Working Together or Failing Apart: The Irish Left…


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It’s hardly a radical proposition that the Irish Left is a curious beast. It is small, gaining perhaps at best twenty five per cent of the national vote at elections. It is scattered, with leftist elements within the Irish Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Green Party and beyond amongst a number of much smaller groups and organisations including those associated with some Independent TDs. It has a less than firm grip upon the Irish working class, whatever definition of ‘working class’ one chooses to use. Indeed it is this latter aspect which is genuinely interesting. It is difficult to think of any Western European polity where social democratic or democratic socialist parties (however nominally they ascribe to those positions) are less well supported by the electorate.

It is surely telling that in Joseph Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985 the final chapter ‘Perspectives’ discusses the Irish party system with barely a glancing reference to the left. Indeed Lee argues that it is in the early years of the state ‘difficult to find compelling evidence that any substantial sector of the public voted against its perceived socio-economic interests’. He supports this by suggesting that Fianna Fáil took up the banner of ‘social progress’ albeit clothed in Catholic Christianity… or as some argued Fianna Fáil’s social policy was ‘Christianity translated into economics’.

And why should Lee reference the left? In the history of the state, or indeed the island, the left has been a marginal influence.

In fairness one might ask how could it be otherwise? The struggle for independence always took precedence and in doing so necessitated the construction of broad cross class coalitions which were able to achieve political and cultural hegemony rapidly. The lack of a significant industrialised working class, the importance of the land, the prevalence of a grey strain of religious observance… each contributed to the emergence of a left which by European standards was, in all honesty, pretty weird combining a sort of reflexive piety with a submissive approach to political combat (consider for example that it was Noel Browne, then a member of the Republican populist Clann na Poblachta rather than the two versions of the Labour party then extant, who initiated the conflict over the Mother and Child act). And the example of Browne is instructive… the radicalism – or perhaps more accurately the energy – of Republicanism always offered a different, and often more attractively energetic, route for a significant minority who otherwise might have made a distinct left turn.

And let’s not underestimate the ability of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to pitch leftish when necessity or circumstance suited them. The housing programmes of the mid-20th century and the extension of the welfare state were overseen by them. The input of the left was limited to Inter-party or Fine Gael led coalitions. This is not to say that these governments achieved nothing as regards furthering the goals of the left, but… the left remained largely the hostage of the larger formation. To add to its trials and tribulations the left tended to achieve power during difficult economic circumstances… or perhaps more fairly one might suggest that since much of the 20th century presented a profound challenge to the Irish economy the opportunities for the left to shine were minimal. Indeed there is a strong argument that the only period during which a government in which the left participated that saw significant and sustained growth was the early to mid 1990s. And circumstance gifted the achievements of that government to an eagerly anticipatory Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrat coalition.

Let’s be clear. There has never been a left-led coalition in the history of the Irish state. The centre right has always been in power in one version or another and that continues to this day.

Which leads to the inexorable conclusion that in total the left has been a less than resounding success across the past hundred years and this pattern appears set to be replicated in the new century. Labour remains at or around its traditional poll rating of just above 10%. Sinn Féin on paper is doing a little over half as well, but returns a mere four TDs. The Green Party, that exotic creature which appears on occasion to be but a distant relation of the left and other times appears very much of it, retains a poll rating in the higher single figures. For the rest, the flotsam and jetsam of the further left and left Independents we might, being generous, ascribe them a mere two or three percentage points.

It’s not much is it? And it tends to put all the rhetoric of a resurgent left, carried forward either by economic meltdown or the inevitable demise of a proletarian false consciousness (that somehow continues to seek comfort in the charms of Fianna Fáil) into a certain perspective. Even the more cautious predictions of Labour, or a newly chastened Sinn Féin appear wildly over-optimistic. And let’s not talk about a Green Party where the future has narrowed to the job at hand, surviving each successive day of government. So, if we say that at best the ‘left’ does actually hold 25 per cent or so of the vote, how to build upon that? How to push it to 30 per cent, or even better 33 per cent and in such a fashion that this 33 per cent provides us with a leverage to apply against the larger formations?

Well, let me start by saying that it may not be possible at all – or not in the short to medium term. It’s arguable that the left is too small, too fragmented and too easily picked off by the larger parties that at best it provides a sort of political ballast, there when needed to ensure that the ship of state doesn’t tip too far to the right. It’s an unappealing prospect, but perhaps it is the best that can be hoped for.

Still, let’s suppose that it is possible to shape a more optimistic future for ourselves. What is the best way to proceed? Here are some tentative suggestions offered in a spirit of fraternal goodwill by one who is no longer a member of any formation, and is rather unlikely to join up in the foreseeable future.

