By Frances Davis
In last week’s elections Sinn Féin stood on a strong anti-austerity programme, both north and south, with a clear, left alternative economic policy coupled with a strong advocacy of the peace process and for Irish reunification. Its vote is the strongest for the party since 1918.
Martin McGuinness rightly described this as a `landmark’ election. As well as surging ahead in the European elections, Sinn Féin became the largest party in the major cities of Dublin, Derry, Cork and Belfast. Overall Sinn Féin is the largest party on the island of Ireland.
That this should happen in the context of the arrest, detention for four days and subsequent release without charge of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, just two weeks before the election, is a further testament to the strength of Sinn Féin.
In addition to the left progressive nature of its manifesto, Sinn Féin’s campaign and candidates were notable for the high numbers of women (3 out of the 4 MEPs), for its prominence on social equality issues, for example the election of LGBT campaigners and candidates in Belfast and elsewhere, and for its strong stance on anti-racism and the inclusion of prominent black candidates such as Edmund Lukusa in Dublin.
In terms of the results, the European elections saw particularly striking gains, with Sinn Féin winning an MEP seat in each one of the island’s four electoral areas – topping the poll by some considerable margin in two of them: with Martina Anderson in the north (25 per cent) and Lynn Boylan in Dublin. Lynn Boylan’s campaign had seen her soar ahead, polling 23 per cent (she almost got elected outright in first count of votes, without requiring any transfers from other parties, which is highly unusually) and winning over 40 per cent of the votes in some areas of the city. Both Matt Carthy (17 per cent) and Liadh ni Riadh (19 per cent) were also elected for Sinn Féin in the North West/Midlands and the South respectively. Sinn Féin’s overall vote in the 26 county European election was 19.5 per cent and in the north 25.5 per cent.
Full results of the local government elections in the 26 and six counties can be found here.
In the 26 counties’ council elections, where Sinn Féin candidates stood in every area for the first time, the party’s vote rose to 15.2 per cent (up from 7.8 per cent in 2009). In contrast Labour fell from 14 per cent to just 7.8 per cent (and in the Euros down to 5 per cent). Labour’s coalition government partner Fine Gael also fell from 35 per cent to 24 per cent, and with Fianna Fail staying static on 25 per cent.
In the European election Fine Fail and Fine Gael both polled around 22 per cent, with Labour down to just 5 per cent. Labour’s abysmal result saw the leader of the party and current Tanaiste (deputy Prime Minister) Eamonn Gilmore, resign as Labour leader. However, as Gerry Adams pointed out, what is needed is not a change of personnel but a change of policy and Labour’s disastrous right wing course in government Ireland has strong lessons for Labour in Britain.
Labour’s meltdown and the decline in Fine Gael’s vote reflect the absolute rejection by the population of the coalition’s austerity policies. And whilst Fianna Fail’s vote had marginally recovered from their last general election collapse as a result of their own austerity policies and the catastrophic economic situation which saw the public pay the price for the bank bailouts, the population were clearly not returning in significant numbers, and on the contrary were turning against the right wing establishment parties. The high vote for independents also reflects this, with former Labour MEP Nessa Childers, who resigned over opposition to austerity, gaining the third seat in Dublin, and maverick anti-EU independent `Ming’ Flannagan topping the poll in the North West.
As Sinn Féin Deputy President Mary Lou McDonald described it, the palpable anger on the doorsteps at the unfairness of policies was reflected in the vote, after a whole raft of punitive and regressive taxes, the withdrawal of medical cards, attacks on disabled people and the most vulnerable members of society, massive drop in living standards and wage levels and growing unemployment driving young people into forced emigration.
Sinn Féin’s platform, offering a progressive alternative to this, saw huge and rising support in parts of Ireland which had not seen any Sinn Féin representation for decades. This shift, for the first time since partition, sees a change in the political landscape whereby the two right wing bourgeois nationalist parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, with junior partners such as Labour in recent times, dominating government. Sinn Féin’s advance has broken through this with the potential to break out of the right wing economic policies and towards reunification of the country. One Fine Gael Minister commented on RTE that the next southern general election would be the choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. As one commentator put it, the prospect of a Fine Gael -Fianna Fail coalition, in order to keep the right wing establishment in power, may now be the option for them. This, at least, would clarify the situation in terms of what the real choices are. The two parties trade on the old animosities of the Irish civil war, But in reality they are both parties of the counter-revolution which took place after the British were forced to withdraw from most of Ireland.
