For media commentators and pundits the big story of the local and European elections in Southern Ireland was the surge in support for the Green Party. The party tripled its percentage vote to 5.6% in the local elections, jumping from 12 to 49 seats, and picked up two MEP seats.
The gains for the Greens in Ireland followed a pattern across Europe. Greens came second in Germany, third in France and overtook the Tories in the UK, finishing fourth.
At the same time, the Left parties fared disappointingly in the elections in Ireland. Solidarity and People Before Profit lost council seats and recorded lower votes in the EU elections than in previous outings. The small Workers Party and ‘left independents’ also lost council seats.
Why did the Greens surge when the Left did not? The Greens were the main beneficiaries of the growing concerns and awareness about climate change. Over the last months, 'Youth Climate Strikes' and other large protests about the environmental disaster threatening have taken place across Europe, including in Dublin and other Irish cities and towns. For many voters, especially young people, the Greens were seen as the party most likely to get something done about the climate change crisis.
In part, the Green vote was also a protest vote against the Establishment parties in Ireland, which only deliver more cuts, the desperate housing crisis and other ills of the capitalist system. The climate change emergency is leading many young people to reach radical conclusions about the capitalist system and its parties.
However, the Greens, with their more 'humane' capitalist politics, will disappoint many youth and workers. The party aims to win half a dozen or so seats at the next general election and already has its eye on going into government with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. The last time the Green Party shared power with Fianna Fáil, from 2007-2011, it went along with austerity policies. The coalition government was also marred by sleaze and corruption. Not surprisingly, the Greens were trounced in the 2011 general elections. But many of the young people who voted for the Greens in 2019 will have no memory of this. They will have to go through the bitter experience of the reality of the Greens' policies. These are firmly within the straitjacket of the capitalist system and put the onus on 'solving' the climate and environmental crisis on the shoulders of the working class, often through taxes and charges that are “environmentally friendly”.
Right wing parties
The combined support for the two main right-wing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, was 46% in the European elections and 52% in the local elections. But, once again, they failed to take a large combined majority in the polls, as they did comfortably for decades previously.
There is no enthusiasm for these right-wing parties from working-class voters. There are many problems facing working class people – a housing crisis, a rise in the cost of living and a crisis in the health service, for a start. But growth in the economy, following years of a deep recession, has allowed Fine Gael to partially stabilise itself in government and given it some room for manoeuvre. There is anger and protests over the housing crisis, for example, but no generalised mass struggle as was the case in 2014 over deep cuts, water charges and the ongoing economic crisis. Trade unions could give a decisive lead on these issues; drawing together and generalising the struggles of workplaces, for a living wage and union rights, alongside demanding proper funding for the public sector, including health and education, and homes for all.
Fianna Fáil gained most local government seats in the 2019 elections, winning 279 seats (a gain of 12 seats). For the first time in two decades, the party is the biggest group on Dublin City Council, although based on a low turnout.
Also for the first time in two decades, a party in government, Fine Gael, saw its vote marginally increase in local elections (although the party did not gain its stated aim of 50 extra local council seats).
There is speculation that on the back of these results the Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, may call early general elections. The date of an election is not entirely within his gift, as a score of parliamentary by-elections can change the arithmetic in the Dail (parliament), leading to a collapse of the Fine Gael government, which is currently given outside support from Fianna Fáil.
Sinn Fein vote falls
Sinn Fein, which for years attracted support on the basis of an 'anti-establishment' appeal, lost 5.8% of the vote compared to the last local elections. It finished at 9.5%, losing a third of its seats (in 2014 Sinn Fein won 159 council seats and is now down to 81 seats). The party lost two of its three MEPs. Along with poor showings in May's local elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein's leadership is now under pressure, as their much-vaunted goal of coming to power, North and South, looks remote.
The party previously made gains from working class voters when it posed as anti-austerity. But much of that working class vote failed to materialise in the recent elections. Sinn Fein has openly sought to form a coalition government with either of the two main right wing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and chased middle class votes. On a local government level, Sinn Fein has failed to deliver over the last five years. The “progressive” Sinn Fein-Labour coalition running Dublin City Council did almost nothing to tackle the capital's serious public housing shortage.
The Labour Party, which is discredited in the eyes of many workers for going into coalition government with right wing parties, saw its vote go slightly down on 2014 but finished up with 57 seats (six more than it won five years ago). Labour leaders will desperately hope that as memory fades about its appalling role in austerity governments it can make some headway in the next general election.
A split from Labour, the Social Democrats, fought its first council election campaign, gaining 19 councillors, across Dublin and other cities like Cork, Limerick and Galway.
Clare Daly, a former Socialist Party councillor and TD, who became an 'Independents 4 Change' TD, was elected to the European Parliament in the Dublin area. She did not present a socialist alternative but campaigned against the erosion of workers' rights in the EU, against EU militarisation, inequality and the far right. Daly also successfully campaigned on her record as an anti-Establishment figure, on abortion rights, as well as her high profile taking up the case of Garda (Irish police) whistle-blowers.
There was a steep fall in the vote for the explicitly Left parties, Solidarity and People Before Profit, however. Combined, Solidarity-PBP lost 17 local council seats, leaving 11 councillors. PBP lost seven seats and now have seven. Solidarity, in which the Socialist Party (CWI Ireland) plays a major role, went down from 11 to 4 seats (standing as Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), in 2014, a total of 14 seats were won but three councillors left the AAA which later became Solidarity).
The European elections saw Solidarity candidate, Rita Harrold, gain 4,967 first preference votes in Dublin or 1.4%. The PBP candidate received 10,864 votes.
