The historical significance of the recently agreed coalition deal in the Irish Republic cannot be over-emphasised. The coalescing of the two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, (with the Green Party as a junior partner) – four months after the February election – represents the first structural shift in Irish politics in nearly a century.
During this period, the only governments on offer were led by either of these two parties. They also ran the official opposition – the government-in-waiting. With the new tripartite coalition, the Dáil is finally divided on different lines, between a centre-right government and progressive opposition parties. This was the goal of the Irish Left for decades, and it has finally been achieved – Irish politics has been realigned along a Left-Right axis. The big question is, what does the Left do now?
In keeping with a political culture unfamiliar with a conventional Left-Right divide, labels can be easily manipulated. For instance, the political editor of the country’s leading broadsheet wrote in the Irish Times that the new split in Irish politics is between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals,’ justifying this terminology on the basis that the previous government led by Fine Gael (a Christian Democratic party) was actually rather ‘social democratic’.
This is only one of many examples. A more over-the-top contribution came from an ex-minister who stated that the Programme for Government – the agreement negotiated by the three new parties – was so left-wing that it was “a programme that Che Guevera and James Connolly could vote for.” This, of course, is ludicrous.
Some of the commentary can be attributed to simple ignorance of what constitutes the Left or even social democracy. However, there is something more insidious at work. A large section, possibly a majority, of the Irish people identify with left-of-centre positions on a range of issues, from public services to equality, low pay and public investment. This has been reinforced by the pandemic crisis.
If the main centre-right governing parties can create a fiction that they are somehow centre-left, the issue is not simply disinterested nomenclature but, rather, portraying opposition to the incoming government as ‘extremist’ or ‘radical.’ This is intended to maintain the hegemony of the Right even as their support base slips away.
So expect a truly bizarre debate: war is peace, ignorance is strength, and right-wing politics is actually left-of-centre.
It is not just that the two centre-right parties find themselves in coalition together, it is that for the first time in any real sense the opposition is being led by a progressive party – Sinn Féin. (Some would point to Labour leading the opposition in the 1920s, but that was before Fianna Fáil was formed and entered parliament.)
Creating a Left-Right divide in parliament will soon be seen as the easy part. Transforming a left-of-centre opposition into a government-in-waiting will be much harder. We shouldn’t discount a future of near-permanent Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael rule, but this time together rather than in opposition as has been the case for almost 90 years.
There are two inter-related dictums of politics that the Irish Left needs to be mindful of. First, before a political force comes to power it must look as though it can wield power; and, second, people must be convinced that change is both desirable and feasible. In truth, the new opposition has a lot of work to do fulfil these two conditions.
During the February election campaign the pandemic crisis was not anticipated or imagined. The election manifestos of all parties, across the ideological divide, are now largely obsolete. However, for many progressive parties, their manifestos were problematic even without the crisis, due to their commitments to significant tax cuts alongside spending increases (public service expansion, social protection increases and public investment drives) which could be paid for by simply ‘soaking the rich.’
Reconstructing party platforms will require much greater economic sophistication and innovation. If Ireland is to move on from its low-tax model, this will require holding an open and honest dialogue with people about how we finance European-level public services and social protection.
Taken together, the progressive parties do not currently look like a government-in-waiting. The fragmentation is considerable, with seven progressive parties making up the opposition – Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, Solidarity, RISE and Right to Change. Then there are the independents.
This is not necessarily fatal to generating additional seats in Ireland’s proportional representation system. However, it will require effort to develop not only a common narrative, but to project that narrative into the consciousness of the people.
The level of distrust between the progressive parties is also significant, often breaking out into open sectarianism. Whether this exists for historical, ideological or simply self-interested reasons, overcoming it and securing progressive co-operation will not be easy.
A good start would be to declare a ceasefire. Civil society groups will be needed to play a role in facilitating dialogue on key economic and social issues, allowing for mediated discussion between the different forces. If progressive parties can’t cooperate in opposition, people will understandably assume they couldn’t do so in government.
A Policy Platform
The Irish Left should take note of the experience of the British Labour Party, as identified by the Labour Together report. In the last election, Labour’s manifesto contained policies which, assessed on their individual merit, were popular. However, such was the volume of policies that, taken together, people felt the manifesto was ‘unrealistic’ and ‘unlikely to be delivered.’ This was in contrast to the 2017 manifesto, which was generally considered feasible.
In Ireland, there is a temptation to list all the crises (and there are many), develop policy responses, package them together and call it an alternative. People may well say yes to each individual policy, but conclude that the whole cannot realistically be equal to the sum of its parts. This, therefore, calls for a rejection of maximalism.
