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Ireland: Electoral revolt against austerity, left makes big gains

Election night report of the count in Dun Laoghaire. United Left Alliance's Richard Boyd Barrett TD interviewed on RTE by Brian Dobson after being elected.

By Harry Browne, Dublin

March 3, 2011 -- Something changed in Ireland on February 25 when we cast our votes in parliamentary (Dáil) elections to replace the government that has overseen the utter collapse of the economy and Ireland’s debt enslavement to fund bankrupt banks and their bondholders.
The traditional centre-right ruling party, Fianna Fáil, lost nearly three-quarters of its seats, and will be replaced as the main party of the next government by Fine Gael, the centre-right party that is accustomed to spending most of its time in opposition. This has its own drama, to be sure, albeit rather predictable in outcome.

But in opening up a new space for the left, putting Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in the Dáil, along with community activists like Joan Collins and Seamus Healy, and old Trots like Joe Higgins, Richard Boyd Barrett and Clare Daly, this election has provided a new platform for a resistance movement that could extend far beyond the polite precincts of parliament.

Swapping Fianna Fáil for Fine Gael represents change mainly in the fortunes of those parties and their politicians. Apart from the usual opportunistic nitpicking, it has long been difficult to find any significant policy differences between them. Over the decades Fine Gael has perhaps leaned to the left on social issues and to the right on economics, and Fianna Fáil vice versa, but you’d hardly see it now, especially as Fianna Fail has mostly overseen the profound liberalisation and neo-liberalisation of the last two decades.

In the current circumstances, the most important point is that both parties agree, essentially, with the extortionate terms of the European Union/International Monetary Fund “bailout”, which has sealed the socialising of bankers’ debts at the expense of taxpayers and public services in Ireland, victims of a vicious austerity agenda. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny may believe that his colleague in the European group of Christian Democrats, Germany’s Angela Merkel, can help him “renegotiate” Ireland’s deal a bit more favourably, but this would be window dressing. In light of the overwhelming impact of that agreement, the idea that Ireland “decided” anything important when it went to the polls on February 25 is a sick joke. As academic and activist Colin Coulter has written: “Almost all of the crucial decisions were taken some time ago, and most of them were made elsewhere.”

Fianna Fáil

The fortunes of Fianna Fáil are nonetheless of great interest to the left. The political descendants of the more radical sections of the Irish Republican Army from the War of Independence 90 years ago, those who opposed the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the party has tended to have the support of most of the urban working class and rural poor. Indeed, some communists over the years have offered the party “critical support” of the sort usually reserved in other countries for social-democratic parties rather than for populist nationalists such as Fianna Fáil. As the party contemplates its battering at the polls, its members and leaders mumble unconvincingly about returning it to its “radical roots”. Since its adopted “base” of property developers and financial speculators has largely moved on, the party will have to find some new angle, but it’s hard to imagine it can find its way to radicalism.

Its voters, however, are another story. Fianna Fáil lost 25 per cent of its vote in this general election, compared to the 2007 election, falling from 42 per cent to 17 per cent. Fine Gael, however, gained just 9 per cent, winning the first-preference votes of 36 per cent of voters. (The vagaries of the electoral system and expert local vote management mean that Fine Gael will have more like 46 per cent of the members of the new Dáil, the lower house of the parliament.) So Fine Gael directly exploited barely over a third of the Fianna Fáil decline. The rest was split between Ireland’s Labour Party, Sinn Fein and various independents, mostly of a left-wing disposition.

The Green Party paid dearly and appropriately for its own decision to go into coalition with Fianna Fail in 2007: it lost all its seats.

Left gains

Overall, the left vote in this election has been estimated at 42 per cent, with just under half that going to Labour. The combined share of the first-preferences votes shared by the two traditional “major” parties was 53.5 per cent, the lowest in the history of the Irish state: since 1927 the joint Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share has always been well over 60 per cent, often quite a bit higher.

So while there has been a significant shift to Fine Gael, there has been a more significant shift to the left, a force or set of forces that have been marginalised in Irish parliamentary politics since the 1920s.

In Dublin the shift is more pronounced: here the left vote is about 60 per cent, with again about half of that going to Labour. This trend has been visible for some years, especially in Dublin and especially at local and European elections; on February 25 it emerged full blown on the national electoral scene, though pundits have largely managed to ignore it. That is partly because the left is so diverse.

