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A Bleak Electoral Landscape For The Irish Left

category national | anti-capitalism | opinion/analysis author Saturday February 19, 2011 16:54author by Diarmuid Breatnach - Personal Capacity Report this post to the editors


Despite the opportunities presented to the Irish radical and revolutionary Left by the current economic climate and people’s anger with the Government, financial establishment and other authorities, the electoral landscape for the Irish Left is bleak indeed.

The Green Party has of course badly soiled its radical credentials by its time in government. Trevor Sargent may overcome that for his own candidature if the electorate in his constituency remembers his resignation as party leader when his party went into coalition with Fianna Fáil in 2007. It seems likely that most electors won’t worry too much about his contacting the Gardaí to get them to move on a consitituent’s case, that kind of thing being almost expected of Irish TDs and his resignation as Junior Minister when the issue went public last year got him out of the Government before the crisis hit. At the moment Trevor is keeping as far away from the media as it is possible for an election candidate to do, following the dictum that “least said, soonest mended” -- but the Greens seem sure to get wiped out as an electoral force.

Sinn Féin is standing 40 candidates and may be facing the biggest success it has ever enjoyed in the 26 Counties but the most they can hope for in terms of overall political influence as a result is that they will get automatic comment and interview rights on RTÉ and other media, though not always and not to the same degree as the parties with bigger numbers of seats. The magic number for TV speaking rights is seven seats and, despite some rather optimistic current predictions from quarters from Right to Left (perhaps made mischieviously in the case of the former), SF would need to be fortunate to achieve them. Any further gains would need to be very large indeed to change the situation significantly.

What the electorate will make of the dispute over their initial voting for the bank bailout remains to be seen. Sinn Féin says they only voted for the pension funds and small savers to be saved while every other party says SF voted for the whole package. Most voters are likely to see SF as the kind of people who would stand up to the EU and the IMF in renegotiating the loan or in defaulting but may not see them as sufficiently experienced to be in government.

The party’s public offer to the Labour Party to make a pact so as to form a coalition “government of the Left” together, in the event of Fine Gael not gaining an overall majority, was predictably rejected. As Sinn Féin moves further towards a radical social-democratic position, the Labour Party, which has been moving away from that radicalism for decades, is now looking apprehensively over their shoulder towards the Republican party.

How the Labour Party will fare in this election is difficult to predict. They were the only party to unequivocally vote against the bank bailout. However, they don’t seem to be making great headway, despite their appearance through media coverage as the Government’s most strident critic in the Dáil. In the event of Fine Gael not gaining an overall majority of seats an approach to Labour for coalition seems the most likely outcome; they’ve been there before, in the most politically repressive government Ireland has seen since the 1930s. In such a scenario, social democrats who want to see social justice under capitalism and consequent increases in social expenditure but instead see Labour going the Fine Gael road of wage restraint and social expenditure cuts, may leak over time into Sinn Féin.

Fianna Fáil know they will take a hammering but are hunkering down, preparing to sit it out and, over time, recover ground. Despite their recent mantra of needing to “stop the squabbling” and “shouting matches” in the Dáil, over the years to come they will undoubtedly be attacking the new government’s measures without mercy (and without shame, considering the substantial contribution they made towards the current disastrous economy). Already Martin and others are criticising Labour and Fine Gael about an alleged “black hole” in their government program costings.

Without a serious revolutionary or even radical challenge, the likely outcome once the dust settles a little after this election (and perhaps an early subsequent one) is a return to Fine Gael alternating with Fianna Fáil in domination of the Dáil and of constitutional politics.

Despite all the noise and euphoria expressed by the supporters of SWP, SP and by some independent socialists at the forming of the United Left Alliance last year, they have not registered as a political party for this election. The candidates of the Socialist Party, People Before Profit (mostly composed of the Socialist Workers’ Party) and some Left individuals will have their names entered on the ballot papers as representatives of those various groups or as independents, although some have put the ULA on their posters too and they have all ensured they are not competing for the same seats. United Left Alliance will not appear on the ballot papers for easy identification by voters as a joint Left platform.

Maureen O’Sullivan, defending Tony Gregory’s old seat in Dublin’s inner city, is standing, as her predecessor did, as an independent socialist community activist but has given her name to the ULA (in that, she seems to be their only certain TD with probably a second in Joe Higgins). Incidentally, Christy Burke, who fell out with Sinn Féin during the local authority elections two years ago and also with a track record as a community activist, is also standing in Dublin as an Independent, as is Cieran Perry, a long-time Leftie and previous election candidate -- neither of them have joined the ULA.

Speaking on RTÉ some weeks ago, prominent SWP activist Richard Boyd Barrett, standing for People Before Profit, while castigating the Labour Party for not joining with them to make a “left-wing challenge” to Fine Gael, was reluctant to predict PBP’s showing in terms of seats. Eventually he estimated somewhere between five to eight seats (they are standing nine candidates). Their candidates (not all of them also in SWP) have the ULA on their posters but the ballot papers will only read “People Before Profit”. They will not reach the seven seats necessary for the media speaking rights mentioned earlier.

Joe Higgins who, back at the ULA's launch on 29th November, openly declared the Socialist Party’s wish to build “a mass revolutionary socialist party” out of the ULA’s intended entry into electoral politics will have to stand as the Socialist Party’s candidate after all. Their posters may say “Socialist Party and United Left Alliance” but their ballot papers too will read only “Socialist Party”. And despite the SP’s fielding another eight candidates, Higgins is likely to be their only success.

