Europe and the global economy that would make the recovery claims short-lived – as the voting ended, the OECD issued warnings about the unsustainability of the election budget.
The dominant story of the election was of voters taking revenge against the government.
Frankenstein: the monster reborn
However the sub-plot was truly shocking. It was the return of Fianna Fail. A party seen as a byword for corruption and as the architects of economic collapse were level pegging with Fine Gael in vote share - they scored lower in seats because they themselves underestimated the extent of their recovery.
Even more shocking in its own way was the rebirth of the Green Party with two TDs. Its role as "left" partner in the government that bankrupted Ireland was so universally despised that their electoral representation, even at council level, had shrank to zero.
Sinn Fein made substantial gains in votes cast and in Dail seats, but at a lower level than expected or predicted in the polls.
Behind the vote the picture was one of fragmentation, with gains for the socialist groupings, social democrats, an independent grouping, individual socialists and many TDs elected on a personal or area basis.
The most positive elements of the election were the elimination of Renua - an anti-abortion party of the Catholic right, and the pledge by many parties that they would conciliate the pre-election popular mobilizations by delaying a scheme for water charging.
To understand the results we have to understand the background. In the 2011 election Fianna Fail had been decimated, but the incoming government had proved just as corrupt and just as merciless.
The election debate was dominated by arguments about fiscal space. Decoded, it meant that the economic programme of the 32nd Dail would be constrained by the ECB, the Troika and the Financial Stability Act. All of the parties accepted this.
The other major debate was around accusations, indignantly denied, that Fine Gael would strike a deal with an independent TD convicted of corruption. This was however the horse-trading of many elections and few doubted that the same mechanism would apply in this one.
Finally the major parties stole the two main weapons in the armoury of the socialist groups: Fine Gael finance minister Michael Noonan announced to much hilarity that he would pay for an expanded budget by taxing the rich! Micheal Martin, leader of Fianna Fail, announced that he would delay water charges that his party had first proposed.
The voters got the message. There was no alternative to austerity being proposed. The best use of their vote was to look for relief on specific issues such as water charges or to vote locally for someone to represent their area in the best tradition of Irish clientelism.
The outcome was a familiar one, mirroring elections across Europe. The fragmentation of the vote reflects a fragmentation of the traditional parties and of capitalist rule, but a socialist alternative has not been presented. No party has the support to form a government and there will be a period of instability while the various options are considered.
The election result presents difficulties for everyone and feeds the ongoing instability of Irish capitalism. The obvious solution is a national government of the two major parties but, with the tattered corpse of Labour before them, no-one wants to be the junior partner in the next government. All the bombast and pre-election promises will evaporate. The Troika programme will continue. Resentment and anger will continue to grow. The bad news has resumed immediately with the eviction of homeless families from emergency accommodation in Dublin.
Fine Gael and Labour will lick their wounds. Fianna Fail will divide between those who want immediate access to bribes and patronage and those who want to stay to the "left" of the government until they consolidate their position.
Sinn Fein has had a good election, but nowhere near as good as they had hoped. Their central strategy was to replace Fianna Fail as the major populist and nationalist party. The revival of that party means that they will not simply fade away as the SDLP did in the North and calls the overall Sinn Fein strategy into question.
The Shinners will want to pose as the left opposition, but they will face some difficulty. The collapse of republican consciousness, the general belief that the North is no longer part of Ireland, meant that their presence in an austerity administration on the other side of the border never became an issue. As cuts bite deeper in the North this will become a fiction harder to keep up.
The birth of class politics?
Representatives of the socialist groups claimed that the fragmentation of the capitalist parties equated to the advance of socialism. "The birth of class politics" claimed one.
A total of six Dail seats and four per cent of the vote for an alliance of front groups of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party (Anti Austerity Alliance /People Before Profit) makes this a rather grandiose claim. It becomes even more absurd when we realize that the alliance is an administrative fiction, falling light years short of the modest attempt at socialist unity around the United Left Alliance in the 2011 election. It becomes ludicrous when we find that the groups have just emerged from a "Right2Water" protest movement that mobilised over 100,000 on the streets.