In the north Sinn Féin’s vote held steady in percentage terms in the local elections with it emerging as the largest party at just over 24 per cent, and the number of first preference votes cast increasing. The backdrop to the elections had been the ongoing unionist refusal to co-operate in both the power sharing government and in terms of moving forward with the peace process, blocking the Haass proposals on dealing with the past and other issues, and shifting to the right in encouraging sectarian entrenchment around issues such as the flags protests and bigoted parades. This `race to the bottom’, was of course embarked upon to try to win votes, but simply served to strengthen and embolden the most reactionary elements. Unionist blocking of the peace process has been facilitated by the right wing Tory government in London.
In contrast, Sinn Féin had sought to work the institutions as positively as possibly, and to defend the population in the face of the Tory austerity attacks, blocking the Welfare Reform Bill’s application to the North against unionist attempts to push it through. In some cities, where Belfast Mayor Sinn Féin’s Mairtin O Muilleoir had a particularly broad and high profile, the Sinn Féin vote was very strong, as in many other areas across the north.
In the event there was no dramatic change in terms of the unionist vote-share, although notable that whilst Sinn Féin became more hegemonic in terms of the nationalist vote (with the SDLP dropping further to 13 per cent, down from 15), unionism became ever more divided, with a myriad of parties in contention. Of the main two, the DUP vote dropped to just under 24 per cent in the locals (from 27 per cent) and in the Euros at 23 per cent (up from 17 last time). The UUP vote rose slightly by 1 per cent in the locals, from a previous low, and dropped by 4 per cent in the Euros.
Meanwhile, the ultra-sectarian rejectionist Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) failed to make any substantial breakthrough, but did see its vote in the local elections rise from 2 per cent to 4.5 per cent. In the European election it polled much higher, but saw its percentage drop by 1 per cent to 12 per cent. The more `moderate’ unionist parties – the Alliance and the new NI21 – had mixed fortunes. Despite being targeted by loyalists, encouraged by the DUP and UUP, and the furore around candidate Anna Lo’s support for Irish unity, the Alliance vote more or less held up, dropping marginally in the locals by less than 1 per cent to 6.65 per cent. In the Euros it rose to 7 per cent. However, the new NI21 imploded two days before the election, with its two most prominent leaders publicly attacking each other amidst allegation and counter allegation, and its European candidate resigned on election day. Despite this disarray they did succeed in getting one councillor elected.
The battle and divisions within unionism saw an increase in unionist turn out, although in areas where the vote was mobilised to try to oust Sinn Féin representatives on a purely sectarian basis, such as in the embattled Short Strand nationalist enclave this was unsuccessful, as Sinn Féin’s Niall O Donnghaile held onto his seat on an equally high nationalist mobilisation. In other areas, Sinn Féin made in-roads, reflecting the changing demographics across the north.
In Belfast, People Before Profit did gain one councillor after a high profile campaign in one particular area, but their overall vote was 0.3 per cent. One `independent’ republican was elected in Derry, at the expense of the SDLP, however the anti-peace process `republicans’ Eirigi got a miniscule vote of 0.2 per cent overall and without a single candidate elected.
Coming out of the elections the next steps will be on a number of fronts, both in terms of defending the population against austerity attacks, in the context of a weakened government in the south, and in defending the peace process in the teeth of right wing unionism and a negative Tory Government in London. Sinn Féin’s efforts on all of this should be strongly supported here.
In conclusion, the elections in Ireland prove a key turning point in both advancing the left and Ireland’s national struggle (both of which are totally connected). In Britain, clear lessons can be learned that a party with a clear left alternative programme can win votes against the right. Moreover, in Ireland, this is being done by a party which has led, and is leading, one of the longest struggles against colonialism in history. Sinn Féin should be strongly supported and their strategy learned from by the left in Britain – and across Europe.