Coronavirus hits Ireland following transformed post-election landscape

Like most of the world, Southern Ireland has been hit hard by the COVID-19 ‘coronavirus’ crisis. By mid-March schools, colleges, pubs, creches etc., were on an initial two-week shutdown. Transport links have been severely curtailed. Around 100,000 people lost their jobs in under 48 hours and hundreds of thousands more are expected to lose their employment imminently. The prospect of a suspension of all non-essential economic activity for several months looms.

The analysis that follows was written immediately prior to the onset of the coronavirus crisis. Currently, the incumbent Fine Gael led government remains in situ and are leading the Irish State’s response to the crisis. Talks about forming a new government between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are ongoing, but, depending on how severe the crisis becomes, these may go into abeyance until the worst of the crisis passes.

Nonetheless, the analysis we present still stands and the broad political trends outlined will only strengthen in the post-coronavirus world. The pandemic has sent the capitalist world into its deepest crisis since the economic crash of 2008. It is likely that the politics of Ireland and the political consciousness of workers in Ireland will be radically and fundamentally transformed by the impact of the present crisis.

CWI Ireland

In a groundbreaking general election, held on Saturday 8 February, in the South of Ireland, a working-class surge to Sinn Fein smashed the two-party system of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail that has been in place since the civil war years from the early 1920s. Fianna Fail now has 38 seats in the Dail (Irish parliament), Sinn Fein 37, Fine Gael 35, The Green Party 12, Labour Party 6, Social Democrats 6, Solidarity/People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) 5, Aontu (‘Irish Republicans fo Protection of Life’) 1 and various Independents 19. Sinn Fein won the popular vote with 24.5% followed by Fianna Fail on 22.2%.

Nobody foresaw the scale of the surge to Sinn Fein, least of all the Sinn Fein leadership which is shown by the cautious approach they took due to poor performance in the local and European elections just eight months ago (the party only stood 42 candidates and won 37 seats in the 2020 general election).

Had Sinn Fein fielded more candidates it is estimated that they could have won up to 48 seats, which would include some of the left seats that were won due to the large Sinn Fein surplus votes. The combined vote of the two establishment parties is at a historic low of 43.4%. This, along with the recent referenda on social issues, such as to repeal the Eighth amendment to bring in abortion legislation, in 2018, and marriage equality, in 2015, are indications of the fundamental change in Irish society. People are seeking out an alternative to the capitalist establishment.

The governing party, Fine Gael, are disconnected from the realities facing ordinary people and ran a campaign based on the success of the economy and the manner in which they handled the Brexit negotiations.

Only one per cent of those surveyed in an exit poll carried out by the state broadcaster, RTE, cited Brexit as a concern. Fine Gael’s constant references to the economic recovery served only to further alienate them from voters who felt no benefit from the economy.

Fianna Fail more or less ran on the basis that they are not as bad as Fine Gael (in spite of having propped them up in government for the last four years). The party claimed to have learnt their lesson since they presided in government over the crashed economy in 2008, and stated that they could now be trusted. Voters clearly felt otherwise.

The overriding mood is one for change. For the working class, this does not mean swapping one establishment party for another.

Sinn Fein were the beneficiaries of that deep desire for change and the cry from the working class for someone to do something.

Exit polls on the day of the election showed that the housing crisis and the crumbling health service are the key issues, an outcome that came as no surprise to any working-class person. The housing crisis for the many sums up the failure of the capitalist system. By some measurements, Ireland is the fourth richest country in the EU, with virtually full employment prior to the coronavirus crisis and at the time of the election. Yet many people, including workers, cannot afford to put a roof over their heads; adults are forced to live with their parents; thousands are in emergency accommodation, including children; and people are living and dying on the streets.

While the Green Party made gains and increased their seats from two to twelve, the much-heralded ‘green tsunami’ was more of a wave that was overwhelmed by Sinn Fein and the austerity issues. Only 6% of people cited climate change as the main issue in exit polls, with 58% saying health and homelessness were their priorities.

Far right

Attempts were also made by various far-right groups to make gains in this election, standing 30 candidates throughout the country. In the majority of constituencies, they polled less than 1%. Their campaigns centred around whipping up racist rhetoric against migrants and people in Direct Provision, placing the blame on them over issues like jobs and housing. This did not get an echo with the majority of working-class people, who rejected this vile narrative.

