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.
Harry Browne, Dublin
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
as noted above, in opening up a new space for the left, this election has given
us a fresh new vista for action.
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.]
on the results for the United Left Alliance
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:
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%
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
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%
Dún Laoghaire Richard Boyd Barrett PBPA 6,206 10.9% ELECTED
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
O’Brien PBPA 741 1.0%
for above: Collective Resistance blog.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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”.
group fielded a total of 18 candidates in the general election and
campaigned on a platform of opposition to water charges and property
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
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
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
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.
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
MEET the New Socialists -- for the first time in its history the Dail will have a large bloc of hard left TDs.
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
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
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.
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.
ANALYSIS: Rocky road to Dáil success marked by sharp political turns for left-leaning TDs
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.
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
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
The WP split in 1992 with the majority leaving to
found Democratic Left (DL), which in turn merged with the Labour Party
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
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.
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.
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
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”.