Irish general election: establishment parties rejected as Sinn Féin gains ground

The results of the general election show that Ireland has caught up with the rest of Europe in terms of political polarisation and the death of the centre ground. What will follow is a new period of instability.

The general election in Ireland has delivered a historic blow to the two main capitalist parties and has put the two-party system beyond repair. At the time of writing, Sinn Féin has received the highest percentage of votes on 24 percent, surpassing both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who managed 22 percent each.

The Green Party has also seen an increase to 7 percent. The two-party system in Ireland has seen power passed between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil since 1932, but this setup has been sliding into crisis since 2008. This election however represents a tipping point. Irish workers and youth have resoundingly rejected the two main parties and the austerity-driven status quo they represent. In the past, Fianna Fáil would make appeals to the left if they needed to, whilst Fine Gael made overtures to the populism of the right. But neither of these parties were ever interested in any real change and it looks like their dominance may be over. This is part of a European, and indeed worldwide, collapse of the so-called “centre ground”.

Establishment discredited

Ireland is unique in Western Europe in the fact that the country has never had a left-wing government and it was held up by the ruling class of Europe as a prized exception to post-2008 political phenomena of polarisation. Ireland has now caught up with a bang. The 2008 banking crisis hit Ireland particularly hard and its economy entered a severe recession, slipping into what economists were calling a depression. As a way to keep the borrowing and spending down and in a desperate attempt to balance the books, both the establishment parties inflicted brutal cuts and austerity on the working class.

By 2016, after eight years of these attacks by successive governments, the combined vote share for the two parties fell below 50 percent for the first time ever. The only way they could form a reliable government was to rely on each other through a confidence-and-supply arrangement.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar 2017 Image Liam LysaghtFine Gael wanted this election to become a referendum on Leo Varadkar’s handling of Brexit, but class issues came to the fore and demonstrated the sharp shift to the left in Irish society / Image: Liam Lysaght

This was necessary for the ruling class, as the only reliable way to push through austerity, keep corporate tax and public spending low, and manage the reemerging national question. This national question is heightened by Brexit and the complete ineptitude and inability of both Stormont and Westminster. But this period of stable government came at a price, which the ruling class are now paying. By being in a “grand” coalition, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have openly shown how indistinguishable their politics are and that neither party will change anything for the working class. Despite the fact that Fine Gael wanted this election to become a referendum on Varadkar’s handling of Brexit, class issues came to the fore and demonstrated the sharp shift to the left in Irish society. This was reflected in the the exit poll responses, where bread-and-butter class issues dominated. Of the main reasons people gave for voting, 32 percent people said healthcare, and 26 percent said housing/homelessness were the most important deciding factor in how they voted. Brexit was very low on the agenda with a mere 1 percent. There is growing class anger regarding the slide in living conditions and the economic situation in Ireland. Recent reports show 15.7 percent of Ireland’s population live below the poverty line, this equates to 760,000 people. There is an ongoing house crisis, with rent in Dublin now higher than in Tokyo or Singapore. House prices have surged 86 percent in seven years. Almost 10,000 people are living in emergency accommodation and are considered homeless, according to government data.

Headline-grabbing stories dominated the papers in the run up to the election, such as a homeless man who was left with life-changing injuries after his tent was scooped up by a council vehicle while he was sleeping in a box near a Dublin canal. In healthcare, historic strikes have taken place in the past year, with nurses and paramedic staff demanding better pay and working conditions. These strikes resonated with millions of working people and garnered mass support from a population sick of record-breaking hospital waiting-times and a chronic lack of hospital beds. It is no surprise that the “healthcare crisis” was top of many people’s agenda.

Sinn Féin captures the mood

Sinn Féin has been effective in this election at tapping into this anger, their slogans for the elections were: “Giving workers and families a break” and "People want change, Sinn Féin can bring that change." Flagship policies of offering every tenant a month's free rent every year, abolishing property tax, slashing taxes on low earners, and being able to draw your state pension when you're 65, were very popular. Mary Lou Mcdonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, said of her two opponents, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, during the leader’s debates:

“Listening to these men you’d never imagine that one had crashed the economy, and the other is so fiscally irresponsible that he’s producing the most expensive hospital in the world”.

This was met with rapturous applause. The shift to Sinn Féin and to the left in general is seen most clearly amongst younger voters, 52.8 percent of the 18-24 vote was split between Sinn Féin, the Green Party and Solidarity-People Before Profit. The combined vote of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil meanwhile was a meagre 29.1 percent! Among 25-34 year olds, support for Sinn Féin was as high as 32 percent. In fact, Sinn Féin was the most-popular party for all age groups, except the over-65s. Among the government-defined “social classes” C2, D and E (which roughly equate to the working class), support for Sinn Féin had risen to 33-35 percent. The anger and left-wing mood in society was also reflected in the the leader’s debates, with Richard Boyd Barrett, representing the left-wing electoral coalition Solidarity–People Before Profit, seen as roundly winning. Each time he pointed out the awful wealth inequality in the country, and that both of the establishment parties voted against bills he proposed to amend the Constitution to include a right to housing and to end property speculation and land hoarding, he received raucous applause.

