Dara McHugh reflects on last week’s Irish election. The piece was written before the Labour leadership announced plans to accept a Fine Gael coalition offer
The election campaign and its aftermath have witnessed strident declarations that all has changed, changed utterly. Most prominent is the decimation of support for Fianna Fail, the party that has ruled for 60 of the last 79 years. Both Fine Gael and Labour have experienced remarkable success in the polls, unparallelled for the latter. These are not insignificant, but the context of continued economic crisis renders the changes in parliament relatively minor.
Whatever government is formed, it will share the titanic debt burden of the previous administration. Although Fine Gael made suitably statesman-like noises about ‘renegotiation’ of the interest rate on the ECB bailout, their timid overtures won only tolerant obfuscation from Frankfurt during the campaign and categorical refusals since.
This fiscal straitjacket minimises the policy differences between Fine Gael and Labour and between this government and the last. As the parties consult on the shape of their coalition, the issue is where the money comes from: increased taxation and slower cuts to spending (Labour), or no substantive tax changes and aggressive cuts to spending. Since the collapse of the Thatcherite Progressive Democrats, Fine Gael have taken over as the most dogmatically neo-liberal of the Irish parties, and it’s not certain they’ll come to an accommodation with a party they see as beholden to the unions.
Their confidence has been strengthened by dramatic increase in seats (just seven shy of an overall majority), prompting some to look askance on the traditional Labour coalition. Lucinda Creighton, one of the party’s more outspoken and bigoted TDs, used the electoral mandate to rev the chainsaw, saying the party’s supporters “were voting against Labour and against higher taxes and going soft on cuts”.
Alternatives open to the more chest-beating neoliberals of the party include alliances with right-thinking Independent TDs or, perish the thought, their civil war enemy Fianna Fail.
The latter is, funnily enough, the preferred option of many on the Left, who wish to see an end to the civil war divisions that have dominated the State. This right-wing rapprochement would, or so the thinking goes, allow for a political shift to a traditional Right-Left division henceforward. The leftward side of this is supported by a high number of votes for Sinn Fein (14) and the United Left Alliance (5) and assorted leftwing Independents. The electorate’s newfound appetite for radical fare, can be whetted, so the argument goes, by a vocal leftwing opposition and sated, a few years down the line, by a progressive and expansionary government. We all hope, of course, to be surprised by a sudden volte-face by the Labour Party, as they throw off their moderate disguises to reveal hidden crypto-marxist loyalties. But we do not expect it.
The political focus distracts us from other matters. The Right-Left divide is not what it used to be and Labour, no less than their European counterparts, feel the gravitational pull towards a centre that is not collapsing but imploding, dragging all parties into a neo-liberal vortex. The new government will have little capacity for investment schemes, beholden to the keepers of the printing presses in Frankfurt and the bond market barbarians of London and New York.
The austerity approach will only end where it is stopped, it will only retreat where it is pushed back. The Irish crisis will not be solved by this election nor the next, and the Left needs to focus on building bases of strength; groups that can outlive campaigns and drive forward new ones. Ultimately, the people effected by cuts must organise to resist them, to prevent the continual transfer of crisis from top to bottom. The challenge is to build such organisation.