The Irish electorate went to the polls on 8 February 2020 to elect a government to rule over them. The outgoing regime was based on a pact between the two traditional ruling parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil; the actual construction was a novel ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement whereby Fine Gael actually formed the government (together with some independent members of the Irish parliament) that was supported externally in any crucial parliamentary votes by Fianna Fáil. In return for propping up the government, Fianna Fáil had an effective veto over government policy (a deal not too dissimilar from the recent voting pact between the Tories and the DUP in Westminster).
In the run-up to the election, Fine Gael (who had the advantage of being able to set the date), might have considered themselves to be in a strong electoral position to be returned to government. They could claim to have turned around the economy from the disastrous crash of 2009 when Fianna Fáil had been in power and furthermore were seen to have performed competently in the difficult Brexit negotiations and successfully withstood Tory Brexiteer demands that Ireland facilitate the UK’s withdrawal by being flexible about the operation of the Good Friday agreement.
Fianna Fáil themselves were also expecting to do well, hoping that the electorate had forgotten/forgiven their inept handling of the economy in 2009 and anticipating some credit for aiding Fine Gael in restoring the country’s economic fortunes. In the end, Sinn Féin have generally been acclaimed as being the clear winners having taken the largest share of the vote of any party (25 percent) and having won nearly the most seats (37). They are left in a quandary though because while obtaining the largest mandate, they still have far fewer seats than required to have a parliamentary majority (minimum 80 seats).
Sinn Féin success
Sinn Féin’s success has been attributed to the two basic issues of housing and health and the failure of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government to solve these long-running problems. The housing crisis manifests itself most acutely in the homeless who sleep out rough in Ireland’s major cities, night after night, summer and winter. However, at most 10,000 people are actually homeless, which while a large figure in itself, is still a very small fraction of the total population of the republic. In terms of widespread impact, the real issue is the very high cost of houses compared to wages/salaries and as a consequence very expensive rents. Over the last 40 years, governments of all persuasions have scaled back their commitment to social housing so now it is the private sector (i.e. private capitalism) in the form of developers or landlords who supply most of the housing needs either for purchase or renting. As with any commodity, scarcity drives the price up and the limited supply of new housing to the market has been exacerbated by high demand partly resulting from a strong increase in the population. Rents are so high that some workers can be paying over 50 percent of their take-home salary in rent leaving little opportunity to save. Housing is so expensive, particularly in the Dublin region, that many workers are forced to live in cheaper dormitory commuting towns and spend 3 hours or more on return trips daily to work. It means the actual length of the working day (not unreasonably measured from time going out the front door in the morning to time coming back in the evening) can be as long as it was 100 years ago.
This clearly unsatisfactory state of affairs led to great anger amongst the younger electorate, feeling excluded from the housing market, and it is from this group that Sinn Féin primarily drew support. Health too was a major issue. Currently its provision is a mix of public provision, which is free, and a private component which must be paid by obtaining health insurance. The main problem is the very long waiting time for public patients. Here the electoral benefit to Sinn Féin was less clear cut as there is a resigned acceptance amongst the public that no party is likely to make any meaningful inroad into this matter at least in the short term. It’s a powerful illustration that even when the economy is going strong, some basic needs of workers in housing and health remain unsatisfied by capitalism.
Reformism before republicanism
That Sinn Féin would be the primary beneficiary of voter anger was not immediately obvious prior to the election. In fact they performed very badly in local and European elections just 7 months previously and themselves were really hoping just to consolidate their vote. The party was founded in 1905 and can claim to be the oldest party in the state. It has gone through many manifestations over the last 115 years and at various times has adopted either left-wing or right-wing ideologies; the situation being confused by the fact that sometimes rival organisations have simultaneously claimed the name Sinn Féin. Its primary policy was always the establishment of an Irish nation separate from England which since 1921 has meant repudiating the border in Ireland. Since the 1980s, it began to define itself as a ‘socialist republican’ party with the aim of establishing socialism (never exactly spelled out but generally taken to imply more widespread state ownership and involvement in the economy) across a single, united, 32-county Ireland. Over that era though its main role was to articulate the political demands of the Provisional IRA.
