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For the first time in 100 years neither of Ireland’s two historically dominant parties will win a plurality of the vote, providing an opening to Sinn Fein and other left parties. What made this possible?

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Greg Wolpert: It’s the Real News Network and I’m Greg Wolpert in Baltimore. Ireland is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections this coming Saturday and it does not look good for the two parties that have dominated Irish politics for the past 100 years. The two parties which have alternated in government since Irish independence in 1921 are Fine Gael, the party currently in control under the leadership of Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail. Both are generally considered to be center right parties that have dominated Irish politics more for historical and not illogical reasons. The main insurgent in this election is Sinn Fein under the leadership of Mary MacDonald. Originally, this party was the political wing of the provisional Irish Republican army, which led the fight for Northern Ireland’s independence from Britain in the 1970s to the 1990s. Ever since the conflict ended in 1998 Sinn Fein has become more of a traditional left party.
Recent polls suggest that Sinn Fein could win 25% of the vote on Sunday overtaking the traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. If so, this would represent a major shift in Irish politics. Joining me to analyze the upcoming election is Michael Taft. He’s a researcher for the Irish Trade Union, SIPTU and blogs at Notes on the Front. Also, he recently wrote an article for Jacobin titled, This Month’s Elections in Ireland are a Historic Opportunity. Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

Michael Taft: Thank you.

Greg Wolpert: What are the main issues in this election and why have the parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael not been doing so well in this campaign?

Michael Taft: Well, the main issues would be similar to issues across Europe. Housing is a particular issue. We have a crisis in homelessness and especially children’s homelessness. We have rising rents, which are more and more beyond the reach of young working people. And we have a boom in house prices, which makes it more unaffordable for people to buy a house. So that’s one issue, housing. Another issue is a health crisis. We have hundreds of thousands on the waiting list and that might not seem too big when compared for an American audience, but when you consider the population of Ireland is about 4.8 million, hundreds of thousands represents a significant proportion of people who are in queues waiting to be seen by consultants or doctors or enter into hospital. So these are parts of the legacy of austerity that the country went through between 2008 and 2014 and okay, we exited the Troika bailout program.
We seem to have gotten our public finances in order but what really happened was all the problems that were stored up during austerity were actually just kind of shoved out to the period now. So we’re living with all those mistakes Now the reason why Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are doing so poorly is because one, they don’t seem to be in touch with people’s, they don’t seem to be empathetic, don’t seem to understand the conditions that working men and women are in. And that’s extremely important in Irish politics, that type of empathy. Secondly, people are now starting to realize, although the realization been a long time coming, but it’s now being crystallized and actually ideologically there’s not a whole lot of difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
They were the two parties that opposed each other and they were the main alternatives to each other for a hundred years, but that arose out of divisions in the civil war. Those divisions are no longer relevant. Sinn Fein is the largest party, the largest non-conservative or progressive party has been the beneficiary of that and that is coupled with the fact that they have some of the best, what we call parliamentary back-benchers, spokespersons for housing, spokespersons for health, spokespersons for finance. So they are young, intelligent, and to many people, they represent a break with the two traditional parties. So that on Saturday we could see is Sinn Fein getting more votes but not necessarily more seats.

Greg Wolpert: From what you’re saying, it seems that the economic issues are dominating. How is it though that this is such a major issue when according to most analysts, Ireland has been doing quite well economically speaking. That is, they’ve been considering it an economic success story since 2013 with a steady economic growth and declining unemployment.

Michael Taft: During the austerity period, unemployment rose to extremely high levels. Immigration, which has constantly plagued the Irish economy and Irish society, began to rise to very high levels. But also there was huge spending cutbacks. So as the economy has recovered, there’s been an attempt to restore those cuts. But the problem is we had seven, eight years of those cuts and we’re a long ways away for restoring it. Secondly, while there has been an increase in employment, which is welcome, there’s also been an increase in precarious employment. People who have irregular contracts, they are temporary workers, under employed. So there is an issue in many sections of the economy about the quality of that employment. And as I said, all those problems just were stored it up during the austerity period. And then of course, once we got out of the program, once we could start back into normal budgetary functioning, they blew up.
You can’t keep cutting back house building for years and years and expect it to return it overnight. The same thing with health care, so as I say, we’re living through this legacy of austerity. There are people who feel that the recovery is passed them by, that the quality of the employment or their quality of living standards is certainly not what it was before the crash and certainly wasn’t [inaudible 00:06:29] have expectation. Just to give you one small little stat, I don’t want to get too much in statistics, but 40% of Irish people are unable to afford an unexpected expense. That would be like your dishwasher breaks down, there’s a hole in your roof, your car needs a repair. 40% cannot afford an unexpected expense. That’s the very definition of precarious living.