Sinn Fein, part of a rather conservative government in Northern Ireland, where it shares power with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party, ran quite a left-leaning campaign in the South and was rewarded with 10 per cent of the vote. Sinn Fein saw the most dramatic increase in representation, going from four seats in 2007 to 14 in the new Dublin parliament.

It is an unprecedented performance for the party in the Republic. Its leader, Gerry Adams, “came down here” to run in the Louth constituency and proved to be one of the top vote getters in the election, less than two decades after he was banned from the Irish state’s airwaves under censorship legislation during the northern “Troubles”.)

Around the country another 10 or so leftists, including the colourful Mick Wallace, were elected, five of them “far leftists” associated with a new formation, the United Left Alliance, whose candidates combined opposition to austerity and the “bailout” with personal records of credible community activism.

Labour Party

Then there is the Labour Party, which having reached a new record level as the biggest section of the biggest left in Irish electoral history, will do what it nearly always does given half a chance: go into a coalition government with Fine Gael. Daniel Finn's magnificent overview of the Irish situation in the latest edition of New Left Review (Jan/Feb, #67) contained a half-century-old quote from Fianna Fáil leader Sean Lemass that still captures the essence of Irish Labour:

I gather ... that someone accused the Labour Party of going "Red"... May I straightaway dissociate myself from any such suggestion? The Labour Party are, and always have been, the most conservative element in our community. Far from the Labour Party going "Red’', they are not going anywhere... The Labour Party are a nice, respectable, docile, harmless body of men -- as harmless a body as ever graced any parliament.

This teasing passage remains a cruelly apt description of the party, with a slight amendment to recognise the presence of a group of women who, while occasionally formidable, ultimately resemble their respectable male colleagues in political performance. For any nominally socialist party to have made, and kept, its peace with capitalism in current circumstances requires a wellspring of docility that, sadly, feeds all too much of Irish public life; that is exactly what Labour has done here, red baiting the United Left Alliance during the campaign and offering only the most vapid rhetorical opposition to the austerity agenda.

Indeed, Labour’s watery weakness in the face of neoliberal cuts and deals gave candidates to its left, including Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance, plenty of room to spout the most basic of social-democratic and Keynesian solutions to the Irish crisis and sound both reasonable and radical in doing so. Just as those candidates thrived in that space, they should continue to thrive as a left opposition to the Labour Party in government with Fine Gael after parliament reconvenes on March 9.

There is no doubt that the next government will give us plenty to oppose. Many in Fine Gael’s leadership seem to relish the prospect of overseeing harsh cuts in government services and employment -- they are among the baldest Thatcherites Irish politics has ever witnessed. Labour may indeed ameliorate some of its worst tendencies, though the experience of the Lib Dems in government with the Tories in Britain would not give us much hope in that direction. But what is certain that the new government’s policies won’t fix what is wrong with Ireland, a petri-dish for neoliberalism.

In that respect, the election in Ireland changed nothing, putting in power a group of politicians who look forward to carrying forth the same right-wing policies with more technocratic zeal and “competence” than their predecessors.

But, as noted above, in opening up a new space for the left, this election has given us a fresh new vista for action.

[Harry Browne lectures in journalism at Dublin Institute of Technology. He is the author of Hammered By the Irish, published by CounterPunch/AK Press. This article first appeared at Counterpunch.]

 

Notes on the results for the United Left Alliance

By Des Derwin

March 3, 2011 -- The ULA is an alliance of political activists from the Socialist Party (SP), the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), activists who left the Labour Party, along with community activist groups such as People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) in Tipperary and others.

Here are the results for the United Left Alliance in the Irish general election on February 25, 2011:

