The shock result of the Irish general elections, which put Sinn Féin on top in terms of votes, has sent the Irish ruling class into a panic. No matter what road they take, the next period will be one of great political turbulence.
The rise of Sinn Féin in the South of Ireland after the 8 February elections has opened up a new period of instability in Ireland. Sinn Féin topped the polls at 24.5 percent, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael trailing with 22.2 percent and 20.9 percent respectively. Even Sinn Féin were surprised by the scale of their success, having fielded only a limited number of candidates. As a result, they came second in terms of TDs (MP in the Irish Dáil, or parliament) with 37 against 38 for Fianna Fáil.
Nonetheless, these results have left the ruling class of Ireland in a state of panic, and scrambling for options. The two main capitalist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are unable to form a coalition alone. The Irish Stock Exchange responded with the panicked selling off of shares. Banking and construction companies were particularly hard hit. The Bank of Ireland lost 8.31 percent, while AIB lost 5.44 percent. With Sinn Féin promising rent freezes and other radical policies aimed at solving the housing crisis, Glenveagh Properties lost 10.86 percent, while Cairn Homes lost 8.62 percent. One of Ireland's biggest landlords, IRES-IREIT, lost 8.65 percent.
The election has been hailed by Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, as “something of a revolution in the ballot box”. In an election that divided Ireland sharply along class lines, millions of workers and youth have delivered a decisive blow against a two-party system that has stood for a century.
Sleeping on a volcano
The ruling class are now forced to soberly face the fact that Ireland is not immune to the instability tearing at regimes the world over. In 2017, when Leo Varadkar became taoiseach, he was embraced as a saviour of the “centre ground”. He was keen to model himself on Macron, that other darling of the liberals.
Ireland was still being hailed by liberal analysts as bucking the trend towards instability. Despite the crisis in 2008 taking a massive toll – with a €65 billion bailout for the banks, the near-bankruptcy of the state, the ECB bailout that followed, and a decade of austerity – Ireland saw no “populist wave”. There was no Podemos, Syriza, Trump or Brexit. But really all these “analysts” showed was the complete superficiality of their empiricism.
The Irish ruling class have been, to paraphrase the words of de Toqueville, sleeping on a volcano all along. A revolutionary explosion has been decades in the making. Between 1994 and 2008, the Irish economy grew by a huge 7.2 percent a year. A tremendous influx of capital from American tech companies was assisted by EU infrastructure subsidies. With a low tax regime, Ireland became a haven for high tech multinationals.
This had one tremendously progressive outcome: the creation of a large, urban, educated and youthful working class, unburdened by the weight of traditions and past defeats. Whilst the boom continued, the ruling class in Ireland could afford to keep social peace by granting reforms. They were assisted by a policy of “social partnership” with the reformist trade union bureaucracy.
If the huge revolutionary potential of the working class has not been immediately apparent to some, it is only because of the partially paralysing effect of these trade union leaders in post-crisis Ireland, despite a clear willingness to fight on the part of workers and youth. But the power of the apparatus, like everything, has its limits. Where those limits have been exceeded, Ireland has seen extremely militant industrial action. It is sufficient to note the Bus Éirrean strike of a couple of years ago, which effectively turned into a wildcat public transport general strike; or the bitterly-fought nurses dispute of early 2019.
The mood that has developed is explosive. In 2016, a poll of 22,000 young people, aged 18 to 34, conducted in the South of Ireland found that 54 percent would participate in a large-scale uprising against the government if it took place in the near future. By comparison, when French youth were asked the same question, the results were only a little higher at 61 percent. Two years later this was precisely what that other “saviour of the centre ground” – Emmanuel Macron – discovered to his cost with the gilet jaunes.
The same poll indicated that 89 percent of Irish youth believe that banks and big business rule the world; 88 percent distrust organised religion; and 87 percent distrust the media. Behind the façade of “stability”, the regime in the South of Ireland has become completely rotten from within. Every aspect of it has become discredited.
A rotten regime
As Lenin explained in Left-wing Communism, “it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way.” In Ireland today, the ruling class’ “old way” of ruling is rapidly expiring.
Ever since the 1930s, the South of Ireland has been dominated by two parties, deriving from opposite sides in the Civil War, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. For the most part, thanks to its “left”, “Republican” airs, Fianna Fáil dominated Irish politics in the last century.
