By Sean Byers.

The results of the recent elections in Ireland correspond to the fragmented and radically uncertain times we now inhabit. They reveal continuities in terms of the resilience of the dominant parties as well as changes in the overall composition and balance of political forces in both jurisdictions.

In the North’s local elections, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin have comfortably re-emerged as the two largest parties. The DUP will be the happier of the two, increasing its share of the vote and losing just eight seats despite a succession of scandals and the party’s ignominious role at the centre of the Brexit saga.

This is partly thanks to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) offering nothing but a pale imitation of the DUP to a dwindling constituency of octogenarians, the result of which will almost certainly be the former’s continued decline in years to come.

It also reflects the absence of a compelling working-class political alternative within Unionism, the persistence of key faultlines across society and zero-sum nature of politics in the North, which enables the DUP to retain mass support on account of being viewed as a bulwark against nationalist gain and the prospect of Irish unity.

Sinn Féin’s vote was down slightly on the last election, though the party held on to the same number of seats (105) won in 2014. This is no disaster. However the party leadership will have been left pondering why they haven’t built on the remarkable gains recorded in 2014 and again in 2017, why they haven’t managed to dispense with the SDLP, and why they have instead lost support in different directions.

A ‘liberal’ surge in the North?

A number of commentators have remarked that the northern elections were significant for the success of what have been variously described as the ‘centre ground’, ‘moderates’ or the ‘Others’. These headlines, whilst capturing an ambiguous desire for change among sections of the population, serve to obscure important differences between the parties as well as the class, ethnonational, ideological and geographical dynamics at play.

Overall, the Alliance Party made the largest gain of the share of first-preference vote and the number of seats in the local elections, while Naomi Long took the third European Parliament seat from the UUP. Alliance’s strong opposition to Brexit coupled with its support for equal marriage and abortion reform has succeeded in winning over significant numbers of liberal Unionists in more affluent areas.

As Henry Patterson has argued, the party now represents a class which has “an objective interest in the continuation of the Union but … no desire to be bothered by rowdy debates about the national question”. The party’s appeal, which rests on the vacuous slogan of “Demand Better” and the rejection of ‘tribal politics’, is also what makes the Alliance ill-equipped to deal with the constitutional question, the intractable problems of devolution or the multiple challenges facing working-class communities.

The Green Party’s increase of four seats to a total of eight in the local elections in the North is perhaps more significant from a left perspective. It could be argued simply that the Greens captured a similar demographic to Alliance’s core vote. But the Green brand has also benefitted from a growing awareness of the urgency of climate breakdown, particularly among young people.

Belfast City Council moves left

Significantly, the Green Party of Northern Ireland is more unambiguously left on key economic questions than the ‘centrist’ label implies and more amenable to the anti-capitalist slogan of ‘system change not climate change’ than their counterparts in Britain or the South, despite operating within a more restrictive economic and political environment. The presence of four Green councillors in the chambers of Belfast City Council could, however, help to shift the city’s policy agenda in a more left-wing direction.

Adding to the leftward dynamic in Belfast City Council is an increase in the number of People Before Profit (PBP) councillors from one to three. As in Derry, where the party gained two seats, PBP strengthened its support in Belfast on the back of tireless campaigning around the impact of welfare reform. Here Sinn Féin’s strategy of targeting PBP’s position on Brexit appears to have worn thin among some of those most badly affected by the punitive, privatised Personal Independence Payment regime and rollout of Universal Credit.

Adding to the leftward dynamic in Belfast City Council is an increase in the number of People Before Profit (PBP) councillors from one to three. As in Derry, where the party gained two seats, PBP strengthened its support in Belfast on the back of tireless campaigning around the impact of welfare reform. Here Sinn Féin’s strategy of targeting PBP’s position on Brexit appears to have worn thin among some of those most badly affected by the punitive, privatised Personal Independence Payment regime and rollout of Universal Credit.

The PBP contingent, together with the Greens, could potentially form an influential bloc that challenges the neoliberal bureaucracy, not to mention the powerful corporate interests that have captured key policy areas, and helps to pull Council politics in a leftward direction. We may already be seeing glimpses of this with the rejection of plans to drill for fossil fuels in the Belfast Hills.

In other parts of the North it is possible to detect signs of left-wing growth that defy the singular narrative of ‘centrist’ or ‘moderate’ advance. For example, the election of the PBP’s Eamonn McCann and Shaun Harkin will strengthen the existing anti-austerity critiques offered by Independent left republican councillors in Derry and Strabane. Likewise, in the rural conservative districts of Fermanagh & Omagh and Mid-Ulster, we have seen the election of Independent socialists and left republicans who have their roots in trade unionism and community-based campaigns around issues such as health, education and the environment.