Constituency                 Candidate                     Party                            1st pref            Vote %
Carlow–Kilkenny            Conor Mac Liam         Socialist Party              1,135                1.5%
Cork North West             Anne Foley                   PBPA                             1,552                 3.4%
Cork North Central         Mick Barry                     Socialist Party              4,803                9.2%
Dublin Mid West             Robert Connolly           Socialist Party                 622                1.5%
                                          Gino Kenny                    PBPA                             2,471                 5.8%
Dublin North                   Clare Daly                      Socialist Party              7,513              15.2% ELECTED
Dublin North East          Brian Greene                Socialist Party                  869                  2.1%
Dublin North Central     John Lyons                    PBPA                              1,399                 3.6%
Dublin North West         Andrew Keegan            PBPA                                 677                  2.1%
Dublin South                   Nicola Curry                  PBPA                              1,277                  1.8%
Dublin South Central    Joan Collins                   PBPA                              6,574               10.0% ELECTED
Dublin South East         Annette Mooney             PBPA                                 629                 1.8%
Dublin South West        Mick Murphy                   Socialist Party               2,462                 5.2%
Dublin West                   Joe Higgins                    Socialist Party               8,084               19.0% ELECTED
Dún Laoghaire              Richard Boyd Barrett     PBPA                              6,206               10.9% ELECTED
Laois–Offaly                   Ray Fitzpatrick               Socialist Party                   561                  0.8%
Limerick City                  Cian Prendiville             Socialist Party                   721                 1.7%
Sligo-Leitrim North        Declan Bree                  Independent                  2,284                  5.1%
Tipperary South             Séamus Healy               WUAG                             8,818                21.3% ELECTED
Wexford                           Séamus O’Brien            PBPA                                  741                  1.0%

(Source for above: Collective Resistance blog.)

The ULA’s total vote was 59,398, with an average 5.9% vote per constituency. The national proportion of the vote for the ULA (standing in 20 of 43 constituencies) was 2.6% (Irish Times, February 28, 2011). It was actually marginally higher as the Irish Times counted one ULA candidate (Declan Bree) as an independent.

In Dublin, the ULA vote was 7.1% compared to 8.2% for Sinn Féin (Irish Times, February 28, 2011), while 23.9% for the Labour Party was the largest party by vote in the Irish capital. The ULA now has more seats in Dublin than the wiped-out Fianna Fáil.

The ULA after the election and consequent substitutes for elected candidates will have one Member of European Parliament, five TDs (member of parliament) and about 20 local authority councillors. Many of these subscribe to radical Marxist politics (and all the TDs and the MEP do), though the ULA will be a radical but not subjectively Marxist and revolutionary formation.

For the ULA and left-leaning independents' results see: http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/the-left-vote-totals-and-a-few-other-stats/#comments.

For the tsunami that overtook Fianna Fáil see this piece by a popular left-leaning historian: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/0301/1224291075967.html.

For all results see: http://www.irishtimes.com/indepth/election2011/.

Comments

After Its ULA success, where next for the Irish left?

This article is reproduced from the Collective Resistance website:

Here’s a funny and welcome thing. Irish Stalinism has been wiped out as an electoral force and the United Left Alliance (ULA), which for practical purposes is currently an electoral coalition between two organisations of Trotskyist heritage, gets five TDs elected as the economy melts down.

Ireland has come late to this process of broad left electoral formations. There have two or three attempts in England, the Scottish Socialist Party has declined from its high water mark, Germany has had Die Linke, Italy Rifondazione Comunista, France the NPA and so on. Some of these projects have been less successful than others but it is possible to draw some conclusions from their experiences. Of particular importance is the way organisations with a strong insistence on members agreeing with each other in public behave in non-revolutionary formations.

To put it another way – just how much “democratic centralism” do you insist on? “Not very much” should be the answer. Here’s why.

The ULA’s result has shown that a small vanguard in the Irish working class has drawn the conclusion that it needs a political expression which offers a radical anti-capitalist solution to the crisis. It has rejected the Labour Party as part of that solution. There is a case to be made that Sinn Fein’s vote is part of the same trend but even on a foggy night you can’t really confuse the Shinners with a left organisation if you have a serious approach to class politics.

The other thing the ULA result shows is that if the left moves beyond a conception of politics which involves selling a few papers, recruiting a handful of members and seeing other socialist organisations as more significant threats than the ruling class that it has a chance of becoming a material factor in the political arena. This is something that a propagandist orientation can never achieve. It offers the chance of having a real impact on mass struggles and big mobilisations. A high point of this approach was Rifondzione Comunista’s participation in the Genoa demonstrations when it was able to bring tens of thousands of class conscious and organised workers.

In the comments section on this site it’s reported by someone in a position to know that both the Socialist Party and the SWP are “advocating moving towards a party”. Self-evidently a new situation and new forces requires a different form of organisation. Irish workers have had quite a long time to decide whether or not they wanted to join either of these organisation as currently constituted and while both are certain to grow in the coming months neither is in a position to offer anything approaching the potential influence of a bigger and broader ULA.