Only 1% of people cited immigration as the main voting concern in an exit poll. In the Dublin Fingal constituency, where far-right candidate, Gemma O’Doherty, hosted public meetings, there was a big mobilisation of the working-class of Balbriggan in opposition to her vile racist ideas. The far-right failed to make a dent in this election, but we need to ensure that we provide real answers to the issues affecting working class people in order to prevent racist ideas gaining a hold in society. A shift towards these ideas was cut across by working class people fighting back. Layers of people, whose counterparts in other countries were attracted by similar right-populist arguments of these forces, voted for change, and in this election that change to many was represented by Sinn Fein.

Notwithstanding their low votes, there should be no room for complacency about the threat the far right poses. Coupled with their aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, they are pushing a very conservative social agenda which would reverse recent advances in abortion rights and rights for LGBTQ people.

2020 marked the first time so many overtly far right candidates ran for election. Co-operation between the various far right groups, such as agreed candidates for certain constituencies, suggest a developing organisational capacity. They are clearly very well-funded.

An irresponsible media prepared to grant these groups a platform has contributed to their rising profile. The Left must deepen its links with migrant workers and their communities, and unite the working class into a common front to stop the far right, before it makes any more progress.

The scale of the shift to Sinn Fein took everyone by surprise, including some of their own candidates. In the Kildare South constituency, the Sinn Fein candidate, who had taken a week’s holiday during the short three-week election campaign, topped the poll and was elected. Another Sinn Fein candidate erected just 20 campaign posters and was also elected.

The class nature of the Sinn Fein vote is clear from the huge votes in working class constituencies, such as Dublin North West, where the candidate received 44.4% in first preference votes – an increase of 17.3%. The swing was across the board, with rural and urban areas electing Sinn Fein TDs (members of the Irish parliament). The transfers of votes from Sinn Fein candidates who were elected with large surpluses went mainly to left candidates, and the message of ‘vote left, transfer left’ received a strong echo, particularly in working class areas. While Sinn Fein was most popular in the 18-24 age group, gaining 38% of their vote, the party’s support increased across all age groups, with the smallest increase in over 65s.

The Left faced a more difficult election in comparison to 2016 when there was a more favourable objective background. The 2016 election was fought on the back of an enormous movement against water charges. Many Left candidates had played leading roles in these struggles, and anger at the economic collapse had not receded. Voters used the election as a stick to beat the establishment.

While there have been large movements on social issues, such as abortion rights and climate change, since the 2016 election, these important movements are inherently cross-class. This is unlike the movement against the water charges, which was solidly based amongst the working class and, therefore, did not have the same electoral impact for the Left in this election.

Left parties

The Sinn Fein surge, and to a lesser extent the shift to the Greens, made what was always going to be a difficult election for the Left even more complex. At the same time, the surpluses from the Sinn Fein candidates saved the day for many Left candidates. If Sinn Fein had read the anti-establishment mood correctly and stood more candidates, it would have led to a loss of many more seats for Solidarity/PBPA, with possibly only Richard Boyd Barrett (PBPA), in Dun Laoghaire, and Gino Kenny (PBPA), in Dublin Mid-West, being elected. Gino Kenny conceded defeat during the Sunday of the election count – his constituency had already seen two Sinn Fein candidates elected – and was later surprised himself to be elected on Monday due to multiple vote transfers.

The other Solidarity/PBPA candidates relied heavily on transfers from the large Sinn Fein surpluses. In Dublin South West, Paul Murphy (RISE), received a transfer of 3,444 votes from the surplus of Sinn Fein’s Sean Crowe. In Dublin South Central, the surplus of Aengus O’Snodaigh of Sinn Fein transferred a colossal 4,794 votes to Brid Smith (PBPA), and a further 1,747 to Joan Collins (Independents 4 Change) which led to both of them being elected. In Cork North Central, Mick Barry (Solidarity) received a transfer of 1,459 votes from Sinn Fein, and in Dublin West, Ruth Coppinger (Solidarity), who unfortunately lost the seat, got a transfer of 1,859 from Paul Donnelly of Sinn Fein. Conor Reddy (PBPA) narrowly missed out on being elected in Dublin North West, when he was pushed into contention with 2,466 transfers from Dessie Ellis of Sinn Fein. In all cases, the highest transfers, by a large margin, went to candidates of the Left, as in most constituencies Sinn Fein only stood one candidate.

In the constituency of Dublin South West, it was a sectarian mistake on behalf of the Socialist Party to run Sandra Fay for Solidarity against Paul Murphy, a sitting TD. If it had not been for the surge to Sinn Fein, that Left seat may have been lost. In Dublin South West, Solidarity’s share of the vote fell by 9.1%, in comparison to the 2016 general election.