These results, overall, are a blow for the Left in Ireland and a setback. Hard-working, campaigning Solidarity councillors lost their seats. The previous electoral gains were justifiably celebrated not just in Ireland but internationally and seen as something to emulate by many on the Left. For many activists who campaigned tirelessly in the local and European election, as well as for working class supporters, the results are disappointing. They will want to draw out all the political conclusions.
For Marxists, the electoral field is often difficult terrain, offering a 'snapshot' of working class consciousness. In the struggle to fundamentally change society, methods of mass class struggle, such as strikes and general strikes, are key in raising class consciousness and posing the question of taking power and overthrowing this rotten capitalist system. A fundamental task of Marxists is to build a solid base among the working class and most oppressed, in the workplaces, colleges and communities and elsewhere where class struggle takes place.
For all the hurdles of standing in elections dominated by big business parties and money, and a pro-business party mass media, they can be very useful in allowing socialists to reach a wider audience with their policies and ideas. Where seats are won, they can be successfully used as platforms for promoting socialist ideas and championing workers' struggles, as the three Solidarity TD (members of Irish Parliament) have sought to do.
However, when seats are lost or disappointingly low votes recorded, it is necessary for Marxists to openly explain why this has taken place.
As mentioned already, the Left suffered from the relatively low turnout in working class areas and a surge to the Greens.
When Joe Higgins won an MEP seat for the Socialist Party in 2009 he had a high profile as a former TD, and it was during a period of deeply unpopular government austerity measures. Paul Murphy, also a Socialist Party member, took Joe's MEP seat, for three years, after Joe was re-elected to the Dail. With this profile and with growing working class anger at the continuing austerity, Paul was able to gain 8.5% of the vote for a Dublin European seat in 2014. In the same year, the Anti Austerity Alliance (which became Solidarity) won two Dail by-elections and 14 council seats. The Socialist Party played a key role in organising mass non-payment of water charges.
In the recent local and EU elections there was not the same level of class anger and working class turnout that featured in those previous elections. Nevertheless, there are burning class issues, such as over the housing crisis and homelessness, the health sector crisis, and low paid precarious jobs.
The Solidarity local and EU election campaigns cited these important issues, and Rita Harrold and her team carried out an energetic campaign with limited resources. The election campaign meant that Solidarity was able to raise its profile in Dublin, including linking up with paramedics involved in a dispute for union recognition and with young workers in precarious jobs.
It was decided that the main slogan of Rita Harrold's campaign was for 'A Socialist Feminist for Europe'. An appeal was made to “to build the socialist feminist movement”. The campaign hoped that the political radicalisation that took place among sections of society – youth, LGBTQ+ campaigners and community, and women, in particular - around the 2018 referendum to repeal anti-women abortion legislation, would translate into votes for Rita.
No doubt, Solidarity did gain votes from these quarters but clearly it was not a substantial vote or a breakthrough among these layers in society. In all likelihood, many of the middle class sections radicalised by Repeal referendum voted, in the main, for the petty bourgeois Green Party. Many of the working class people who enthusiastically backed the repeal referendum, last year, probably stayed at home for the European and local elections.
The result of the referendum still reverberates in Irish society and there remain outstanding questions of gender and sexual oppression and the role of the Church and State in Ireland. At the same time, other class issues have come or returned to the fore, such as regarding living wages, secure jobs and homes for all. Given this, sections of the working class may have thought the main slogans of the Solidarity EU election campaign were not directed at them.
Clearly, the 'A Socialist Feminist for Europe' slogan was not sufficient to reach wider layers. Also, the radicalisation of feminist activists in the struggle for equality for women, abortion rights, and those struggling for LGBTQ+ rights does not automatically mean greater radicalisation in a socialist direction. Such broad movements inevitably contain class divisions and ideological confusion. The surge in support of the Greens reflects the limitations of the radicalisation which took place. A bold pro-working class, fighting socialist programme is required to offer an alternative.
The Left in southern Ireland has suffered a blow but now has to redouble its efforts in connecting with working class communities, workplace and union struggles, and with youth and students, as well as campaigning against all forms of discrimination and oppression. New government attacks against the working class are the order of the day - it is mooted that there may be attempts to re-impose water charges. Importantly, industrial resistance is increasing, with strikes recently involving nurses, mid-wives and paramedics (though with poor deals were struck by the nurses’ union leaders).
In contrast to the Southern elections, there were gains for Left candidates in the recent local elections in Northern Ireland. People Before Profit won several seats. Donal O’Cofaigh won the first local seat for a Socialist Party member, under the Cross Community Labour Alternative banner, in Enniskillen town, in the border county of Fermanagh. This breakthrough was the result of years of campaigning by Donal on class and trade union issues, including his high profile against cuts to the local NHS and against fracking.
Alongside electoral gains for the “non-sectarian” Alliance Party (a liberal bourgeois party) and for Greens and some of the ‘independents’, these results show the potential to build a strong anti-sectarian, class-based, party of the working class - Catholic and Protestant - with bold socialist policies.
But the electoral terrain remains complicated for the workers’ movement, both sides of the border. The votes for right wing, anti-immigrant populist candidates in the southern elections, while only reaching around 1-2% where such individual candidates stood, are a warning that these divisive and reactionary forces can grow in conditions of growing poverty, inequality and alienation, as we have seen in other parts of Europe. Many commentators and some on the Left were taken aback by the 23% scored by right wing, populist candidate, Peter Casey, in last October's Irish presidential elections.
The three Solidarity TDs and remaining councillors can play a key role in leading the resistance, putting forward bold, socialist policies that promote the unity of the working class along with the oppressed.
A clear socialist programme is needed to cut across the far right poison and to offer workers and youth a way to resist the parties of big business, to tackle climate change, homelessness and poverty pay, and to fight for a socialist society.