Sinn Fein make solid gains as Irish voters eject government

The political map of the Republic of Ireland has undergone an unprecedented change as a result of the general election held in that state on 25 February 2011.

Occurring against the backdrop of the impact on Ireland of the eurozone crisis, which has seen Ireland forced into a humiliating £72 billion EU-IMF bailout to rescue its failed banks at the expense of the country’s working people and economic sovereignty, the hitherto ruling Fianna Fail party went down to its greatest ever defeat.

At 9pm on Sunday February 27, with 153 seats in the Dail (Irish parliament) declared, and 13 results still awaited, Fianna Fail was left with just 18 seats, a loss of 60, including nearly all well-known leaders of the party and members of the outgoing government. Its junior coalition partner, the Green Party, paid the price for its selling out of whatever political principles it may once have had, losing all six of its seats. Fine Gael, traditionally the most right wing of mainstream parties in Ireland, came off the clear winner, with 68 seats, an increase of 17, and meaning that it becomes the biggest party in the Dail for the first time in its history. The Labour Party was on 36 seats, an increase of 16.

The other clear winner from the election was the left nationalist party, Sinn Fein, who were on 13 seats, an increase of nine compared to their result at the last general election, with the prospect of winning possibly two more in the final recounts. Reflecting the volatile state of Irish politics, and the influence of local factors and personalities in a number of areas, a total of 18 independents of varying hues had been elected, an increase of 13. This included five members of the United Left Alliance, a hastily cobbled together alliance mainly of various Trotskyite parties, but also including some independent leftists with localised support.

The share of first-preference votes (Ireland has an electoral system of proportional representation with multi-member constituencies) was: Fine Gael 36.1%; Labour 19.4%; Fianna Fail 17.4% (from 41.5% in 2007); Sinn Fein 9.9%; Independents 15.2%; and Green Party 1.8%. The turn out was 70.1%, the highest since 1987.

To grasp the scale of Fianna Fail’s defeat, it should be noted that this party has been in power for more than 60 years of the nearly eight decades since an Irish government was formed in Dublin. Apart from two-and-a-half years in the mid-1990s, it has been continuously in power since 1987.

Writing in the Irish Times, analyst Stephen Collins observed: “Irish politics will never be the same again. The era of Fianna Fail dominance, which lasted for three-quarters of a century, came to an abrupt end at the weekend as the voters expressed their fury in the ballot at the way the party has run the country for the past decade and more… Proportional representation saved Fianna Fail from total obliteration but whether the party can survive as a serious political force is open to question. One thing is certain; it will never recover its place as the dominant party of power” (‘FF will never recover former position’, 28 February 2011).

Another commentator in the same newspaper put matters more poetically: “The Irish people looked back in anger this weekend and then they coldly voted to liquidate the party that plunged their country into liquidation.” (‘Angry electorate coldly voted to liquidate Fianna Fail’, Miriam Lord, op. cit.)

It is not hard to ascertain the cause of the Irish people’s anger. An economic policy grounded in corruption and cronyism between politicians and big business, based on property speculation and tax breaks for imperialist capital, and vaingloriously dubbed the ‘Celtic Tiger’, has ended in an EU-IMF bailout that is set to consume 85% of Ireland’s income tax revenue by 2012. The cost in extra taxes for the average family has been estimated at £3,900 a year. Meanwhile, in a savage austerity programme of £13 billion of tax rises and spending cuts drawn up by the EU, there are to be reductions in the minimum wage, unprecedented cuts in public services, and 90,000 job losses in a country where unemployment is already running at almost 14%. In a word, it is a programme of: “Make the poor pay.”

For the Irish people, this evokes still vivid memories of famine, absentee, rack-renting landlords and forced emigration. For a country that only secured a limited degree of independence last century, after centuries of often bloody struggle, and which is still to end partition and achieve the reunification of the country, through the return of the six north-eastern counties still occupied by Britain, the anger of the working class at being made to pay the price of the capitalists’ crisis must inevitably merge with the need to complete the national liberation struggle once and for all.

Even as the Irish electorate was heading to the polls, they were being delivered a brutal message from the new imperialist masters in the EU that, so far as they were concerned, voting would change nothing. As the Sunday Telegraph reported:

As Irish voters headed for the polling booths on Friday, the European Commission bluntly declared that the terms of the EU-IMF bailout ‘must be applied’ whatever the will of Ireland’s people or regardless of any change of government.

“‘It’s an agreement between the EU and the Republic of Ireland, it’s not an agreement between an institution and a particular government,’ said a Brussels spokesman.

A European diplomat, from a large eurozone country, told The Sunday Telegraph that ‘the more the Irish make a big deal about renegotiation in public, the more attitudes will harden’.

“‘It is not even take it or leave it. It’s done. Ireland’s only role in this now is to implement the programme agreed with the EU, IMF and European Central Bank. Irish voters are not a party in this process, whatever they have been told,’ said the diplomat.” (‘Ireland’s new government on a collision course with EU’, 27 February 2011.)

One could scarcely ask for a starker affirmation of the truth of the words written by James Connolly, Ireland’s greatest socialist and revolutionary, in January 1897:

“If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs” (‘Socialism and Nationalism’).

As this newspaper goes to press, talks are beginning on the formation of a new Irish government. The most likely outcome remains the formation of a coalition between Fine Gael and the Labour Party, which would enjoy a substantial majority. Despite ostensibly occupying divergent places on the right and left of the Irish political spectrum, these two parties have generally enjoyed a cosy cohabitation in government whenever the opportunity has presented itself.

However, there is some speculation that Fine Gael will try to cobble together a minority administration with the support of sundry independents. And a few voices in the Labour Party, perhaps astutely observing the fate meted out to the Green Party for its shameful role in propping up an anti-working class, anti-national government, and mindful that Labour will scarcely avoid the same fate in exchange for a few years of the ‘mercs and perks’ of ministerial office, are also cautioning against a rush to govern with Fine Gael.

But whatever the shape of the new government, with Fianna Fail licking its wounds, and possessing no alternative to the anti-working class, nation-selling programme it shares with Fine Gael, real leadership of the opposition has now clearly passed to Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who resigned his seat at Westminster (which he held on an abstentionist platform), as well as in the Northern Ireland Assembly, said, when he was elected on the first count, topping the poll, in Louth: “Next Tuesday is the day that Bobby Sands started his hunger strike… So this isn’t just about who wins what and who tops the poll and who doesn’t, this is about actual sacrifice in terms of ongoing reconquest of Ireland by the people of Ireland.”

Challenged on his grasp of economic issues, Comrade Adams rightly retorted: “The people who are challenging me on our economic position are the people who brought the economy to its knees” (Gains reflect ‘reconquest’ of Ireland, says Adams, Irish Times, 28 February 2011). (‘The reconquest of Ireland’ is a celebrated work by James Connolly, written in 1915 – Ed.)

Writing in the Workers’ Republic, on 8 April 1916, practically on the eve of the historic Easter Rising, in words that have lost none of their validity nearly a century later, James Connolly had this to say:

We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.

“The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in that free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that the individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.

“Having in view such a high and holy function for the nation to perform, is it not well and fitting that we of the working class should fight for the freedom of the nation from foreign rule, as the first requisite for the free development of the national powers needed for our class? It is so fitting” (The Irish Flag).

The only significant political party in Ireland that upholds and creatively applies this correct analysis of James Connolly is Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams. Lalkar congratulates Sinn Fein on its excellent election result and wishes them well in the new and complex struggles that will now open up, confident that they will wage them with the same tenacity, imagination and integrity that they have brought to bear in every stage of the protracted struggle for Ireland’s complete freedom.