There Is Finally an Alternative in Ireland

In last weekend’s election, a majority of Irish voters supported parties of the Left. That and other progressive triumphs signal a new beginning for Ireland.

Sinn Fein's Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire celebrates being the first TD elected to the 33rd Dáil, at Nemo Rangers GAA Club on February 9, 2020 in Cork, Ireland. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

This weekend’s Irish election was a truly historic event. For almost a century, politics in the southern state had been dominated by a right-wing duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. As recently as 2007 those two parties received 68.9 percent of the vote — this weekend that number fell to 43.1 percent.

Sinn Féin, a party of the Left, won the election with 24.5 percent of the popular vote. Only running too few candidates prevented them from being the largest party in the Dáil today. But many other left-wingers, from the center-left to more radical varieties, were elected on their transfers. The Green Party, meanwhile — a center-left party with some more radical activists among its grassroots — received 7.1 percent of the vote and a historic high of twelve seats.

The exit poll suggested that the vote was generational. Among eighteen- to twenty-four-year olds, Sinn Féin won 31.8 percent of the vote, while the Greens (14.4), the radical Left People Before Profit (6.6), the Social Democrats (4.1), and other left-leaning parties also performed well. Among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year olds, the numbers were similar, with Sinn Féin winning 31.7 percent of the first preference vote. This was almost the same as the number won by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil combined (32.5).

But the last Irish Times / IPSOS MRBI poll before the election also showed a stark class divide. Sinn Féin achieved just 14 percent among AB (upper middle class and middle class) voters, while it won 33 percent of the vote among the DE (working class and non working) category. It was a similar story among the C2 or “skilled working-class” category, where Sinn Féin’s 35 percent was almost equivalent to the combined right-wing vote of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (39 percent). 

The Greens achieved their highest score (16) among AB voters. But even here, their voters coalesced with Sinn Féin’s on the question of what the election was about — with the exit poll showing 32 percent of voters listing health care as their greatest concern and 26 percent housing. This weekend was an election fueled substantially by disillusionment with a political and economic status quo.

Anti-Austerity Struggle

This change was a long time coming. For a decade, the tectonic plates of Irish politics had been shifting. Back in 2010, when Ireland’s banking collapse reached its height and the Troika arrived to impose a bitter austerity agenda, there briefly seemed to be space for a breakthrough. The Irish Labour Party shot up to over 30 percent in the polls on the back of mass marches led by the trade union movement against the injustice of the banking bailout and the costs being borne by ordinary workers.

In the end, Labour polled 19.4 percent — their best result ever — but chose to squander this mandate and enter an austerity government with Fine Gael. The Irish left had a storied history of such calamities. Every left-wing alternative that achieved a breakthrough from Clann na Poblachta in the 1940s through to the Workers Party / Democratic Left and Labour themselves in 1992 had ended up propping up one or other of the right-wing parties. After 2011’s election, the momentum for change flowed towards Sinn Féin, but many believed it was dissipating.

For a number of years, Ireland was the poster child of EU austerity. While Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal saw large-scale demonstrations and shifts in the political terrain, Ireland appeared to be relatively pacified. International commentators marveled at the stability of the country’s political system.

But then in 2014 the poster child misbehaved. Attempts by the Fine Gael-Labour government to introduce water charges led to widespread anger. After so many years of wage restraint and austerity cuts, another regressive tax was deeply unpopular. But so too was the idea that it was the first step towards the commodification of Ireland’s water and the privatization of the network — a suspicion that was fostered by the involvement of leading oligarch Denis O’Brien in the meter installation.

Confrontations followed in working-class and poorer rural areas, with communities fighting back against attempts to install water meters. This culminated in the creation of a broad campaign — Right2Water — between left-wing political parties and trade unions to fight the water charges. Its first national demonstration was expected to attract 30,000 protestors. In the end, over 100,000 turned up. It was the first of many six-figure mass demonstrations over the coming year as the water issue became a conduit for a much broader frustration at Ireland’s establishment.

A New Generation

At the same time, a new generation was coming of age in Ireland. They experienced Ireland’s economic collapse firsthand, from cuts to welfare payments to the imposition of university fees, and from low pay and high rents to unemployment. Many emigrated, as previous generations had done, but new technology allowed them to retain a deep connection to the country — and often, they returned.

This generation was the most socially liberal in Ireland’s history. It was angered by the stream of Church-related scandals which had defined Ireland for decades, from the Magdalene Laundries to the X-case and Tuam babies. Young activists threw themselves into movements to challenge Ireland’s deeply conservative constitution and the formal position of power it gave to the Catholic Church.

