So, now that the shouting and the counting are over, where do Ireland and its people stand? Have we ostrich-like stuck our heads in the sand and voted for more of the same but under different brand names? Or, have we struck out bravely in a new direction and voted for fundamental change? Whatever we want, what are we likely to get?
A Seismic Change
In the previous election in May 2007, Ireland demonstrated its continuing historic adherence to conservative right-wing politics. Three parties of the right, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats mopped up a grand total of 71.6% of the first preference vote and garnered 131 of the 166 seats in the Dail.
In last Friday’s election, with all the seats now filled, the parties of the right, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (PD having imploded since 2007), saw their total first preference vote dropping to 53.5% and their combined seats dropping from 131 to 96.
Forget about the shift from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael. That’s just changing the franchise from Spar to Centra with business going on as before. What’s really interesting is the scale of decline in the vote of the right wing parties.
Over 7 in 10 voters backing them in 2007; down now to little over half the electorate. A total loss of 35 seats. And there’s more. The Green Party, which shamefully colluded in the most destructive and right-wing phase of governance that Ireland has ever endured, was wiped out. Not a single seat remains.
Agreed, the majority in Ireland retain the conservative and status-quo clinging perspective that they always had, but that majority is now very slim in comparison with the past. To understand where we are at, we must understand where we have come from and so quickly. Nearly 72% voting for parties of the right less than four years ago, now down to 53.5%. That is a seismic change. A great many of the Irish people are not ostriches.
To the Left
The biggest gainer on the left is the Labour Party. It saw its share of first preferences virtually double from 10% in 2007 to 19.4% last Friday and its seats jump from 20 to 37 making it the second biggest party in Dail Eireann.
Did it gain from its mealy mouthed hesitancy to upset the comfortable, tax- phobic classes, its failure to fight for public services, to protect the vulnerable and from its eagerness to compromise with the right? Arguably not. The striking success of parties and independents not seeking to hide their left wing principles under a bushel would suggest that Labour might have done even better if it had been true to its name and traditions.
Sinn Fein increased its seats in Dail Eireann from 4 to 14. The Socialist Party captured 2 seats as did People Before Profit. Without considering Independents, that amounts to an increase of 14 seats firmly on the left of the Labour Party. Labour might have stood to gain many of those if it were not so compromised by it’s dalliance with the right.
The increase in Independents in the new Dail, however one classifies them on the left-right spectrum, can only be interpreted as a rejection of the old status quo. In 2007 we elected 5 Independents. Last Friday we elected 15.
Many of those such as Seamus Healy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Thomas Pringle, John Halligan, Catherine Murphy, Finian McGrath, Mick Wallace, Luke ’Ming’ Flanagan and Stephen Donnelly are either firmly on the left or distinctly disaffected with the right wing consensus and concerned about its impact on Irish society. Even Tom Fleming, a former Fianna Fail member, has publicly voiced his concerns about the direction Irish society has been taking and its impact on the vulnerable.
While cynicism is understandable about former Fianna Fail representatives, Mattie Mc Grath, another escapee from the fold and a small time business man, may as he claims be genuinely disaffected by the ‘protect the rich at all costs’ policies of the last Government. Free of party clutches he could be found to have a social conscience.
That leaves Shane Ross, Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish and Michael Healy Rae. No difficulty in knowing where former Fine Gaeler and big business man, Lowry stands – he is a fully paid up member of the right consensus and with an unadulterated track record to prove it. Former PD leader Grealish has the self-same, if not so illustrious, political track record as Lowry. Recent posturing to the contrary will fool no one. Michael Healy Rae, son of Jackie, can be assumed to have inherited more than the seat. The Healy Raes are big business owners and that is where their loyalties lie when the smoke screen of affected rural guff is penetrated. Jackie supported every appalling decision of the outgoing administration. There is no reason at all to imagine that Michael is any whit different. Still, pigs might fly and, given time, he will have the chance to prove us right or wrong.
Former stockbroker and SINDO business editor, Shane Ross is firmly on the right. There is nothing at all to suggest he cares about equity in society. He does care however about corruption and cronyism and about the rot within the party political system. No friend of the left or the little guy, he is no friend of the status quo either.
Only three of the elected independents seem wedded to the past. In aggregate, the avalanche of independents entering the new Dail is far more a sign of disaffection with the status quo than any comfort to Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in their efforts to perpetuate the ancien regime.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
What then of the new Government? Will it reflect the narrow majority, which would appear to have voted to follow the old path or will it give expression to the desire of everyone else for serious change? Right now this all depends on the Labour Party which is firmly wedged between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the right-wing status quo in the form of Fine Gael and in the form of Labour’s own hunger for power, which it can only win by compromising its raison de etre. In preparation for just such an eventuality it has already travelled well down that route casting its electoral pitch at just a bit less of what Fine Gael is having (see this piece by Vincent Browne).
Fine Gael wants to kill the public service. Labour is happy to just maim it. Fine Gael wants to do the bidding of the IMF, the ECB and the international financiers. Labour wants to do their bidding but drag its feet a little. The hard place is the new dimension for Labour and leaves it without its traditional scope for retreat and recovery after being squashed against the rock. It takes the form of Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and a bunch of unyielding Independents. Mick Wallace has already urged Labour to stay out of government and to instead lead a new left alliance in the Dail.
Every Labour sell out will now be pounced on. There will be no respite and no defence in or out of the Dail except by adherence to firm principles of the left. Labour must make the wealthy pay, protect the vulnerable, increase progressive taxation and shift the emphasis from private to public expenditure. In coalition with Fine Gael it must punch way above its weight or face being gobbled up by the opposition at the next election. It must learn the lesson the Green’s couldn’t grasp and be ready to walk out of government when its principles are under threat.
This election saw the destruction of Fianna Fail and the Greens. Only Labour can save itself from a similar fate in the next election. Its price for that must be exacted from Fine Gael. In the past, disaffected Labour voters had nowhere to turn to but the right. Now they will have a very credible set of left alternatives. If they leave , they will not return. There will be no recovery for Labour. Its next 1997 will be a one-way street.
Debt Default Looms Large
Of course the great elephant is still in the room. The insupportable debt burden looms over all. No political party can hope to survive in the longer term while wedded to the fantasy that Ireland can repay the gigantic banking debts.
Fine Gael is blind to this truth. It is suffused with far too servile a psychology. Labour must make it face up to the inevitable. The Government must go to Europe and make it clear that default is inescapable. Any other option means heaping misery upon misery on the Irish people to no avail whatsoever.
Default will inevitably come sooner or later. Either Labour bites that bullet very soon or it will go down in flames. The scary thing is that if it doesn’t bite the bullet quickly it may well take the lot of us down with it.