Firstly it is premature to suggest that the national question has been conclusively finalised. However, it seems to me that it is reasonable to propose that the nature of that question has changed. That said it appears that the cordon sanitaire erected around Sinn Féin has long since served whatever purpose it might have had. It is heartening to see that Labour, even prior to the departure of Pat Rabbitte, swallowed hard and started to do business with Sinn Féin.

No one has to love each other. No one has to pretend that the past didn’t happen. But what is necessary is a degree of pragmatism. Which means that left components have to work together, not in a strategic fashion, or at least not yet, but tactically on a case by case basis. That’s how trust is engendered, that is how linkages are formed and future alliances can develop. And as time moves forward, memories fade and events move into history it is conceivable that these linkages may develop and deepen.

Secondly I would propose that the ‘one big party’ of the left idea is a fallacy. It is dispiriting to consider the way in which the merger of the Labour Party and Democratic Left saw no increase in the general Labour vote, indeed worse again, it’s arguable that it saw a decrease in the broader left vote. There may be no casual connection, or alternatively it may be that this is one area where competition is actually beneficial to the left. Consider it this way. The maximisation of a left vote appears to succeed best when there are many strands to that left. But this leads to a problem which I’ll address in a moment.

Thirdly, the current assaults on Bertie Ahern are – perhaps – cheering to the left, but they’re merely, as the Sunday Business Post noted recently, a ‘sideshow’. Despite Ahern’s protestations that he ‘just got a mandate several months ago. I have to see that out. Maybe in 2012’ (words to chill the heart of a certain B. Cowen) he ain’t going to stay or last. It is difficult to see him remaining for more than two years at the most. And once he’s gone all the efforts to ‘taint’ Fianna Fáil by association with Ahern are likely to fail. Consider the example of our neighbour across the Irish Sea. The relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair was – arguably – the closest of two leading British politicians since … . And yet the Brown government has a personality, for better and worse, all its own. There is no greater political void than a former politician – again as Tony Blair has perhaps learned in recent months. And the implication of that is a Fianna Fáil which can, if it is astute, close the door on the Tribunals and the consequent unpleasantness, point to a much greater and developed body of legislation that seeks to preclude any hint of impropriety and ready itself to work with any number of partners in a future Dáil. And within this is an important point. There are no quick fixes, no short-cuts to achieving goals. To wish for the end of the Ahern era is one thing. To believe that that will of necessity mean that the left will awake is pure delusion (although let me modify that very slightly by suggesting that in Dublin there might be some opportunity to engage with Fianna Fáil more evenly in the absence of our leading ‘socialist’…whether that is to the advantage of Labour or Sinn Féin is an interesting question). So let’s not pretend that with Ahern gone all is well, or even that his passing and the means of his passing will be good for the left. It is entirely possible that should it prove messy a vengeful public might well heap blame upon those who are identified too closely with that mess. This isn’t an argument for inaction, but it is one for caution and perhaps for staking out a higher ground in this than hitherto.

Fourthly, let’s consider the options for government. For all that Fianna Fáil is embedded as a party of the working class that does not mean, and I’m surely talking to the converted here, that Fianna Fáil is a party of the working class. For all that Fine Gael has been a party of social liberalism that social liberalism is not identical to the goals of the left. The interests of the two largest parties are significantly, if not completely, divergent to those of ours. Nationalist populism is an easy enough song to sing which is why we hear it in various versions during many times and at many places. So Fianna Fáil is both an impediment, but also a support. But in a different way to Fine Gael. Whereas Fine Gael can generally – due to its smaller size – only achieve government in combination with Labour, Fianna Fáil has no such limitations or constraints. We know they’ll deal with anyone, or almost anyone and usually need fewer numbers in a partner. And for them coalition building prospects in 2012 remain open. Who is willing to bet that should the Greens depart foreswearing any future arrangement that Sinn Féin wouldn’t be available. But this brings us to a further point. In the current situation there is the option for left parties to work with the two larger parties in coalition. This is a trap because it perpetually reduces the left to the ‘add-on’.

Which leads directly to my fifth point. I mentioned a problem about a many-stranded left. Let’s be honest. There are many problems. The outbreak of realpolitic between Labour and Sinn Féin will never be replicated in any rapprochement with the Socialist Party for basic ideological reasons, or the other much smaller fractions, and let’s not underestimate the depths of mutual antagonism amongst the left. The Workers’ Party retains a couple of councillors in the South East. Which is nice. But they’re not going to bring any great weight to the feast. And the logic of this is that there are elements on the left who will – for the foreseeable future – place themselves beyond the orbit of a broader left that is hungry to achieve a serious measure of state power. The various attempts to forge coalitions that encompassed those elements came to naught during the last five years. There is no reason to expect them to succeed in the next five years.

