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Historic breakthrough for the Left in Ireland

Peter Hogarth

July 10, 2016

The recent elections in both the Republic of Ireland and North Ireland produced incredible results for the radical left and historic defeats for the traditional ruling parties.

First of all the General Election in the South saw a major rejection for the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition Government. Labour were close to completely demolished, as they fell from 37 to 7 seats. Fine Gael, with the help of the Independent Alliance and support of Fianna Fáil, was just able to cling to office, albeit in about a weak a position as a government can be.  

At the same time the radical left achieved unprecedented victories. The coalition of the parties People Before Profit (led by the Irish Socialist Workers Party) and the Anti-Austerity Alliance won three seats each, while the Indepednents4Change (a grouping of individual left wingers who tried to relate to an anti-political party mood, but share many of the same policies with the PBP-AAA coalition) won additional four seats. So, at the end of the general elections in the South, the radical left had more seats in the Dáil (The Irish house of Parliament).

This is a huge victory for the left and radical politics. When PBP member Gino Kenny heard the announcement that he won the election, he was hoisted onto the shoulders of supporters while waving a Palestinian flag. The video went viral across the world.

To add to this, on May 5, PBP had a major breakthrough in the Assembly elections in North Ireland with socialists Gerry Carroll winning in West Belfast (Sinn Féin’s heartland) and Eamonn McCann being elected in Foyle (Derry). The far left now has a significant voice both North and South of the border. These victories are huge and it is important to look at both the objective and subjective factors that led to this rise. They present both hopeful inspiration and thought-provoking lessons for the left elsewhere.


The success of the far left has to be seen in a much larger context and the changing nature of Irish society.

The changing political landscape has been made possible by the declining influence of the two major institutions of conservative Ireland: The Fianna Fáil party and the Catholic Church. While the working class had a revolutionary tradition that reached its high point in struggle against the British empire between 1918 and 1922, those revolutionary instincts were largely suppressed by a victorious counterrevolution that accompanied the formation of the Free State and the Orange state in Northern Ireland.

The Fianna Fáil party and the Catholic Church formed a close alliance with each other and became the twin pillars of conservative hegemony in the South. The national populism of Fianna Fáil stunted the growth of an even vaguely social democratic left, as every time that Labour won support, it immediately threw it behind either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a coalition.

In the North, the strength and cohesiveness of Orange Capital meant that the Unionists were able to craft and all class alliance of Protestants based on sectarianism and preference in employment after partition. Ulster Unionists led a de facto one party state, supported by Protestant industry and held together by sectarian populism. But obviously these do not go unchallenged, leading to intermittent outbreaks of struggle and serious fissures that have never been resolved.

However, by the 1960s, the economy and society underwent a major reconstruction. In the South, the rural areas, long seen as the strongholds of the Catholic Church, moved away from their agricultural base towards a tourist driven service industry, proletarianizing and urbanizing the population along the way. The Irish ruling class benefitted, but the political roots that underlay their power began to erode. Membership in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael declined and by the 1990s the power of the Catholic Church was weaked, as evidenced by the Attorney General vs X case on abortion or the defeat of the Church in the divorce referendum. In the North, an economy based on heavy industry, became less and less viable and attempts to by Unionists parties to reform meant they lost their base or faced fierce opposition from Nationalists.

The extraordinary growth of Irish capitalism in the 1990s and early 2000s allowed the ruling classes on both sides of the border to avoid dealing with a lot of the underlying problems, but the economic crisis of 2008 was the key cause of the dramatic changes in Irish society. It laid bare the economic problems and the weakening of the traditional political blocs.

In the South, Fianna Fáil were the immediate victims of the crash, having been the traditional ruling party for most of the period since 1932. Fine Gael gained support in the midst of the crisis by adopting a mild but totally fake anti-banker rhetoric and by being the quickest and easiest way to get rid of Fianna Fáil. After 2011, Labour and Fine Gael made up the government but continued the same polices as Fianna Fáil, but could boast of an economic recovery near the end of their period in office.

The Irish ruling class benefitted from low interest rates, currency changes, and an influx of foreign capital to stem the worst of the crisis, but there has been no recovery for wages and working conditions and the amount of workers on low pay and temporary contracts has risen considerably. Combined with the draining of state resources from hospitals and housing, there was a real bitterness in the working class and poor in Ireland despite the statistical “recovery.”

Years of Labour partnership with the ruling parties and the bosses, meant that workers bitterness at the years of austerity did not see much translation into industrial struggle. However, when conditions of an EU-IMF-ECB 2010 bailout demanded that a water tax be forced on the people of Ireland, the results were explosive. People boycotted, marched and protested in their hundreds of thousands. Eventually forcing all the ruling parties to take a “no-water charges” stance and suspending the imposition of any water charges (though the EU is still insisting they must go through).