In reality they were every bit as reactionary as Fine Gael. In fact, the initial opposition of many of the Fianna Fáil leaders, like de Valera, to the Treaty which ended the War of Independence against Britain was based not on opposition to partition, but on a refusal to accept an oath to the British monarch. It was Fianna Fáil that invited the Catholic Church to help draw up the constitution. They upheld the interests of big business and the landlords; and they persecuted Republicans and the remnants of the IRA with every bit as much ruthlessness as Fine Gael.
Despite the appearance of enmity, both were capitalist parties and between them they constituted a more-or-less stable two-party system (with coalitions occasionally propped up by the smaller Labour Party) that served the ruling class well for the best part of a century.
Whilst the two-party system cemented the political domination of the capitalists and landlords, the Catholic Church secured their spiritual domination. Whenever the ruling class were threatened, the Church would whip up hysteria against the influence of atheism, communism and revolutionary Republicanism. Women, children and the most vulnerable suffered the worst abuses of the Church’s domination in Irish society.
In a word, the Irish capitalist class – a weak and backward class – has always rested on all that is backward and superstitious in Irish society.
How utterly changed Ireland is today, and how little of that backwardness and superstition now exists. Whilst there has been no earth-shattering rise of populism, a molecular process has eroded every pillar of the establishment. The stench of scandal and corruption has accelerated this process, affecting the gardaí, politicians, bankers, the media, the courts, and above all the Church.
The Church has seen a most remarkable collapse in its authority, particularly since the same-sex marriage and abortion referenda of 2015 and 2018. The growth of an educated, youthful and extremely powerful working class has undermined this once mighty bulwark of reaction.
Today the Church is being forced to all but vacate Ireland, although not before cashing in on its massive property portfolio, of course. Yet the fact remains: in just a few years Ireland’s workers and youth swept aside an institution which has helped to undermine every revolutionary movement in the nation’s history.
More than this, the two-party system has also been fatally undermined by a decade of austerity. First Fianna Fáil, in coalition with the Greens, carried out brutal austerity until they were booted out in 2011. In 2011, the Labour Party enjoyed a spectacular rise. On the basis of left-wing language they shot up from 10 percent to nearly 20 percent, whilst the Greens collapsed.
The masses were clearly searching for a way out, but Labour proved a dead end. Labour then went into coalition with Fine Gael and helped carry out the same austerity policies. Unsurprisingly, the 2016 elections saw Labour all but wiped out.
By 2016, eight years of austerity by one government after another had reduced Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s combined vote share to less than 50 percent. From this point on, the only way the two main parties could form a stable government capable of carrying out the policy of the ruling class, was by resting on each other. This has become all the more urgent as the Irish ruling class now needed a steady pair of hands not only to administer austerity, but also to deal with the developing Brexit crisis, and the reemergence of the national question in the North.
But in desperately resorting to a “Grand Coalition” in all but name, the two big parties have been revealed for what they really are: the Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum of Irish politics; the left boot and the right boot of the same ruling class.
The rise and rise of Sinn Féin
The rise of Sinn Féin to first place in the polls – particularly among young and working-class voters – represents the end of the stable two-party system in Ireland. Throughout the election campaign Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have refused to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold. The door to coalition was left firmly shut in their face. But what sets Sinn Féin out from Labour or the Greens as being beyond the political pale?
Once Sinn Féin started to rise in the polls, the panic of the Irish ruling class became palpable. The entire establishment campaign had the whiff of the hysteria whipped up against Jeremy Corbyn. “Sinn Féin”, Leo Varadkar has helpfully informed us, “is not a normal political party,” and therefore he could never go into coalition with them. But why? The reasons given were their opposition to the Special Criminal Court, the party’s highly centralised structure, etc.
Finally, towards the end of the campaign, the media and establishment jumped on accusations that the IRA were involved in the killing of Paul Quinn in 2007. The entire campaign was to no effect and the strategists of capital could not understand why. “So why didn't younger voters care about Sinn Fein crimes?” the Independent asked itself, followed by a diatribe against millennials who, it assumed, were just “being edgy”.
In fact, it was the left-wing programme on which Sinn Féin stood that attracted large layers of youth. The establishment campaign to spook young voters away from the party meanwhile was utterly cynical, and transparently motivated by class fear. Beneath the campaign of attacks lurked a more profound fear on the part of the ruling class. Behind Sinn Féin are the expectations of millions of workers and youth who are sick to the back teeth of the hand capitalism has dealt them.