CWI Ireland regretted the loss of the seat in Dublin West. An important base of support was built in the area, since the early 1990s, for the organisations which were then affiliated to the CWI in Ireland (Militant Labour, later renamed, Socialist Party). Joe Higgins won a council seat on the now abolished Dublin County Council. The Dublin West Constituency is a difficult constituency, with a strong candidate from Sinn Fein who has built a base in the area over years, and a long-standing Green candidate who had a limited base but has benefitted from the ‘Green wave’.

Yet the votes for Solidarity in Dublin West, and in all the areas where Solidarity stood, fell significantly. The swing to Sinn Fein explains some of this. But it is clear that a section of the working class who had previously supported Solidarity no longer see them as a fighting working-class alternative. The setback for Solidarity, and the Socialist Party who leads this electoral platform, follows on from the loss of more than half of their council seats in May 2019, and a very poor European election result in May 2019.

CWI debate

While the more complex objective conditions for socialists account for some of this, another key factor has been the political decline of the Socialist Party leadership, which recently split from the Committee for a Workers’ International. After months of debate, where serious and fundamental differences were discussed within the CWI, including the approach taken by the Irish Socialist Party leadership, it became clear there had been a major political divergence.

A central issue in the split was the mistakes we believe have been made here in Ireland. These included turning away from consistent work within the mass workers’ organisations, the trade unions. Over the last few years in Ireland, leading Socialist Party members have stopped defending their previous socialist programme. Increasingly, there was a tendency to see the movements around Repeal and for LGBTQ rights, which CWI Ireland members fully supported and participated in, as the new and primary way forward for building membership and electoral support.

This was done while abandoning a consistent orientation to the trade unions, and no longer seeing, in practice, the working class as the decisive force in the struggle to build a socialist future for all of those oppressed today under capitalism.

It is clear that the perception of Solidarity among many workers has changed. The previous view of the Socialist Party/Solidarity, as an uncompromising class alternative, has been weakened by the political adaption by the leadership to incorrect ideas, including ‘identity politics’, that emphasises the separateness of different layers of the oppressed, such as women and LGBTQ, and which regards the working class as just another category of the oppressed rather than, as Marxists explain, the class that alone can lead the struggle to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist society. This approach led, for example, in Dublin West, to Solidarity producing campaign literature that failed to consistently mention socialism and the need for the unity of the working class.

Towards the end of the campaign, the material produced appealed for votes for Ruth Coppinger because she is a woman. It was argued that if Ruth was not elected, four men would represent the constituency. The Solidarity campaign argued for a vote on the basis that Ruth provided a “strong voice for women in the Dail”. This slogan was clearly a last-minute attempt to win broad support and made no mention of Ruth being a strong voice for working class women in the Dail. Indeed, the slogan did nothing to convey the role of a workers’ representative in bourgeois political institutions, and the need for them to be interlinked with broader class movements. It is not sufficient to have a ‘strong voice’ to achieve real change – this requires a mass movement, in particular, working class mobilisation, for real change

This argument was also emphasised on social media by Solidarity candidate and Socialist Party member, Sandra Fay, as part of the campaign in Dublin South West. Yet one of the men standing in Dublin South West was Paul Murphy, who had fought alongside Ruth Coppinger and Mick Barry, in the Dail and outside, on many issues, including Repeal and LGBTQ rights.

Socialists should not pose things in such a manner. Any genuine socialist candidate should be regarded as an uncompromising fighter for working-class women and for women’s rights, generally. It was correct to highlight Ruth Coppinger’s role in the Repeal movement etc. For Marxists, however, it is necessary, at all times, to fight, and to be seen to fight, for the whole of the working class, not just one section of it.

Other Left candidates, such as those from People Before Profit, also succumbed to opportunism and populism during the general election. Paul Murphy, who split from the Socialist Party, last year, to form RISE, called prominently for a “Green New Deal” in relation to the climate change crisis, during the general election campaign. Although on the RISE website there is mention of a ‘Socialist Green New Deal’, slogans in an election matter, and they are often the only party text most voters will read. The slogan, “Green New Deal”, is now widely employed by social democrats, the world over, and even the corporate Democratic Party in the USA. It echoes Keynesian economics, of a ‘mixed economy’ but where capitalism remains dominant. Marxists should make clear that only a socialist approach can end climate change, which is why the CWI clearly advocates slogans like ‘For a Socialist Green Deal’. This clearly points to radical socialist change, including taking the major planks of the economy into public ownership under the democratic control and management of the working class.

