By Frances Davis
Almost one year on from the general election in the southern Irish state, which saw the crushing defeat of the Fianna Fáil government and the election of a Fine Gael/Labour coalition, the Irish economy remains in deep crisis. Implementing the same austerity policies as the previous government, the devastating impact on living standards continues, in parallel to the effect of similar Tory policies in Britain.
However, unlike Britain, there is an opposition party in Ireland – Sinn Féin – advocating a clear left alternative to cuts and austerity, based on the need for state-directed investment to stimulate growth. Sinn Féin stands out across Europe as one of the very few political parties which has fully grasped the fact that austerity is not only unjust and creating misery for millions of people, it is making the economic crisis worse.
The desperate and vicious agenda of successive governments across Europe to impose draconian cuts on their populations in order to defend profits and bail out the banks, as exemplified in Ireland, has met little coherent opposition in terms of a clear economic alternative way forward. In Britain, Labour has essentially capitulated to the Tory framework of the need to cut and adhere to austerity to reduce the deficit. It suffers in the polls every time it does so.
In contrast, Sinn Féin in Ireland has for some time strongly rejected this austerity framework and advocates something entirely different. Its position is closer to that now advanced by the majority of governments in Latin America: a rejection of what used to be called neo-liberalism, the slash and burn policies imposed by right wing governments at the behest of international capitalist interests.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams summed up the heart of the party’s approach to the economy in a recent post on his Leargas blog, when he criticised the government’s latest ‘Jobs Action Plan’ as severely flawed ‘because the government is locked into an austerity programme that is about cutting jobs and funding from the public sector, and is driving down growth’. He points out: ‘This is the contradiction at the heart of the government’s approach to this jobs crisis. You cannot stick to austerity policies, which are further depressing the economy, pushing down growth and restricting its ability to stimulate the economy, while also claiming to have a meaningful policy to create jobs! It won’t work.’
He goes on: ‘What is needed is a different economic strategy which puts citizens first and invests in jobs and growth. In our pre-budget submission Sinn Féin set out a €3.5 billion package of new measures to close the deficit in 2012. This contained a €7 billion jobs stimulus package and a €596 million household stimulus package. It focussed on job creation, on non-deflationary taxes for those who can afford them, on slashing public spending waste instead of frontline services, and on placing the needs of the Irish people above the needs of banks and bondholders.’
Indeed, Sinn Féin’s well-developed economic policy was laid out during last year’s general election, and most recently in their submission to the 2012 Budget.
In this they explain: ‘the recession is far from over and Irish society is suffering. Last February, Fine Gael and Labour promised “new government, new policies”. Instead they are delivering Fianna Fáil policies with the same devastating consequences. Since 2009, €20.6 billion has been taken out of the economy in an attempt to close the deficit. It has not worked. Government policies are depressing the domestic economy, reflected in lower tax receipts and higher social welfare costs.’
The submission points to the immense scale of the cuts taking place alongside the failure to challenge the EU/IMF deal, ‘complicit in handing away economic as well as political sovereignty’ and the ongoing use of taxpayers’ money to pay private bank bondholders.
Sinn Féin argue: ‘Fianna Fáil will not fix the economy. It will further depress the economy – taking more money out of circulation, closing viable businesses, increasing unemployment and putting families and whole communities below the breadline. This comes down to political choices. You can choose to pay €715 million to an unguaranteed bondholder in Anglo or you can choose to protect families, low earners, public services and Irish businesses.’
The submission explains the core of Sinn Féin’s economic alternative is ‘about growing the economy to a sustainable recovery, making sure the most vulnerable are protected, that those who can afford to contribute more are asked to do so, and bringing a level of equality not seen in this state’.
Their detailed set of proposals include an initial €7 billion in job creation and economic growth; a progressive tax policy which removes, as they put it, ‘the scandal where middle income earners are taxed the same as those earning hundreds of thousands of pounds’; and proposals to close the deficit between 2012 and 2016 through a stimulus package and savings on ‘wasteful spending’, for example ‘ending the practice of providing medical care for private patients in public beds’. Sinn Féin would support working families and the most vulnerable by abolishing the regressive Universal Social Charge, ‘maintain social welfare levels and oppose the introduction of student fees, household and water charges’.
This is coupled with strong arguments on the merits of an all-Ireland economy, and eliminating the waste of two systems on an island of just over 6.5 million people, driven by the all-Ireland dynamics of the Good Friday Agreement.
Moreover, Sinn Féin TDs in the Dail have been at the fore in opposing every cut and attack at every turn.