There is a negative experience to learn from. During its time in Respect the SWP effectively ran it as a wholly owned subsidiary in which it made all the major decisions. All SWP members always voted the same way at meeting and arguments were won by organisational rather than political means, usually by packing meetings. It was a way of working which strangled Respect’s development and should be avoided like a Hugh Grant film on a Saturday night. Members of the broad party have to be confident that views won’t be imposed and that what they say can change the outcome of debates.

For the organised revolutionary currents that means breaking with the shibboleth that they all have to vote the same way and sing the same song all the time. On all but issues of principle such as voting for cuts individuals should be free to vote according to how they are persuaded by the arguments. This may be something of a break from tradition but it’s a tradition the early Trotskyist movement learned from Stalinists so it’s well worth shattering.

The crisis has presented the Irish left with a chance to create a new model of a militant, anti-capitalist party. One of the keys to its success will be the extent to which it creates one which is pluralistic and democratic.

Higgins pledges to build new party of left as five ULA elected

MARY MINIHAN

Mon, Feb 28, 2011

UNITED LEFT ALLIANCE: PEOPLE BEFORE Profit councillor in Dún Laoghaire Richard Boyd Barrett was the last of five members of the United Left Alliance (ULA) movement to secure seats in the new Dáil yesterday.

Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins was the first member of the recently formed umbrella group to get elected at the weekend by regaining his former Dublin West seat and he said that the new deputies now intended to form a political party.

“We will have five TDs in the Dáil and we will work as a coherent, principled opposition. There is a need for a new party on the left for working people. We’re all agreed there is a huge vacuum,” Mr Higgins said.

“The intention is to form a party, but I don’t want people to think it’s going to happen tomorrow morning because there is a process here. We will discuss with supporters and activists about the next step.”

Also elected under the ULA umbrella were the Socialist Party’s Clare Daly in Dublin North, Joan Collins of People Before Profit in Dublin South Central and former Independent TD Seamus Healy in Tipperary South.

The ULA was launched last November when the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the Tipperary-based Workers Unemployed Action Group came together to provide what Mr Higgins described as a “left alternative to the establishment parties”.

The group fielded a total of 18 candidates in the general election and campaigned on a platform of opposition to water charges and property taxes.

It was also against cuts in social welfare payments and pensions, calling for an end to “the bailout of banks and developers” and demanding that tax measures be focused on “the greedy not the needy”.

Mr Boyd Barrett took the fourth and final seat in the Dún Laoghaire constituency yesterday evening without reaching the quota on the 11th count after securing 10.9 per cent of first preferences, or 6,206 votes.

Mr Higgins was elected on the third count in Dublin West with 8,084 votes, or 19 per cent of first preferences. Ms Daly, a Socialist Party councillor on Fingal County Council, secured 15.2 per cent of first preferences with 7,513 votes, and was elected on the sixth count in Dublin North.

Ms Collins, a People Before Profit councillor on Dublin City Council, took 12.9 per cent first preferences, or 6,574 votes, and was elected on the 13th count in Dublin South-Central.

Mr Healy, a Clonmel-based member of South Tipperary County Council and member of the Tipperary-based Workers Unemployed Action Group, got 21.3 per cent of first preferences, or 8,818 votes, and was elected on the third count. Mr Healy was a TD in the 29th Dáil but lost out narrowly to Martin Mansergh of Fianna Fáil in 2007.

The ULA had also hoped that Socialist Party councillor Mick Barry would get a Dáil seat in Cork North Central, but he was eliminated on the seventh count.

© 2011 The Irish Times

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/0228/1224291015357_pf.html

History as poster boy Boyd Barrett & hard left triumphs

http://www.herald.ie/opinion/cormac-murphy-history-in-the-making-as-poster-boy-boyd-barrett-and-hard-left-triumphs-2559394.htm

NEW FACES: 'We won't be doing any deals'

By Cormac Murphy
Monday February 28 2011

MEET the New Socialists -- for the first time in its history the Dail will have a large bloc of hard left TDs.

The country's new political force, the United Left Alliance (ULA), won five seats -- Richard Boyd Barrett, Joe Higgins, Clare Daly, Joan Collins and Seamus Healy.

The umbrella organisation takes in Higgins' Socialist Party and the campaigning People Before Profit group.

Sinn Fein has ended up with at least 13 seats, while a number of left-leaning candidates such as Luke 'Ming' Flanagan were also successful.

SPECIAL

The left-wing Independents (including the ULA) were expected to discuss forming a technical group which would give them special speaking rights in the Dail.

