This article originally appeared in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal on May 27, 2014.
Over the past few days there has been a minor earthquake in Irish politics. Sinn Fein has made a breakthrough into mainstream southern Irish politics, almost doubling its vote to 17% nationally in municipal polls and achieving more than 20% in the European election, with MEP in each Euro electoral district in the South. This was alongside a surge of electoral success from those further to the left and independents.
Overall in the municipal elections in the South, Sinn Fein won 150 seats and the “further left” won around 40.
In the European election, Sinn Fein topped the Dublin poll with a first-time candidate; this was replicated in Ireland South with another first-time candidate winning a European seat for the party, as well as Matt Carthy winning the closely fought third seat in the Midlands Northwest constituency. The success of first-time candidates across Ireland has seen Sinn Fein arrive as a party, lessening its previous dependence on individual local candidates.
The bourgeois parties are attempting to console themselves with the belief that people vote differently on Euro and local elections compared to national elections. There is ample evidence, however, that Sinn Fein and the further left can convert much of their success into Dail (parliament) seats and wider political influence.
An interesting aspect to the Sinn Fein vote was that Gerry Adam’s recent arrest for the 1972 murder of Jean McConville seemed to have no effect on the outcome.
Nationally, the governing Fine Gael Party lost 8.4 per cent of its vote, leaving it at 24%, while the Labour Party, the junior coalition party, lost half its popular vote, to 7%. The Labour Party was decimated in the local councils across Ireland; the party has now no seats on Cork City Council (Ireland’s second-biggest city), and the party has been reduced to eight seats on Dublin City Council (a drop of 17% of the first preference votes). Nationally, Labour has been reduced to 50 seats, which compares poorly to Sinn Fein’s 157.
In Dublin, Sinn Fein won almost one quarter of first preference votes, an increase of 12%, making it the largest party on the council with 16 seats. This vote tallies with the 23% won by Sinn Fein’s Lynn Boylan in the European election, making the party by far the most popular in the city.
On the far left the Socialist Party and its electoral front, the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), won a very impressive 14 council seats; what is particularly important here is that the block won three seats on the Limerick City Council and three seats on Cork City Council, making it a national rather than Dublin-centric alliance. The Socialist Party also won a parliamentary by-election in Dublin West, meaning that now two of the four seats in the constituency are Socialist Party. This also leaves the party well placed to keep a seat after party stalwart Joe Higgin’s retirement from parliamentary politics in 2016.
The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and its electoral form, the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA), also did very well, winning a total of 14 council seats. (The group also made a breakthrough in Northern Ireland winning a seat on Belfast City Council).
Outside of the main blocks, the United Left (a group made up of some independents from the now defunct United Left Alliance), won two council positions and the Workers’ Party won a seat on Cork City Council. The Tipperary Workers’ and Unemployed Group also won a seat. A number of independent left councillors were also elected across the country, some of whom will be key to the future development of left politics.
One sour note on the left was the loss of Paul Murphy’s (Socialist Party) Dublin European seat. In a particularly Machiavellian move, the SWP ran a candidate (Brid Smith) in the European election with the aim of building her profile for the 2016 national elections. This — as widely predicted — split the vote with Murphy taking 30,000 (around 8%) of the first preference vote and Smith taking 23,000. Smith argued that her standing made no difference to the final outcome, but this is a very dubious claim as the few percentage points that most likely would have gone to Murphy may have been enough to keep him ahead of the pack in the transfer race.
In the end Nessa Childers, with only 5000 more first preference votes than Murphy, won the third and final seat. There is, of course, no guarantee that if Smith had not run that her votes would have gone to Murphy, although if the PBPA had canvassed for him it is likely a significant amount would have.
However, it is clear that Smith’s running severely damaged Murphy’s electoral campaign and it is very likely that her “profile building” cost Dublin an excellent and articulate MEP. An MEP, it must be said, who gave his support to campaigns and groups across Ireland and Europe that are too numerous to mention and one who will be missed. The key point for many of the left independents (and indeed even for some within the ranks of the SWP itself) is that the SWP leadership were prepared to throw away a hard-won MEP seat for crass electoral purposes.
The Labour Party is in crisis, seeing the almost immediate resignation of its leader Eamonn Gilmore after the election. There will be a one-member, one-vote election for a new leader in the next month. Labour’s problems, however, are far deeper than one of simply replacing the leadership. The party not only abandoned its base but seemed to relish unleashing neoliberal austerity measures on the poor and working classes. The party is now completely hollowed out and is likely to go into a long period of stagnation.
Overall the vote, including Sinn Fein’s, was a vote to the left. Sinn Fein stood on an openly anti-austerity platform, including opposition to water charges. The party will most likely soften its program post-election, however, having recently dropped its proposal for a wealth tax. How it will use its new local successes also remains to be seen. The further left made a serious electoral advance but remains fragmented. On her first television appearance Ruth Coppinger, the new Socialist Party TD, called for a new political movement. How, and if this is followed up on, remains to be seen.
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