Patrick Freyne of the Irish Times, jokes about the audience saying: “If I didn’t know any better I’d think Galway was a hotbed of red sympathy.” In general, this is a reflection of the anger across Ireland that Sinn Féin have succeeded in tapping into. However, this enthusiasm didn’t translate into vote share or seats for Solidarity-People Before Profit, as the working class placed their bets on the larger parties Sinn Féin and the Greens, with the latter also promising reforms. During the campaign, the ruling class was filled with dread and panic. It is not hard to see why. Sinn Féin promised to break with austerity. The reforms they propose are modest, including taxing the rich to spend on healthcare and education. But the Irish ruling class has based itself on providing a low-tax playground for multinationals. Hence Leo Varadkar’s response to Sinn Féin’s popular economic policy in the second leader’s debate: “So it will be a chance I think to expose some of those policies, they didn't work in East Germany, they didn't work in Venezuela. They're certainly not going to work in Ireland.”

Fundamentally, what the ruling class fears is the mass of Irish workers and youth who stand behind Sinn Féin, seething with anger at the whole system. There are other reasons why the ruling class fears Sinn Féin, including their historical connection to illegal activities and the armed struggle during the Troubles. This has been reflected in the hullabaloo around Sinn Féin’s opposition to certain bodies of the state (the Special Criminal Courts) and their centralised party structure.

Furthermore, in the aftermath of Brexit, which is far from resolved, and with volatility in the North, the national question has come once more to the fore. The Irish establishment are terrified of where this will end up if Sinn Féin gain power. The party is calling for a referendum on Irish unification both North and South. Recent polling suggests that 51 percent of Northern Irish voters and over 60 percent of voters in the South back unification. It is no wonder the British and Irish ruling class want to avoid a Sinn Féin government at all costs

At first there was an attempt to ignore Sinn Féin in this election campaign, with some likening the treatment of the latter by the public broadcaster, RTÉ, to the days of Section 31 (a censorship law used against Sinn Féin during the Troubles). But after one poll put Sinn Fein at 25 percent, the political establishment went into a frenzy. A campaign of smears and attacks, much like what we saw against Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the U.S., was unleashed against the party.

Whilst being attacked for their party structures and economic policies, the main line of attack against Sinn Féin has predictably been in relation to the actions of the Provisional IRA (PIRA), of which the party was the political wing from its founding in the 1970s through to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and the PIRA’s dissolution in 2005. Digging up the skeletons of the past, the brutal torture and murder of Paul Quinn in 2007, allegedly by the PIRA, has been circulating again in all the major Irish media outlets. Conor Murphy, the Sinn Fein minister for finance in Northern Ireland, was forced to issue an apology to the parents of Paul Quinn. These events have been cynically used by the Irish establishment to muddy the waters and capture front-page headlines days before voters went to the polls.

Even this didn’t work. In fact, the degree of Sinn Féin’s success has taken many by surprise, including the party leadership itself! In May, they had a disappointing European election result, only managing to win 11.7 percent and 1 MEP. This was mainly due to low voter turnout and lack of enthusiasm for the European elections. The party was expecting a similar result in the general election.

Due to the specific voting system in Ireland, where a single-transferable vote is used in constituencies electing 3-5 representatives, if you are not expecting good results then it is wiser to field fewer candidates in order to avoid splitting your own vote. In a bad tactical move, Sinn Féin only fielded 42 candidates nationally in the 39 multi-member constituencies, far short of even the 79 needed for a majority in Dáil Éireann, and less than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael who may win more seats with a lower percentage of the vote share.

New period of instability

So what now? What does this mean for the prospects for a new government? During the election both, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ruled out a coalition with Sinn Féin, however they may be forced into this due to parliamentary arithmetic. Any coalition would be risky for the ruling class. But it would be a disaster for Sinn Féin, who have been boosted on the back of a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.

The Labour Party was given a huge bump in the 2011 general election after running on a more left-wing programme, promising many reforms and an end to the cuts. Not having anywhere near enough TDs (MPs in the Irish parliament) for either a minority government or a coalition with any smaller parties, Labour went into coalition with Fine Gael. In that government they helped pass austerity budgets and carried out attacks on behest of their coalition partner and were electorally destroyed as a result, plummeting from 19.4 percent in 2011 to 6.6 percent in 2016. They have not recovered since, languishing on 4 percent, reduced to the position of an irrelevant, reformist sect. This serves as a warning for Sinn Féin about any further coalitions that they may be persuaded to join in the coming weeks. It is likely from these results that the two establishment parties will have to form a ‘grand coalition’ once more, this time requiring the assistance of other smaller parties. They will no doubt flirt with the few Social Democrat, Labour and independent TDs to cobble together a working majority. But even this may not work out. We could see another round of elections under such circumstances. The mood will be high for Sinn Féin entering into any second election, as they would expect to make further gains. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil manage to achieve a workable government there will be no change from the austerity and cuts post 2008. The economic and social conditions that have created this election result will remain and will only get worse and more exasperated, the crisis will only get deeper and deeper, with the new government likely to preside over a new, deep downturn. The two parties only set themselves up for a greater failure in the future. Where the left will only be bolstered and the people of Ireland will become further and further politicised, opening the door for socialist politics and the potential for mass movements in the country.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, one thing is certain: like the Catholic church before it, the Irish working class has consigned the two-party system to the dustbin of history. There can be no going back. This election marks the beginning of a new period of instability in Irish history.

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