That is not to say we should place great stock in local elections or electoralism as a substitute for the building of mass organisations and systemic change. But rather it is to suggest that these results present limited openings for strategic interventions at a local government level, to help build something from the ground up. The ambition for the combined forces of the left in Belfast, for example, should be to move towards – and beyond – something like the Preston model, replacing the fundamentally neoliberal, carbon-heavy model of urban development that has been instituted in the past decade.

The state of left politics in the South

The two dominant parties, Fine Gael and in particular Fianna Fáil, will be satisfied with the gains they have made against the propitious backdrop of economic ‘recovery’. Winning just over half of the vote between them, they are some way short of restoring the two-and-a-half party system that was broken in the wake of austerity and the Right2Water campaign. However, Fianna Fáil will be confident of using their strengthened vote in Dublin and elsewhere as a platform for success in a general election, particularly if they take a left turn to put clear water between themselves and Fine Gael.

‘Green wave’

For many, the big story of the European and local elections was the surge in support for the Green Party, which increased its number of council seats from 12 to 49 and took two MEP seats. Again, the Greens have been the main beneficiaries of an emerging consciousness around the impending climate crisis, especially among a younger generation.

Many of these young people who voted Green will have no memory of the party’s experience of coalition government with Fianna Fáil between 2007-2011. But the Green Party’s social basis remains solidly middle class and there is no sign of it moving away from the individualised, anti-working-class solutions favoured by party leader Eamon Ryan.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will already be thinking about how to hijack the green movement or woo the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour, whose combined vote of 14 per cent would almost certainly put one of the two main parties back in government in the event of a general election.

Fine Gael will be buoyed slightly by the exchange of transfers between their candidates and those of Labour and the Greens. Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, has already managed to craft deals with the centre-left in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and in Dublin City Council, where there appeared to be the possibility of an (albeit messy) broad left alliance.

Such horse-trading is a built-in feature of the local political system and does not necessarily reflect the national picture. But whatever about the ‘green’ concessions that have been granted as part of these deals, the decision to back Fianna Fáil will have confounded those supporters of the smaller parties who were hoping for a new departure.

Left opposition falters

For Sinn Féin and the Trotskyist left, the two main left-wing opposition forces, along with the Independents4Change group, the elections will have prompted a lot of soul-searching. The loss of half of their council seats – 78 for Sinn Féin and 17 for Solidarity-PBP – is nothing short of devastating for the two parties which had attracted mass working-class support for their anti-austerity message in the 2014-2016 period.

The scale of these losses appears to have been determined by a number of factors including the choice of candidates, vote mismanagement, the absence of a compelling narrative in the context of economic ‘recovery’, the sense that the left parties have not delivered change at a local level and, for Sinn Féin, internal difficulties that have prompted resignations across the state.

Above all, the political left will have cause to reflect on the low turnout in working-class urban areas. This reflects the dissipation of popular energy since the height of the Right2Water protests while also suggesting a disconnect between the left parties and large sections of the working class.

Sinn Féin’s problems

This disconnect is most pronounced in the case of Sinn Féin, which, having established itself as the biggest working-class party on the island in 2016, has strayed furthest from its base in the intervening years. Rather than investing in the building of an oppositional, class-based politics in cooperation with other social and political forces, one that would present a long-term challenge to the right, the leadership has opted for the misguided strategy of becoming the hegemonic, catch-all nationalist party – a 1930s Fianna Fáil in 21st century Ireland.

This strategy comprises a number of key elements. Firstly, the adoption of a more liberal, rights-based discourse in response to issues such as equal marriage and abortion. Secondly, in the context of Brexit, the move from a position of critical engagement with the EU to one that is more engaged than critical. Both of these moves had the added appeal of speaking to the concerns of liberal Unionists.

Thirdly, and relatedly, gestures towards reconciliation and the shedding of some trappings of the party’s past. Fourthly, the uneasy combination of pro-workers and pro-business rhetoric.

And finally, the pivot away from an ‘anti-establishment’ message to one that assures the middle classes of Sinn Féin’s readiness to govern, culminating in the Ard Fheis decision that the party would be willing to enter coalition government as a junior partner. The defence of this decision – that any coalition arrangement would be formed around an undefined ‘radical republican’ programme – neglects the fact that the leadership would determine what ‘radical republican’ means in that eventuality.

To some extent, this catch-all strategy is designed to align the party’s southern trajectory with that in the North, where the Provisional republican movement has made the transition from insurrection to parliamentary politics and from a more explicitly socialist orientation to accommodation with the demands of neoliberal, power-sharing governance.

