There has been a shift in the political landscape of Ireland following the recent general election and the result has produced a move towards the left, in particular Sinn Féin who have had their most successful election result in their history. But what is the makeup of the the left in Irish politics and who are the playmakers? Alan Myler looks at the history of the Irish left and brings us right up to date with an analysis of how we got to where we are now.
The origins of Irish democracy
The February 2020 general election in Ireland signalled the end of the duopoly of power, enjoyed by centrist political parties since the separation of Ireland from the United Kingdom almost a century ago, when Sinn Féin emerged as a third force within Irish politics. This is of historical significance, but it is not something which happened overnight, and it requires a bit of a journey into history for those who might not be familiar with it, in order to place the current political success of Sinn Féin in the correct historical context. When the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland, was created from 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland at the end of the Irish War of Independence, political power was transferred from the UK parliament in Westminster to the Irish Dáil in Dublin, and a brief but quite vicious Civil War ensued between opposing elements of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA had fought to remove British power but subsequently split into factions which supported or opposed the terms of the peace treaty which underlined Irish independence from the UK. The victors of that Civil War, aided militarily by the British, went on to rule the newly established Free State for a decade, establishing a liberal democratic but deeply conservative state apparatus under the hegemony of the Cumann na nGael party. But as with all Civil Wars, deep scars were created in the politics of the state as those who were defeated in the Civil War came to grips with the failure to achieve the full 32 county republic, and the lost opportunity to create a more progressive and egalitarian society. In the intervening century the political history of the Republic of Ireland has essentially been the continuation of this Civil War by political and at times by military means. The unresolved struggles during the revolutionary period 1913-1922 created two dominant and competing strands in Irish politics along two axes, the “National Question” concerning the status of the six counties of Northern Ireland which were not given independence by the UK in 1921, and the politics of social class.
Ten years post independence, the defeated anti-Treaty IRA split on the question of participation in parliamentary politics, not for the last time, and from that split was born the Fianna Fáil party, a party of the small farmers and urban working class, a party with a strong Roman Catholic ethos, populist in 1930s terms rather than socialist. This party swept to power on the back of Republican rhetoric of reclaiming the lost 6 counties of Northern Ireland, combining irredentism with social policies which placated the rural peasantry and urban working class, significantly via the building of public housing on a scale that the previous middle class conservative government would never have considered. Fianna Fáil continued to be the natural party of power in the state ever since, alternating power occasionally with the Fine Gael party, which had emerged in the 1930s through the merger of the conservative Cumann na nGael party with the far-Right “Blueshirt” movement which had fought with Franco in the Spanish Civil War. So in essence a politics of centre-left Populism or of centre-right Christian Democracy. So where in this picture does the left fit? The simple answer has been that until very recently the Irish left has been on the margins. The beginnings of left politics in Ireland can be more or less traced to the 1913 Lockout, a strike between the emerging trade union movement and leading employers in the city of Dublin. The violence of the employers, backed by the forces of the British state, led to the emergence of a small but significant socialist militia, the Irish Citizens Army, which was formed to defend the striking workers. While the Lockout resulted in the defeat of the trade union movement, the resentment and militancy of the working class did not disappear with the victory of the employers. When the nationalist Irish Volunteers rose militarily against British rule in Easter 1916, taking advantage of Britain’s distraction elsewhere during the Great War, the socialist Irish Citizens Army fought alongside the nationalist Volunteers in common cause to attempt to push British imperialism out of Ireland. That cross-fertilisation of national liberation and socialist politics provided the bedrock from which the modern Irish left has emerged, rooted in the underground organisation styling itself the Irish Republican Army. The history of the Irish Republican Army during the middle of the 20th century was one of struggles between the competing priorities and ideologies of nationalism and socialism. As with small militant organisations worldwide it was a history of bitter internal feuds. In the 1940s the question of participation in parliamentary politics again resulted in a split which spun off the republican socialist political party Clann na Poblachta. The party won a small number of seats in parliamentary elections and went into government coalition with the dominant Fine Gael party, and a number of other parties including the Irish Labour Party. The party disappeared amidst the collapse of that government, in part part due to political pressure exercised by the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic church. The IRA launched an unsuccessful military campaign along the Northern Irish border in the mid 50s, with the hope of igniting a guerrilla war along the lines of the relatively successful War of Independence of 1919-21. When this military campaign failed to take off the IRA entered a period of decline which prompted serious reflection on the contradictions between the nationalist and socialist politics of the movement, and the best strategic approach to win the 32- county socialist republic. Divisions within the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin, heightened by escalation of sectarian tensions in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland, resulted in a further split in the IRA along a nationalist / socialist divide. The split in 1970 between the nationalist Provisional IRA / Sinn Féin and the socialist Official IRA / Sinn Féin sowed the seeds for the escalation of the military campaign by the Provisionals in Northern Ireland and a concentration on political campaigns rooted in working class struggles in the Republic of Ireland by the Officials. The Officials subsequently renamed themselves Sinn Féin the Worker’s Party in 1978, renaming again as The Workers’ Party in 1982, entering the Dáil (Irish parliament) with some electoral success and briefly supporting a minority Fianna Fáil government during 1982 alongside other left wing members of the Dáil. The politics of the Workers’ Party evolved during this transition from Irish Socialist Republicanism towards a more internationalist orthodox Marxist orientation as the party aligned itself with the Communist and Workers’ Parties of the Soviet Bloc. By 1992 the Workers’ Party had established itself as the dominant force of further left politics in the Republic or Ireland, but in common with other western European communist parties, notably the massively significant Partito Comunista Italiano in Italy and the somewhat less relevant Communist Party of Great Britain, the Workers’ Party in effect dissolved itself and the bulk of the parliamentary party drifted Rightwards, merging with the Irish Labour Party a number of years later. The Workers’ Party continues to exist to this day but has never recovered from the setback of 1992 and no longer plays a significant role in electoral politics.
