Historic breakthrough for Sinn Féin as Dáil election marks turning point in Irish politics

Photo: An Phoblacht
Sinn Féin Vice-President Mary Lou McDonald - elected TD

By Frances Davis

The 2011 Dáil election last Friday represents one of the most significant political shifts in the 26-county state for over nine decades. As Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said, it potentially represents ‘the beginning of a realignment of Irish politics’. He also pointed out that, while the outcome is likely to be Fine Gael and Labour implementing Fianna Fáil policies – one right wing government replaced by another one – an examination of the results reveal a more fundamental change. This is the beginning of the break-up of the post-civil war political domination by Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) and in fact some significant move to the left – most notably the dramatic rise in support for Sinn Féin and their consolidation as a significant party in the south, potentially the leading opposition voice in the coming Dáil.

First, the election saw the dramatic meltdown in Fianna Fail’s vote, the first Western government to fall because of its attack on the living standards of the majority of the population. Moreover, it has been the most successful party in Western Europe, having been in office for 55 of the last 79 years. The party of Eamon de Valera was reduced to just 17.4 per cent, a massive 24 per cent decline on their 2007 vote, and a record low. Its coalition Green partners were annihilated, reduced to a 1.8 per cent rump, and with not one single TD.

The backdrop to this unprecedented collapse was the massive economic crisis in the state, culminating in the so-called IMF/EU bail out. The population, having suffered successive ‘austerity’ budgets to pay for the bank bail-outs, with swingeing cuts in public services, pay cuts, rising unemployment, growing emigration and increasing costs of living, decisively rejected the government and both coalition partners.

Fine Gael are if anything even more right wing, supporting FF cuts and threatening to engage in mass sackings of public sector workers and privatisation of state assets. FG (known widely as ‘the Blueshirts’ after the inter-war quasi-Fascist formation which is one of its components) emerged as the largest party at 36 per cent. But it would be false to present this fact alone as evidence that the population has turned to the right in response. It is in fact only 6 per cent more than their 2007 polling, despite FF’s collapse.

Taken together, the rightist FG and FF, the now defunct Progressive Democrats, and the Greens who went into government with FF had previously amassed a combined vote of over 76 per cent. This is now reduced to 53 per cent. At the same time, the vote for Labour, Sinn Féin, small economistic-type left formations and left independents rose from 18 per cent to approximately 40 per cent. The bulk of that leftward shift went to Labour, up over 9 per cent from 2007, with SF up 3 per cent and independents and smaller parties taking the remainder. Another notable fact about the election was that the younger vote was more radical. Some 62 per cent of those over 65 voted FF or FG, compared to 42 per cent of under 25s.

There is no doubt that the new government will deepen the offensive against the working class, who are set to be attacked with renewed ferocity. The EU/IMF have dictated terms for the continued bailout of Irish banks by Irish taxpayers, with €85bn in loans to ensure that EU banks in turn are fully compensated for their worthless loans to Irish banks. The ferocious public spending cuts, a multiple of what is currently planned for Britain, are also mapped out by the international bodies along with a timetable and report card for the incoming government. Not that they seem unwilling partners – indeed the parties set to take power were part of the ‘consensus for cuts’ with the last government.

The new government is likely to see Fine Gael in power, propped up by Labour – a party which initially attracted the mainly working class electorate which deserted FF, and rose to well over 30 per cent in the polls in mid-2010. However, the support haemorrhaged as it became clearer to broader layers of the population that Labour too stands for deepening the attacks on welfare, investment, and public services in an attempt to pay for the bank bailout, policies that are likely to fail simply due to the weight of the bank debt, as numerous mainstream economists, the Financial Times and the Economist have all pointed out.

Labour’s role in a Fine Gael government that continues to assault the population is likely to expose a contradiction between its support and its policies. In the summer of 2010 Labour was the leading party in the polls – for the first time in the history of the State. Indeed it was Labour, not Fine Gael, who was the main beneficiary of the discontent with Fianna Fail. There was an appetite in the population for a Labour-led left coalition, with Sinn Féin and left independents also polling strongly, as an alternative to the right wing FF/FG framework. There was a real possibility of a significant realignment in Irish politics, something which UNITE in Ireland had urged, and which Sinn Féin had long called for. However, Labour squandered this possibility, instead joining FG, FF and the Greens in essentially backing the government and allowing it to get through its IMF/EU austerity budget before the election. Only Sinn Féin, opposed the cuts agenda.

