The Irish general election which took place in November has been generally described by the political commentators as a “watershed” and “mould-breaking”. The Irish Labour Party achieved its best result ever, winning its largest percentage of first preference votes (19.3 percent) and its highest number of seats in the Dail. It made breakthroughs in parts of the country where it never had Dail representation before. By contrast, a major rival, the nationalist Fianna Fail party saw its share of the vote fall to its lowest level since 1927.
As no one party achieved an overall majority at the election, discussions got under way between the various leaderships on the formation of the next government. It was clear that Labour, with their increased parliamentary presence, was going to be a significant part of whatever government emerged. In the event Labour went into coalition with Fianna Fail under the outgoing Prime Minister Reynolds. Labour, which identified unemployment as the single biggest issue facing the working class in Ireland, will thus now be attempting to manage capitalism to tackle this problem. It will not be its first attempt at this task. Nor the first time it will fail.
Trade union appendage
The Labour Party was founded by the Irish Trade Union movement in 1912, ten years before the establishment of the Irish Free State. For its first twenty years it was an appendage of the union movement and did not in fact organizationally become independent from the Trade Union Congress until 1930. Until this time it was unashamedly “a party of trade unionists for trade unionists” (Mitchell, The Irish Labour Party) ; and in fact remained so in spirit until the 1960s. Although two noted Irish left-wingers, James Connolly and James Larkin, were involved in its foundation, the party was entirely reformist and unlike the Labour Party in Britain did not even propose a nominal socialist reconstruction of society. It contented itself with ultra-incrementalist measures like “an extra half ounce of tea for all agricultural workers”! (Gallagher, The Irish Labour Party in Transition).
Electoral support for Labour remained weak: it typically received 10 percent of the vote at general elections. Surprisingly its strength in Dublin was traditionally low, until it broadened its appeal to include “progressive" elements. Notwithstanding Labour's union connection, most Irish workers opted for the populist corporatism of Fianna Fail. The party’s parliamentary composition consisted of conservative rural deputies, having little interest in or knowledge of socialism, and surviving electorally by the effective use of favoritism. Many of these politicians used the Labour banner simply as a flag of convenience. So much so that in 1967 the more ideological Dublin branches felt it necessary to demand that parliamentary candidates “should have a basic knowledge of Labour policy” (Irish Times, 19 September 1967).
Labour has participated in government four times in the last half-century; twice in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the 1970s and 1980s. On each occasion it was the junior partner with the avowedly pro-capitalist party Fine Gael. Unemployment has been an endemic economic problem for Ireland for most of this century. Labour has always identified it as a particular priority though it has increased significantly during all of their periods in power.
Why then have a large section of the Irish working class turned to Labour this time? Undoubtedly a part of its support is due to dissatisfaction with the economic policies of the previous government; unemployment has grown inexorably to 300,000, which at 19 percent of the working population is amongst the highest in Europe; and almost a third of the population are subsisting on some form of social welfare. Also a judicial tribunal into the operation of the beef industry revealed an embarrassing web of corruption, involving major capitalists in that industry and prominent members of the ruling Fianna Fail party.
However support for Labour also came from a secular section of Irish society. The election was held simultaneously with a constitutional referendum on abortion. An absolutist position, completely outlawing abortion had been enshrined in the constitution. at the urgings of the Catholic hierarchy after an earlier referendum in 1983. The more recent referendum was an attempt to humanize the situation; allowing women the right to receive information on foreign abortion services, to travel abroad to avail themselves of these services and to permit abortion in Ireland in some very restricted cases. Needless to say under capitalism, humanism and civil rights were not the only issues. The European Court had found the existing Irish position to be a violation of EC free trade laws, whereby a national of one member country is entitled to avail themselves of services in another. The referendum was passed and Labour perceived as having greater anti-clerical credentials picked up electoral support on the issue.
After the election, in spite of their campaign rhetoric, the Labour leadership quickly commenced negotiations with the other parties about the formation of the next government. They obviously forgot their previous denunciations of these same parties as "the failed parties of the right”. In coming to a deal with Fianna Fail behind closed doors Labour, which during the election had made noises about the lack of openness and ethical behaviour in Irish politics, was seemingly oblivious to the anti-democratic fact that the next government policies were created by secret backroom deals.
Socialists can immediately tell the Labour Party that their attempts to actively reduce unemployment and promote "equality” are doomed to failure under the current economic system. Indeed, even some capitalist commentators doubt Labour’s plans to produce growth by borrowing, given that a large part of financial policy is constrained by the Maastricht convergence criteria. This is the EC-wide mechanism by which the currencies of each of the member states (except Britain and Denmark) will converge to produce monetary union sometime at the end of this decade.
How then do socialists view political developments in Ireland? The futility of Labour-reformist parties trying to ameliorate capitalism has been exposed many times this century. This is even more apparent in Ireland given that Labour will be in coalition with Fianna Fail and that in any case the parameters governing the Irish economy are very dependent on EC decisions. It is expected that some liberalization will occur, under Labour’s influence, over social issues such as abortion, divorce, homosexuality and contraception and socialists will welcome this wholeheartedly.
However our greatest interest in the election arises from the fact that a significant change has occurred in the Irish political arena, albeit within the confines of capitalism. The task of persuading a majority of our fellow workers of the necessity of a complete change in our social system can be pursued more vigorously in a dynamic political climate where old certainties are beginning to crumble.