Greg Wolpert: Now these numbers that you’re mentioning, it sounds kind of typical for across Europe and even the world I would say, but so how is it that Sinn Fein, which has long been considered politically taboo because of its connections to the IRA during the conflict in Northern Ireland has been able to benefit from this? That is, in the past also was the labor party that led the Irish left or the Irish Progressive’s. So how is it that Sinn Fein has become mainstream now and what does that mean for the Irish left more generally?

Michael Taft: Well, you’re right, labor was the left alternative, if you will, to the two major parties. And that was traditionally the case up to 2011. Unfortunately, labor, like so many other social democratic parties throughout Europe, labor went into a coalition as a minority partner with Fine Gael and of the two traditional parties, Fine Gael would be considered more right wing, and in that coalition government between 2011 and 2015, labor stood over some horrendous spending cuts, tax increases on low and average income earners, cutbacks in investment. And quite simply, they were nearly wiped out in the 2016 election. They lost 30 out of 38 seats in Parliament. They suffered the same experience as [inaudible 00:08:18] did in Greece. So they have not recovered, people have not forgiven them, people don’t trust them. So it through that Sinn Fein was the party that that grew, that gained support for people. And one sense Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have stated over and over, they will not negotiate with Sinn Fein after the next election.
And people believe that’s hypocritical. Okay. Yes, there was the past with the IRA. There are people who still ask legitimate questions about the organization, Sinn Fein and the role of former IRA people in that. However, all parties here in the Republic insist that Sinn Fein go into coalition with parties up in the North, in Northern Ireland in Stormont. And yet you have the two traditional parties saying, well we expect you to go into coalition in the North or we’re going to have nothing to do with you down south. People perceive that as hypocritical. People perceive that as unfair. And as a lot of people said, they are just tired of this continuous Fianna Fail or Fine Gael rule. So in many instances you hear the expression, well let’s give them a try. You know, they can’t be worse than the others. And you know, people have had experience, good experience, a particular TD, that’s TDs are members of parliament here in Ireland or a, you know, particular Sinn Fein politicians. So they’re willing to kind of overlook those problems and see what Sinn Fein has to offer.

Greg Wolpert: The rise of Sinn Fein and of the left parties in Ireland, generally actually fits with the fragmentation of politics around the world at the time and also, which is has been a reaction to some of the economic issues that you were talking about earlier. Now, however, it does seem to be a little bit different in Ireland in the sense that the left under Sinn Fein’s potential leadership could come out ahead on Saturday. Whereas in the rest of Europe it has generally been the far right that has gained more momentum under these conditions. Now, why is there are no far right so to speak, gaining in Ireland or is there as in the rest of Europe?

Michael Taft: We do have a kind of micro far right parties and so you can’t say that we’re free of the far right influence, but it plays a very minimal role here. I think that can be explained by a couple of things. One attempts to generate anti-immigrant feeling and is usually quite unsuccessful in Irish culture because don’t forget Ireland, we’re Irish have sent the immigrants throughout the world. So there’s an empathy with the issue of immigration. Secondly, there’s a sense that the far right represents anti-democratic tendencies, whereas the political culture of Ireland ever since it won its independence has been one of building democracy.
Don’t forget in the 1930s when so many European countries were falling, falling under authoritarian or fascist rule, the Irish were actually busy building democratic institutions. So I guess you’re pretty reluctant to let go of democracy when you spent a hundred years trying to get it in the first place. So we are, thankfully, not plagued by the far right. Obviously you always have to keep a watch for them. So in that sense we don’t have an extreme right wing in Ireland. Even in the past there was a kind of a small neo-liberal party, progressive Democrats, but they never got more than three or 4%. So when they were in coalition with Fianna Fail they had undue influence. That doesn’t mean to say that neo-liberalism hasn’t held sway in Ireland, it has. We’ve seen privatization of a number of state enterprises. We’ve seen tax cuts to corporations and a clutch to higher income earners. So in that type of kind of fiscal conservative sense, the right has its play. But in terms of a far right or an out now neo-liberal right party, we haven’t had that much experience.

Greg Wolpert: Okay. Very interesting. But we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Michael Taft, researcher for Irish Trade Union, SIPTU and blogger at Notes on the Front. Thanks again, Michael for having joined us today.

Michael Taft: Thank you.

Greg Wolpert: And thank you for joining the real news network.

Studio: Adam Coley, Will Arenas
Production: Genevieve Montinar, Will Arenas, Andrew Corkery

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.