The Irish New Left Comes of Age

The five newly elected TDs of the United Left Alliance began their first day of the new Dail on the streets with the people. Richard Boyd-Barrett, Clare Daly, Seamus Healy, Joan Collins and Joe Higgins were joined by over two hundred supporters and well wishers as they assembled at the Central Bank and marched to Dail Eireann to take their seats.

Commentary: Sinead Kennedy,
Irish SWP

One of the more eye-catching trends in last week’s General Election was the emergence of the radical left as a viable political force. The success of five candidates from the United Left Alliance was arguably the most significant expression of a radicalisation of the Irish electorate. Here Sinéad Kennedy examines the potential of the ULA and suggests that the recent electoral successes mark an historic opportunity for the advance of the Irish left.

In the end, it was a former Fianna Fáil candidate, Noel Whelan, who described it best: ‘Irish people rioted at the ballot box.’ After two years of crisis and austerity, people finally took revenge against a government that had left the country broken, bankrupt and in the hands of EU/IMF receivership.

General election 2011 did indeed prove to be as historic as many had predicted, although, ultimately, for very different reasons to those suggested. If 2011 proves to be significant as the year that marked the beginning of the end for Fianna Fáil and old-style civil war politics, it may also prove to be historic as the year that marked the emergence of a new player in Irish politics, the radical left.

The post-election analysis frenzy has paid relatively little attention to the leftward shift of Irish politics. It is a trend that has been visible, although largely ignored, for some years, particularly in Dublin and especially during the last local and European elections. Both Labour and Sinn Féin put in their best ever performance in this election and the radical left, in the guise of the United Left Alliance, made a significant breakthrough, winning five seats.

Overall, the left vote in this election has been estimated at 42% with just under half of that going to Labour. Harry Browne has pointed out that the combined share of the first-preferences for the two ‘major’ parties was 53.5%, the lowest in the history of the State. Since 1927, the joint Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share has always been well over 60%. This shift is most pronounced in Dublin where the left vote (including Labour) is running at approximately 60%.

While political commentators are all too eager to focus on the breakthrough of Fine Gael, their increase is far from dramatic. In fact, they increased their vote by just 9%, gaining barely over a third of the decline in Fianna Fáil’s support. The majority of those who abandoned Fianna Fáil actually went to the left, splitting between Labour, Sinn Féin, the United Left Alliance and various Independents, mostly of a leftist disposition. In other words, while there has been a shift to Fine Gael, there has been a more significant shift to the left.

It was a breakthrough that many felt was long overdue. Since the onset of the crisis in late 2008, many on both the left and the right argued that the Irish had become incapable of sustained protest and resistance. As their European brothers and sisters in Portugal, France and Greece fiercely opposed the introduction of austerity measures, Irish resistance remained distantly muted, leading many on both sides of the political spectrum to claim that the Irish were simply inherently conservative.

So confident was Brian Lenihan of this innate conservatism that he felt secure enough to boast: ‘The steps taken have impressed our partners in Europe, who are amazed at our capacity to take pain. In France, you would have riots if you tried to do this.’ Former Fine Gael Minister, Ivan Yates, claimed that in casting their ballots as they had the electorate had in effect ‘signed up for years of harsh medicine’. The neoliberal enthusiasts who are presently negotiating the formation of a new government might do well to remember that the last party that talked of ‘harsh medicine’ was promptly decimated.

Coming from a different political perspective, Fintan O’Toole argued that nothing ever changes in Irish politics and that the electorate would simply substitute one right of centre party with another: ‘Come Saturday morning, like every morning after every election in the history of the State, right-of-centre establishment politics will be triumphant… Is there any other democracy where 55% of the electorate would freely vote for a €15 billion austerity programme combined with a €100 billion transfer of wealth from citizens to banks? And let’s be clear – this vote is free.’

