by Kevin Keating and John McAnulty, Socialist Democracy (Ireland)

In the run-up to the Irish election of 25th February a number of key issues arose. The major issue was the imposition of four years of renewed austerity overseen by the intervention of the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. The second issue was the growing calls for vengeance against the ruling party, Fianna Fail. A further issue was popular disquiet with the political system that allowed the rampant corruption that accelerated under the Fianna Fail government.

Irish workers succeeded in taking their vengeance, but the system remains more or less as it was, the new government will be to the right of the old and, as a result, Irish capital and European imperialism have increased room for manoeuvre.

Simple vengeance

The trashing of Fianna Fail was compared to the historic defeat of the Irish Party by Sinn Fein in the 1918 General election. This comparison rings hollow. The fall of the Irish Party was the start of a revolutionary upsurge. Today’s vote is simple vengeance, underpinned by fear, uncertainty and the absence of an alternative supported by the working class. To a greater extent than in the past it was a vote contained within the 26 county enclave, with no mention of the continued occupation of the North by Britain, even by the “republican” Sinn Fein. In the aftermath of the election the majority for Fine Gail and Labour will be interpreted as endorsement for the years of austerity to follow.

Fianna Fail survived in rural areas and in the west of Ireland. Its core vote came close to that of the Labour party, but its inability to gain transfers doomed it, with its share of seats falling from 78 to 20 (41.6% to 17.4%). Its annihilation in Dublin, where it held only one seat, will be immensely difficult to recover from and opens an opportunity for class antagonisms to assert themselves. The combined vote of Labour, Sinn Fein and the new United Left Alliance accounted for a majority of the votes cast in the Dublin area.

The party that was obliterated, its vote reduced below 2%, was Fianna Fail’s junior partner in government, the Green party. This should serve as a warning to Sinn Fein, whose strategy has been to seek places in a coalition government with Fianna Fail. Their credibility as a left opposition is severely compromised by their 2008 vote in support of the bank guarantee scheme and their presence in government in the North, where they are implementing a £4 billion cuts programme.

The distribution of the votes of former Fianna Fail voters determined the outcome of the election. A section went to the right, to the Fine Gael party (51 to 76 seats and from 27.3% to 36% of the vote). Labour became the second party (20 to 37 seats with its vote going from 10% to 19.4%). Sinn Fein made significant gains (5 to 14). Their vote was dominated by transfers, with its 1st preference vote going from 7% to 10%. The United Left Alliance, formed weeks before the election, gained 5 seats and 9% of the vote in the Dublin area.

Fine Gael limited their attacks on the government to questions of competence and the overwhelming corruption of Fianna Fail and their contacts in the state apparatus, the banks and the property speculators. They promised clean and competent government. In some areas they would make deeper cuts, but a more professional business plan would see a reduction in the level of interest charged by the ECB, they claimed.

Cronyism and clientelism

During the election a great deal was made of workers turning against the political system, a mixture of cronyism and clientelism. The ousting of Fianna Fail will undoubtedly reduce, at least for a while, the level of cronyism. However, in a state where civic society and infrastructure remain underdeveloped, using political contacts to obtain services remains commonplace and the logic of the client relationship was evident in the selection of candidates, the analysis of results and the success of particular candidates. The very large number of independents elected was a sign of the localist and client consciousness that remain prevalent. Even in the ULA vote large votes were recorded mainly in areas when the candidate had an established constituency apparatus. Those standing for the first time simply on issues of political programme did less well.

The same culture of dependence helps explain the widespread acceptance of the need to pay for the bank bailout, a policy common to all parties excluding the United Left Alliance. Within that culture there was skilful tactical voting: decimating Fianna Fail, electing the apparently more competent Fine Gael and ensuring a large Labour vote in the hope that the coalition government will cushion against the harsher right wing elements of the Fine Gael program.

Shrouded in unreality

Yet the election discussions were shrouded in unreality, with the assumption that the new Dail would have the legislative and fiscal powers of the old. The intervention of the European Central Bank and the IMF, the memorandum of understanding, the austerity budget that binds the Dail for the next four years, the collaboration of Fine Gael and Labour in ensuring that the previous government succeeded in forcing through the budget, all this is ignored.

Reality will not be long breaking through. As the last votes were being counted Fianna Fail Minister for Energy Pat Carey gave a last example of how little democracy counted for, when he signed off permission for a massive Shell gas pipeline along the West coast. Not only are there many environmental and safety issues, the massive give-away represented by the Shell deal stands in sharp contrast to the austerity being visited on the workers. The fact that the new government is just as supportive of the Shell rip-off as the last shows the dominance of imperialist interests in the Irish economy.

Also as the votes were being counted it was announced that the level of mortgage default has reached 6%. Local economist Morgan Kelly has predicted a second economic collapse as workers try to service mortgages on incomes that have fallen sharply.

The majority of workers are holding firmly to a belief that the current wave of austerity will end soon with a return of prosperity. They cling onto the Labour party and trade union leadership despite their support for the bank bailout.

Their faith in these nostrums will not survive a harsh reality. The United Left Alliance fought the election on a central issue for the working class. To assert themselves as a class they must utterly repudiate a debt that is not theirs. However a loose electoral alliance with five Dail seats is not a convincing mechanism to build class struggle. This has been recognised by leading figures in the alliance and resulted in calls for a new party of the working class.

However calls or political formula will not by themselves build that party. They will be built around immediate struggles facing the workers – issues like the Corrib gas sell-out, the removal of basic pay from student nurses on placement, converting their work to slave labour, also the savage struggle around new rosters among cabin crew in Aer Lingus.

Battles to intervene in these struggles will immediately run up against the trade union leadership, the main mechanism through which working class struggle has been defused. This is the case at both local and national level. SIPTU leader Jack O’Connor called for a ‘balanced’ government of Fine Gael and Labour – that is, a government committed to the austerity programme. This is hardly surprising given that, through the Croke Park deal with the last government, the trade union leadership is itself tied into the memorandum of understanding with the ECB and involved in the austerity programme. At local level there has been a very limited response to the plight of student nurses. Aer Lingus Cabin crew have seen their case handed over to the Labour Court for binding arbitration. At the beginning of the dispute Irish Congress of Trade union secretary David Begg was re-appointed to the board of Aer Lingus. He sat there as the company locked out the cabin staff and used Ryanair to organise scab flights.

Paying the full cost

The austerity budget for the next four years has already been set in place and made a memorandum of understanding with the ECB and IMF. Immediately after the election the European economics commissioner, Olli Rehn, indicated that the bondholders would not accept any losses and Irish workers would have to pay the full cost of the bailout.

A toothless Dail, handcuffed to the ECB and IMF, dominated by a Fine Gael/Labour austerity coalition can serve no function other than as a platform to organize a struggle for survival on the streets and in the factories. A new party of the working class can serve as an instrument in that struggle.