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Ireland’s Left Breakthrough

If polls are correct, today's Irish election will see young and working-class voters flocking to Sinn Féin and others on the Left in historic numbers – dealing a blow to the country's dominant right-wing parties.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was unequivocal: there has never been “class war in Irish politics and it shouldn’t start now.” Of course, there has always been a class war in Irish politics – it’s just that the Varadkars of the country have been winning it for almost a century.

Unfortunately for Varadkar’s political fortunes the fact that he felt the need to say it so openly is because it’s already too late. By all indications today’s election will change Irish politics, with a country defined by its lack of a clear Left-Right political divide and the dominance of two parties of the centre or centre-right looking set to vote for parties of the Left in unprecedented numbers. Sinn Féin in particular, according to current polling the most popular party amongst all but the over-55s, could well top the national poll and push the traditional ruling duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael into second and third place. 

The election has been something of a disaster for Varadkar, whose government has relied upon a confidence and supply arrangement with the largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil, since 2016. He had hoped a combination of relative success in tackling Brexit and a steady recovery in employment and other economic indicators would see him emerge with an increased majority, able to form a stable government with some smaller parties. The leader of Fianna Fáil, meanwhile, Míchéal Martin, had hoped to capitalise on domestic problems like health and housing by promising small spending increases. Both look likely to be frustrated in their ambitions.

Instead the election turned into a three-horse race as Sinn Féin shot up over ten points, drawing votes from across the spectrum and causing panic among the liberal commentariat. Brexit has proven to be close to the bottom of people’s agenda, with only 3% listing it as the most important issue. Martin was correct in believing Ireland’s crippling crises in health and housing would shape the election, but underestimated the appeal of Sinn Féin’s left-wing pitch to the electorate. Sinn Féin’s manifesto, titled “Giving Workers and Families a Break: A Manifesto for Change”, promises to create “an Irish National Health Service” more or less explicitly based on the British NHS, as well as committing “€6.5 billion in order to deliver over 100,000 public homes on public land” to resolve the housing crisis.

Since the beginning of the election campaign this has seen Sinn Féin go from less than 15% in the polls to 25%. There have been other opportunities for Irish left-wing breakthroughs – but this is almost certainly the greatest one since the foundation of the state.

The Background

To understand how much of a shift has occurred, the combined vote share of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael regularly broke 80% in most elections since the 1930s, and one or the other has led every government. This is despite the fact that the political differences between the parties are fundamentally historical and based more on identity than policy. The division dates back to 1922-23 Civil War immediately post-independence, around issues that have long since ceased to have any political relevance.

Although both are broad tents and have chameleon-like tendencies, generally Fianna Fáil takes more interventionist economic stances and conservative social positions while Fine Gael combines a deep affinity for law and order with neoliberal economic policies and an increasing social liberalism. The latter was particularly evident after the referendum victories of marriage equality and abortion rights in the last decade under Fine Gael-led governments.

Both parties share a belief in the ‘Irish model’ of economic development, reliant on foreign direct investment (FDI) above all else. To give an idea of how important FDI is to the Irish economy, the Irish Central Statistics office has developed new ways of measuring Irish GDP because FDI distorts the assessments so much. According to the World Bank FDI was 16.87% of Irish GDP in 2018, compared to 2.05% of UK GDP.

To enable this Ireland has a nominal corporate tax rate of 12.5%, extremely low by European standards. However, Ireland is also currently in court with the European Commission in an attempt to refuse to accept €14.3 billion Apple tax bill – due to the Irish state as it made a sweetheart tax deal with Apple to bring their corporate tax rate well below the already low 12.5%. The European Commission has found this to be illegal state aid.

Put simply, the Irish model combines incredibly low taxation for multinational companies with a total commitment to the European Union, a combination designed to make Ireland an attractive de facto tax haven for companies who want access to the European common market without European style tax rates. As an added bonus, particularly for the primarily American companies this appeals to, Ireland is an English-speaking country. 

This model ties into a more general neoliberal approach to government policy, summed up by former Fine Gael Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s quote that Ireland was “the best small country in the world to do business in.” This approach results in a large private health insurance market and essentially zero new public housing in the last decade. Health inequality in Ireland was noted in a European report in 2018, specifically that Ireland remains the “only Western European country not to have universal health coverage of primary care.” In housing, the total number of homeless people has hovered around 10,000 for years, including over 3,000 children.

As far as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are concerned this model can only be tinkered with around the edges. The fundamentals are gospel. Sinn Féin, by contrast, pose potentially the biggest challenge to this status quo in decades – although it remains to be seen if they are willing to break with it entirely.

From Armalite to Ballot Box

Sinn Féin’s journey from the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Troubles in the north of Ireland to being on the cusp of government in the south has been long. The Provisional Republican movement’s start in parliamentary politics began in earnest in the early 1980s, particularly during and in the aftermath of the hunger strikes.

Sinn Féin candidates did surprisingly well in running in elections north and south during the hunger strikes, indicating a potential for political as well as military success. Their new strategy was summed up by Director of Publicity for Sinn Féin Danny Morrison at their 1981 Ard Fheis: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?”

Over the ensuing two decades, as was feared by more hardline republicans, the Armalite was removed from that equation and since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement Sinn Féin has been committed to winning power through the ballot box alone. They have proven adept at electoral politics, increasing their share of the vote in almost every election they have run in, growing in the south from one seat in 1997 to 23 by 2016.

