Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Result of the Irish General Election February 2020 – A Muddy Field Is Reviewed

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Notes on a muddy field

Des Derwin

There is a traditional and defining dividing line in Southern Irish politics between principled left politics (revolutionary, radical and left social democratic) and opportunist betrayal, and that is willingness to enter coalition with (or to support) a government of either of the two capitalist parties, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The radical and marxist left, including PBP, have remained unshakable in this. Labour, the Greens and others have gone into coalition with FF or FG and administered with them not reform but austerity. For years now, and before and after this election, the radical left has kept up a barrage of calls upon Sinn Fein not to follow its new willingness, and apparent ambition, to enter coalition with FF or FG. That remains the position of PBP and the radical left.

There have been several quick left-denunciations of calls on the Irish left for a left government including (effectively led by) Sinn Fein. Here are some quick thoughts in response if not necessarily in reply (for a couple of excellent introductions to the Irish political terrain, see two articles in Jacobin magazine by Daniel Finn and Ronan Burtenshaw).

Not enough left leaning TDs (members of parliament) were elected to provide a majority for ‘a left government’ even if all conceivable forces were pressed into service. So then People Before Profit (PBP) called for a minority left government, which is harder to underpin logistically. Sinn Fein has now declared that the numbers are not there for a left government and moved on to seeking one involving Fianna Fail (necessary for a majority).

But Fianna Fail have unexpectedly maintained, after the election results, as hard a line against coalescing with Sinn Fein as Fine Gael and themselves had before it. Joining an apparent ‘stop Sinn Fein’ heave (aided by new media-manufactured scares) they are backing Sinn Fein and themselves into a corner, with the only door exiting to another election, a very unattractive option, not least for the electorate.

The idea of a left government is a government led by Sinn Fein with a Sinn Fein Taoiseach (prime minister). The (now hypothetical) prospect of actual cabinet membership by the radical left is unclear. A few things need to be considered before comparing the proposal to Millerand and entry into a capitalist government. 

There is a traditional and defining dividing line in Southern Irish politics between principled left politics (revolutionary, radical and left social democratic) and opportunist betrayal, and that is willingness to enter coalition with (or to support) a government of either of the two capitalist parties, Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The radical and marxist left, including PBP, have remained unshakable in this. Labour, the Greens and others have gone into coalition with FF or FG and administered with them not reform but austerity. For years now, and before and after this election, the radical left has kept up a barrage of calls upon Sinn Fein not to follow its new willingness, and apparent ambition, to enter coalition with FF or FG. That remains the position of PBP and the radical left. 

While part of the radical left in Ireland (including the Socialist Party, who have just been reduced to one TD) have always characterized Sinn Fein as outside the left, as the Catholic nationalist side in a sectarian war, the bulk of the revolutionary left, including the PBP-SWP-SWN (IS) tradition, have always regarded Sinn Fein (like most people in the Irish body politic) as left wing, part of the left, often involved in class issues and campaigns. This has been accompanied by varying degrees of socialist criticism of Sinn Fein and Republicanism and the dead end it must lead to, and has led to in Stormont.  

Sinn Fein has come out of a (however misguided) revolutionary, ant-imperialist war of thirty years which pushed it to the margins of Irish society and respectability, especially in the South, with a strong base in part of the Northern Catholic working class and a small but real base in part of the Southern working class. Paradoxically while it has moved into the Northern establishment, in the South, where political consciousness and context is substantially different, it has retained its oppositional, activist, left wing, semi-socialist persona. In recent years it has grown to be the leading organised alternative to austerity in the aftermath of a catastrophic financial crash  and amidst a horrendous housing and homelessness crisis and a health service in permanent near collapse.

For example, the rise in the state pension age has just become a major issue in Ireland (without the French elan). The largest Irish trade union SIPTU made a leading intervention in the election campaign and campaigned for a halt to the planned rise in the age from 66 to 67 (eventually 68). Sinn Fein straightforwardly reflected the real mood (and formal SIPTU policy) and promised to restore the age to 65. Also, for example, past positions and their residues aside, Sinn Fein managed to finally place itself near the centre of the abortion referendum outcome.

Moreover, Sinn Fein is viewed by most of the combative and class conscious working class people in the South as the alternative, or at least, despite the relatively astonishing electoral rise of the far left in Ireland, the only viable alternative to austerity and shambolic public services.  

This presents the socialist left with a real problem of how to win, or even begin to win, hegemony among those willing to fight back. Real influence, not just the correct programme or marxist doctrine on paper. What has just happened in the Irish election is the upending of the 90 year duopoly of the two Irish Tory parties in a surge for change that has located behind Sinn Fein and which demands that change be delivered. For the left to stand away from this wave and insist, as some do, that nothing has happened and that the left should effectively block the prospect of even a hypothetical leftist administration, would condemn it to lose the influence it has so painstakingly built up. The left cannot be seen to do that. The radical left has survived this election and survived better than expected. But with Sinn Fein transfers and some very near misses.

