Irish voters have shown their anger with social inequality, the healthcare crisis, the deep housing crisis with soaring house prices and rents and increasing homelessness (almost 10,000 at the end of 2019 including rising numbers of families), precarious work conditions and low pay.

By Margaret McAdam – International Socialist League

They have sent a clear message, a message which has stunned all political parties and shifted the Irish political landscape away from the traditional duopoly of alternate Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael governments. Their message is a demand for change, and they have done this by giving their votes to Sinn Féin. They ran just 42 candidates for the 160-seat Dáil (Irish Parliament) in the snap General Election called by the current Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar. They received the largest share of the vote (24.5 percent) winning 37 seats – just one seat less than Fianna Fáil with 38 with Fine Gael on 35.

Following the 2008 financial crash of its ‘Tiger’ economy the government of Ireland, led by Fine Gail’s Leo Varadkar, has been exploiting the public debt to stop the economic collapse. They have shifted the burden onto public services and to an increasing number of people with vicious austerity policies.

The minority Fine Gael government was forced to call the election because they faced losing a vote of confidence on the shocking state of the health service and hospital waiting lists. They had recently only just survived a vote on their response to the massive housing crisis and against a backdrop of protest against proposals to commemorate the infamous Black and Tans, a British imperialist force who used savage brutality against the Irish during the War of Independence.

However, whatever political combination is agreed upon, the result will be a hung parliament. Combined Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have 73 seats (they will need another 7) but it was their policies and actions that were clearly rejected by the people and forced the government to fall. Such an alliance could inflame the masses.

It was Sinn Féin’s policies that voters responded to, such as the promises of increased spending on health and house building. Those under 55 years were particularly motivated by their policies because of widespread hatred of the cuts and instability that are affecting their lives.

Sinn Féin need a majority of 80 seats to form a government. They have talked to various left and radical parties: Solidarity-People Before Profit (5 seats), the Greens (12), the Social Democrats and Labour (6) as well as Independents. However, a socialist programme is not on the agenda because Sinn Féin is a pro-capitalist party and will not confront the domination of the economy by the multinationals nor Irish capitalism.

The media and many on the left have described the election result as “a revolution in the ballot box” or “a political earthquake.” With many on the left thinking that Sinn Féin can lead a struggle against Irish capitalism, that it can be consistently left or even lead a socialist government.

A group that recently split from the British Socialist Party (CWI) in Ireland are asking, “Will Sinn Féin (SF) use this platform to initiate a real challenge, not just to the parties of Irish capitalism, but to the system itself?”[i]

Despite their split, their orientation to left reformism has not changed from the party they have split from. Just like the left parties, including Solidarity and People Before Profit, who are willing to do a deal with Sinn Féin to form a government, they would also agree to participate in a pro-capitalist government. Agreement to a coalition led by Sinn Féin would mean propping up a popular front government that would divert and control any emerging class struggle movement.

Who dominates the Irish Republic?

Imperialism dominates the Irish economy. The north is a colony of Britain, the south is a neo-colony of EU and US imperialism. It is that dominance that has created the growth in poverty rates with subservient governments.

Today, Ireland’s economy is again booming and has become a haven for the US and EU multinationals, with Irish capitalists enriching themselves. Over 1,000 Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) giants in ICT, Social Media, Pharmaceuticals and Finance have made Ireland the hub of their European operations with names such as Google, HP, Apple, IBM, Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Pfizer, GSK and Genzyme.

Ireland continues to attract a huge amount of FDI, in fact, it is the second most attractive country globally after Singapore. It also has the lowest corporation tax rates (12.5%) in Europe with a further advantage of 25% tax credit against research and development.

Despite recent economic growth, its fruits are benefiting only the multinationals and the Irish bourgeoisie. For example, Ireland has one of the highest rates of low-paid employment in the OECD, second highest after the United States. In 2018, the top 10% of the population received almost twenty-five percent of the country’s total income while the bottom 10% received just 3.6 percent.[ii] There is “an inequality in employment and wage growth in the recovery, with a more polarised workforce, a rise in low-paid jobs, low-hours employment and precarious work.”[iii]

A united Ireland?

According to the British Economist there is, a “real, and growing, possibility of a united Ireland”, because of the Sinn Féin vote, because of Brexit and because the majority in the north and south want to remain in the EU – despite the EU being a source of their oppression.

A majority of the Irish population support Irish reunification although it was not a major factor in the surge in votes for Sinn Féin. Many, including Sinn Féin members, believe that they can now increase the pressure for a border poll. But in reality, Sinn Féin were calling for a poll in five-years-time inside the parameters of the Good Friday Agreement (1998).

Support for reunification is about more than Brexit. Northern Ireland’s census in 2021 is expected to confirm that Catholics will outnumber Protestants for the first time.[iv] And in the Republic, the influence of the Catholic church has dramatically declined, once a barrier to the ‘Protestant’ community of the north. The decline of the Catholic church following child abuse cases led to failure to its fight against restrictions on contraception, gay marriage and women’s right to choose – all have been advanced and have influenced support in reunification.

