Southern Ireland elections: Big gains for Greens, little change for right-wing parties but setbacks for Left

The left in Ireland must redouble its efforts to connect with trade union and workplace struggles, and working-class communities, photo by Paul Murphy

The left in Ireland must redouble its efforts to connect with trade union and workplace struggles, and working-class communities, photo by Paul Murphy   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Niall Mulholland, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

For media commentators and pundits the big story of the local and European Union elections in Southern Ireland was the surge in support for the Green Party. The party tripled its percentage vote to 5.6% in the local elections, jumping from 12 to 49 seats, and picked up two MEP seats.

At the same time, the Left parties fared disappointingly in the elections in Ireland. Solidarity and People Before Profit lost council seats and recorded lower votes in the EU elections than in previous outings. The small Workers Party and ‘left independents’ also lost council seats.

Why did the Greens surge when the Left did not? The Greens were the main beneficiaries of the growing concerns and awareness about climate change. For many voters, especially young people, the Greens were seen as the party most likely to get something done about the climate change crisis.

In part, the Green vote was also a protest vote against the establishment parties in Ireland, which only deliver more cuts, the desperate housing crisis and other ills of the capitalist system. The climate change emergency is leading many young people to reach radical conclusions about the capitalist system and its parties.

However, the Greens, with their more ‘humane’ capitalist politics, will disappoint many young people and workers. The party aims to win half a dozen or so seats at the next general election and already has its eye on going into government with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.

The last time the Green Party shared power with Fianna Fáil, 2007-2011, it went along with austerity policies. The coalition government was also marred by sleaze and corruption. Not surprisingly, the Greens were trounced in the 2011 general elections.

But many of the young people who voted for the Greens in 2019 will have no memory of this. They will have to go through the bitter experience of the reality of the Greens’ policies.

Sinn Féin vote falls

Sinn Féin, which for years attracted support on the basis of an ‘anti-establishment’ appeal, lost 5.8% of the vote compared to the last local elections.

It finished at 9.5%, losing a third of its seats (in 2014 Sinn Féin won 159 council seats and is now down to 81 seats). The party lost two of its three MEPs.

The party previously made gains from working-class voters when it posed as anti-austerity. But Sinn Féin has openly sought to form a coalition government with either of the two main right wing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and chased middle class votes.

On a local government level, Sinn Féin has failed to deliver over the last five years. The “progressive” Sinn Féin-Labour coalition running Dublin City Council did almost nothing to tackle the capital’s serious public housing shortage.

The Labour Party, which is discredited in the eyes of many workers for going into coalition government with right-wing parties, saw its vote go down slightly on 2014 but finished up with 57 seats (six more than it won five years ago).

Labour leaders will desperately hope that as memory fades about its appalling role in austerity governments it can make some headway in the next general election.

A split from Labour, the Social Democrats, fought its first council election campaign, gaining 19 councillors, across Dublin and other cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway.

Clare Daly, a former Socialist Party councillor and TD, who became an ‘Independents 4 Change’ TD, was elected to the European parliament in the Dublin area.

She did not present a socialist alternative but campaigned against the erosion of workers’ rights in the EU, against EU militarisation, inequality and the far right. Daly also successfully campaigned on her record as an anti-establishment figure, on abortion rights, as well as her high profile taking up the case of Garda (Irish police) whistle-blowers.

Left vote

There was a steep fall in the vote for the explicitly Left parties, Solidarity and People Before Profit, however. Combined, Solidarity-PBP lost 17 local council seats, leaving eleven councillors. PBP lost seven seats and now have seven.

Solidarity, in which the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) plays a major role, went down from eleven to four seats standing as Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) – in 2014, a total of 14 seats were won but three councillors left the AAA which later became Solidarity.

The European elections saw Solidarity candidate, Rita Harrold, gain 4,967 first preference votes in Dublin or 1.4%. The PBP candidate received 10,864 votes.