Moreover the diffuse nature of the left means that the interests of individual elements often outweigh, as we have seen with the Green Party, those of the collective. The Green Party, is of course a horse of a slightly different colour so to speak, if only because it straddles various ideological, philosophical and political axis, but for the sake of argument I would still consider it progressive. And its example provides an unhappy one for those of us who believe that left unity, or at least a degree of cohesiveness, is something to be wished for. I’m far from the most cynical person in the world, but my contacts with Labour indicated that had events last year gone slightly differently there would have been a move towards government with Fianna Fáil… in the ‘national interest’ of course. And frankly, can one blame them? If the Green Party can justify its presence in government due to the existential threat of climate change, why not a Labour party that believes the ‘necessity for social democracy’ – to coin a phrase – is paramount? Or indeed a Sinn Féin which places the resolution of the national question at the heart of its politics?

This is the great flaw, the one which tends to disrupt all the plans. When it comes down to it we know that there will be problems. It’s currently impossible to pull the Green Party back from the current coalition. But… to pretend that it cannot or will not be part of a future coalition involving the left is of dubious utility.

Sixth… the left should move to a much stronger presentation on just how different it is to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and that it is precisely through ideology that it will be able to present a coherent and professional alternative to either of them. In a way this is about making sure that the message is accurate and attractive. Working together – albeit retaining independence – is precisely the sort of message which will underscore that. And in doing so it might present a more attractive pole to the electorate, one which in combination might be able to change an essentially 2 and a half party system into a 3 party (or 2 parties and a left alliance) one. This isn’t novel. Consider the Italian example where broad coalitions of individual parties are essential to attaining state power, note too the way in which some of the parties within those coalitions have no parliamentary representation. But we also saw it as a feature of government formation in the Inter-Party governments.

Finally, I mentioned I wouldn’t be signing up to any formation in the near or mid-term future. Why not? Well, I’ve been through three political parties and actively supported and continue to support independent socialists. But my reasons are, in a sense, exemplified by the thesis above. The issues that resonate for me cross party lines. A leftism that finds Sinn Féin overly Republican and insufficiently left wing. A republicanism that finds the Labour Party insufficiently leftist or republican. An environmentalism that finds the Green party overly environmentalist, or perhaps more accurately insufficiently concerned with class issues. A pragmatism which eschews the further left while strongly admiring certain voices on it (greetings to the ISN), but an idealism which despairs of the more mainstream left. There isn’t a single party which comes close to fulfilling those requirements for me, and perhaps for others as well. Which is why my votes and my support will always be for a list of candidates drawn from those formations. And the only way I can see towards a better vehicle is – counterintuitively – to abandon that single vehicle and look to some sort of loose alliance of forces on the left which will retain identity while allowing for some degree of collective action. Intransigence

It’s a big ask. I hope it can be achieved.

Blue doors in Smithfield provided courtesy of Claire Wilson who blogs as Gingerpixel.

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20 Responses

  1. Cathal

    February 25, 2008 9:55 pm

    There is a need to more deeply define ‘social democracy’: what is its economic philosophy and what are its policy implications in an Irish context. I realize that the notion of ‘left’ is a convenient shorthand, but its more than 200 years since the French Revolution, and perhaps it would be useful to spell out, pragmatically, in an Irish context, just what a left-wing political position entails. For example is it possible to have a broad, agreed, left-wing position on the Lisbon Treaty? But the advent of the Irish Left Review is greatly to be welcomed. A hopeful sign.

  2. dilettante

    February 25, 2008 11:59 pm

    Some weakness in the characterisation of different political forces, but interesting nonetheless.
    The question is how to move towards creating a win-win situation for all the progressive forces?

  3. WorldbyStorm

    February 26, 2008 9:09 am

    Cathal, in a way I agree with you. A good working definition would be no harm, it’s how one uses that definition which is crucial. I’m not entirely sure that simply saying a party is ‘social democratic’ necessarily is of benefit. The debates on social democracy as against democratic socialism tend to be fairly sterile and shade into finger pointing as to who is more left or not. I’d see myself on the left of social democracy or on the centre of democratic socialism. But then again there are those I know who would argue they were firmly within social democracy whose views I think are indistinguishable from those firmly within democratic socialism. But as to your broader point, I completely agree. On so many issues a left response should be feasible. It’s getting the agreement which is problematic.

    dilettante, perhaps only by seeing those forces engage.

  4. Kate

    February 27, 2008 8:44 am

    The Irish in the 20th century were divided into a small middle professional and business class and a large rump of struggling peasant proprietors and unskilled workers, most of the latter not in factories and not unionised. Until the early 1960s we were third world rural Ireland on what Paul Durcan called the dark edge of Europe. The unfortunate civil war also helped to keep history as the key political player, not class. We exported our potential proletariat to England, as a historian has said. The left wing in England and Scotland benefited from that, and maybe Australia somewhat. Were we a freak society? National pride makes me say no. We were darn poor and unlucky until Lemass-Whitaker changed the role of government in the economy in 1958-59. These two came from modest lower middle class origins, one a Dubliner the other from a town in Louth who learned French among other things at a local Christian Brothers school.