So where does the Sinn Féin electoral success in 2020 come from do I hear you ask? It comes from that part of the IRA which chose militarism in 1970, which fed the Northern Irish “Troubles” which resulted in a quarter century of military conflict, three thousand deaths in that conflict, and lasting scars on the politics and society in the wake of the ceasefire and the Belfast Agreement which ended that conflict. When the Provisional IRA / Sinn Féin accepted that a military victory was unlikely in Northern Ireland their strategy shifted towards the same direction which the Official IRA / Sinn Féin had embarked upon 25 years earlier, political campaigns rooted in the concerns of the working class on both sides of the border. This has been a long and slow campaign by Sinn Féin, from the mid 1990s until the present, and a campaign which has in many ways transformed the nature of the party itself. No longer merely an electoral front for the Provisional IRA, the balance of power within the organisation has shifted irreversibly to those who favour the peaceful democratic path to political power. The generational change has been significant also, with Sinn Féin candidates elected who were not even born at the time of the ceasefire and the ensuing Belfast Agreement which ended the military hostilities. The support base for Sinn Féin has also widened significantly, from the deprived urban working class and rural communities which formed the historical base for Republican politics to now encompass a far broader and more socially diverse cohort. Sinn Féin has positioned itself as the party of change, a dangerous position for them and one which might well lead to some level of popular disappointment with the pace of delivery of that promised change, as Barack Obama discovered in the USA. Interesting is the public perception of Sinn Féin, fed by a constructive duplicity on the part of the party leadership itself. It is a party of two faces, one based in the revolutionary Republican tradition and the iconography of military insurrection, the Red Flag, Che Guevara, the global national liberation movements of the 1970s, the wall murals of West Belfast and Free Derry, the AK47 and the M16, the glorification of armed resistance to the forces of oppression, participation in the annual festivals of western European Communist parties, membership of the European parliament grouping GUE/NGL alongside the radical left parties of Europe.
This facet of Sinn Féin terrifies the conservative social forces in the Republic of Ireland, the middle class, business owners, big farmers, foreign industrialists, bankers, the civil service, and of course it is the side of Sinn Féin which the political allies of such social forces tend to accentuate in the traditional print and broadcast media. The incumbent political parties, the formerly populist Fianna Fáil and conservative Fine Gael parties, both now indistinguishable by their embrace of neoliberalism for the past three decades, use the Republican equivalent of the Red Scare to attempt to persuade voters that Sinn Féin cannot be trusted with the levers of power, that Sinn Féin economic policies are based on fairy tales, and of course that in reality There Is No Alternative (TINA) to the neoliberal policies of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. The reality is of course that Sinn Féin is very much a safe pair of hands for capitalism. When the late Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Féin, led the party into the historic powersharing arrangements in Northern Ireland established under the Belfast Agreement, he was leading the party willingly into administering neoliberal austerity measures dictated by successive New Labour and Conservative UK governments in Westminster. When McGuinness smiled for the cameras while ringing the bell at the opening of the New York Stock exchange he was acknowledging the domination of transnational capitalism over the possibility of Irish economic independence. When Sinn Féin public representatives backed the idea of establishing a centre for international finance capital in Belfast, an offshoot of the Irish Financial Services Centre in Dublin, they were demonstrating that Sinn Féin is completely onboard with the global capitalist project. Simply put, Sinn Féin is not a Marxist or anti-capitalist party, nor does it explicitly claim to be. So what of the public perception of Sinn Féin by the Irish electorate which has now returned it to parliament with the largest share of the national vote, 24.5%, and the second highest number of seats, 37 out of 160? What is it about Sinn Féin that led to this sudden increase in popularity? There are two dominant reasons for this historic vote. The first is based in the material concerns of the generation of voters which has grown during the decades of neoliberal austerity. People simply cannot afford housing, and this was the major issue during the election campaign. There has been in effect, no construction of public housing since the collapse of the construction boom in 2008 and the resulting banking crisis which led to the imposition of austerity measures by EU/IMF/World Bank, overseen by the neoliberal Fianna Fáil and subsequently Fine Gael governments. The housing market is dysfunctional, demand far exceeds supply for both rental and purchase properties, and a generation of young people are struggling to put a roof over their heads. Combined with this, and also a result of neoliberal austerity measures, an increase in precarious employment and multiple crises in healthcare, childcare, transport have combined to push people to the edge.