However, this is to seriously misread the outlook of the Irish electorate. Exit polls showed that the overwhelming motive behind voting in the General Election was anger. Certainly, Fine Gael saw its vote increase nationally by 14%. As corporate Ireland shifted its allegiance away from Fianna Fáil, the Blueshirts amassed an enormous war chest of €2.25 million garnered mainly through corporate donations.

Ireland’s ruling elites have for some time been yearning for a ‘stable’ single party government that would ‘sort out’ the population, take on the ‘vested interests’ of the trade unions and impose rampant austerity. Fine Gael have happily obliged, promising significant job losses in the public sector, a fire sale of public assets, along with Thatcherite austerity through low taxation and cuts in state expenditure. These neoliberal policies received little or no analysis, with commentators content to accept the invitation to focus on the party’s voter friendly ‘five-point plan’.

While a section of the upper middle class backed Fine Gael’s right wing policies with enthusiasm, what the majority of voters heard was a message about ‘change’. They either used Fine Gael as a vehicle to get rid of Fianna Fáil or were attracted to ambiguous rhetoric about ending the ‘two tier health system’ or their job creation plan. Far from the election result being an enthusiastic endorsement of austerity, it represents a sharp class polarisation in Irish society that has occurred over the past two years, a shift that is only confirmed by the increase in support for the far left.

However, the most remarkable feature of this election has to be the emergence of the left as a significant political force in Irish society. A new left-wing force, the United Left Alliance, now has more TDs than Fianna Fáil in Dublin. A decision by Sinn Féin to tack left over the past year also led to big gains, mainly outside Dublin, and while Labour did its best to position itself firmly in the centre, its increased vote expresses an aversion among ordinary people to the Thatcherism hatched within Fine Gael.

The United Left Alliance now has five TDs, one MEP and nearly twenty local representatives, making the ULA a growing voice in Irish politics. The only real precedent for this success was the advances made by the Workers Party in the 1980s. The United Left Alliance is however different to the old Workers Party in two significant but crucial ways. Firstly, it opposes any involvement with, or support for, right-wing parties. It is a principled left alliance that has grown out of struggle and resistance rather than simply emerging as an appendage of republicanism. The politics of the United Left Alliance mean that it will seek to promote the self-mobilisation of people as opposed to parliamentary manoeuvring as the key to change.

Secondly, and most importantly, the United Left Alliance has emerged within a very different context. Ireland is one of the weakest links in the chain of global capitalism and the scale of the crisis here is unprecedented. There are no easy solutions to this crisis available to Irish capitalism.

None of this is to underestimate the enormity of the tasks facing the United Left Alliance. Left parliamentary activity cannot substitute for the vulnerability and fear that Irish workers are experiencing. It can only assist the awakening of a new mood of resistance. However, provided it becomes a party of struggle, it has the potential to grow dramatically.

In order to grow, the United Left Alliance will need to engage in new ideological struggles to match its electoral gains. It will have to convince a large number of workers to break from a trade union leadership that has systematically cultivated a mood of defeatism by sabotaging struggle, refusing to defend the public sector and urging acceptance of pay cuts and austerity lite.

In order to resist the vicious policies of Fine Gael and its enablers, the ULA will have to offer not simply a critique of the ideological assumptions used to justify austerity, but some account of alternative ways out of the crisis. Simply reverting to some version of Keynesianism, as many mainstream critics of austerity measures are prone to do, is not sufficient, most immediately because this approach fails to confront the fact that conflicting class interests are at play in the different economic strategies currently being advanced.

All of this means that the United Left Alliance faces a huge responsibility. There is a growing consensus within the Alliance that it should become a single radical party and bring together, under one banner, the different elements of the radical left while simultaneously allowing for difference and debate. In order for this to happen, there will need to be a process of open discussion to lay the basis for this new left-wing party. However, crucially, within these discussions the United Left Alliance must open itself to the many new activists whose hopes have been raised by the Irish left coming of age.

Speech from Comrade Joe Higgins HERE


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