Two visions of Ireland at stake in the General Election

By Frances Davis and Ian Richardson

The much-anticipated General Election in the southern Irish state, called for 26 February, has brought into sharp focus two clear political alternatives – a continuation of right wing austerity politics or a break with it, in favour of a left wing alternative. The fact that the election is taking place in the centenary year of the 1916 Rising also gives an added significance – and one which is not just based on an historic poignancy. Most of the fundamental tasks of 1916 are yet to be accomplished.

The current Fine Gael/Labour coalition has continued the austerity policies of the previous government. Fine Gael embodies the forces opposed to the Rising and supporters of Britain in the Irish civil war that followed. They continued the same approach of austerity as its predecessor Fianna Fáil coalition government. In government Labour has simply acted as Fine Gael’s mudguard. All of those parties now offer more of the same.

The opposition to austerity is led by Sinn Féin, and includes many progressive independents and some of the smaller far left groups who have all participated in mass campaigns such as the protests against water charges. However Sinn Féin is the sole party which presents a clear, investment-led alternative to austerity. It has engaged in a long struggle against British imperialism and for Irish reunification, so it has not baulked at adopting the appropriate economic policy. The losers from Sinn Féin policy is the bankers, those who want to hand over the nation’s financial and natural resources, the comprador bourgeoisie. The winners would be the overwhelming bulk of the population.

The election takes place against a backdrop of over seven years of swingeing cuts, punitive and regressive taxes, unemployment leading to a sharp rise in emigration, falling wages and cuts to already limited public services. However, the recent economic data show that growth has hit an incredible 7 per cent rate. This is an enormous exaggeration, reflecting the tax-avoiding activities of large US multinational companies like Google, Apple and others. They record sales and profits in Ireland which have never taken place there solely for tax purposes. But the effect is to boost Government tax revenues way beyond the impact of the real, much more modest recovery that is under way. The budget deficit is disappearing as a result and will soon move into surplus.

Public investment versus tax cuts for rich

This is the real terrain of the election. The establishment parties Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour are all offering cuts in personal taxes which would overwhelmingly benefit the rich. Previous austerity measures will be left in place. The alternative is set out by Sinn Féin, using the ‘fiscal space’ of rising tax revenues to increase public investment in infrastructure, improve public services and rebalance the tax system from the rich towards workers and the poor.

In current opinion polling the changes in support since the last election mean that the establishment parties would need to make unprecedented combinations in order to form a majority government. Fine Gael is on approximately 30 per cent, down 7 per cent. Labour has lost about half of its 19 per cent 2011 vote, and Fianna Fáil has flat-lined for 5 years at 17 per cent. By contrast Sinn Féin’s poll support has doubled to 20 per cent and the very heterogeneous body of ‘Independents’ has also increased. Between them the ruling parties could lose a quarter of their 2011 vote. It is possible they might have to rely on Fianna Fáil support, either as a minority government or in Grand Coalition. In that scenario Sinn Féin would clearly emerge as the main opposition.

Diametric opposites

But the election campaign set by the government parties is very short, deliberately so. The effect is to curtail debate and popular engagement on the major differences on economic policy. Instead, the entire fire of the media and all the establishment parties is turned on Sinn Féin. This was made explicit by Fine Gael party strategists who said their aim was to attach ‘a whiff of sulphur’ to its real opposition, Sinn Féin. The entire focus of all its opponents will be to depress Sinn Féin‘s vote.

This is no surprise. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin represent diametrically opposed political forces that stretch back to before the founding of the state. In essence, Fine Gael is the party of the victorious counter-revolution and all the reaction that followed. Sinn Féin continues to represent the forces of political revolution in Ireland, the manifestation of the Easter Rebels in current political circumstances.

Sinn Féin’s rise is also taking place alongside a growth in support for left, anti-austerity parties across Europe. Its rise is also part of that trend. In Ireland, it has been the committed anti-imperialist party which has readily taken up the struggle against austerity. Sinn Féin’s support also remains solid in the north, to be borne out at the upcoming Assembly elections in May.

In the centenary year marking 1916, Sinn Féin is the continuation today of what the Easter rebels were fighting for – economic and social equality and for an independent sovereign state. This is the clear choice in the upcoming election and one which should be supported by socialists and progressives everywhere.