When Fine Gael stated in their election material that a bright future is being built for all in society it became readily apparent that the governing party has lost touch with the reality of most people’s lives. So that’s one factor, the material reality of people’s daily existence. The other factor is that Irish society has accelerated its escape from the oppressive cultural and political stagnation of the 20th century. While our most recent Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, might be a somewhat arrogant posh boy conservative with a love for neoliberalism, he’s also the youthful gay son of immigrants to Ireland, a poster boy for the international woke liberal generation. Irish society has been transformed by long social struggles, many initiated decades ago by the further left, which caught the mood of the youthful Irish population which yearned for change. This has seen two incredibly successful Constitutional Referenda in recent years which have paved the way for Marriage Equality for the LGB community and for the legalisation of abortion, backed by widespread politicisation and participation of the younger generation. These referenda have signalled the demise of any vestige of cultural and political power by the Roman Catholic church which might have hung on from the 20th century, and that sense of escape has fed into an appetite for change in the political and economic sphere too. So why are Sinn Féin the beneficiaries of that tide of change? The answer to that question is partly because Sinn Féin based their political evolution on alignment with the struggles of the oppressed within Irish society, they are an ally of those seeking change, and also because of a political vacuum on the left of the political spectrum.
What of Labour and the rest?
In this piece I have alluded to, but not expanded on, the role of the Irish Labour Party and other forces on the Irish left. Quite simply put this is because their influence has not been historically significant. The Labour Party originated from the same trade union movement which led to the creation of the Irish Citizens Army and subsequent infusion of socialism into the the Irish Republican Army / Sinn Féin, but whereas the latter ran with the more radical end of left politics the Labour party based itself firmly in the trade union movement and struggled during the 20th century to build any significant politics of a social democratic nature which might have opposed the dominance of Fine Gael’s conservatism or Fianna Fáil’s populism. While the Labour Party has been in government coalition with Fine Gael on a number of occasions, it has always come out of such political arrangements bruised by the experience and with deep disappointed amongst its working class constituency who have blamed the party for collaborating with the worst excesses of Fine Gael’s policies.
Beyond Labour, there have also been further left currents on the edges of Irish politics. I have already discussed the relative electoral success of the Worker’ Party in the 1980s, before their collapse in 1992, and in the decades since that collapse the further left political spectrum has been dominated by the presence of two competing Trotskyist parties. Both of these parties, until very recently, were closely coupled to their sister parties in the UK. The Socialist Party, contesting elections via its electoral front named Solidarity, and the Socialist Workers Network, operating via its front named the People Before Profit Alliance, have joined forces within parliament in order to achieve critical mass and gain speaking time rights within the chamber. This combined group has provided a small but vocal and effective parliamentary further left opposition to the government, in much the same way that the Workers’ Party did during the 1980s. While this group is numerically far smaller than Sinn Fein it does exercise some amount of indirect influence over Sinn Féin’s public rhetoric, if not policy itself, by providing competition from the left for the attention of the working class communities within which all are based. So add together these factors, a young population eager for socio-economic change, confident of the ability to use the ballot box to achieve that change on the back of the two successful referenda in recent years, combined with the relative historical weakness of social democratic parties and the lack of scale of the further left political groups, and into that situation rides Sinn Féin, positioning itself as the left populist vehicle to dominate the political vacuum. Add to that the effectiveness of the Sinn Féin political machine, a discipline and intelligence that was required during the quarter century military campaign in Northern Ireland and which spawned a leadership with a deep appreciation for strategy and the patience to play the long game. It has proven to be a recipe for political success in the 2020 general election. Right party, right place, right time, a winning combination.