    Our origins as a state may be sad but we’ve got to move on. I doubt if traditional marxist class analysis can apply electorally to Ireland or other states in Western Europe today. Left parties have all gone for the center, where they huddle tete-a-tete with the conservative parties.

  5. Conor McCabe

    February 28, 2008 9:10 pm

    Well, my definition of social democracy is this: a mixed economy with a strong emphasis on public social services, coupled with a liberal approach to wider social issues. It also needs a strong party dedicated to the interests of working people, in order to counter the surrender of tax payer´s money to corporate welfare – in Ireland´s case, more specifically, builders and speculators´ welfare. Unless you have such a party in place, the workings of government et al are simply turned over each time to the dictates of vested capitalist interests within the society.

    By the way, before anyone has a go – a la Sindo-style – with trying to prove that the trade union movement is “just another” vested interest, can they at least have a read of Michael Taft first? It would save a lot of comment inches.

  6. WorldbyStorm

    March 1, 2008 3:43 pm

    Hey, Conor! That’s my definition of my socialism too! Give it back 🙂

    yeah, I’m fairly tired of the trade unions simply being ‘vested interests’.

  7. Ciarán

    March 3, 2008 4:43 pm

    I’ve been disappointed by social democracy since the SDLP didn’t become the Irish Bolsheviks they should have been with a name like that.

  8. Ciarán

    March 4, 2008 7:28 am

    The name of the party was the Russian SDLP before and after the split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

  9. Conor McCabe

    March 4, 2008 8:32 am

    Yeah but we’re talking 1970 here, not 1912. In 1970 if you’re calling yourself Social Democratic you’re alluding to the reformist tradition, not the revolutionary one.

  10. Ciarán

    March 4, 2008 6:34 pm

    Indeed. Socialism and social democracy used to be interchangeable, now the traffic is all one-way with social democratic parties referring to themselves as socialist (e.g. SDLP, 26-County Labour, British New Labour), and few if any socialist parties referring to themselves as social democratic.

  11. Conor McCabe

    March 4, 2008 9:55 pm

    True. Very true. I can´t think of any socialist party – genuine socialist party – that would refer to itself as social democratic. As for myself, I would love to be able to call myself a socalist, but I am not. I’m a social democrat.

  12. Kate

    March 4, 2008 10:53 pm

    Class consciousness didn’t feature in post-1922 Irish politics because we were generally rural and poor. The middle class was small and aware of its earthy roots. The Anglos that stayed around after the civil war house burnings were regarded as a quaint harmless aristocracy and could never become the core of a Tory party. FF in the hungry thirties and forties implemented proto-christian democratic/social democratic housing and other policies – but no politician dared to use such suspect terminology. Ah well, we didn’t go fascist like some other impoverished catholic societies. But in 1934 it looked like a near miss.

  13. Conor McCabe

    March 5, 2008 12:25 am

    That´s not true about class consciousness and rural and poor. In fact, the largest group within the Irish trade union movement c.1922 was the landless labourer.

    The dichomy within the history of the Irish left is not the lack of class consciousness, but rather how Ireland could have a strong trade union movement but a weak left-wing political party. Rural and poor did not affect trade union membership – in fact, it formed the basis of it.

    Now, there were internal factors with regard to the inability of the Irish trade union movement to utilise its strength in political power – not least the split in the trade union movement in 1922 with the reutrn of Larkin, and the subsequent king maker role played by William O´Brien right up to the 1950s. If anything, William O´Brien´s links with FF had as much to do with the weakening of the political movement as anything else.

    The Irish left failed to build upon its trade union strength, and that had very little to do with being rural and poor. Internal dynamics, coupled with the rise of FF from 1927-32, all played their part.

  14. Conor McCabe

    March 5, 2008 12:27 am

    By the way, FF adopted Labour´s housing policy wholesale in 1932, with Dev calling a quick election in 1933 on the basis of that housing policy, and gained an overall majority because of it.

  15. stretchneil

    March 7, 2008 1:48 pm

    Very interesting – I’m delighted to see the Irish Left Review created – it’s long been an idea that was badly needed.

    Hoping to return to blogging in the next 6 weeks or so, and I’ll try to contribute if it develops into anything useful….

  16. D_D

    March 13, 2008 11:13 am

    This new website should be of interest to Irish Left Review readers. It compiles the documents and debate around the split in Respect in England, and offers a forum for those interested in left renewal and regroupment (from a far left angle).

    ILR readers will already be familiar with ‘Red Pepper’ magazine and site to which this site provides a link.