By Frances Davis
Sinn Féin’s stunning victory in the Donegal South West parliamentary by-election on 25 November represents a huge advance in what was the first electoral test for the Dublin government since the sharp deepening of the state’s economic crisis. Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty saw his party’s vote soar from 21 per cent at the last general election in 2007 to 40 per cent of first preference votes. In a reversal of previous showings, Sinn Féin also won an increasing share of the transfers from the eliminated candidates.
This is now further reflected in a recent poll showing Sinn Féin doubling their support from the last Dail election to some 16 per cent, and overtaking the ruling coalition party Fianna Fail at 13 per cent.
This follows on the heels of a mass demonstration on 27 November, called by ICTU, reliably estimated at 100,000 in Dublin, in opposition to yet more swingeing austerity cuts the government is attempting to impose to pay for the latest bail out of the banks. This number, given the size of the population of the southern Irish state, is the equivalent to over a million people marching in London. It is the biggest mobilisation since the mass protest against the pensions attack two years ago, and reflects the anger of the electorate with the Fianna Fail government’s approach — one which is virtually identical to the assault the Conservative-led coalition has planned in Britain.
At its root is a strategy to inflict massive attacks on the working class in order to drive down wages and defend profits. In Britain a colonialist argument is being expressed that somehow the southern Irish state is not able to manage itself, and that this so-called `bail-out’ is necessary due to Irish incompetence. Of course this is false on many levels, and ignores the impact and legacy of colonialism on the Irish economy.
Moreover, far from being a poor neighbour, per capita output in the 26 counties is in fact higher than in Britain and around a third higher than that of the six counties. At the time of partition it was half that.
In relation to the current attacks, Ireland’s increased indebtedness is not due to incompetence but arises from a political agenda — the same one David Cameron is imposing in Britain. The Fianna Fail-led government chose to throw billions of euros into the banks, to shore up shareholders. The price for that has been successive austerity measures and 14.6 billion euros worth of cuts and tax increases over four emergency budgets. Mass unemployment, the spectre of new emigration with tens of thousands leaving the country again, wage cuts and slashing further public services are the price being paid to ensure that capital does not pay for the crisis it created. The latest `solution’ will not resolve the problem but is the latest expression of what will be a continuing crisis, unless the policy changes. It is a lesson for what will happen here in Britain under the Tory coalition plans.
Sinn Féin’s victory is so significant because of all the parties in Ireland, it alone understands the two decisive issues and what is necessary to address them. Unlike in Britain, where all the main political parties have the wrong economic policy of accepting the need for cuts, Sinn Féin — which is a mass party now on 16 per cent in the polls in the south, and the largest party in the north — is putting forward a clear and correct economic alternative. Sinn Féin argues for government investment, not swingeing cuts, in order to stimulate the economy and raise the growth rate. Moreover, its progressive, left character means that at the heart of its position is the commitment to social and economic equality, defending welfare, jobs and living conditions. Crucially Sinn Féin is the only party which actually fights for Irish unity — and without that the Irish nation will be unable to develop a sustainable or thriving economy, free from the distortions and constraints at all levels of society inflicted by colonialism. Indeed, Sinn Féin makes this case coherently, most recently in an article by Mitchel McLaughlin, the party’s economy spokesperson in the Assembly, in an article in the Belfast Telegraph on 8 December.
This week’s latest emergency budget will see a further €6bn of cuts imposed — the equivalent of some € 6,000 per person in the state over the six-year period for which it is planned.
The test for all the political parties will be what alternative they put forward. Whilst Fine Gael and Labour have opposed the budget, neither break from the principle of cuts, but differ on how they should be applied. Labour has previously indicated a willingness to go into coalition with Fine Gael which will represent no break with the current policies. In addition, Labour’s own submission argues for €4.5bn in cuts and tax increases, rather than the government proposals of €6bn. Only Sinn Féin puts forward a clear progressive alternative, based on investment as opposed to cuts, and have long argued for a new realignment in Irish politics, based on a real left alternative to the status quo which defends the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population and resists the renewed subjugation of the nation. Indeed, Sinn Féin’s newest TD Pearse Doherty laid out that clear alternative in his Dail speech opposing the budget.
With Gerry Adam’s selection to stand for Sinn Féin in the Louth constituency in what looks a likely general election in early February, Sinn Féin are in a strong position running into the next election and, alongside the ongoing protests against the capitalist offensive, should be supported by socialists here in Britain, who can learn a huge amount from the struggle taking place in Ireland.