Opportunity in defeat
The Republic’s General Election produced neither a leftwing breakthrough nor a stable rightwing government. Dara McHugh reports.
Following the February 2016 election the Dáil now contains, arguably, the greatest number of Left TDs in its history. The People Before Profit Anti-Austerity Alliance grouping grew its numbers from three to six TDs and there was also an increase in the number of leftwing Independent TDs.
However, the aim of achieving the Republic’s first progressive government, which had been declared its aim by the leadership of the Right2Water anti-water charges movement was not achieved.
Instead after nine weeks of political shadow boxing a minority Fine Gael administration including a grouping of Independent TDs – led by former Fine Gael Senator Shane Ross and former Fine Gael TD Denis Naughten – has been cobbled together with the support from the opposition benches of a strengthened Fianna Fail party.
The SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor has even gone as far as claiming that the new “Cabinet is the most right-wing since the Cumann na nGaedheal government left office in 1932.”
Joan Collins, re-elected as an Independent TD for Dublin South-East, sees the new government as “effectively a coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to maintain the status quo of the last 80 years.”
Collins found housing, homelessness, health and water charges to be the most important issues among voters and she is looking forward to pushing forward progressive legislation in these areas in conjunction with like-minded parties and Independents.
“The aim is to use the changes in Dail procedure to bring forward legislation and take up these issues. We can win on some of those issues if we pull everybody together.”
She believes, despite the failure of the candidates who supported the Right2Change slate of policy principles to make a major electoral breakthrough in the election, that the common ground now established between groups such People Before Profit, her own Independents4Change grouping and Sinn Fein provides a new platform for progressive politics.
We can’t expect people to change over to our politics if we do not change our way of doing politics.
For Michael Taft, research officer with Unite the Union, the left’s performance in the election was disappointing, especially in the light of the progressive shift in public opinion:
“During the election campaign it was clearly evident that the majority of people turned their back on tax cuts and opted, in varying degrees, for greater emphasis on public services. However, progressives were not the primary beneficiary; rather, it was Fianna Fail”, Taft said.
Despite this, he believes the presence of all the left parties and independents in opposition together is an important opportunity for cooperation.
“To maximise this opportunity we need to end the sectarianism and division within the the broad left. Cooperation, tolerance and open-mindedness are needed now more than ever. We need a new conversation and a new way of doing business among ourselves. We can’t expect people to change over to our politics if we do not change our way of doing politics.”
Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) Dublin city councillor Michael O’Brien stood as a candidate in Dublin Bay North. is however critical of the conduct of the Right2Water unions in coordinating the Right2Change policy platform and feels that while gains were made during this election, it was an opportunity not fully taken.
“The February election clearly represents a stride forward for a range of forces who stand outside the traditional political establishment. The AAA does believe that the manner in which the Right2Water unions steered the process that leading to the formation of Right2Change meant that the potential for a breakthrough for a genuine left was not realised.”
What is democratic when 59 TDs out of 158 can elect a Taoiseach and go on to form a government?
The Right2Change policies were drafted by the Right2Water unions, who asked parties involved in Right2Water to agree to the policies and pledge to form a government based on these policies with others in agreement if enough seats were won. The AAA opted not to sign, saying, “The AAA is open to participate in government but not a government that includes any parties associated with austerity or a government whose policy is based on operating within the strict fiscal rules set by the EU or capitalism”.
For O’Brien, the first priority now must be to conclude the water charges campaign with a decisive victory. He believes the ‘suspension’ of the charge must become its complete abolition and this can only be achieved by “stepping up the boycott and protest movement to restrict the scope for backsliding.”
Collins will be pushing for a referendum to keep water in public ownership and also for referenda on repealing the Eighth Amendment and to enshrine housing as a right in the Constitution. Tactics such as these will put pressure on Fianna Fail, who tacked left in the election, including a pledge to abolish Irish Water in their manifesto.
“They had a lot of stuff in their manifesto talking about change, we have to put them under pressure and make them vote for things like social housing, a one-tier health service and so on.”
She also sees the water movement as a crucial step forward in political consciousness and engagement, saying that [the movement] “got people active who had never been active before and they’re not going to go home and close the doors and forget about it. We’ll continue working with those groups.”
Veteran Workers’ Party figure, Sean Garland, believes the left will shortly have another election to fight in which it may improve its standing. “The contradictions inherent in the makeup of this government, despite all the fine phrases being spouted by its members carries within itself the seeds of its destruction,” he said. “The very title of the Government programme, ‘For a Fairer Society’ is an indication of how out of touch this government is with the people. They recognise by using this title previous governments were most unfair hence the Fine Gael/Labour defeat in the February election.”
He added: “The agreement cobbled together on 5th May to re-elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach has all the makings of a music hall farce. What is democratic when 59 TDs out of 158 can elect a Taoiseach and go on to form a government? 98 TDs did not vote for this ramshackle arrangement and the voters most certainly did not either.”