Since the millennium, the ‘socialism’ word has been quietly jettisoned as Sinn Féin became more electorally conscious after the IRA ceasefire; the jargon now is to talk about radical, people-focused policies so as not to scare off potential voters. Even more surprisingly the republicanism element of the party’s programme has become more muted which is a big departure for a party that fully justified and supported the Provisional IRA campaign from 1969 onwards. While formally a United Ireland, above all else, remains its primary campaigning plank, now all the party wants any prospective coalition parties to agree to is preparations for a border poll at some future undefined time.
Another facet of interest from the election has been the decline of the Irish Labour party. Once the only alternative leftist political force to the two main centre-right parties and the self-proclaimed voice of the trade union movement, it now has a parliamentary strength in single figures and an ageing and declining membership. It has been supplanted by other more radical groups such as the Social Democrats (slightly more to the left than Labour), the Solidarity-People before Profit group (an amalgam of various movements from the Trotskyite tradition) and a number of non-party left-leaning individuals. The Green Party also did very well in the election obtaining 11 seats reflecting the high profile given to climate change and the need for sustainability in the media and the undeniable fact that when the economy is going well, a certain part of the electorate can ‘afford’ to treat this issue seriously.
Since the election, the focus has been on the formation of a new government. With the fragmented nature of the results, no single party is anywhere close to forming a government on its own and any realistic combination will involve at least three parties, two of which will have to be drawn from the big three of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The outcome is still unclear as both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have publicly ruled out forming a coalition with Sinn Féin and they seem reluctant to combine with each other too. Some of this rhetoric may be genuinely ideologically driven and doubtless some is simply part of a negotiating ploy prior to the point at which an agreed programme of government must be settled on between whichever parties go into government. As of mid-March, the most likely option would seem to be a Fianna Fáil–Fine Gael coalition propped up by some other groups. So while Sinn Féin can correctly claim to be the largest party in terms of vote share won, it has no obvious path to power at the moment. All it can do is decry ‘failed right-wing policies’ and promise ‘radical change’.
For some commentators, the election of 2020 heralded the long-awaited coming of a left/right split in Irish politics with the left-wing option for government involving Sinn Féin, other small left-wing groups, the Green party and ‘progressive’ independents while in this scenario, the right wing would be an amalgamation of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Leaving aside certain important practical impediments to this outcome, it ignores the fact that Sinn Féin (as with most successful political parties under capitalism) is flexible with regard to ideology and election commitments. It certainly positions itself to the left of the two other main parties but this is clearly relative and adjustable leaving huge scope for manoeuvre. The formation of a government with Fianna Fáil is still a possibility as shown by the fact that Sinn Féin has been part of the on-off devolved government of Northern Ireland for the last 10 years with an even more implausible coalition partner, the DUP. Over this duration, it has been ‘business as usual’ in the North.
As with most elections in countries that have parliamentary systems of government, we in the Socialist Party have the frustrating task of being mainly observers rather than significant participants. While many political commentators have spoken of the ‘historic nature’ of Sinn Féin now being the largest party in the island of Ireland, north and south, by vote share, this recent election is fundamentally no different from all those that have preceded it. The capitalist system has failed the workers of Ireland in terms of some very basic human needs and a large number of them are angry and disenchanted with the established parties of government. As with many other recent elections throughout Europe, the people have gone for seemingly radical alternatives in the hope that they can succeed where others have failed. Unfortunately they are mistaken in this hope as any party that accepts the fundamental underpinnings of our current world system (the need for money, profit, countries, leaders, etc.) cannot hope to resolve the crises that inevitably arise from this. The system goes on and even the fact that it takes so long to form a new government is a small demonstration of the irrelevance of conventional political parties to people’s day-to-day lives.