People Before Profit

It is in fighting for the issues of the working class community where we can best explain the rise of PBP and the far left in Ireland.

After the collapse of the USSR, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) became convinced that there was a new space available for the radical left and sought to fill it the best way they knew how: through a united front. The Irish anti-war movement brought 100,000 people into the streets but at the core of it were a small group of revolutionaries who were willing to work with others on campaigns to benefit the working class– Labour, Sinn Féin and Greens, but without conceding an inch to their wider ideas.

Later, as they shifted towards mass work in local communities, the SWP met many who agreed with their stance against corporate greed, privatisation and neoliberalism, but weren’t necessarily explicitly socialist. This recognition led to the formation of PBP. As people move leftward, they don’t automatically draw revolutionary socialist conclusions, PBP is a bridge for those people into more radical politics and to group with others on the left to create viable vehicle to contest elections. The PBP, recognizing that years of social compromise meant that the unions were not a real vehicle for struggle, threw themselves into the struggles of working class communities (for example campaigns against garbage charges, Household Charges and most recently Water Charges).

In the latest, Irish Marxist Review, PBP National Secretary Kieran Allen attributed the relative success of P4P to three factors:

1.              They speak the language of working class people. “ We have consciously set out to move beyond the deaded jargon-ridden language and mechanical form of thinking that many of the far left still inhabit… we have also sought to move beyond a type of academicism which privileges a constant commentary divorced from a desire to win real influence.”

2.              PBP is motivated by a confidence that its radical politics can be popular. “You often hear this around elections time, when the media suggest that electoral success only come to those who ‘move to the centre.’ We make the opposite assumption. We think left politics can be popular and can be translated into a fight on issues which expose the corporate greed and addiction to profit that lies at the heart of our society.”

3.              PBP does not sell out. “It has a conscious strategy of not being co-opted or entangled in the tentacles of official state politics. Its councillors don’t go on junkets; they do not socialize with any supposed ‘colleagues’ of the right. We do not restrict our politics to the confines of official legality…[we] called for a boycott of water charges when the former guerilla fighters of the IRA were urging people to send back their registration forms to Irish Water.”

P4P has tried to learn from the mistakes of other radical left parties, such as Syriza. Therefore, as Kieran Allen notes, “it advances a minimum programme of ‘reforms’ but unlike these others it does not stress governmental influence as the key to change. From the very start, it has argued that ‘people power’ and mass workers mobilisation is the key to change.” Meanwhile, the SWP is organized as a strong revolutionary force within PBP, arguing that late capitalism is no longer capable of meeting the aspirations of workers and that only by adopting a revolutionary strategy and going beyond the limits of capitalism can we win the demands of the working class.

In North Ireland, the crisis on unionism and the modernization of Irish society has produced a new generation of young people who are angry at austerity and at the old sectarianism. Hence, the PBP rejecting the prevailing ideas on that left that said you can only focus on ‘bread and butter issues’ while accepting the ‘identity’ politics of Loyalism and Nationalism. The PBP insisted that if the left if going to have any chance in the North it must create a network of principled anti-sectarian socialists, capable of challenging reactionary ideas within the working class. So Séan Mitchell, PBP North-South coordinator, says, “we have to make agitation against this austerity programme central to our perspective, and combine this with challenges to sectarian ideas.”

This principled focus meant that PBP was one of the only parties to have its posters up in both Catholic and Protestant areas during the recent elections. Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann were both elected in working class areas. They happen to be predominately Nationalist, but with significant pockets of working class Protestants as well. This is a powerful step towards working class unity and breaking down the historic oppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The 2016 Assembly elections resulted in a coalition government of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, who plan to implement the ‘Fresh Start Agreement,” an austerity program designed to allow them to remain in government together. 20,000 public sector workers are to be cut, huge cuts to education and infrastructure, 2,000 teachers may lose their jobs and scores of community and volunteer organizations will have their funding cut. PBP plans to agitate against these cuts, trying to bring trade unions into the struggle with the idea that, as Gerry Carroll said in his first speech in the Assembly, “What Stormont does, the people and the workers can undo.”

The huge steps for the far left in Ireland and offer the potential of dramatic changes. There are more socialists than ever using their platform in parliament to advocate for working class people and to build the working class struggles against austerity. The Water Charges have been suspended through the weight of mass mobilization and the laws against abortion are sure to fall shortly. These are huge victories for the “people power” that PBP has campaigned on.

The challenges ahead for PBP and the SWP are to continue to try and sink roots into the trade unions and grow the activist and revolutionary base of its party. One thing is clear though, despite the challenges, the increased presence of a radical political group operating both North and South, against sectarianism and for working class unity, means that the possibility of a United Ireland can be posed in real concrete ways

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