They have sidelined the more moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in the north, taking a leading role in government there in 2007. At the same time in the south, Sinn Féin was pivoting rightwards – offering a tax cut agenda in the 2007 general election. But Ireland’s deep and disastrous financial crash after 2008 profoundly changed the political landscape and, soon enough, Sinn Féin had emerged as the largest and most consistent anti-austerity force in the south.

The crushing austerity measures brought in under first a Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition, and then a Fine Gael-Labour coalition created the conditions for Sinn Féin’s meteoric rise. By 2014 and ’15, with the rise of Ireland’s mass Right2Water movement, Sinn Féin was openly comparing itself to Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza. They were helped by the calamitous collapse of the Labour Party, which itself had briefly seemed likely to offer a left-wing alternative in the early years of the Troika’s austerity programme in Ireland before turning to impose those very same policies alongside Fine Gael. Their Pasokification, falling from 37 seats in 2011 to seven in 2016, has shrunk the space for the centre-left and allowed Sinn Féin to become the hegemonic party of the Left in Ireland.

As has often been the case, Sinn Féin picked the right moment to achieve that position. From 2014 onwards, Ireland, which had been the ‘poster boy’ of European Union-backed austerity for so many years, was wracked with massive protests against the introduction of water charges and suspected privatisation efforts. These protests cohered a more general anti-austerity and anti-establishment protest movement and brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets. Water charges were defeated, and the movement dissipated – but the sentiments behind it never went away entirely.

Sinn Féin’s rise is also, however, a demographic story. This is due both to the phenomenon seen internationally of young people bearing the brunt of the economic status quo of low pay and high rent, which has fuelled support for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in America. However, uniquely in Ireland it also plays a role in detoxifying Sinn Féin because younger voters are less likely to remember the Troubles and therefore have less of a barrier to voting for Sinn Féin when they align with their economic interests and social views. 

There has also been noticeable shift in this election towards a class-based politics. In an Irish Times poll using NRS social grades Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael take 40-50% ABC social class vote, representing people in higher and middle professional, supervisory, clerical and administrative jobs – essentially the middle to upper class. (Fianna Fáil takes 43% of farmer votes as well.) Sinn Féin, meanwhile, are set to take 30-40% of C2 and DE votes representing people in skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual labour. Although not a perfect representation of class these predicted vote shares are illuminating, particularly when paired with an analysis of European Social Survey data from Village Magazine that shows that since the late 2000s attitudes towards redistribution have had a progressively stronger effect on voting intentions.

A Broader Left

Put succinctly, the long-awaited and much predicted emergence of an ideological and class cleavage is arriving in Irish politics. For most of the history of the state it was the social-democratic Irish Labour Party that was looked to to break the dominance of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The Labour Party was deeply conservative by European standards, and utterly beholden to the whims of the Catholic Church – its leaders being members of the reactionary Catholic lay organisation the Knights of St. Columbanus from 1932 to 1977. It also repeatedly entered coalitions to prop up Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael governments, suffering electorally after inevitably selling out most of their political principles to enter said governments.

Labour has declined, but there is still some centre-left voice in the Greens, who have seen a mild resurgence, and the Social Democrats. Each of these could benefit to some degree from Sinn Féin’s rise this weekend. The only coherent force to the Left of Sinn Féin are a collection of Trotskyist parties, known as People Before Profit-Solidarity (and now including a third party called RISE). They have seen some growth over the last decade, and enter the election with six seats.

However, they seem unlikely based on current polling to retain this level of support. In the last local and European elections their vote dropped sharply, and if they don’t get 2% of the national vote share they will no longer get state funding, worth hundreds of thousands of euro. Without it their capacity will diminish substantially and they could be forced into marginality. The other factor on the Left are socialist independents like Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Thomas Pringle and Seámus Healy. Ireland’s localist electoral system throws up a lot of independent TDs, but often in uneven ways and it is difficult to predict how they might fare this weekend.

One interesting factor will be the degree to which Sinn Féin voters transfer to other left-wing parties and independents across the country. Sinn Féin’s rise in this election has been so stark that the party are not running enough candidates to take advantage of the result the polls suggest they will achieve. In fact, the party is only standing 42 candidates when 80 TDs are needed to form a government. This means that Sinn Féin transfers could be crucial in electing various progressive elsewhere. Whether or not this happens will tell a story of how deep the realignment in Irish politics actually is.

But it’s clear that politics in Ireland is shifting. It is no longer a country dominated by the Catholic Church, unquestioning of neoliberal economics or lacking in meaningful political choices. It is highly unlikely that Ireland will have a Left-led government after this election – but it is certainly conceivable that it will in the near future. Breaking the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil duopoly would be a historic achievement.

Even if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were to return to government, they would likely have to do so together and with significantly diminished numbers. The net would be palpably closing in around them. Another coalition with Labour or the Greens is possible, but would only close the space for the centre-left further.

Clear class politics and ideological Left-Right divide have finally broken out in Ireland, decades after most of the rest of Europe. If Sinn Féin avoid the error of so many left-wing parties before them in propping up right-wing coalitions, surely Ireland’s first Left-led government is not far away.