The reverberations of the dramatic Irish General Election continue as we go to press. Sinn Fein’s astonishing electoral insurgency has put a serious dent in the old order of Fine Gael/Fianna Fail, which had prevailed for nearly a century.
Not only did Sinn Fein win more of the popular vote than any other party, its leader Mary Lou MacDonald topped an impressive election campaign by winning more votes for Taoiseach (prime minister) than either the incumbent Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael or Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail.
Her 45 votes in the Dail (the Irish Parliament) was well short of the number she would have needed to be able to form a government, but the very fact of her preeminence demonstrates the extent to which the Irish political landscape has been transformed, and the political consciousness of the electorate moved sharply to the left.
SF’s success was matched by the continued decline of the two main right wing parties. In 2007, prior to the economic crash, the combined vote of FG and FF was 69 percent. In this election it had fallen to 44 percent.
SF, in sharp contrast with poor showings in the recent European and presidential elections, won the biggest overall vote and the highest percentage of first preference votes (24.5 percent).
This superiority did not translate into the total number of seats, but SF still won 37 to FF’s 38 and FG’s 35. More remarkably, it achieved this number while only standing 42 candidates instead of a full slate, about half the number of FF and FG. Had it stood a full slate it would have won significantly more seats.
The principle reason for this dramatic transformation in performance was SF’s focus on the two key issues (housing and health) that were foremost of the minds of the voters. The legacy of both FG and FF in government was to turn Ireland into low tax, big-business-friendly haven at the expense of its urban and rural workers. There is no national health service, and the two-tier provision is still largely dependent on the institutions of the Catholic church.
While wages in Dublin have increased marginally, housing costs have soared by 24 percent in the past year. So, SF’s prioritisation of these issues struck a chord. Varadkar had called the election on the assumption that his ‘statesmanlike’ performance in the Brexit talks and his performance on the European stage would lead him to victory, but Brexit hardly featured as an issue as the voters vented their anger against inequality and the imperatives of neo-liberalism.
The clearest evidence of the political motivation behind the result is the way in which the first preference votes of SF were distributed. The Irish electoral system is based on Single Transferable Vote system in multi-seat constituencies. Once the leader in the poll reaches the required quota for election their surplus votes are distributed to the other candidates on the basis of the voter’s second preference.
In this election the transfers of SF votes went to parties of the left primarily campaigning on these same issues. This is illustrated in a fascinating article by Gerry Kearns, professor of Geography at Maynooth University.
He points out that SF topped the poll in two-thirds of the constituencies and argues that this gives it a moral authority beyond its final tally of 37 seats. He further argues that all the evidence is that Sinn Fein is “a home for voters who lean left. Everywhere it is a party selected by people disproportionally dissatisfied with Fine Gale”.
In 18 of the 39 constituencies SF topped the poll, and in these constituencies 83,350 surplus SF votes were available for re-allocation. Only 4.5% of this surplus went to FG and 11.7 to FF. However, the parties of the socialist left benefitted more dramatically, gaining 32.5% of these transfers.
Kearns defines the socialist parties as Independents for Change, People Before Profit/ Solidarity, People Before Profit /Rise and the United Peoples Workers party).
This meant, for example, that People Before Profit retained their three seats, and their coalition partners in Rise and Solidarity one each. In Dun Laoghaire, Richard Boyd Barrett topped the poll with the most first preference votes, and made a real and well publicised mark in the televised leader’s debates.
Brid Smith significantly increased her vote in Dublin South Central, and Gino Kenny retained his seat in Dublin Mid-West. This is testimony both to their impact in the Dail and their central involvement in the social movements.
It is clear that as well as being a beneficiary of the desire for change and a break with the FF/FG stranglehold, SF also benefitted from the social movements that have signalled a transformation of Irish society in recent years. The campaign against water charges, the referenda on same sex marriage and the Repeal of the anti-abortion amendment are all manifestations that Ireland has changed utterly.
Interestingly, however, SF was not the instigator of these movements, and in all of them could be said to have arrived late to the party. The socialist left on the other hand, particularly People Before Profit, were in the forefront of their inception and provided the impetus that drove them forward to success. But it is SF, partly because of its weight and size, who are the electoral beneficiaries, at least for now.
SF’s response to this success, however, demonstrated an ambiguity towards political alliances. After the election it talked to the left parties about forming a government without ruling out a coalition with FF or FG. There can be no reconciliation of these two positions.
MacDonald called on FF in particular to recognise the new political reality and to join in talks with SF out of respect to the wishes of the voters.
Historically, SF has always faced in two directions at once. Prioritising nation over class still finds an echo today. Aspiring to be an all-Ireland party and a champion of Irish unity it finds itself not only the moral victor in the elections in the South but actually in government in the North now that the Assembly has been reconvened.
This has exposed the contradictory positions it has adopted. In the South it rode the wave of an anti-austerity sentiment and projected itself as champion of reform on pensions, housing and the health service. In the North, however, it has, along with the right-wing bigots of the DUP, been complicit in implementing a pro-austerity Tory agenda, imposing cuts to welfare and public services as part of the Assembly coalition.
These contradictions are likely to be played out in the coming debates about a possible Border poll and the prospect of a united Ireland. In these arguments it is vital that there is an independent socialist voice on both sides of the border in order to remind SF that its electoral success in the South was based on an appeal to class politics, not the politics of nationalism. To give weight to this voice the struggle needs to shift away from the electoral sphere onto the streets and into every workplace and community North and South of the border.