Paul Murphy also repeatedly called for “people’s power” during the general election. But, again, this can lead to confusion. Who are “the people”? The bosses and upper petit-bourgeois, as well as workers and the oppressed? Marxists always put the needs and interests of the working class first and foremost, and should always strive to present policies and slogans in clear class terms, without any ambiguity.

The consequences of the political mistakes by the Socialist Party leadership, over a number of years, were shown in the general election and not just in Dublin West. Solidarity candidates, across the board, lost a large number of votes compared to 2016. By contrast, other left and socialist candidates did not suffer the same degree of losses. Continuing on this path will probably see further electoral setbacks, including in a possible second general election, which is a possibility if a government cannot be formed.

Rather than learn the political lessons of these electoral setbacks, Solidarity/Socialist Party only continue to compound them. Standing in elections for the Seanad Eireann (Irish Senate or Upper House), which is returned by a limited elite electorate, with most workers disenfranchised, former Solidarity/Socialist Party TD, Ruth Coppinger, presents a manifesto that overwhelmingly emphasises gender politics rather than clear class or socialist policies, as she tries to appeal to graduates from the ‘top’ universities. One of her main election slogans, “A unique and radical voice” is without class content and would not be out of place in the election campaigns of most politicians. In election literature circulated to all voters in the National University of Ireland, Ruth Coppinger makes no mention whatsoever of her leading role in the mass movements against the austerity property and water taxes between 2011 and 2016. These movements were overwhelmingly working class in composition. The movement against the water charges actually beat the government and forced the abolition of this hated tax

Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein’s leadership has long sought to leave open the way to a coalition with bourgeois parties – this is, in essence, the logic of their ‘pan-nationalist front’ that was part of Sinn Fein’s ideological argument towards the end of the conflict in the North. The problem for the party’s working class and radical petit-bourgeois base is that coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will necessarily be predicated on acceptance of the Republic’s neoliberal economic framework. This rules out any hope for a genuine transformation of society on a socialist basis.

This contradiction has bedevilled the party for many years. In more recent years, the Sinn Fein leadership has successfully sought to leave open the possibility of a coalition with the establishment parties, which is portrayed to their members as necessary to be relevant in an election. In the meantime, Sinn Fein members – even those in the party leadership – have been allowed to promote ideas of a ‘broad left government’, with Sinn Fein at its lead.

Despite such thinking in more recent years, the party has increasingly dampened down any residual revolutionary rhetoric to the point that its current manifesto is set fully within the ‘fiscal space’ afforded by compliance with EU budget rules and state aid health regulations. The manifesto of Sinn Fein would struggle to be considered reformist in historic terms.

That said, the party presented a strong emphasis on house building and improving Ireland’s dysfunctional hybrid public/private health system, without committing Sinn Fein to establish a national health service. Even these promises are enough to mark the party out as radical by comparison to the Tweedledum and Tweedledee neoliberalism that characterises Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Overall, in the interests entry into power, Sinn Fein’s electoral offering could be harmonised with that of either party but there is a more natural affiliation between Sinn Fein and the more nationalist Fianna Fail than with Fine Gael. The problem is that neither of the two establishment parties is will enter government with Sinn Fein. Instead, they encourage Sinn Fein to seek to form a Left government, knowing full well that such a government is largely impossible given the election of 12 right-leaning independents who would need to be part of such a rainbow coalition to form a majority.

The problem is that, at this stage, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have turned their faces against such a coalition. Between them, they do not have the seats necessary to form a continuation of the previous right-wing government but could do so in conjunction with the Greens or independents. Such a prospect would certainly herald the likely prospect of a further Sinn Fein surge in another election.

Impact on the North

The huge vote received by Sinn Fein has been greeted by northern nationalists with excitement; the party’s success is taken as likely to bring forward the prospect of a border poll on Irish reunification.

Sinn Fein clearly has played up to this possibility. It comes after continued long-term demographic changes, and three years of Brexit uncertainty, culminating in the first phase of EU exit negotiations. These talks ended with the British Prime Minister apparently conceding to leave Northern Ireland behind in the EU market regulatory zone – a prospect deemed an ‘economic United Ireland’ by Loyalists before the election.

The problem for Sinn Fein is that the decision to hold a border poll is one that only a British Secretary of State could make and even Sinn Fein’s presence at the head of government in Dublin does not change that fact. But that will not stop Sinn Fein from raising the spectre of a border poll and the inevitability of a united Ireland. Indeed, within hours of winning the election, Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald suggested that the party would seek the EU powers to become a ‘persuader’ for unity – a position that the EU cannot assume as a party to the Good Friday Agreement.