This is not simply incompetence on the part of the Socialist groups. Faced with a general political retreat by the working class they adopted a policy of opportunism, reformism and electoralism. The left of the trade union bureaucracy, led by Brendan Ogle, organised to restore the reputation of their movement by organising “Right2Water” protests. From this base they tried to organise the Irish version of Podemos around a “Right2Change” platform of populist demands, firmly within the confines of capitalism and the austerity programme imposed by the Troika. The core of the “new” political movement would be Sinn Fein. The socialist groups were welcome on board if they would be bound by the populist framework. They all accepted the programme and were then asked to transfer votes to Sinn Fein. One half of the AAA/PBP alliance temporised, the other half accepted the programme but refused the transfer proposal.
All the forces in the water charges movement should have been brought together in a democratic convention. The call for a working class programme, a working class party and a unified intervention in the election in order to build mass mobilizations following the vote - all this could have been attempted but was not.
The socialist groups built their own factions – evidenced by their celebration of their own gains to the exclusion of any concerns about the rebirth of Fianna Fail. Rather than fight for a democratic national movement. They sidelined their own reformist policies and allowed the left section of the trade union bureaucracy to turn the protest movement into a popular front, innocent of even the mildest socialist politics and dedicated to supporting Sinn Fein. Their only real goal was to elect 7 TDs from their alliance and ensure speaking rights and material resources in the Dail - and they failed even in that.
A party of the working class
This blindness on the part of the socialists will not go away after the election count. They may dislike Sinn Fein, but they must count them as part of the left or admit that no sizeable socialist challenge is likely without building an independent movement of the working class.
The capitalists are in disarray, but without a working class party the workers cannot contest for power.
Such a party must have industrial aspect as well as a political aspect. The Labour Party has been shattered. On the eve of the election Jack O'Connor and the executive of SIPTU, the largest union in the country, called for support for labour and for the continuation of the austerity coalition. Labour has fallen. Who will call O'Connor to account? The left has always averted their eyes. When the union leaderships endorsed the “Fresh Start” austerity proposals in the North there were only the most modest of complaints from the socialists and they abstained when UNITE workers protested against the agreement.
O'Connor's failure to save Labour was matched by the failure of left bureaucrat Brendan Ogle's attempt to promote Sinn Fein as the new left party. Both sides of the union bureaucracy will collaborate with any government – their favourite partner is Fianna Fail, but they prefer a left party as cover. O’Connor tried to save the Labour ship while Ogle tried to build a lifeboat. That Podemos-style lifeboat had as its framework Sinn Fein – not at all a new party and with so much baggage as to make the project unsustainable. Rather than a new party we have the component parts uneasily aligned. Within this bare framework the central project – lobbying the capitalists to beg for mercy – is all too visible.
As the count ended a vicious factional row broke out, with insults from both sides when Ogle accused the left of failing to give full-hearted support to Sinn Fein. The socialist supporters roared and shouted. The leadership were much more restrained and diplomatic in their response. Will they break with Ogle? Will they oppose a popular front with Sinn Fein? Will they counterpose a socialist programme to the vacuous populism of "Right2Change"?
The fact is that all the pressures on the left continue after the election. If they will not challenge the union bureaucracy, if they do not advocate independent organisation of the working class, if the advance the parliamentary idiocy that capitalism can be constrained by the Dail, all that is left is horsetrading and that horsetrading depends on numbers and a parliamentary alliance of which Sinn Fein will be the centre. Already the new socialist TDs are making the point that a majority can be won to a halt to water charges. Will they vote in a capitalist government that promises this? Will they vote a budget that is within the Troika programme and transfers the water charges to other cuts in services?
There are however forces in the Irish working class that were not referenced by the contestants in the election. The legacy of the 1916 revolution was hardly mentioned, because none of the parties are inheritors of that legacy. The 1916 revolutionary struggle was fought against an occupation imposed by the British army and police. Today Troika rule is enforced without an occupation and the socialists, rather than protest, lobby them for a better deal.
Today for the socialist groups the issues were the improvement of a supposedly independent society. The unfinished national revolution, British control in the North, continued Troika inspections and utter abasement to the needs of the transnationals - all these were absent from the discussion.
They are not however absent from the consciousness of many Irish workers. If the socialists can lift their eyes from the vacuous talking shop of the 32nd Dail and raise the banner of revolution they will find that there already exists in the working class and in the communities an anti-Imperialist sentiment, a memory of a revolutionary past and a grim determination to resist the tidal wave of poverty and eviction that is on its way.
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