However, there is unlikely to be too much cooperation with Sinn Fein.

The ULA states it wants to provide "a real alternative" to Labour and SF, who "accept the capitalist market and refuse to rule out coalition with right wing parties".

Joan Collins, who was elected to Dublin South Central, made clear following her victory that the ULA was separate from SF.

The alliance has insisted it will "not do any deals or support any coalition with any of the right wing parties particularly Fianna Fail and Fine Gael".

"We are committed to building a mass left alternative to unite working people, whether public or private sector, Irish or migrant, with the unemployed, welfare recipients, pensioners and students in the struggle to change society," it says.

Not surprisingly, the ULA is opposed to the outgoing government's banking policy.

"The ULA says scrap NAMA and end the bailout of the banks and developers. Take the banks, finance houses, major construction companies and development land into democratic public ownership and use them for the benefit of people, not the profit of the few," the alliance states. Boyd Barrett (43), elected in the Dun Laoghaire constituency ahead of Mary Hanafin (FF), has been the poster boy for leftwing causes for years.

But his big breakthrough only came at the local elections in 2009 when he was elected to Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown County Council.

His first move may well be to invest in a suit as he doesn't own one and TDs are required to dress smartly. Ming Flanagan (39), best known for his campaign to legalise cannabis, said his election in Roscommon-South Leitrim would inspire others to go forward in future.

Afford

He instantly declared he would take a 50pc pay cut in his €92,000 TD's salary.

Flanagan also called on all new TDs to do the same, saying the country couldn't afford the salaries currently paid to Dail members.


Left Lineages in Ireland

PATRICK SMYTH

Fri, Mar 04, 2011

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/0304/1224291281717_pf.html

ANALYSIS: Rocky road to Dáil success marked by sharp political turns for left-leaning TDs

COMRADES ALL. Some 18 TDs elected to the 31st Dáil trace their personal political lineages back to 1970s and 1980s and the proliferation of bitterly divided, and some might say exotic, socialist and Marxist parties to the left of the Labour Party.

Today the majority of them, now firmly in the bosom of Labour, have rejected revolution, embrace wholeheartedly its centrist social democratic values, and are politically indistinguishable from their Old Labour colleagues.

A minority, those associated with the United Left Alliance (ULA), still adhere to Marxism and the ideas of Leon Trotsky. (Traditionally, a key dividing line in the revolutionary left has been between adherents of the latter and of those of the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin, seen by Trotskyists as having betrayed the “democratic” ideals of the Russian revolution).

Seven of these 18 TDs, including Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and his predecessor Pat Rabbitte, came from the Workers Party (WP) which emerged from the split in Sinn Féin in 1970. Its politics were explicitly Marxist, close to those of the Communist Party, though from its inception it provided a home both to those who described their position as “socialist”, “left social democrat” and to outright Stalinists.

The WP split in 1992 with the majority leaving to found Democratic Left (DL), which in turn merged with the Labour Party in 1999.

Earlier, in 1990, the small “left social democratic” party associated with Limerick’s Jim Kemmy, the Democratic Socialist Party, had also joined Labour en bloc – three of its adherents are now TDs.

One former member of the DL, Catherine Murphy, will now sit as an Independent, while the still extant Workers Party, still avowedly Marxist, also lost a councillor, John Halligan, who will join her.

The Trotskyist left includes the Socialist Party (SP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the now deceased League for a Workers’ Republic (LWR). Of these the largest was the Militant Tendency, in its various incarnations – Militant Labour after being expelled from Labour in 1989, and then the SP. Three new TDs cut their teeth with the group: Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Joan Collins, although Collins parted company with it to join the broad front People Before Profit (PBP), now to be reunited with the SP in the informal alliance of the ULA.

Alex White and Séamus Healy were at one stage members of the much smaller LWR, although the former had long parted company with it before he joined Labour. The two will sit opposite each other on government and opposition benches.

Having resolutely spurned over the years any “contamination” by Labour’s social democracy or the trade union “bureaucracy”, the SWP has seen its purist zeal finally rewarded with the election of Richard Boyd Barrett on the PBP/ULA slate. Although the ULA should work as an informal marriage of convenience, attempts to create a party out of its constituent elements may prove more difficult. Ideological purity on the hard left comes easier than the much-desired oxymoron that is “left unity”.

© 2011 The Irish Times

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