Ireland South – Euro and Local Elections: Militant Left Analysis

Two weeks have passed since the local and European elections in the South. These signalled further fragmentation within the political system. And from that fragmentation is posed ever accelerating political crisis. The financial crash of 2008 irreversibly changed electoral politics in the South. The deeply reactionary political settlement established in the South in 1922, following the partition of Ireland, continues, at each passing election, to fall further and further apart.

Sinn Fein: Down But Not Out

Sinn Fein underperformed at this round of elections. However, it was not, in any sense, a decisive reversal. In 2019 they had disastrous local election results. Yet emerged from the February 2020 general election as the largest party in the Dáil. Nevertheless, the Sinn Fein leadership has been shaken by the outcome. The sustained attacks by the far Right on Sinn Fein since early 2023 undoubtedly had some effect in many working class communities.

Sinn Fein is also perhaps reaching the limits of its appeal in the South. It is a narrow nationalist party whose paramount political objective is Irish unity under capitalism. In the South, Irish unity is not the overwhelming priority for most working class people. Fixing the housing crisis, decent public transport, huge improvements to the public health system all, by some distance, come before national unity.

People have also recently started to see the contradictions inherent in Sinn Fein’s positions laid bare. Their high profile displays of solidarity with Gaza contrast with their eagerness to cosy up to Joe Biden; the US president who has underwritten Israel’s murderous onslaught against the Palestinians. Sinn Fein claims that they alone can tackle the housing crisis, while at the same time reassuring ‘investors’ that nothing fundamental will change if they enter government. All of this has weakened Sinn Fein’s support among sections of the working class desperate for a way out of the current economic and social catastrophe.

Despite the media narrative that this round of elections was poor for Sinn Fein, their vote increased slightly since 2019 from 9.5% to 11.8%. They returned two MEPs to Brussels. It is safe to say they ran too many candidates, with many of them completely unknown in their local communities. Sinn Fein’s political error was perhaps to take their year’s long polling lead at face value and to believe that the Sinn Fein ‘brand’ would be enough to elect relatively unknown candidates who had no track record of local activism.

Establishment Parties: The Centre Did Not Hold

Fianna Fáil won the largest number of council seats, followed very closely by Fine Gael. Yet their combined first preference vote was lower than 2019. Their long-term electoral decline continues as working class voters slowly abandon them. In total they won 46% of the local election first preference vote; the lowest ever recorded for the two traditional parties of Irish capitalism. Turnout at 49.4% was also the lowest ever recorded. Their electoral base is now around 1 in 4 voters. In working class areas like Ballyfermot in Dublin no Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil councillors were elected.

Despite a significant minority of the population doing well economically, both parties’ failures to address the deep crises in Irish society is fuelling a growing rage. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are, for example, intent on pursuing a housing policy that leaves hundreds of thousands of working class people permanently locked out of affordable housing.

The left wing of the establishment held its ground with Labour losing just one seat, while the Social Democrats doubled their council seats to 35. These organisations are clear that their objective is always to participate in coalition with the two main right-wing parties. Neither organisation has any interest whatsoever in building working class power. Labour returned an MEP, Aodhan Ó Ríordáin, for Dublin for the first time in 10 years.

The Labour and Social Democrat performances have led to ludicrous speculation that there is some basis for a ‘Left’ alliance between these parties and the Greens. As we have already said the political aim of these organisations is always to make up the numbers in Right wing coalition governments; or, possibly in a future Sinn Fein led government.

Had Labour, for instance, any strategic interest in a long-term political project of building the Left in the South it would not have participated in the 2011-16 austerity government, after winning a record 37 Dáil seats in 2011. No-one on the genuine Left can seriously entertain loose talk about potential ‘Left alliances’ with these parties, while they insist on their right to coalesce with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil when it suits them. In any event, the refusal of Labour and the Greens to participate in a ‘Progressive Alliance’ on Dublin City Council makes clear that they have no interest in building Left politics in this society.