Yes, it would be great to have free public transport but everyone knows (in particular, users of public transport) that capacity is the major problem, requiring a substantial increase in capital investment. Yes, childcare should be free as part of a Universal Basic Services programme. But getting affordable childcare in a system dominated by the private sector would be a major advance. So we need a bold but focused programme that is both desirable and feasible.
In this respect, the opposition has advantages. There are spokespeople with a reputation for incisive analysis and realistic alternatives which make them highly credible: Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin and the housing crisis; the Social Democrats’ Róisín Shortall and the health crisis; Labour’s Ged Nash and labour rights; and People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith and climate justice to name just a few. An opposition focused on developing such profiles on key issues could increase public confidence in progressive politics.
In the wake of the pandemic, it seems that all of Ireland’s political parties are agreed that the country must spend what is necessary to protect jobs, businesses and households, and to restart the economy. However, that consensus will break down relatively soon. Already, the fiscal orthodoxy is reminding us that ‘bills will have to be paid.’
The Programme for Government envisages a balanced budget and is committed to paying down debt, even as it attempts to stimulate the economy. A progressive fiscal policy will have to challenge this balanced-budget obsession with a long-term programme of investment-led recovery and transformation – and in doing so, it will find itself up against the same powerful voices that ruled the debate in the last crisis.
In the longer term, progressives will need to address an unbalanced economy. What would a policy to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) without relying on tax haven-type activities look like? FDI is crucial to Ireland’s economy – in particular, the modern manufacturing and ICT sectors.
The Irish export base is highly reliant on multi-national companies, while more than one-in-five employed in the market sector work for a foreign-owned company. Ireland’s tax policies will come under increasing international pressure and there is no Plan B. The Left must fill this gap.
This is coupled with an indigenous enterprise sector riddled with deficits. Historically, domestic capital has favoured property speculation (hence, Ireland’s never-ending housing crisis) along with low value-added, low-waged sectors such as hospitality and retail. It has avoided the hard work of enterprise development and investment in high valued-added sectors which could broaden our export platform.
More handouts and tax breaks will not work. It will require a major intervention by public capital and new democratic enterprise models. This is an area the Left has been reluctant to enter, leaving it to business groups which are more interested in capturing public subsidies rather than pursuing value and quality employment.
This reluctance has to end if progressives are to convince people that they can manage a new kind of economy capable of generating the revenue needed to invest in social prosperity and security.
Already, the government is heeding the advice of business and the trade union movement: it is borrowing heavily to protect the economy, subsidising enterprises and protecting households. But this short-term imperative should not be equated with a long-term ideological conversion.
As people’s expectations of a social and activist state increase, the governing parties will move to meet some of these expectations. But their heart won’t really be in it. It will be new terrain, they won’t have the policy tools to satisfy such expectations, and even if they did, they wouldn’t know how to use them.
Their marketing people, however, will be more nimble. Any increase in spending, no matter how minimal; any policy reform, no matter how trivial will be hailed as ‘progressive’, ‘European-like’ and a ‘clear signal of a growing, caring state’.
They may feel they can get away with this because Ireland does not have the historical experience of a left-of-centre government – an Attlee government, a Brandt chancellorship, a Palme premiership. And the opposition can be branded as ‘radical’, ‘extremist’, ‘unrealistic.’
Progressives should not allow themselves to be dragged into such debates. Rather, they should stake out new ground by packaging their programme as common sense policies that solve today’s problems while prefiguring longer-term alternatives.
Does it make sense to subsidise private house building which inflates already high prices when the state can build a house for a third less? Does it make sense to continue throwing money at the private childcare sector when the result is the highest fees in the EU coupled with some of the poorest paid employees? Does it make sense to subsidise private healthcare while the public health system is overwhelmed with lengthening queues and day-long waits in emergency departments?
Posing these issues on the basis of common sense not only allows the Left to reach out beyond its base; it can also confound conservative attempts to label progressive as ‘extremists.’ It allows the Left to portray the government in the worst possible terms: incompetent and inefficient. This is not some ideology-free pragmatism. Indeed, just the opposite – common sense policies are the pathway to a new social-led model of economic and social transformation.
Revisiting manifestos, problem-solving, providing an alternative fiscal and enterprise policy, eschewing maximalism, engaging in day-to-day cooperation in partnership with civil society groups (especially the trade union movement): this is about writing a new government-in-waiting narrative.
When people look at the Left they should see a desirable and feasible government; when they look at individual progressive spokespersons, they should see future ministers. When people raise and organise their collective voices – whether in the workplace or the community – they should know that it is the progressive parties that are listening, that it is progressives that will work with them.
If we can start to achieve this, we can do something we couldn’t imagine before: we can pencil in February 2025 (if this new government even lasts that long) as the date that a new Left-led government takes office. Now that really would be a political earthquake.