A major breakthrough was achieved in 2015’s marriage equality referendum, when Ireland became the first state in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote. The margin of victory — sixty-two to thirty-eight — surprised many, but was a sign of things to come. The country was changing in a profound way, even its right-wing parties were liberalizing and this new generation was determined to sweep away the old reactionary attitudes which had led to so many injustices.

Even after the landslide success of the marriage equality referendum, the fight for abortion rights was an uphill battle. Abortion had long been a controversy in Irish politics — and a 1983 referendum had led to one of the most restrictive legal frameworks in the Western world. It even largely survived the X-case in 1992, when a fourteen-year-old girl who had been raped was denied the right to travel for an abortion.

But the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 changed the national conversation. Halappanavar had been denied a potentially lifesaving abortion in a Galway hospital and her family told by a midwife it was because Ireland was “a Catholic country.” The outrage that ensued led to marches, vigils, and the formation of numerous pro-choice groups, often led by younger activists involved in politics for the first time.

In 2014, the Savita case was followed by another scandal. A migrant woman known as “Y” had arrived in Ireland seeking asylum. A victim of rape in her home country, she soon discovered that she was pregnant. Instead of receiving the abortion she requested, Y was forced to deliver the baby by C-section — even after she had refused food and fluids, and made clear she was suicidal.

This gave rise to a campaign to repeal the 8th amendment which had been passed in 1983 from the Irish constitution altogether. After many years of effort, the activists succeeded in putting the issue to a vote in 2018 — and the result was even more dramatic than the marriage equality referendum, with 66.4 percent voting to end Ireland’s abortion ban. A new generation, which fundamentally broke with Ireland’s right-wing history, had come of age.

A New Republic

For many in this new generation, the economic and social frustrations ran together. The years since the Repeal success have seen the growth of movements to fight Ireland’s housing crisis, a product of developer-friendly policies, the refusal to build public housing, and a laissez-faire approach to regulation.

For many young people, sky-high rents demolished their living standards and the prospects of a decent life. They found in Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin an articulate voice explaining how political decisions had produced those outcomes – and how political change could alter them.

The housing crisis also impacted working-class communities, where increasing numbers of people found themselves “working poor” — often joining the ranks of the homeless despite being in full-time employment. A new record of 10,514 homeless was set in October, but official figures don’t tell the full story.

2019 also saw records set for the number of people stuck on trolleys (108,364) in Ireland’s hospitals as well as the number on waiting lists for hospital appointments (569,498). The domination of right-wing parties over Irish politics meant the country never developed a properly public health system like Britain’s National Health Service — and when you combine this with underfunding and mismanagement, you get a profound health crisis.

All of this contrasted with the narrative put forward by Fine Gael and its confidence-and-supply partners in Fianna Fáil. On the world stage, Ireland Inc. was portrayed as a success story — its tax haven economic model paraded as a reason for a strong recovery from the recession.

But under the radar, there were increasingly two Irelands: one profiting from the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) boom in finance, pharma, and tech, or from their investments in property; and the other forced to live with the rough end of this economy, enduring the high cost of living but not seeing any meaningful progress in their wages.

It is this Ireland which spoke in the weekend’s election, a new Ireland of working-class and young voters who are no longer prepared to accept the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil duopoly but are looking for alternatives. Their demand is for a fundamentally new politics, one which sweeps away the decades of right-wing social and economic policy, which tackles the climate crisis, and builds a more just and equitable society. Not just in the south — but across the whole island.

In Erin’s Hope the great Irish socialist James Connolly wrote about the mission to refound Ireland on a progressive basis. The task for the Left, he said, was to “arouse a new spirit in the people” and to “call into action on our side the entire sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent.”

Sinn Féin’s electoral breakthrough and the rise of a broader left-wing alternative to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil demonstrates just how much progress has been made in that historic mission. But there is still a long way to go. The task now is for these forces and factors of discontent to be cohered into a government that can bring real change.

There is a substantial risk that the momentum will be stifled by weeks and months of coalition negotiations — which could easily end in another government led by or including Ireland’s old right-wing parties. Recent stories have suggested a “super grand” coalition involving Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Greens might be in the cards.

Avoiding this outcome will necessitate a broader movement that can bring together the various left-leaning parties with trade unions, social movements, and civil society organizations — one which can keep the energy for change alive and resist attempts to put this rebellion against the Irish establishment back in its box.

The common ground for such a movement is clear: a new republic in Ireland which breaks with the island’s right-wing history and wins consensus for a fundamentally different political and economic system. An Ireland, as Connolly said, “guaranteed against want and privation for all time by the safest guarantee man ever received … the Irish Socialist Republic.”