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The significance of the Irish election results

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Interview with People Before Profit TD (MP) Richard Boyd Barrett

Image: Gareth Chaney Collins

In this election the traditional ruling class parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, received well under 50% of the votes and the largest vote went to Sinn Féin, which received nearly quarter of the votes. Could you explain the reasons for and the significance of this?

There is no doubt that this result is a political earthquake. In one sense its origins go back over the last thirty years in which the hegemony of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two bourgeois parties which have completely dominated Irish politics more or less since the foundation of the State, has gradually been being eroded. This gradual process, rooted in the urbanization and secularization of Irish society, took a major leap as a result of the catastrophic crash of 2007–8 and the austerity that followed.

In this election it underwent a further qualitative advance. The turning point, to more or less everyone’s surprise, came within the election campaign itself when it rapidly became clear there was a massive mood for change and for getting rid of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This mood then expressed itself in a dramatic surge in support for Sinn Féin, mainly because Sinn Féin, as the third party, had the critical mass to benefit from the reaction against ‘the big two’ and was also a backlash against the attempt by the leaders of FF and FG to gang up on Sinn Féin and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald.

The significance of this is enormous. There is no doubt that it has thrown the political establishment into crisis leaving them with three alternatives all of which are very unpalatable: 1) form a ‘grand coalition’ of FF/FG and the Greens, which would further undermine the illusion of FF and FG as somehow different and in the long run prepare the ground for a majority Sinn Féin government in the future; 2) form a FF/Sinn Féin + Greens coalition, which would mean allowing the, in their eyes, ‘untrustworthy’ SF into the inner workings of the deeply corrupt State; 3) a second general election which would be unpopular with the people and would very likely lead to an even bigger vote for Sinn Féin.

Moreover, this result has made it possible for the first time ever in Ireland to pose concretely the question of a Left Government. And People Before Profit has been able to take the lead in pushing for this. This has been very important in terms of making People Before Profit part of the national political debate and allowing us to back the call for a left government with mobilization on the streets.

The radical left did quite well. All three TDs from People Before Profit were re-elected, you yourself came top of the poll in your constituency and, while the alliance you are part of (Solidarity/People Before Profit) narrowly lost one of its 6 seats, the radical left did better than many people expected, winning I believe a total of 9 seats. The Green Party also did very well although climate change wasn't one of the major issues of concern to voters. What are the reasons for this?

In the circumstances I would say we did very well. At the start of the campaign we in PBP were far from confident, based on our relatively poor showing in the local elections and the opinion polls, that we could retain the three seats that we won at the high tide of the mass anti-water charges movement of 2014–16. In the event we did, and in two of the three seats significantly increased our vote. In the third we were squeezed by Sinn Féin who took two out of four seats, but we still held on.

There are three main reasons for our success. We were first out of the blocks saying this election was about breaking the FF/FG cycle, i.e. we called it right strategically. Then there was the fact that in the key constituencies we had more activists out than any other party. This was particularly true in Dublin South Central where Bríd Smith was running. Third, the fact that we did very well from transfers from Sinn Féin, which clearly demonstrated that the SF vote was a left wing vote.

The Greens did well, relative to their performance in 2016, but less well than might have been expected on the basis of their spectacular performance in last year’s local elections. The Green vote is mainly a white collar worker and middle class vote; they do less well in the manual working class who tend to vote more in a general election than in local elections.

The racist right tried to intervene in the campaign on an anti-immigrant/anti-refugee platform but, unlike the Europe-wide trend, they got very few votes. Why do you think Ireland appears to buck the trend?

The racist and fascist far right did catastrophically badly. Their two parties – the National Party and the Irish Freedom Party polled only 0.2% and 0.3% of the vote nationwide and their best known ‘independents’ also failed miserably. This is partly because in Ireland the nationalist tradition was a nationalism of the oppressed and rooted in struggle against the British Empire. This gave it a radical trajectory – exemplified by Connolly and Larkin – quite different from the reactionary dynamic of German or British racism. Also it has been the radical left that has been able, especially since the crash, to take the lead in articulating the anger in the working class. This has been reinforced by a determination to confront the fascists when they try to organize thus, so far, preventing them getting a foothold. (For a much fuller analysis of this see John Molyneux, ‘The Failure of the Far Right’ on the Rebel website at www.rebel.ie)

Can you tell us something about how you conducted your campaign and what the main issues were?