As shown in the People Before Profit print and video material for the election, far from capitulating to collaboration, they are urging Sinn Fein not to go down the road of Labour and the Greens and to stay away from coalition with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. The left government proposition has been clearly hung on concrete and crises issues and paired with mass mobilisation on these.

Because of the strength of Sinn Fein and the weakness of the socialist left, it is probably an Irish historical necessity that Sinn Fein goes through a period of coalition with Fianna Fail before the radical left can fully emerge from its shadow. This will be an accelerated repeat experience of the Irish Labour Party. This process is well under way in Stormont. But political consciousness is different in the South where Sinn Fein is seen as left wing and actually is part of the left, no matter how this is doggedly denied by some on the left. 

Meanwhile the left must do what it should have been doing, and partly has been doing, all along. Building a viable alternative by leadership in campaigns and movements, and of course (essentially) an electoral presence, and by uniting in a broad and democratic presentation all the forces of the left of the left (including those who will lose confidence in a coalitionist Sinn Fein). The Irish far left has slowly and very jerkily travelled some considerable and productive distance organisationally and tactically in the last three decades. Of course crises and breaks can cut across any general view ahead, and indeed climate change is heading down the tracks towards us all. But meanwhile the task, despite some spectacular advances, for the radical left is still largely a long term, patient one of connection and construction.

Sinn Fein cannot be reduced to a classic capitalist or bourgeois political party. It is the product of national oppression. It is certainly not the Irish iteration of right wing populist nationalism and it would be truer to say that it has been a channel of that response to austerity in directing it away from racism and fascism. Its electoral manifesto included a fairly dramatic rebuilding of trade union rights; its potential Minister for Health is a senior trade union official on secondment and its potential Minister for Housing has been a leading activist in recent housing campaigns and a strong advocate of public housing against the prevailing and disastrous market led government housing policy. It is less of a straightforward business and bourgeois party than the British Labour Party, or indeed the Irish (Blairite before Blair) one. It may be looking one way to the economic mainstream and the multinational corporations (its bid for lower corporation tax in the North, now dropped) but it’s also looking the other way to its petit bourgeois roots and its hold on a slice of the Southern working class (a hold now moving up the social spectrum a bit). You’d need to think Narodniks as well as Cadets.

There is a left socialist-republican enmeshment with long historical, ideological and not always helpful roots going back to the labour movement’s alliance with revolutionary nationalism and the revolutionary petite bourgeoisie, spearheaded by one of the most unshakable opponents of opportunism, the great marxist James Connolly, in 1916. To contend that advocating a left government with Sinn Fein at this time is like Millerand or Tsipras or the renegade Kautsky is a bit like imagining Connolly going in with the Irish capitalist party of the time, the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond, and supporting rather than opposing, as he stood out in doing, the Great War.

It used to be anathema, if memory serves, in my days in a revolutionary left group to contemplate a left government under capitalism. There’s been a lot of water, experience and rediscoveries under the bridge since then. I believe that one these rediscoveries is that one of the first four congresses of the Comintern actually did include the possibility of left or workers’ governments as tactical developments in certain circumstances.

The crisis caused by the election results is not trivial. The deep duopoly is dead and the dreaded Shinners are neck and neck with the two ‘old’ parties. The percentage share of first preference votes was 24.5% for Sinn Fein, 22.2% for Fianna Fail and 20.9% for Fine Gael . The seats won are 38 for Fianna Fail, 37 for Sinn Fein and 35 for Fine Gael. Well-justified talk of landslides and tsunamis needs to be tempered nevertheless by realising that the result was less than a quarter and not three quarters of the votes for Sinn Fein, with the radical left surviving and the Greens gaining too (to 7%). The turnout was the fourth-lowest ever in the history of the State, at 62.9%, down by 2.2 percentage points on the 65.1% in 2016. Our excitement needs to be proportional. And as I write there is an impasse, FF and FG both want to keep Sinn Fein out, FF and FG won’t join together, and there’s no other combination so far with a majority. Any majority would have to be negotiated together.

Some pundits have employed the old phase (from an Irish poet actually), saying that now the centre hasn’t held in Ireland either, with populism elbowing out the centre-right. The first part it true. What is not true is comparing the Irish election to those in the US, Britain or Italy. Sinn Fein is a left, not a right, nationalist party and this Irish election has routed the feeble entry of the far right onto the electoral field.

To respond to the Irish election, and to respond to the Irish left’s response to the election, as if the centre had held healthily, as if the centre was not in a minor panic, as if Sinn Fein was a component of the centre instead of the shell that has just shaken it, as if even the old centre-right-populist Fianna Fail was not citing irreconcilable economic and taxation differences with Sinn Fein, is to misread the situation, from near or afar.

16th February 2020

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