Ironically, however, at its inception in the 1970s, Sinn Féin (which was the political wing of the Provisional IRA) represented a right-wing trend in Republicanism. Dissatisfied with the inaction of the left-wing “Officials”, in the context of growing sectarianism and the presence of British troops on the streets in 1969, the “Provos” represented a right-wing, traditionalist, “physical force” splinter in Republicanism.
Like traditionalist Republicans, they maintained an abstentionist policy not only in elections to the British parliament in the North, but also in elections to the Dáil in the South. The middle-class leadership of the Provisionals saw military force as the way to unite Ireland. Such a policy was tragically doomed from the beginning.
But in 1981, the mass upsurge in sympathy for Republicans on hunger strike against the brutality of the Thatcher government converted the Provisional IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, into a mass electoral force, with a base among working-class, Catholic voters. Historically Republicanism has always contained class contradictions. Despite initially being a right-wing split away, modern Sinn Féin is no different.
Whilst its programme, policies and leadership were historically drawn from the middle class, it has enjoyed mass working-class support. Whilst in practice the Provisionals’ approach was never based on class methods, in language it spoke of a 32-county Socialist Republic and much of its membership took this seriously.
In 1986, Sinn Féin dropped its abstentionist policy with respect to the South and in the 1990s it won its first TD. But it has been since the crisis that Sinn Féin has really taken off, particularly among the youth, in urban areas like Dublin, and among the working class. From 6.9 percent of the vote in 2007, Sinn Féin have gone up to 9.9 percent in 2011, 13.8 percent in 2016 and finally 24 percent now.
This rise has been based on increasingly left-wing, anti-austerity rhetoric on the part of Sinn Féin in the South. It has denounced what it calls the “golden circle” of Irish politics, to which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael belong. By its language, the party has succeeded in raising hopes and illusions among workers and youth, many of whom seriously consider the party to be a socialist party, fighting for a Socialist United Ireland. As it has risen among advanced layers of the working class, its flags, placards and supporters have been increasingly visible on water charge protests, housing protests and picket lines.
The party has laid real roots in the working class in the South, and this was reflected in a programme that appealed directly to this constituency: for the abolition of regressive taxes; a rent freeze; the building of 100,000 new homes; a restoration of the pension age to 65; and an end to hospital queues through investment in healthcare. This programme was to be paid for through progressive taxation, targeting banks and multinationals.
Ruling class fear
But Sinn Féin’s left-wing language in the South jars with its policies in the North. From abandoning the cul-de-sac of the armed struggle, the Good Friday Agreement signalled the fact that Sinn Féin were prepared to put on suits and enter parliament.
The whole peace process ever since then has been a story of their journey from one concession to the next at the behest of an establishment which regards it, and Republicanism in general, with contempt. From “Smash Stormont”, they have become Stormont ministers. Whilst agreeing to decommission IRA weapons, to this day the UDA, UVF and other loyalist paramilitaries operate with impunity. They recognised the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), yet the latter continues to harass Republicans. Whilst in government they have accepted the job of doing the dirty work of the British ruling class, from implementing PFI to the application of austerity.
Even in the South, the higher Sinn Féin has risen in the polls, the more eager it has been to demonstrate its respectable suitability for office. In the election campaign the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, was keen to indicate that she would be willing to speak to anyone if it came to coalition talks. And yet, despite a proven track record of moderating itself, the party has been all but shunned. Why?
The national question reemerges
Throughout this election it was clear that class issues came to the fore. When asked their reasons for voting, topping the poll was the question of healthcare (32 percent), followed by housing/homelessness (26 percent), and the pension age (8 percent). Brexit and immigration meanwhile were listed as most important by only 1 percent of the population each.
It should be mentioned as an aside that the far right performed atrociously. Perhaps the most prominent far-right activist, Gemma O'Doherty, didn't even manage to hit 2 percent of the vote in Fingal. Others did worse still. This illustrates, once again, how presenting a bold, left-wing option is the only way to undercut the far-right. Where so-called right-wing populism has gained a certain traction it has been because of the vacillations and betrayals of left-wing and workers' parties or the complete absence of any left-wing alternative.
Low on the list of voting priorities also was the national question and the question of the border. However, the reemerging national question in the North was a key factor in the ruling class’ unease towards Sinn Féin.
The crisis of British capitalism, Brexit and demographic change has bumped the question of a border poll up the agenda. In any coalition talks, pushing for a border poll in the North would be likely to be a key Sinn Féin demand. Meanwhile support for reunification is running at historically high levels in the South as well.