It can be expected that similar interventions will become more commonplace and that perhaps may lead to an ‘all-Ireland civic assembly’ being called to discuss reunification – all of which will continue to stoke up the fears within Loyalist working-class communities, in particular. Such demands, rooted as they are in the threat of an extension of the Republic to a 32 county-state, forced through by demographic change via a poll of coercion, offers nothing to Protestants and only makes more difficult the task of building workers’ unity.

The electoral success of Sinn Fein in the South heralds a period of further destabilisation in the North. The conclusion of an agreement to restore power-sharing government at Stormont, in Belfast, involving both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), after a three-year absence, will act as to counter that tendency. But, overall, the likelihood is that Sinn Fein’s success will be reflected in rising sectarian tensions, as unionism is brought closer to the possibility of reunification.

At the same time, Sinn Fein faces risks of its own, if it enters a government in the South at the very moment when talks on Brexit are to enter their most difficult phase. There remains the likelihood that the Conservative government may back-off from commitments made to check goods on the Irish sea. This outcome will inevitably result in the EU commission forcing an Irish government to impose north-south border checks to defend the ‘integrity’ of the EU capitalist market. Such an outcome would represent a nightmare scenario for Sinn Fein.

The party also faces the prospect of EU hostility should they pursue anything but the most insipid policies in government.

Government formation

At the time of writing, horse-trading is ongoing in relation to government formation. Fianna Fail has posed the need for a ‘stable’ coalition with Fine Gael due to the ‘emergency’ over the coronavirus crisis. As in other parts of the world, while the coronavirus threat puts the failures of the capitalist system under the spotlight, the main parties of the Establishment will seek to exploit the crisis to shore up their position.

The overwhelming message from all age groups and all corners of the country in this election was for change. A grand coalition of Fianna Fail, Fianna Gael and the Greens, like a third wheel, would not represent a change to the electorate. The establishment knows this and may fear the consequences. So there may be a government of “change”, which could include others, perhaps even the Social Democrats. This would be presented as ‘new politics’, the new way of doing business and so on or a government of emergency a “Corona Coalition” which would also be more of the same and seen as a temporary arrangement.

A minority government of various shades, including a rehabilitation of the Labour Party, would not last, and would not deliver the much needed and wanted change. It is a political mistake by some on the left to include the Labour Party in a discussion in relation to a Left government.

While none of the major parties wants another election – even Sinn Fein, which would most likely increase their Dail representation, would like to stabilise and solidify their base – there may be no other options post the Corona Crisis.

Building a strong Marxist current

These election results demonstrate the deep-seated desire among working-people for change. Mass anger over housing, health, inequality and the social conditions of the working class are explosive. That they voted for Sinn Fein in such unprecedented numbers reflects that party’s profile as an anti-establishment force rather than a vindication of their weak semi-reformist and electoralist platform.

The fact that Sinn Fein vote surpluses transferred in such numbers to ‘Left’ candidates confirm the class nature of the vote and the fact that it represented a vote for change.

Unfortunately, no party in the Dail currently offers a bold and consistent socialist programme or perspectives.

The ideas and programme of Marxism, which the CWI in Ireland has represented for decades, are crucial to finding a way out for the working class. But the ideological conquests of Marxism (scientific socialism) have to be re-won, afresh, with each new generation – how the working class is exploited under the profit system, the nature of the capitalist state and imperialism, and the centrality of the working-class as agents of change. The appeal of socialism and Marxism springs ever afresh from the material conditions in which the working-class and the oppressed exist. These ideas chime with the reality of workers’ lives and provide a guide to action for changing our world.

It is natural for political opportunists to drop the commitment to these pillars, particularly when under pressure to hold on to electoral positions. But, in the end, these mistakes can weaken the Left, as was partially seen in the general election. Building a strong Marxist current is therefore essential today, alongside the task of building mass parties of the working class.

By sinking deep roots into the trade unions, the workplaces, local communities, amongst youth, including in colleges and schools, Marxists will seed a future mass movement that will transform our society. The election result and the reaction of many workers to the class and social issues starkly posed by the coronavirus crisis confirms that the tide is beginning to turn. The CWI in Ireland will prepare for the stormy class battles and new social movements. These will throw up, anew, the working-class militants who will forge a steeled, working-class mass party capable of delivering genuine and fundamental transformation through a socialist, internationalist programme.

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