So what happens now? That’s the big question of course. The election results have been trickling in slowly as Ireland still operates a paper-based and hand-counted proportional representation voting system with multi-seat constituencies, so it can take a number of days before the 160 seats in parliament are fully decided. During this period it has become obvious where the dividing lines in Irish politics and Irish society are realigning themselves. Sinn Féin dominated the election, with many of their candidates winning their seats in the first round of the count, with their vote surpluses then being redistributed leftwards by and large, benefiting candidates from what is now being talked about as the “Progressive Bloc”, the smaller parties of the centre and further left such as the Green Party, the Social Democrats, the Labour Party, the combined Solidarity / people Before Profit grouping, as well as a number of left-inclined independents. Clearly this largesse has been the gift of the electorate rather than the Sinn Féin party itself, an electorate which has chosen to vote for Sinn Féin first and the rest of the left thereafter, but the goodwill of the electorate provides the opportunity for the recipients of that goodwill to align themselves together as a bullwark to the stagnant centrist politics of the establishment, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. With approximately a quarter of the seats each, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and these progressive parties of the left, centred on Sinn Féin, now face each other in a type of Mexican stand-off as all parties now begin the process of negotiations to form the next government. While there is no formal alliance between Sinn Féin and these other smaller progressive parties there does seem to exist an appetite for change which only they can provide, and none of them will be rewarded at the ballot box in the future if that opportunity is squandered. However, the numbers do not stack up for Sinn Fein to form a government with the support of the other progressive parties alone. While Italy in the post-war period became accustomed to all sorts of political acrobatics in an effort to prevent the Partito Comunista Italiano from sharing state power, Ireland does not have any similar tradition, accustomed as we have been to the alternation of power between the centrist twins, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. In the absence of a parliamentary majority for Sinn Féin with or without the other progressive parties, we are now faced with political permutations which are severely upsetting the political establishment and their media fellow travellers. Neither of the historically dominant centrist parties can realistically consider entering coalition with each other, even though the seat numbers in parliament would suggest that this would provide the obvious solution to the political impasse.
Such a Grand Coalition would effectively end the historical differentiation between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, rendering them identical in the eyes of the electorate, two cheeks of the same neoliberal arse. It would admit to the end of their joint dominance over Irish politics since the creation of the state almost a century ago, and neither party wants to face that future. The other two combinations, a coalition between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael or Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are equally unpalatable to the incumbent centrist parties. Fine Gael, middle class conservative and the traditional party of law and order, simply cannot accept that Sinn Féin is deserving of state power. It is the same classical impasse that played out in Italy between the Democrazia Cristiana and the Partito Comunista Italiano, in France between DeGaulle and the Parti Comminuste Francais, in Spain between the political heirs to Franco’s regime and the radical left of Podemos and the United Left. Simply put this cannot be, and will not be. The final option, and possibly the most likely outcome, is a coalition between Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, both of whom come from the Irish Republican tradition, both of whom historically, albeit at different times, have been the vehicle for left populism without ever embracing socialism. However, where would this leave either party into the future? Would Fianna Fáil lose its own raison d’etre in the face of the new populist force in Irish society, and would Sinn Féin morph into a New Fianna Fáil, jettisoning the more radical social democratic and left populist rhetoric, proving itself to be the safe pair of hands for the economy that is demanded of it by those truly shadowy forces lurking behind Irish politics, the property developers, argi-business, the banks, the multi-nationals? No easy answers to any of that, and many uncomfortable political strategists from all parties working away behind the scenes to come up with least worst outcomes.
Let’s try again?
In the meantime, what is Sinn Féin’s preferred outcome? Most likely a re-run of the election. They were caught out by their success in this election, having reduced the number of candidates standing for election due to their relatively disappointing results in the recent European and Local elections. Had they stood more candidates the likelihood is that their surplus vote would have given them further Sinn Féin seats in parliament. Being the masterful negotiators and strategists that they are, it seems most likely that they will attempt to avoid reaching any coalition deal with Fianna Fáil, but they will be careful not to be seen by the public as the party responsible for failing to reach agreement, knowing that the electorate has lent them their vote in order to bring in the changes that are required, in housing, in healthcare etc., and that they will not be thanked by the public if they are seen to be playing political games for their own party ends. So my money is on a re-run of the election in the summer, after a number of months of drawn out and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations over the formation of a coalition government, followed by an even more impressive landslide for Sinn Féin and opening up the possibility of a progressive government formed by Sinn Féin and the other smaller parties, with the historic exclusion of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. As the Shinners, Sinn Féin, are fond of saying, “tiocfaidh ár lá” (our day will come). They might be right. Whether that day will represent the final emergence of European social democratic normalities in Ireland, long enjoyed elsewhere across the continent, or instead will herald an era of nationalist irredentism over the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, we will just have to wait and see. Have Sinn Féin and the Provisionals changed their spots? Who knows, maybe in reality they’re just following the path laid down by Official Sinn Féin / the Workers’ Party, even if they’re 25 years behind the game.
Superb analysis, thank you Alan.