As Marxists we stand unequivocally for the unification of Ireland. It must be said, however, that Sinn Féin has approached the question in the North with a whole host of democratic and constitutional illusions. It is a mistake to imagine that the British ruling class, unforced, would grant a border poll in the first place. Even if such a poll was to be called, the Frankenstein's monster of loyalist sectarianism would be unleashed to sabotage it.
Sinn Féin’s main arguments are based on the viability of unification on a capitalist basis with a Southern regime in crisis. These arguments can do nothing to undercut loyalist sectarianism. Unless this is done, a border poll would face the danger of descending into a sectarian headcount, with those in favour of unification resting on demographic changes to win.
Nothing progressive would come of this. The working class would leave such a poll divided, with important sections of Protestant workers embittered. Only reactionary elements would emerge strengthened.
What is clear is that the question of national unification and self-determination, cannot be resolved on a capitalist basis. Only a revolutionary, class struggle approach – which cuts across the sectarian divide – can finally resolve this question. This could only be on the basis of fighting, Ireland-wide, for a 32-county Socialist Republic.
However, even agitation on the modest, reformist lines Sinn Féin proposes is too much for the Irish ruling class to swallow. They have no desire whatsoever to absorb the North, which could only be done at great financial cost to themselves. The economy of the North has been in long-term decline for a century. 100 years ago it represented 80 percent of the industrial output of Ireland. Today that figure is 10 percent. It is a net-drain on the coffers of the British state, which pays out £10 billion a year more than it gets in from tax receipts. The Irish bosses simply cannot afford to merge with the North.
More than that, the Irish bosses have no desire to collide with British imperialism. Even verbal concessions to Sinn Féin would be likely to increase frictions with a Tory government, which has been taken over by the most reactionary (not to mention anti-Irish) elements in British society.
Above all, the process of a border poll would open up for discussion the constitutional basis of a state that is already in crisis. Sinn Féin are demanding the setting up of an all-Ireland forum to discuss Irish unity. The last thing the Irish ruling class would want, however, would be to invite the masses to participate in politics.
The nervousness of the Irish capitalist class in the face of a reunification poll is quite evident. When, back in 2017, Theresa May was forced to accept “regulatory alignment” of Northern Ireland with the EU, it was celebrated by Varadkar as a victory for Ireland against Britain. He revelled in his (slight) uptick of popularity for seemingly humiliating the old colonial master. Meanwhile, trying to ride the same wave, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney declared his hope that he’d see a United Ireland in his lifetime.
Both received a sharp rebuke from the serious strategists of Irish capitalism. “Varadkar and Coveney may regret wrapping themselves in green flag,” warned the Irish Times. “Without deep thinking in Dublin I fear we are facing a bloody maelstrom somewhere down the road.” Strong words indeed. “Don’t try and ‘out-Sinn Feín’ Sinn Féin,” was the message. The lesson was duly noted.
On St Patrick’s Day 2019 when Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, marched behind a historic banner that read, “England Out of Ireland”, the media and right-wing politicians were in uproar. The stick of public opinion has been used repeatedly to try and tame and moderate Sinn Féin. But the question is, will the ruling class also resort to the “carrot” of coalition?
For a Workers’ Republic!
The question for the Irish ruling class is: how far can they trust Sinn Féin? This is particularly the case as regards the cardinal question of austerity. Whilst the economy is booming for now, the state still has a €200 billion debt, amounting to €42,000 for every man, woman and child in the South. The boom is not likely to last much longer and the ruling class desperately needs to reduce this debt in order to prepare for a new downturn.
This has obvious repercussions: workers can see the economy is booming. The multinationals are raking it in – and workers expect their share. The working class of Ireland has taken all it can take. The bosses need them to take more. This is a recipe for an explosion of class struggle. The bosses must urgently hold the line on austerity. Their labour lieutenants in the leadership of the unions desperately try to hold the line on the industrial front. Into this mix, Sinn Féin are promising to increase taxes on the profits of the big companies in order to spend on the likes of healthcare and education. For the Irish ruling class, their entire economic model is built on being a low-tax European resort for American capital.
In the words of Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney: “Has Sinn Féin ever had to make a hard decision on economic choices? Will Sinn Féin be there to pay the bill and pick up the pieces after they wreck the economy and drive jobs and capital out of Ireland?”
It is fundamentally the class anger, that Sinn Féin is expressing, that terrifies the bosses. In the same interview, Coveney continued: “The brand of politics practiced by Sinn Féin is built on discontent and division – feeding and encouraging undercurrents of anger. There is always a ‘them’ and ‘us’ in Sinn Féin politics. They line up Irish people against other Irish people.”
