It is true, as the leader of the biggest political party in the new Dail, Enda Kenny, boasted, that the 26 Counties Irish state has had a revolution by way of the ballot box in the 25 February general election. Sort of.
The outgoing government party, the party that has been the main party of government, the main party of the Irish ruling class, in the 79 years since it formed its first government in 1932, Fianna Fail, has had a crushing defeat. It lost 57 of its 77 seats. Fianna Fail has had an electoral meltdown like the one that, for a while, the British Labour Party looked like it would get in the 2010 general election.
The Irish Labour Party won more seats than ever before. It is the second largest party in the Dail, with 37 seats to Fianna Fail’s 20. Already Fine Gael and Labour are negotiating to set up a coalition government.
Sinn Fein, which did very badly in the 2007 general election, came fourth, winning 14 seats. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams won a seat in Louth.
The Greens, the other party in the outgoing Fianna-Fail-dominated coalition, lost all of their five seats. The revolutionary left (United Left Alliance) won five seats; independents, some of them left-Labour, won 15.
A revolution, yes, but only on the level of Dail representation. In terms of what the new government will do, this revolution will mean, at best, only small differences.
All the parties in the outgoing Dail, except Sinn Fein, voted last December for an emergency budget that, on the diktat of the international bankers, imposed vicious cuts. They did it on the eve of the election, thus deliberately depriving the voters of the chance to vote on the budget.
Fine Gael promises to “renegotiate” the deal with the international bankers, but it could hardly do less. Any changes will be marginal.
The Labour Party distanced itself from its likely partner in a new government, Fine Gael, in advance — something like what the British Labour Party did in the 2010 general election with its talk against “Tory cuts”. Labour did very well with it, but is still only half as big in the Dail as Fine Gael. Fine Gael is only seven seats short of a majority, and could probably get deals with independent TDs that would allow it to rule without Labour. That weakens Labour’s position in the bargaining over the programme of a coalition government.
Where in Britain the real difference between Labour and Tory policies, and fear of the Tories, saved Labour from the meltdown that threatened, in Ireland differences between Fine Gael and Labour will be papered over in a coalition. With British Labour “opposing” the Tories in alliance with the trade unions, Labour’s commitment to a milder version of the Tory government’s cuts has not stopped it criticising the government. Irish Labour’s coalition with Fine Gael will put an end to criticism of Fine Gael’s policies by its coalition partner.
So, not a revolution so much as a great parliamentary upheaval.
In Ireland the outgoing Fianna Fail government could not go on because the electorate were not willing for it to go on in the old way. Thus two of the three conditions Lenin used to define a revolutionary situation were in operation in the general election. Lenin’s third condition was absent — the existence of strong forces able to lead the disaffected in the creation of an alternative.
The first two conditions led to a parliamentary upheaval; the absence of the third will, for a while now, be worked through negatively in more of the old parliamentary game — the beginning of a new parliamentary cycle.
If the Labour Party were to remain in opposition, it could continue to grow as the main political embodiment of opposition to Irish governments that will serve the Irish bourgeoisie and the international bankers. But coalitionism is in the genes of the Labour Party. Seven times since 1948, Labour has been in coalition, mostly with Fine Gael as its main partner.
Leaders hungry for office and lucre are eager to get their snouts in the ministerial troughs. More than that: most of the electorate take coalition government as pretty much the norm. The only party that has ever governed alone in the last eight decades is Fianna Fail.
The main Dail opposition to the cuts, austerity, and subservience to international finance will come from Sinn Fein, the revolutionary left coalition that won four seats, and some of the independents.
The transformation of Sinn Fein’s situation in the South is also tremendous. But it is nothing for socialists to rejoice in.
Sinn Fein is now what Fianna Fail was at an earlier stage of its evolution — a demagogic populist nationalist party.
Fianna Fail was the mainstream of those who had fought a civil war over the terms of Treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21. The Treaty brought less than full republican independence, but nonetheless a form of independence on which real independence might be built (and in fact was built, in the 1930s, by Fianna Fail in power).
Founded in 1926 as a split with those who are the ancestors of the present Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail appealed to the disaffected in Irish society. For its first year in government (from March 1932) it depended on the parliamentary votes of the Labour Party. For most of its history, Fianna Fail has had the votes of most of those whose “natural” party would more properly have been the Labour Party or a revolutionary left. It also became the main party of Irish capitalism.
After it transformed the relationship between the 26 Counties and Britain (getting rid of an oath of allegiance to the English monarch, and negotiating the evacuation of British naval bases), its nationalism became just an appeal to old loyalties and old issues. It focused on the partition of the country.
It misrepresented that as only a matter of British imperialism (so did Fine Gael, its “Treatyite” opponents in the civil war) and called on Britain to end it — the policy which the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein have expressed in the last four decades as the demand that Britain “persuade” (in real terms, coerce) the Protestant-Unionist majority in the Six Counties to unite with the South.
The demagogic politics of the “constitutional nationalists”, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and others, primed their “unconstitutional” co-thinkers of the Irish Republican Armies and helped prepare Republican attacks on the North in the 50s and early 60s. It helped generate the Provisional IRA in the 70s.
Now Sinn Fein, the constitutional heir of the “physical force” republicans of the last decades, is on the edge of substituting itself for Fianna Fail, the worn-out and discredited Sinn Fein of yesterday and the day before. It is at an earlier stage of the same evolution that Fianna Fail has gone through. In Northern Ireland it is in government, carrying through the same sort of cuts that it denounces in the South. Fianna Fail is dying? Long live Fianna-Fail-Sinn-Fein...
Independent Ireland is being transformed from what it was in the 20th century. The Catholic Church, which was in Ireland what political Islam is in Iran, has been seriously undermined by an awful series of child sex scandals. Recruitment to the priesthood is not enough to replace old and dying priests. And now Fianna Fail has been electorally shattered.
Against that background the election of a bloc of, broadly speaking, revolutionary socialist TDs is a tremendous breakthrough.
The negative side of it is that the main forces in the coalition are offshoots of the British SWP and the SP. That will limit their effectiveness and, probably, diminish their potential. Politically, they are what the SWP and the SP are. Even so, the electoral breakthrough is momentous, and the achievement of the United Left Alliance is tremendous. We congratulate them.
The "SP and ULA" instead of "ULA", and "4" instead of "5" are typos - identified for correction on the page-proofs but somehow getting through to the final version. They have been corrected above (as has a slip which also got through about the number of times the Irish Labour Party have been in coalition government).
In response to Mark P, however: the article does not pretend to be an "analysis of the Irish left". It's an analysis of the broad picture of the election results. If Mark has anything to say about that, it might be useful...