The main concrete issues were very clear: the acute housing and homelessness crisis; the acute crisis in the health service; the proposed raising of the pension age to 67 and then 68; the need for real climate action. People before Profit made strong radical proposals on all these issues all within the context of the need to end the dominance of the two establishment parties. Our overarching slogan was Break the FF/FG Cycle and this chimed in very well with the mood on the doorsteps.

In practical terms Solidarity-People Before Profit ran 37 candidates across the country: 27 of these were from PBP. We thought it was necessary to field a substantial number of candidates to project our message nationwide and be taken seriously as a national party. In terms of campaigning we concentrated our resources mainly in the three seats where we had sitting TDs. This worked well and we were able to put out very strong canvassing teams, among the largest of any party. It was a short campaign but we were able to cover a huge amount of ground. Obviously we succeeded in retaining our seats but we also had some good results elsewhere, including a post-graduate student running for the first time who came close to getting elected in North West Dublin.

There was some criticism of the disunity of the radical left during the campaign, with several radical left candidates competing for votes in some constituencies. What do you think are the prospects for closer collaboration in the future?

I think there is always criticism of the left for not being united. In this instance it is true there were some unhelpful campaigns. So in Dublin South West the Socialist Party (part of Solidarity-People Before Profit) ran in competition with their former member and sitting TD, Paul Murphy (also part of S-PBP). Nevertheless Paul still held his seat. As for prospects for more co-operation, People before Profit strongly advocates this, but we will have to see. The current situation is very fluid but there is a certain amount of ingrained sectarianism to be overcome.

The election result, however, confirms the fact that People Before Profit is now in pole position on the radical left in Ireland , North and South. The last point is important. Sinn Féin and People Before Profit are the only political parties with significant representation in both jurisdictions at a time when the question of Irish unity is once again coming to the fore.

Is a relatively stable government likely in a situation where the three largest parties have a similar number of seats but no combination of two of them would have a majority in the Dáil (the Irish parliament)?

In comparison to the stable governments of the past it is not possible. In the short term it is possible that FF/FG and the Greens, with a few suitably rewarded ‘independents’ thrown in, will be able to form a sustainable government; similarly FF/SF and the Greens but both these options would be a setback from the point of view of Irish capital. Moreover we live in very turbulent times when all governments may be subject to economic and political shocks including, most importantly, mobilizations from below.

In the last Dáil a number of legislative initiatives proposed by S/PBP were successful in gaining gaining the support of a majority but were blocked by the government using a number of bureaucratic tricks. Will you be taking up these issues again?

We certainly will. This is technical and a bit obscure but the Government is able to use a device called a ‘money message’ to block democratically voted on legislation. Most notably in the last parliament this was used to stop PBP TD Brid Smith’s Climate Emergency Measures Bill which proposed to halt further exploration for fossil fuels in Ireland and a Solidarity-PBP bill to end evictions into homelessness. But overall the Government used the money message device on more than 50 occasions. At first most people didn’t understand what was happening but gradually the pattern became clear. This was a major erosion and denial of democracy and if any new government tries it again we will protest vehemently and not just in the Dáil.

What are the main tasks facing the radical left in the next period both within the Dáil and outside in the real world?

There are many challenges and the situation is complex and dynamic. At the time of writing it is not possible to say with any certainty who will be the next Government. Our most immediate task is to drive home the ‘Break the FF/FG Cycle’ message by pushing hard for Sinn Féin, the Greens, the Social Democrats and Labour, not to go into coalition with the right and prop them up yet again. We need to back this with mass mobilization on the streets as soon as possible.

But there are many other tasks. Building an ongoing mass movement over housing; engaging with and developing the climate movement. Working to restore some fighting capacity in Ireland’s weak trade union movement, which has been badly damaged by decades of social partnership and right wing Labour leadership. Remaining vigilant about the threat of racism and the far right. Developing a 32- County socialist response to the question of Irish unity.

As far as PBP is concerned I think we have a good opportunity to grow further. We have approximately 2500 members – quite substantial in a country of only 6 million - but we can clearly recruit further as well as sinking deeper roots in working class communities and workplaces and raising our level of political education. The last few weeks have been dominated by intense electoral activity but we are always clear that we fight for parliamentary representation, not as end in itself, but in order to serve and strengthen the movement outside the Dáil.

Richard Boyd Barrett has been TD (member of the Dáil – the Irish parliament) for Dún Laoghaire constituency since 2011. In the recent general election he topped the poll in this multi-seat constituency just south of Dublin. He is also a leading member of People Before Profit, which is part of the radical left electoral alliance, Solidarity/People Before Profit.

Interview conducted by Einde O’Callaghan for marx21. A translated version of this interview will appear in the next marx21 magazine.

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