Worse Labour spent much of the early part of the campaign attacking SF’s anti-cuts, pro-investment stance, and derided the possibility of a left-led coalition as a ‘ragbag’ option. This rightward shift both damaged Labour’s own support and the disunity created was a factor in deflating the entire left vote and shifting the debate towards the timing and type of cuts – not opposing them. A misguided campaign for its leader Eamonn Gilmore to be Taioseach was replaced by a desperate eve-of-poll plea to voters to give Labour enough support for it to be able to be Fine Gael’s junior coalition partners. The last FG/Labour coalition saw Labour’s vote halve at the following election, under much more favourable economic circumstances. The obliteration of the Greens at this election should serve as a warning.

Within Labour some minority voices have been making this point since Friday’s election, arguing against coalition and for Labour to go into a strong opposition. As Labour member and Unite official Michael Taft points out, ‘up to 40 percent of the electorate voted for Left parties and independents, electing 60 deputies’ which he describes as ‘the largest contingent of progressive TDs since the founding of the state’. Arguing for a progressive alliance, he also points out ‘Fianna Fáil’s collapse was not just an indictment on that party’s policies, but on the outdated political divide that has dominated Irish politics since the 1930s – namely, Fianna Fáil vs everyone else. That divide no longer exists. It has been substituted by a divide between the Left and the Right.’ The Unite leader Jimmy Kelly has called for Labour not to enter a FG-led government. However, despite some better voices from within Labour, the most likely outcome is that it will enter a right wing government with Fine Gael and is then highly likely to become deeply unpopular.

In reality, the opposition will be led by Sinn Féin. FF will be in no position to form a credible opposition given their record in imposing the cuts, passed in its last budget. The surge in support for Sinn Féin is one of the most important developments of the election and one to be cheered by socialists everywhere. Sinn Féin tripled its number of TDs to 14, saw the party consolidate and increase its vote across the country, topping the poll in five constituencies and establishing the party not only as  significant force, but most likely as the main opposition to the Dublin government. Together with their success in the north, where they are the largest party in the six-county state, Sinn Féin are now a significant political force on the whole island.

As the only major party to oppose the ruling class offensive to drive down living standards, Sinn Féin represents a serious threat to the crony capitalism represented by the other parties in the south. As the only major party to actively seek an end to British rule in the north and Partition, it is a consistent revolutionary force against imperialism. This means it is well-placed to lead the struggle against the renewed subjugation of the nation through the impositions of the EU and IMF.

Sinn Féin’s breakthrough represents a significant turn in Irish politics. In Gerry Adams’ victory speech in Louth – where he topped the poll despite the most vicious campaign of slander and misinformation – he spoke of the need for ‘the reconquest of Ireland by the Irish people’.

The political character of the southern state, just like the northern one, is determined by the acceptance of or resistance to British imperialism’s enforced settlement on Ireland, including partition but also political structures designed to keep revolutionary forces at bay. Sinn Féin’s successes are a serious challenge to those structures and that settlement. Whilst people in the state primarily voted in terms of their own economic situation, the advance for Sinn Féin makes a fundamental turn against the politics of partitionism. Whilst the other parties ignore a fundamental root of Ireland’s economic problems by accepting partition, Sinn Féin point this out systematically, and present the solution: a united Ireland with a left economic policy. Sinn Féin’s message, ‘there is a better way’, gained a strong resonance in the population, and one which can only be built on.

In terms of other small left parties and independents, their vote was of some significance, with the potential to work together in opposing the right wing government. With a concentrated voted mainly in Dublin, the United Left Alliance has four TDs elected with just 2.4 per cent of the vote for its main components, the Socialist Party and People Before Profit. This can be part of a broader left led by Sinn Féin in opposing the attacks on workers and the poor. But to play a leading role it would need to break with its partitionist framework and develop an awareness of and opposition to imperialism – in different forms – in subjugating the whole of Ireland. Their sister parties in Britain frequently have an economistic approach combined with a sectarianism to other forces. As the Arab revolution testifies currently, imperialism is too powerful an enemy to be defeated without drawing in all layers of the exploited and oppressed in the struggle to defeat it.

Sinn Féin has spelt out that it will now seek to use its electoral strength to provide a strong opposition in the Dail. Its Vice President and newly elected TD for Dublin Central, Mary Lou McDonald has made clear Sinn Féin will be ‘providing strong opposition to the incoming government’s plans to cut public services and social supports’. With Fianna Fail having no credibility to lead any opposition, Sinn Féin’s role will be key, and is likely to grow further, particularly as Labour continues down a right wing track in government.

Meanwhile, for Sinn Féin the success in the south will develop alongside its strong support in the north, the next measure of which will be for the Assembly elections in May. As the only all-Ireland party, Sinn Féin are in a strong position to lead the struggle against imperialism both north and south.