However, communities in the north remain segregated with 96 percent of schools in the north and more than 94 percent of social housing divided between Republicans/Nationalists and Loyalists/Unionists.  Today in Belfast there are over 100 “peace walls” separating streets and communities, more were erected after the so-called Peace Process (1998) than during the war against the occupation British army led by Sinn Féin and the IRA.

A reunited Ireland would have to be secular, with all state ties with religion severed in order to bring sectarianism and discrimination on the grounds of religion to an end.

Is Sinn Féin an anti-austerity party?

In the south Sinn Féin focused their election campaigning on anti-austerity and housing. However, in the north it was a different story. Sinn Féin have played a significant role in administering brutal and heartless cuts and privatisations and have supinely implemented Westminster’s austerity policy with their partners the DUP. For over 20 years Sinn Féin shared government in Stormont before the power “sharing” administration collapsed. Both have overseen a widening gap between rich and poor and have done nothing to reverse this. For example, West Belfast (a Sinn Féin stronghold) according to a 2018 UN report, has the second highest rate of child poverty across the whole of Britain and over 23,000 people under the age of 18 in Belfast are on record as “in housing distress” (from sofa-surfing to street homelessness). Just as in the rest of the UK the welfare state has shrunk while the numbers of insecure zero-hour-contract jobs have grown.

Sinn Féin is not a socialist party. Even with a majority in the Dáil, in the south, Sinn Féin will do nothing to stand up to the Capitalist system, a system that is driven to oppress, exploit and abandon the working class. The struggle for a truly independent Ireland has to remove all colonial and neo-colonial controls and only a mass movement of the working class fighting for the overthrow of the capitalist system can reverse austerity and inequality.

Unity in the class struggle

The Irish masses need to organise. To end growing poverty the repudiation and ultimately the cancellation of the external foreign debt, a debt that is not theirs, is key. Ireland has the third-highest government debt per capita, behind only Japan and the US and has a greater debt than Greece. Irish governments have paid off billions of Euros but at the expense of public services. There is an additional debt of many billions of Euros including from the Private and Public Partnerships (for road, bridge construction, and other public projects). The EU through its anti-democratic commissions and the European Central Bank have driven increasing poverty in the south. The debts must be cancelled and the EU straight jacket removed.

We support unconditionally the ending of British occupation and control in the north of Ireland. In the first place because it would weaken British imperialism and British government control over Scotland, and it would provide an impetus to liberation struggles across the world.

The struggle for reunification will only come by mobilising on the streets for an end to austerity and oppression, with the objective always of advancing the interests of workers. A reunited Ireland would help unite workers north and south to fight together against precarious work, austerity, and inequality. In the fight for workers’ and oppressed people’s interests trade unions and community struggles must come together, organise and mobilise.

Historically the trade unions have operated partnership agreements with Fianna Fáil. All social pacts of the trade unions with previous governments must be repudiated while giving full support to all independent workers’ alliances.

Youth, women, and workers will have to build the struggle as they did over water charges and women’s right to choose, building and supporting all workers’ actions against austerity whilst retaining democratic rank and file control over all leaderships. The election result came out of these struggles, and the mass desire to go much further. Sinn Féin is unable to be the force to lead such a movement.

What next?

“Political power must, for the working classes, come straight out of the industrial battlefield as the expression of the organised economic force of Labour; else it cannot come at all. With Labour properly organised upon the industrial and political field, each extension of the principle of public ownership brings us nearer to the re-conquest of Ireland by its people; it means the gradual resumption of the common ownership of all Ireland by all the Irish – the realisation of Freedom.”[v] The Re-conquest of Ireland, James Connolly 1915

It is only a socialist revolution against Irish capitalism that will be capable of defeating British control (including the defeat of the EU and imperialist control today). A new party will have to be built that is true to the perspective of James Connolly. It is only this type of party that can build in the north and south for unity and independence. A revolutionary party that will be capable of building the struggle for reunification unconditionally and fight always to advance the interests of workers, young people, all oppressed people including women, poor farmers and the unemployed.

Lower and freeze rents at an affordable level!
Public house building projects to end the housing crisis!
End precarious work!
Rebuild the health service- free and accessible for all!
Nationalisation with workers’ and users’ control of all public services!
Nationalisation of all foreign and Irish multi-nationals under workers control!
Big companies have created enough misery – nationalise without payment!
For the unity of Ireland – secular and without discrimination!
No payment of the foreign and public debt!
Build the mass movement on the streets, workers have shown they can win!
Build a Marxist, internationalist and workers revolutionary party to lead that fight!

[iii] ibid
[iv] We use the term Catholic and Protestant, to mean the majority community and tradition, it does not mean all Republicans are Catholics or that all protestants support unionists but those terms define areas in the six counties of Ulster. There have been common struggles by workers and also for civil rights. For example, Derry dock workers. But such alliances were always targeted by the Unionist and British repressive forces.