It’s interesting reading the article by Harry McGee in the Irish Times about Sinn Féin and its current troubles. That topic, though, is for another day, albeit I find it hard to disagree with him when he argues that
“There are some who believe Sinn Féin is in terminal decline, like other republican parties that preceded it. Despite the party’s current woes, that view is as far-fetched as the party winning 20 seats or more anytime soon.”
Sounds about right to me.
One line though struck me, and that was the concluding one in the following paragraphs…
“DECADE ago, Sinn Féin strategist Jim Gibney made the audacious prediction it would make spectacular strides in the South, with the number of TDs reaching respectable double figures (many took that as 20-plus or 30-plus) within two decades.
Within a few years, his confidence seemed less fanciful. In 2002 and 2004, the party made huge electoral gains. In the general election, it increased its Dáil seats from one to five. Two years later, in the local elections, it gained a whopping 33 council seats to take its tally to 54, winning 10 seats on Dublin City Council alone. In the European Parliament elections the same year, Mary Lou McDonald won a seat in Dublin and Pearse Doherty almost secured a second in North East.
Other parties muttered darkly about Sinn Féin’s “army” of volunteers. But there was more than a little envy in that. Sinn Féin was brilliantly organised. A cluster of opinion polls showed support levels consistently above 10 per cent. Its rise seemed unstoppable.”
It’s rise seemed ‘unstoppable’? Let’s think about that statement for a moment because it sits at the heart of much political thinking, and not all of it confined to the left. The idea is that in some way a political vehicle, once pushed into motion will smoothly move forward and in some way gain speed until… until… what?
Until it gains 10, 20, 30, 40 or however many seats.
Think about it for a moment. Does this seem likely? Have we seen such enormous swings towards smaller parties, particularly those of the left?
We could, of course, look at the progress of Sinn Féin in the North. There they’ve made steady progress particularly at Westminster. And the arrival of an Assembly they were willing to join assisted them no end. But, the context is different. There it has essentially been a two-horse race since the electoral contests have been subject to communal divisions, and rather than SF running against the UUP, DUP, SDLP etc, it has run against (for the most part – there are exceptions) the SDLP alone. None of this is to deny the scale of their achievement. Supplanting the SDLP is a remarkable feat, but is as much a function of the intrinsic dynamics of the Nationalist/Republican vote, the aging profile of the SDLP and so forth and a Republican constituency already existing but largely unrepresented suddenly in a position to express itself, and then the additional decline of its greatest rival with votes shifting from one party to another. So to some extent that seems to me to be sui generis.
The South, as we know, is a different animal entirely. A long extant political structure with political parties with national representation. A multiplicity of parties on the left of the spectrum which while none of them very large, each set within a certain niche. To gain five seats was good. No question about it. To double that… well… More difficult. And the gains in the South for Sinn Féin came slowly enough. To move from 1 seat to 5 took five years. The reverse at 2007 stymied that inexorable rise. It is possible, though I think unlikely, that they will fall further back. But their progress is such that significant gains seem equally unlikely. The dream of 20 is just that. Even 10 seems beyond their grasp.
And other parties? There is, of course, the example of the Progressive Democrats. They sprang, as it were, almost fully formed from the brow of Fianna Fáil, with a side order of dissident Fine Gael.
Fourteen seats, a full fourteen seats, is what they gained at the 1987 General Election, barely a year after their foundation. But… the reality is that despite their provenance, mainly in Fianna Fáil, it wasn’t that party which they damaged, because remarkably Fianna Fáil gained a good 6 seats at that election from their previous standing. Instead it was Fine Gael who saw a precipitous collapse from 70 seats to 50. And look at the numbers. I’m hesitant to ascribe the shift from them directly to FF and PD, because Labour also lost 4 seats (with the WP and DSP gaining respectively 2 and 1). But it seems reasonable to suggest that in the main this was an attrition of the FG vote.
Now, the question is, does the PD example count if we’re talking about ‘inexorable rises’? Because curiously this seems more analogous to the SF in the North example where a previously unrepresented, or underrepresented constituency, that of the economic liberal right finally found their own shiny vehicle, something a little more attractive to them than the drab Fine Gael bus with all the attendant irritating self-described social democrats and social conservatives.
And furthermore it strikes me that, unfortunately, this is an example of going with the political grain, in the sense that at that point in time, the mid to late 1980s, right of centre right concepts were very much in vogue. Moreover they never again reached those heady heights, their second best result being 10 seats in 1992, dropping to 4 in 1997 and rising to 8 in 2002 before all but vanishing on 2 in 2007.
This pattern of early success and eventual decline is seen in a number of other parties. Most notably Clann na Poblachta who arrived with 10 TDs in 1948, actually a lesser number than they’d hoped for or expected, and within three years had dropped to 2, rising to 3 in 1954 and afterwards declining into inconsequence.
The Workers’ Party offers a different example. But not necessarily a hugely comforting one. Those of us who trudged around northside housing estates during the 1980s and 1990s for the Party will remember how we hung on the kind word, or even just a mention, in the Irish Times or other media. How we watched with fierce determination at every election for signs of political progress. And in truth we weren’t entirely disappointed, although progress was slow. Very slow. If moving from 1 to 2 to 4 TDs between 1981 and 1987 is an inexorable rise, well, you’re welcome to it. 1989 was better in that 7 TDs were returned. But the subsequent split rendered speculation on future progress entirely academic. That the results of the 1992 election saw only 4 Democratic Left TDs elected and the Workers’ Party lose its single remaining seat suggests that, in the context of the Spring Tide and a Labour Party reaching previously unheard of heights, retaining all seven seats would have been difficult even as a united party, albeit that the seats went to Labour and that in later years it was clear that a residual WP vote was strong enough to see a number of DL TDs elected or relected beyond the core of 4 who survived.