The Left: Modest Gains under Challenging Conditions

Left groups standing in the elections – Solidarity, People Before Profit, Workers Party, Left independents – held their ground and won modest gains. People Before Profit increased their council seat numbers to 10, from 6. Solidarity, however, lost 1 seat and emerged with 3 seats overall. The Workers Party held their seat in Cork City Council. While genuine Left independents like Declan Bree in Sligo, Michael Choilm Mac Giolla Easpuig in Donegal, Cieran Perry and John Lyons in Dublin all won council seats.

Clare Daly, regarded as a Left force by many workers, lost her European Parliament seat for Dublin after a long and tense count. The two People before Profit candidates in the Euro election constituencies outside Dublin scored very poor votes. In an ominous sign both trailed far behind some notorious far Right and populist Right figures.

Some socialist candidates came close to losing their seats. Several successful Left candidates, Solidarity’s Cllr. Brian McCarthy in Cork for example, had to battle it out with a far Right candidate to win their seat. This is a dangerous development that the Left must register. Despite a comparatively positive election, Left Councillors remain a small force. But the basis is there to grow. A significant portion of the working class are clearly looking to socialist forces in the face of rising crisis. In this context, the question of launching a mass party of the working class is posed. A conference should be called soon to discuss the potential for such a mass party, involving socialist organisations, Left independents and the trade unions. Militant Left believes this is now an urgent political task for socialists in the South.

Far Right Forces Make Gains

Last and most definitely least, the far Right made a significant impact on this round of elections. Over 300,000 first preference votes were cast for right populist or far Right candidates in the European elections.

While only 4 clearly identifiable far Right councillors were elected there can be absolutely no doubt that within the 186 ‘Independent’ councillors who were elected there are some who hold far Right views.

In the European elections far Right candidates garnered very significant votes and stayed in the running for much longer than anyone had anticipated. It should be clear now that the far Right, and its fascistic elements, are a political force in the South. This fact cannot be wished away.

The establishment media are making haste to normalise these forces. However, for the Left and the labour movement we have not only to analyse why this political development is happening but also how to counter it and defeat it. Under no circumstances can the substantial votes for the far Right be read as a ‘rupture to the Right’. Hundreds of thousands of working class people, fed up with a lifetime of harsh living and working conditions in a so-called ‘rich’ country, are lashing out against an establishment that has no intention of improving things for them.

The challenge for the workers’ movement now is to appeal to those workers currently listening to the lies and misinformation of the far Right. This will not be done by the comfortable middle-class liberals in Labour, the Social Democrats and Greens forming some sort of ‘Left’ alliance and then going into government, again, with the two parties driving the decades long degradation of living conditions for workers.

The 4 far Right councillors elected pose all sorts of questions. Can the safety and dignity of council employees be guaranteed where they are expected to work with openly racist, sexist and homophobic public representatives? Will council run libraries again come under assault from far Right forces who believe they now have some political legitimacy? Trade unions representing council workers will have to think hard about how to defend their members. Council employees who refuse to engage with far Right councillors must be protected. This is unchartered territory for the labour movement in the South and poses a severe challenge.

Building the forces of Socialism

Given the change in the political dynamic resulting from the arrival of the far Right as a political force, the working class must reject all calls by the establishment to rally to defend ‘liberal democracy’. Or, to defend half-baked ideas like ‘European values’. As the European elections demonstrated across Europe, the far Right are rising precisely because the European Union is committed to permanent austerity for the working class majority. An austerity now written into the constitutions of member states and about to increase significantly with the re-introduction of the fiscal rules suspended during COVID.

There is no resolution to the present, deepening, crisis on a basis of continuing with capitalist liberal democracy. Capitalism as a system creates the conditions that lead to working people being pushed towards the false solutions of the far Right. This raises dangers of attacks on hard won democratic and social rights. Only by building mass parties of the working class and revolutionary socialist forces can we fight for a real living wage, a mass social house building programme, fully funded and free health and education and other key demands, linking this to an end to capitalism and the defeat of the far Right.