These results, overall, are a blow for the Left in Ireland and a setback. Hard-working, campaigning Solidarity councillors lost their seats. The previous electoral gains were justifiably celebrated not just in Ireland but internationally and seen as something to emulate by many on the Left.

For many activists who campaigned tirelessly in the local and European election, as well as for working-class supporters, the results are disappointing. They will want to draw out all the political conclusions.

For Marxists, the electoral field is often difficult terrain, offering a ‘snapshot’ of working-class consciousness. In the struggle to fundamentally change society, methods of mass class struggle, such as strikes and general strikes, are key in raising class consciousness and posing the question of taking power and overthrowing this rotten capitalist system.

A fundamental task of Marxists is to build a solid base among the working class and most oppressed, in the workplaces, colleges and communities and elsewhere where class struggle takes place.

For all the hurdles of standing in elections dominated by big business parties and money, and a pro-business mass media, they can be very useful in allowing socialists to reach a wider audience with their policies and ideas.

Where seats are won, they can be successfully used as platforms for promoting socialist ideas and championing workers’ struggles, as the three Solidarity TD (members of Irish Parliament) have sought to do.

However, when seats are lost or disappointingly low votes recorded, it is necessary for Marxists to openly explain why this has taken place.

In the recent local and EU elections there was not the same level of class anger and working class turnout that featured in those previous elections. Nevertheless, there are burning class issues, such as over the housing crisis and homelessness, the health sector crisis, and low-paid precarious jobs.

EU elections

The Solidarity local and EU election campaigns cited these important issues, and Rita Harrold and her team carried out an energetic campaign with limited resources.

The election campaign meant that Solidarity was able to raise its profile in Dublin, including linking up with paramedics involved in a dispute for union recognition and with young workers in precarious jobs.

It was decided that the main slogan of Rita Harrold’s campaign was for ‘A Socialist Feminist for Europe’. An appeal was made to “to build the socialist feminist movement”. The campaign hoped that the political radicalisation that took place among sections of society – youth, LGBT+ campaigners and community, and women, in particular – around the 2018 referendum to repeal anti-women abortion legislation, would translate into votes for Rita.

No doubt, Solidarity did gain votes from these quarters but clearly it was not a substantial vote or a breakthrough among these layers in society. In all likelihood, many of the middle class sections radicalised by the Repeal referendum voted, in the main, for the petty bourgeois Green Party.

Many working-class people who enthusiastically backed the Repeal referendum, last year, probably stayed at home for the EU and local elections.

The result of the referendum still reverberates in Irish society and there remain outstanding questions of gender and sexual oppression and the role of the Church and State in Ireland.

At the same time, other class issues have come or returned to the fore, such as regarding living wages, secure jobs and homes for all. Given this, sections of the working class may have thought the main slogans of the Solidarity EU election campaign were not directed at them.

Clearly, the ‘A Socialist Feminist for Europe’ slogan was not sufficient to reach wider layers.

Also, the radicalisation of feminist activists in the struggle for equality for women, abortion rights, and those struggling for LGBT+ rights does not automatically mean greater radicalisation in a socialist direction.

Such broad movements inevitably contain class divisions and ideological confusion. The surge in support of the Greens reflects the limitations of the radicalisation which took place.

A bold pro-working class, fighting socialist programme is required to offer an alternative.

Workplace struggles

The Left in southern Ireland has suffered a blow but now has to redouble its efforts in connecting with working-class communities, workplace and union struggles, and with youth and students, as well as campaigning against all forms of discrimination and oppression. New government attacks against the working class are on the order of the day.

Importantly, industrial resistance is increasing, with strikes recently involving nurses, midwives and paramedics (though poor deals were struck by the nurses’ union leaders).

The three Solidarity TDs and remaining councillors can play a key role in leading the resistance, putting forward bold, socialist policies that promote the unity of the working class along with the oppressed.

A clear socialist programme is needed to cut across the far right poison and to offer workers and youth a way to resist the parties of big business, to tackle climate change, homelessness and poverty pay, and to fight for a socialist society.