They are right to see in this vote a class vote. Among a host of other symptoms, its left-wing character is demonstrated in the way Sinn Féin’s voters transferred their second preference votes. Under the single transferable vote system, voters list the parties they wish to cast their vote for in order of preference. Nearly 30 percent of Sinn Féin’s transfers went to the left-wing coalition, Solidarity-People Before Profit (S-PBP). Overall up to three quarters of the party's vote transferred to the left. Whilst S-PBP was squeezed therefore by Sinn Féin in terms of first preference votes, it benefited from Sinn Féin transfers. Richard Boyd Barrett for instance received 5,245 transfers, and Rise's Paul Murphy received 3,444.
People Before Profit and Rise have correctly called upon Sinn Féin to avoid the courtship of the right-wing parties and instead form a coalition only with the left-wing parties alone. Strangely, Solidarity (led by the Socialist Party) refused to place the same demand on Sinn Féin. They have claimed that to do so would be "popular frontism". In other words they characterise the party as a right-wing, bourgeois party and the vote in favour of Sinn Féin as purely a protest vote.
This is a gross underestimation of the situation, which ignores the genuine sympathy of millions of advanced workers and youth towards the party. It also ignores the fact that Sinn Féin itself is far from one homogenous bloc. It contains within it class contradictions. Revolutionaries cannot be indifferent to the question of whether it's Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin that forms that next government and the left in government must critically support the formation of a Sinn Féin-led government, whilst holding the party to account on its left-wing programme.
Retying the knot of history
The options that the ruling class of Ireland now possesses are quite limited. On the one hand they could form a “Grand Coalition”, which would have to involve not only Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, but also smaller parties. It would effectively be an “everyone but Sinn Féin” coalition. Such a result would secure a reliable government for the ruling class at the price that Sinn Féin and the far-left parties would be the only opposition. Such a government would only prepare the way for mass struggles and a further collapse in the vote for both capitalist parties, particularly in the context of a new slump.
The alternative is to give Sinn Féin a taste of power. This could be as part of a coalition with Fianna Fáil. Despite initially ruling out this option, some in Fianna Fáil are now mooting the idea. Others are even proposing the idea of stepping aside entirely and allowing Sinn Féin to form a minority government themselves so as to discredit them. In the words of one senior Fianna Fáil member: “There is one thing clear: Sinn Féin needs a good lick of Government to take the gloss off it.”
Both of these options are fraught with danger for the ruling class. And whichever is their preferred option, the narrow career interests of the politicians of the big parties can also play a role. Failure to form a government of any colouration could lead to Fianna Fáil’s Michael Martin losing the party’s leadership. The final possibility is that no party can form a government. In such a case, Ireland would head towards new elections, which would be likely to turn out even worse results for the parties of the ruling class.
Whatever happens, the result of this election opens up a new period of unprecedented instability in Ireland. The Irish ruling class is alarmed that the working class of Ireland, turning against them, will retie the knot of history. Above all, they fear that the workers and youth will once more rediscover their revolutionary traditions, which stretch back to Tone and Emmett, Larkin and Connolly. In a distorted way, this is what their hatred of Sinn Féin reflects.
The weight of history has made the recent period deeply uncomfortable for the Irish ruling class. 100 years ago this parasitic class succeeded in usurping the Irish Revolution, leaving Ireland severed in two and dominated by international capital. Like a criminal covering its tracks, the Irish bourgeoisie has done all it can to revise this history. When the working class reconnects with its powerful tradition of revolutionary, socialist Republicanism, Ireland’s capitalists and landlords will meet an invincible enemy.
In the Irish language “Sinn Féin” means “Ourselves Alone”. This would be a good slogan for the Irish working class today. It needs no “friends” among the “progressive” or “Republican” capitalist class. The coming period will put Sinn Féin to the test. It will act to clarify the lines of division within Republicanism, which at the end of the day are class divisions. Socialists inside the Dáil, as well as outside, have an important role to play.
We must reject sectarianism and take a friendly approach to the ranks of Sinn Féin supporters, urging the leadership onwards, whilst holding them to account for any retreats and compromises. We are confident that out of the unprecedented upheaval and tumult through which Ireland will pass, the Irish working class will rediscover once more the ideas of socialist Republicanism, and will raise James Connolly’s slogan once more: For a Workers' Republic end with the horrors of capitalism!