In the north, where Sinn Féin are in government, emerging as the largest party in the last Westminster election, and second largest in the Assembly elections, the party faces different economic challenges, but follows the same approach. The party took a strong lead opposing the Tory government-imposed cuts and has argued for investment, defence of public services, greater cooperation and co-ordination across the island and for greater fiscal powers. For example, Sinn Féin put forward a submission identifying ways to do this, including savings and revenue raising mechanisms to release £1.6 billion of additional money to the public sector.
Sinn Féin’s progressive left position on the economy and opposing austerity has been the main basis on which its support has grown in the south in the recent period, as they emerge as a serious opposition to the government. Last year’s huge breakthrough in the general election, as outlined in a previous article on this website, saw Sinn Féin’s vote rise to 10 per cent, with 14 TDs, and later 3 senators elected. This was built upon during Martin McGuinness’ Presidential election campaign, where despite an extraordinary vitriolic campaign against him by the conservative right-wing establishment, he increased the vote to 14 per cent (and with a decisive intervention affecting the final outcome). Sinn Féin now consistently poll around 16-18 per cent in opinion polls, putting them either second or third. Labour’s support in contrast has slumped way behind Sinn Féin reflecting dissatisfaction with their role in coalition.
Making a political breakthrough in the southern state has been an important objective for Sinn Féin in the past period. Previously this had occurred only at the very highest point in the struggle, notably during the 1981 hunger strike which saw two political prisoners elected as TDs, including one of the hunger strikers, Kieran Doherty. This was of course accompanied by a higher level of political consciousness and mobilisation in the south in support of the H-block struggle.
Since then, the development of Sinn Féin’s political and electoral strategy has been well documented. During the 1980s Sinn Féin continued to stand in local elections, and the impact of the peace process in the south had a hugely positive effect on Sinn Féin’s ability to build an electoral base, resulting in the election of TDs towards the end of the 1990s, with a particular breakthrough in 2002. During that period, Sinn Féin’s vote rose, including importantly in the urban centres – notably Dublin – in addition to the border and other areas where there was republican support.
However, significantly building upon that initial breakthrough was not possible on the basis of support for a united Ireland alone. Sinn Féin’s policies were always of a socialist republican variety, advocating equality and the principles of the 1916 Proclamation at the core of its positions. However, the recent period has seen Sinn Féin develop a qualitatively higher level of detailed economic policy, in line with what was necessary to defend the people at a time of huge economic crisis and assault on living standards. The ability to do this with such clarity and conviction, almost uniquely in terms of other European left and centre-left parties, and certainly uniquely in Ireland, has much to do with the leading role Sinn Féin has consistently played in advancing the struggle for Irish re-unification.
Sinn Féin’s core starting point is to create an independent, united Ireland of equals, a new Republic based on democracy, equality and self-determination. A progressive, left economic policy for the south is coupled to Sinn Féin’s core republican position of Irish unity, and their progressive social policies, for instance on women, lesbian and gay rights, anti-racism, support for the trade unions and strong internationalist positions such as support for the Palestinians and opposition to imperialist interventions.
Gerry Adams recently wrote following a Sinn Féin event on the strategy for Irish unity, ‘We are socialist republicans. We want to see that type of society shaped on this island. We can’t get that until we get rid of partition… A new agreed Ireland based on the rights of citizens is needed… this isn’t just an emotional or patriotic or inspirational dream that we have. This is a very hard-nosed realisable objective as part of that process of building a new republic.’ Invoking James Connolly’s call for ‘the re-conquest of Ireland by the Irish people’, he said Sinn Féin were about making this relevant to people today. In the current economic crisis, people correctly perceive that the country is not being run by or for them in their interests.
Correctly Sinn Féin understands the necessity for sovereignty in order to have economic control. Advancing a progressive economic alternative, north and south, rooted in the interests of the population goes hand in hand with the party’s policy for Irish unity and is necessary in order to defend people in the current political situation. By putting this forward Sinn Féin is winning people over to vote for it in ever increasing numbers, and building political strength.
The left in Britain should listen carefully and take a lead from Sinn Féin. A good opportunity to engage in this discussion arises on 28 February when Sinn Féin leadership figures from the north and south will speak at a seminar in London. Details below.
* ‘Economic Crisis – lessons from Ireland’, Tuesday 28 February, 8pm, Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, House of Commons SW1A OAA. Speakers Pat Doherty MP and Mary Lou McDonald TD, Vice President Sinn Féin.