And Labour offers no comfort at all. 1992 and the essential doubling and more of Labour Party representation to 33 TDs from a near derisory 15 TDs was followed by a return to more normal territory of 17 TDs in 1997. A merger with Democratic Left and five years later, and 2002 saw them bring back 20 TDs. And there they have stayed ever since.
The Green Party? Inexorable though their rise may have been it seems to have taken quite some time. 1989 saw Roger Garland elected as their first TD. 1992 saw Trevor Sargent take a seat while Garland lost his. John Gormley joined Sargent in 1997. In 2002 a good 6 TDs were returned. And again in 2007.
And there is the pattern. Smaller political parties doing reasonably well but none, so far, breaking into the political system with an inexorable rise. Indeed none, so far, rising past the entirely creditable, but hitherto anomalous, 33 that Labour gained in 1992. It’s fool-hardy to say this is a truism, but on the data available so far small parties remain… small. Medium sized parties vary and large parties, again up until now, remain large. And the swings in the number of TDs returned by larger parties are considerable, so considerable that one could comfortably fit much of the Irish left into them with TDs to spare, but core votes do assert themselves and previous to the situation now facing Fianna Fáil we have never seen a near catastrophic decline in a large party’s vote share.
Of course, this comes with one major caveat. The last year and a half was unlike any other in Irish political history, beset by economic pressures simply not experienced <em>in this way</em> before in this state. Added to that was a fractious coalition partner and various socio-economic hurdles to surmount. Now I’d be the last person to suggest that that has all vanished as with the mist, but… a certain degree of stability appears to have reasserted itself. I think the next set of polls will be very telling indeed and I would be far from surprised if we saw an increase in the Fianna Fáil vote and a consequent softening of the opposition. Not by much, but by sufficient to be evident.
And what would that imply for the future? That plans for inevitable and inexorable rises of political machines should be put on hold. We already labour under the difficulties of a five year electoral cycle. Five years doesn’t sound like much, but… people age, their enthusiasm wanes, time passes. I can’t but wonder if part of the problem for Sinn Féin is that there was simply too much time between the heady days of the late 1990s and now and that this (and one other factor I’ll address in another post) led to activism being frittered away for the simple reason that much of its electoral focus was unused. And if true for Sinn Féin precisely the same point holds for other parties. Consider what happens if instead of significant seat gains for the Labour Party and entry to coalition 2012, already quite some time away as it stands, was to herald say 5 new TDs and continued opposition with either FF managing to escape from the wrath of the electorate due to some fancy footwork and a coalition with the rump Green Party and Sinn Féin or, alternatively an FG led coalition incorporating sufficient Independents to go it alone. Both are unlikely scenarios, but neither is impossible.
One could argue that in a truly revolutionary period all this would be rendered academic, but… I have the unpleasant suspicion that we’ve just experienced the most revolutionary period on this part of the island in some generations, and that the opportunities to utilise that were much more limited than might have been expected. That we have to live with the effects of that subsequently is merely adding insult to injury. But the point is that constitutional politics is where it appears to be at, at least short of catastrophe.
Now I know that this seems in a sense to be moving back to my single transferable post on these matters, but I remain as unconvinced as ever that the left can move into a ‘one big party’ mode in the context of the political culture in this state. To me the most progress will be made by smaller parties and formations working together with somewhat larger ones in tandem. That’s where progress will be made ultimately. And that necessitates some seriously hard thinking about the nature of the left, what is plausible as near term, medium and long-term aims. It also, and here’s the hard part, requires parties and groups to recognise that while competitive they are also complementary.
Simply put the Green Party, apostates yes, but someday presumably to rejoin the fold, reaches parts that Sinn Féin, or the Labour Party, or whoever else, cannot. And vice versa. There’s an overlap. Of course there’s an overlap. And there there will be genuine pain and difficulties. There will remain occasions, perhaps best exemplified in 2007 in the count where O’Snodaigh and Byrne battled it out for a seat and where a win by either would have been broadly speaking a progressive result for the left. There’s no way around that unfortunately, not in the political system we have. There will always be those conflicts. But remove Sinn Féin, or Labour, from that contest and it is not that one would without the shadow of a doubt have two Labour seats or – and this is more unlikely – two Sinn Féin seats, but that instead there would only be one ‘left’ seat.
I’ve pointed before to how the ‘left’ vote, however nebulous, is now at it’s arguably largest extent ever. That’s no small achievement. The Gordian knot we face is how to join the elements that politically represent that left vote in some form or fashion which doesn’t diminish that vote.
It might be useful to see a left ‘culture’ evolve, that embraces the different forms and formations the left takes without pretending that there aren’t distinctly different approaches. And a culture that seeks to generate links and unity of purpose, if not of organisation, where possible and that accepts that the Irish left, in particular, will always be splintered but that those splinters working in combination can be effective and that perhaps further down the line could work more closely still.
Photo of the voting sheets for the 2009 local and European election is copyrighted by Paula Geraghty and appeared originally in Indymedia.
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