It should be enough to point out that this is poor from a principled left-wing perspective as it weakens the basis for a class-based alternative and implies greater hardship for workers and communities. But it is also founded on a misreading of conditions in the South, where the ‘respectable classes’ retain a deep-seated hatred of Sinn Fein; where the cause of a united Ireland has been taken up by bourgeois and ‘civic’ nationalism, depriving Sinn Féin of the leading role in that particular struggle; and where the political space is wide open to the left, not in the congested centre-ground.

All of this is well understood by the Sinn Féin left, which has been fighting a rearguard action within the party for the past two years or more. As Sinn Féin’s collective leadership meets to discuss its ‘identity crisis’, there will be pressure to identify a quick fix that enables the party to get through the next election.

Faced with calls that the party should double-down on centrism and moderate its tone, the leading voices of the left will be arguing, publicly and privately, for Sinn Féin to tack leftwards, revise its position on coalition government, rebuild in working-class communities and seek closer cooperation with other radical social and political forces. This appeal to restore the dynamic of 2014-16 and recalibrate it for the present will carry significant support within and outside of the party.

But whereas Sinn Féin’s centralised organisational culture has so far guarded against the formation of an official left caucus, the situation may require that the left’s struggle over the future direction of the party north and south becomes more organised and assertive.

Solutions?

There are no easy answers to these challenges. But there are a number of observations that are worth making about the current political moment and its implications for the left:

  1. The fragmented state of the Irish left is a persistent problem. For instance, one might question the logic of Clare Daly’s decision to swap Dublin for Brussels and stand against Lynn Boylan, one of the strongest advocates for a principled red-green politics in Europe, or the failure of Solidarity-PBP to agree on a single candidate for the same constituency. However, these debates overlook the more pressing issue of low turnout and the political disenfranchisement of the working class. A turnout of just 50 percent in working-class districts would have seen both Daly and Boylan elected and yielded a much better performance for left formations across the island, particularly as transfers between parties to the left of Labour show that their voters understand the principle of unity.
  2. The steady decline in political participation among the working class is largely down the failure of parties to speak to their interests. There is of course a need for the left to develop and cohere around a common narrative that goes beyond the anger of the austerity period. But it is the embrace of a ‘progressivist’, post-class politics which has led to the collapse of traditional socialist parties across Europe and now threatens to stunt the development of a radical alternative in Ireland. It is a mistake to think that there is any future for the left in avoiding the main faultline across Irish society, one of the most unequal in Europe, when the moneyed interests are clearly thinking and organising along class lines. As the experience of British Labour shows, a new politics must be organised around the interests of those “who have the greatest incentive to upturn the economic order”. New thinking need not mean moderation; it can be radical, insurgent and positive.
  3. There is no harm in developing better lines of communication or exploring the possibility of electoral pacts. But any ‘left unity’ worth talking about has to be grounded in practical cooperation on an issue-by-issue basis: the forging of effective alliances without necessarily pushing for a merger. Right2Water provides the model for a single-issue campaign which briefly united grassroots community actors, trade unions and the political left – and may have to be revived as the government looks to introduce ‘excessive usage’ charges. The Raise the Roof housing campaign has not managed to emulate the success of Right2Water, but may yet realise its promise with the adoption of more militant tactics. Trade union and political pressure has also delivered significant legislative gains in the area of workers’ rights. The next big political project for the left is ensuring that any green transition tackles the questions of ownership and power, and delivers a just outcome for workers and communities. This will require an escalation of grassroots activity, trade union interventions and the formation of red-green alliances on a national and international basis.
  4. There is no shortage of locally focused single-issue campaigns which have (re)politicised spheres that had been marked as non-political and registered small victories against capital. But they are limited by the absence of a radical context and a ‘political instrument’ which is capable of raising ‘a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism’. In lieu of this political instrument, the trade unions can play an important role in facilitating and integrating as much of this activity as possible, in order to help build the required forces to bring about a transformative situation.
  5. The refusal to do business with the two conservative parties is not an empty slogan. Rather it forms a basis upon which trust can be built up between political forces on the broad left. There should be no rewards for talking left and walking right. In addition, this principle recognises that each time a party of the left props up Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, they provide them with the material for their rehabilitation whilst killing off the prospect of a class-based oppositional politics.
  6. Events have rapidly produced an all-island dynamic witnessed, for example, in the mobilisation and solidarity around issues such as equal marriage and abortion rights as well as the growing support for a united Ireland. But increasingly it looks like this united Ireland will be delivered by bourgeois and civic nationalism in cooperation with liberal Unionism. This, and the poor state of conditions in the North, drives home the necessity of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left organising and fighting on an all-island basis.
  7. The electoral sphere is one site of struggle for socialists. However, all parties of the Irish left have been guilty of working primarily within the confines of parliamentary politics and adapting to the rules of electoralism. This has operated to the detriment of building working-class organisations which are capable of challenging the material power of capital outside of the political institutions. It is vital that we invest time and energy in rebuilding the trade union movement, tenants’ unions and community organisations, and realise the potential of struggles at the point of production and social reproduction. It is this ‘construction of forces’ outside of the state which, coupled with an effective political strategy, will hit capital where it hurts and provide the social basis for a genuinely transformative movement.