Looking at the electoral prospects of the Revolutionary and hard radical Left, it seems clear that the most likely outcome of the elections will leave the revolutionary Left as a whole without the seven Dáil seats necessary to give them media speaking rights. Unless the showing of Fine Gael is a lot worse than that which is widely expected, the Left’s numbers will have no effect on important legislation and financial measures taken in the Dáil. In combination with the radical social democrats of Sinn Féin and a few Independents, the revolutionary Left could perhaps mount a serious challenge to Fine Gael in the Dáil (particulary should Fianna Fáil also oppose the government’s plans in a vote – but not if FF do as badly as currently predicted). But the SP and the SWP have already ruled out cooperation with SF on the basis of the latter’s readiness to go into coalition with a pro-capitalist party (despite the SWP and SP’s invitations to Labour). On the other hand SF have rarely shown much interest in working with the other two groups (and complain of being stitched up whenever they have done so in the past).

Of course, constitutional politics are not the only politics and, for some, are even their least important aspect. But radical and revolutionary politics on the street, in the communities, in the trade unions and in student bodies are in a woeful organisational state, again despite the widespread anger at the establishment as the lower middle and working classes are made between them to bear the economic pain of the capitalist crisis.

Historically, the revolutionary and radical left has been weak in Ireland. The centuries of struggle for national liberation have taken the majority of radicals and revolutionaries into their ambit. There they have been outnumbered by nationalist petit-bourgeois and workers with low class consciousness, their discourse all but drowned in the dominant nationalist one. Where they have declared the equal importance of class and national struggle, they have proved unable to analyse the class forces in society or to cohere around a working class perspective. In counterpoint, the revolutionary and radical left has, in most cases after the 1916 Rising and the Civil War, drawn away from supporting the national liberation struggle and therefore left the nationalists a clear field there.

Essentially, the revolutionary Left in Ireland just doesn’t have a coherent and believable programme of mass organisational revolutionary work. Despite the hard work of some smaller groups and some individuals from the comparatively larger revolutionary socialist groups, the necessary work of building bases among the broad masses of people just hasn’t been done. Little work has been done in the universities and third-level colleges (FEE campaign being an exception but without a wide enough reach yet) and students usually stay in those institutions for three to five years only, which means a high input is necessary in order to build and maintain a mass power base there (of course such work would also feed into organisational work in society at large and have a long-term effect in society, but long-term planning is precisely what the revolutionary Left does not do).

Community work is fragmented and those fighting to improve the communities and resist cuts are rarely revolutionary socialists. Also some community activists are silenced or compromised by their position as employees ultimately in receipt of state funding.

On the face of it, the most concentrated and potentially fertile arena for mass revolutionary work is in the trade unions and among currently unorganised workers. The trade unions are led by class-compromising social democrats but the reason they are able to get away with their deals is the absence of any serious alternative organisation among their members. The SP and the SWP both state that this work is important and that they are doing it but the fact that no serious cross-union grassroots revolutionary (or even radical) socialist organisation is being built even yet suggests that they have no serious plans in that regard. So what is the revolutionary organisational programme of the Irish revolutionary Left? They appear, like Micawber, to hope that “something will turn up”.

In the face of some of the greatest opportunities that the Irish radical and revolutionary Left have ever been handed, they are unable to take advantage of them. Should the capitalists’ political (and therefore economic and social) system come safely out of this crisis in Ireland, as it seem likely to at the moment, the majority of the Irish revolutionary Left will have only itself to blame.


 #   Title   Author   Date 
   A bit sloppy     Mark P    Sat Feb 19, 2011 17:38 
   contradiction     Denny    Sun Feb 20, 2011 05:17 
   Not united enough     Kimberly Jacob    Sun Feb 20, 2011 12:20 
   A bit sloppy but broadly a true picture     Diarmuid Breatnach    Mon Feb 21, 2011 04:02 
   "Left unity" is very well but what about programme?     Alan Davis    Mon Feb 21, 2011 11:43 
   facts     slippy    Mon Feb 21, 2011 12:37 
   Kimberly, Diarmuid     Mark P    Mon Feb 21, 2011 15:39 
   A proper alliance would be good     Kimberly Jacob    Mon Feb 21, 2011 16:23 
   Another reply to much the same points     Mark P    Mon Feb 21, 2011 17:03 
 10   A proper alliance     Kimberly Jacob    Mon Feb 21, 2011 17:33 
 11   Union on unions     D_D    Mon Feb 21, 2011 18:16 
 12   Oops!     D_D    Mon Feb 21, 2011 18:25 
 13   You may be right.     Mark P    Mon Feb 21, 2011 18:57 
 14   A final reply to Kimberly     Mark P    Mon Feb 21, 2011 19:07 
 15   Party and trade union     D_D    Mon Feb 21, 2011 23:34 
 16   Yes.     Mark P    Tue Feb 22, 2011 00:26 
 17   Take your Pick of "Socialists"     Linguist.    Tue Feb 22, 2011 01:15 
 18   157 varieties     Denny    Tue Feb 22, 2011 04:58 
 19   And a final reply to Mark     Kimberly Jacob    Tue Feb 22, 2011 10:27 
 20   Sloppy organisation -- onward to effective resistance!     Diarmuid Breatnach    Wed Feb 23, 2011 16:35 
 21   A reply to Diarmuid     Mark P    Wed Feb 23, 2011 18:36 
 22   The Rich Are Different.     Motorist.    Wed Feb 23, 2011 19:11 
 23   AVOIDING THE ISSUES     Diarmuid Breatnach    Thu Feb 24, 2011 02:41 
 24   Abuse?     Mark P    Thu Feb 24, 2011 20:20 
 25   Still a bleak electoral landscape     Diarmuid Breatnach    Fri Feb 25, 2011 05:16 
 26   Not sure...     Sean Nolan    Fri Feb 25, 2011 09:50 

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