Dr Sean Byers works as a researcher with Trademark and helps run the blog Brexit, Europe and the Left. Author of Seán Murray: Marxist-Leninist and Irish Socialist Republican (2015), he has published widely on the themes of socialist history and politics, post-conflict Northern Ireland and left political economy. He is an active member of Unite trade union and Belfast Trades Council. Follow him on Twitter @Sean _Byers84 and follow Trademarkon Twitter @TrademarkBF.

3 thoughts on “The Irish elections: Results and prospects for the left

  1. Excellent piece. My one point of minor disagreement concerns coalition. The real issue is the programme for government. If that is one which suits the business interests backing FF or FG then it would be a disaster to participate. But if it’s a programme that accepts the need for the state to take the lead in building houses, creating jobs, developing infrastructure that would be a different matter. In the aftermath, however, of an election that sees FF more confident than ever I can’t see that party agreeing to any radical programme, so SF has no choice but to go left and fight or suffer the same fate as the Labour Party.

  2. One voice for Left unity. “Bríd Smith, People Before Profit TD for Dublin South Central has welcomed the call by Lynn Boylan for Sinn Fein to seek more co-operation with left wing parties.

    In a statement, Brid Smith said:

    “Lynn Boylan has put her finger on the key issue that needs discussion after local and European elections– Sinn Fein should turn left rather than seeking to position itself as yet another party in the mainstream centre. There are huge inequalities in Irish society and many working class people want the left to co-operate together to break the grip of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.” https://www.pbp.ie/support-call-for-left-co-operation/?fbclid=IwAR009vwcWkElqENRoya7bEs0HC22jJ1QGuGMlyuai3museoPZNQLB8Gq9Io

    We need left cooperatiomn. Maybe an initial step would be explicit calls to voters to transfer between the Left parties. A call bythose prominent in the Left and Labour movements for left electoral cooperation would be good. In discussuions, certain minimum agreemenst shoudl be sough. I woudl think that a firm NO to coalition with FF or FG woudl be good.

  3. The analysis of the turn off of the old working class is spot on (but here in Dublin Central it is worse than he indicates, and a big problem Europe wide and further) . There is no simple way to re-engage them, but coming along with an ‘we have all the answers’ approach will not go down well. SF’s fall is complicated by a good result in Donegal where they gained one from Pringle Inds (local SNAFU v good vote management). Donegal tending to go against the grain and the popularity of Doherty . But the Mary Lou strategy certainly failed big time. They were never going to attract much middle class support and in the process turned off much of the working class base (like here with the eccentric Christy Burke being nearly as popular as the combined SF team) . A hard left ‘no coalition’ strategy can no longer hope to offer any immediate practical solutions is the problem with pressing issues . Why is Corbyn so desperate to keep the UK Labour coalition of centre and hard left together? (maybe gone too far?), and Denmark where there is long time broad cooperation between centre, hard and far lefts that has worked for all of them so far (excepting the mess of the old hard left party SPP/SF in coalition government which has since recovered). And look at Mexico where Corbyn’s friend AMLO has a strategy of including a social conservative party in his coalition in an attempt to roll back the quite desperate situation of out of control crime and corruption. Left led is best but even that can be a going on nightmare (see UK Labour die-hard neo-Blairites) , hard left as minor partner to centre left is more common with various examples from the disastrous Italian one (sectarian madness+redefined SocDem betrayal), the slower decline in France , the better luck of the Scandinavians (their unions remain quite strong if weakened being a factor) , the Portuguese so far successful (because they were forced to defend their base from severe austerity) and whatever happens in Spain where Podemos have lost a lot of ground(needs an essay). Also in Germany Die Linke (after it’s going on Euro disaster) faces critical tests in the autumn especially in Thurinigia where they lead the state government . It cant just be about the success of the party//movement and narrow strategy. Germany shows decline of the redefined Social Democracy does not inevitably lead to success for the harder left if it gets entangled in internal conflict and is seen to leave behind it’s old working class base

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